Democracy’s Tragedy: Mike Rapport’s 1848: Year of Revolution

Rapport, Mike. 1848: Year of Revolution. Basic Books: New York, 2008.

In preparation for our historical anniversaries post last April, Heather and I obtained two books concerning Europe’s 1848 revolutions for further research. The first, reviewed last October, proved to be an interesting analysis of those uprisings’ effects on American culture and politics in the middle of the nineteenth century. The second, which I was able to finish just before the end of 2018, was more along the lines of what we had initially looked for: an accessible, general history of the revolutions of 1848 and their impact on nineteenth-century Europe. Indeed, Mike Rapport’s 1848 not only provides an elegant guide to Europe’s tumultuous mid-century conflicts, but eloquently argues for their continued relevance in the evolution of European state formation.

The year 1848 saw a confluence of factors that, when combined, spelled the greatest challenge Europe’s post-Napoleonic order had yet faced. For over thirty years, the Concert of Europe, composed and directed by the Austrian Klemens von Metternich, had repressed popular opinion and anything resembling democracy or nationalism, preserving the old monarchies and multi-ethnic empires from the forces that would tear them down. Tired of brutal censorship and driven by the desperation that comes from years of bad harvests, first the Italian states, then the German states, then Hungary and France would rise up and install republican forms of government while, in the case of the former three, attempting to gain national self-determination. While the beginning of the year would see great gains for all these movements across Europe, the summer would see them falter, riven by conflicts between moderates and radicals, workers and bourgeoisie, and the many national identities that put their own interests above those of others. Though the French Second Republic would stumble on for a couple more years, the revolutions of 1848 would otherwise be almost entirely crushed and reversed by the early days of 1849. The principles of democracy and republicanism would not resurface in Europe with such strength until almost a century later.

As he weaves the tale of the initially-triumphant tragedy of the 1848 risings, Rapport masterfully conducts the reader back and forth across the disparate geography, both physical and ideological, of the revolutions, from the struggle of the Italian states to simultaneously unite and throw off the yoke of Austrian rule, to Germany’s efforts to write a united constitution, to Hungary’s epic war to first reform, then dismantle, the Habsburg system of government. While at times 1848’s organization can lead to certain events being referenced before they are actually discussed at length, I would be hard pressed to suggest any more efficient method of organizing its events. The real value of Rapport’s prose, however, comes in his conclusion as he reflects on the lessons of 1848. Unable to resolve their differences between political opinion, class, or nationality, Rapport suggests that in the failure of the 1848 revolutions the peoples of Germany and Italy may have sown the seeds of their 20th century authoritarianism, as they absorbed the lesson that democracy and republicanism could only be imposed from above through the use of force, not from below at the will of the people.

Whether you’re a student of modern Europe looking to explore one of its more seminal moments or simply looking to broaden your horizons beyond American history and revolution, I highly recommend Mike Rapport’s 1848. While its paragraphs can at times get a bit long for the average reader, its riveting narrative drives home the drama and dashed hopes of these events that, in their failure, shaped the world we live in today.

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