Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World, 1848–1849 by Christopher Clark - review by Mike Rapport

Mike Rapport

Once More unto the Barricades

Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World, 1848–1849

By

Allen Lane 862pp £30
 

The European revolutions of 1848–9 were one of those pivotal events that seemed to promise so much and delivered so little. The British historian A J P Taylor remarked that Germany reached a turning point in 1848 and ‘failed to turn’. This aphorism has since been applied to Europe as a whole: for all the possibilities that the revolutions seemed to prise open for a few heady weeks, the overall assessment is usually that they were a failure. 

In these few yet tumultuous revolutionary years, the monarchies of Europe, which since the carnage of the Napoleonic Wars had sought (with only mixed success) to keep in check a variety of revolutionary, national and constitutional movements, came under a swell of economic, social and political pressures. At the outset, liberals, seeking variously constitutional government, greater civil liberties and national freedom and unification, took power and sought to turn their visions into reality. The early promise of this ‘springtime of the peoples’ quickly withered as radicals tried to quicken the pace and pressed for more far-reaching political changes and social reforms. Monarchs and their conservative supporters recovered from the earlier shock of defeat and marshalled their still considerable resources (especially the military and the support of the peasantry). The ensuing political polarisation destabilised the nascent liberal order and gave the resurgent monarchs an opportunity to strike back and recover their authority. By the end of 1848, almost all of them had done so. In a second series of revolutions in 1849, republicans and socialists tried in vain to turn the tide back, only to succumb to the forces of order.

Exhilarating, heroic, horrifying and tragic, the events of the mid-19th century in Europe invite a good retelling – and many historians (including this reviewer) have taken up the challenge. Christopher Clark’s new book is, arguably, the best to date. Clark has a truly impressive command of the detail and the

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