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Book Review:
A look back at nationalism

Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame And the Fight For A New World, 1848-1849

Christopher Clark, 2023

I have been fascinated by the dynamics of nationalism since I began reading about European history during college in the 1960s. It was quickly apparent from the study of European history  that war often accompanied and/or followed programs of national unification, for example in Germany and the Balkans, and that wars of conquest often followed political revolutions (as in the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century). However, the causes of this dynamic remained uncertain, at least to me. 


Christopher's Clark's outstanding history, Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame And the Fight For A New World, 1848-1849 (2023) lays bare the process by which political revolutions are often followed by counter-revolutions, which result in resurgent nationalism, ending in war that further strengthens national sentiment.  The political revolutions of 1848 -1849 occurred across Europe (but not England), and were marked by huge theatrical street protests in many large and medium sized cities, including Paris, Berlin, Rome and several other Italian cities, Vienna and in Danish cities and cities in the Balkans, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland. Clark writes: "For politically sentient  Europeans, 1848 was an all-encompassing moment of shared experience."  And "in February and March (1848)  upheaval spread like a brush fire across the continent ... One could be forgiven for thinking that the movement encompassed the entirety of society, the euphoria of unanimity was intoxicating." 


Following violent street protests that included liberal supporters of change and radicals who represented the aspirations of many workers, monarchies across Europe capitulated to demands for increased (but not universal) suffrage and constitutional protections for liberal freedoms such as freedom of the press and the right of assembly. The power of existing parliaments was greatly expanded and enshrined in newly drafted constitutions. The politics of many European countries and the Austrian- Hungarian empire changed in a dramatic way within a few weeks of months. Some hated members of royal families and important ministers of governments were executed, or they fled to England which was seemingly immune to this political upheaval. However, within a few months political revolutions fragmented into divisions between liberals and radicals. Cross asserts: "In June, there were violent clashes between the liberal (or in France Republican) leaderships and radical crowds on the streets of the larger cities." Much to Marx's delight, class conflict reasserted itself as some liberals became fearful of extreme civil unrest and the emerging threat to property rights. Some prominent liberals, e.g., Alexander von Brand in Germany, became leading counter-revolutionaries. Street protests were violently put down by police and military forces, and constitutional guarantees were revoked in Austria- Hungary, and severely limited in other countries.  Parliaments were shut down in some countries. 


There was a third phase of the revolutions which began during the fall of 1848 when "radical revolt, dominated by democrats and social republicans of various kinds broke out in the central and southern German states ... in western and southern France and in Rome ..." This second phase of revolt was suppressed in Germany by Prussian forces during the summer of 1849. "Shortly afterwards, in August 1849, French forces crushed the Roman Republic and restored the papacy, much to the chagrin of those who had once revered France as the patroness of revolution across the continent," Cross states. 


Cross has recourse to metaphors from physics to describe the clash of political movements during this period of extraordinary turmoil: "it is more interesting to think of the continental uprising as a particle collision chamber at the center of the European nineteenth century. People, groups, and ideas flew into it, crashed together, fused or fragmented and emerged in showers of new entities whose trails can be traced through the decades that followed." This is a good start to understanding the events of 1848-1849 but misses the key dynamic, i.e., the fragmentation of an unprecedented political movement into polarities between liberal and radicals, a polarity which threatened the viability of these societies. A measure of political unity was then restored by resurgent national sentiment across Europe, which led to programs of national unification or national liberation in Germany, Italy and the Balkans. Nationalism served as remedy for fragmentation and polarization in Germany, which soon led to wars with Denmark and France, wars that set the stage for World War I.  It was not obvious in 1848-49 that the world would be reorganized politically around nation states rather than empires, nor was it obvious which nations would emerge from empires. National feeling had to be given a specific shape by the identification and interpretation of historical events and by current political needs and opportunities.        


The power of nationalism around the world to command the loyalty of citizens, inspire self sacrifice in war and justify horrific atrocities under the banner of self defense is taken for granted today, but was not so apparent during the mid-19th century. Prior to German and Italian national unification after 1860, there were 39 German states and 6 Italian principalities on the Italian peninsula, some of which had existed for centuries and engaged in frequent internecine wars. There was also a lingering aspiration to an empire which could dominate the European continent. No one could have predicted -- or did predict -- that World War I would destroy three empires, i.e., the Austrian-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires. 


Cross asserts that "Early- to mid- nineteenth century nationalism was above all a feeling, rather than a set of principles or arguments." Patriotic historians "re-sculpted the past"  to advance a nationalist agenda. Nevertheless, "For patriots, the nation was emphatically not a new invention, but something inherited from the past ..." However, "... assembling an image of the inherited past was itself a task involving collation, invention and improvisation. This was the tension at the heart of all nationalist projects," Cross maintains. Consequently, ".. for many Europeans, especially in central and eastern Europe, the nation was still something that had to be learned and understood ... through knowledge about music, literature, art, folklore and other forms of expression." 


National sentiment was a unifying factor in societies fragmented and polarized by political upheaval.  Cross explains: "As a form of committed behavior, patriotism was more inclusive than either liberalism or the various forms of radicalism, because it embraced -- theoretically at least  -- every member of the linguistic or cultural community, including women."  As societies devolved into conflicts sometimes resembling civil war, national sentiment promised to hold societies together. Cross asserts that "Almost everywhere in Europe, the 1830s and 1840s saw a deepening of patriotic networks." Even in Finland, "a politically quiescent province of the Russian empire, there were signs of a quickening of national feeling."  During the 19th century, "National feeling was not a hard- and- fast identity inherited from the past, nor was it something invented by newspaper editors and pamphleteers. It was an evolving field of awareness" with the capacity to heal and transcend social divisions.  ... Under certain circumstances, -- during wars and war scares, .. or during a revolution -- it might rise to become the dominant form of belonging," Cross states. 


The power of nationalism to overwhelm all other social affiliations was demonstrated in World War I, a war that in retrospect appears both un-necessary to the point of unfathomable, and inevitable given the power of national sentiment and readiness for war in Western Europe and Russia.  Socialists in combatant countries abandoned aspiration to the international solidarity of the proletariat in 1914 by fulling signing on the the need for war in every country.  Artists and writers largely supported the war, at least until after the carnage of 1916 and often to the bitter end in November 1918.  National unification in Germany led to tremendous pride and confidence in the newly organized nation. The defeat of France in 1870 ensured that Germany would seek preeminence in Europe, and that other European powers would resist German expansion. National sentiment is strengthened by the memory of successful wars and sometimes even by defeat, for example in Germany following W.W. I or in the American South following the Civil War. Nothing succeeds in war like victory; nothing is a greater challenge to nationalism than defeat. However, defeat in war may be followed by an intense desire for another war with the potential to restore national pride.       


On a more general level, every society, large and small, is subject to fragmentation and polarization. Societies need an enemy or enemies to combat differences in interests and values that threaten to tear a country apart. In retrospect, the U.S. began to come apart at the seams during the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union; was reunified briefly by 9-11 and the war on terror, only to develop such profound divisions that Democrats and Republicans cannot currently agree on which countries are mortal enemies of the U.S.  As the U.S. moves steadily toward civil violence, there is a danger of developing an enemy such as China to overcome political polarization.  


Cross eloquently summarizes his discussion of nationalism during 1848-49 as follows: 


"Nationalism presses on the story of what happened in 1848 in a way that no other concept does. These revolutions may have been experienced

as pan-European upheavals, but they were nationalized in retrospect. Over the century and a half that followed, the historians and memory managers of the European nations absorbed them into specific national narratives." And "The peculiar power of nationalism lay in the fact that it always manifested itself in the feelings of patriots as the recovery of something old, as an inheritance from the past.  Nationalism could be shocking, but it was never surprising. ... And yet, places where the conflict between ethnicities intersected with political tumult, nationalism became a uniquely powerful principle of mobilization." 


Peasants in rural areas were affected by national sentiment in a way they were not motivated by the liberal politics of the professional classes or the calls for revolution  by some  groups of radicals. Nationalism tapped into sentiments deeper than existing political ideologies, and increasingly became the political foundation of Europe after 1850.   

-- Dee Wilson

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