1848: The Revolutionary Tide By Peter Stearns: A Scholarly Review Of The Book

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Peter Stearns

Peter Stearns’ 1848: The Revolutionary Tide in Europe examines the revolutionary risings which came about all across Europe in the year 1848, paying specific attention to revolutionary action in France, the Habsburg monarchy, Italy, and Germany. Stearns also details the motives and origins of these movements, as well as the short-term and long-term successes and failures of each. Stearns’s book should be perceived, and as such, read, as a history book, albeit a particularly detailed one. This is a result of the fact that Stearns examines and presents his own personal views on the Revolutions of 1848, but also systematically backs his statements up, and provides acute details that, instead of merely presenting factual data; actually question the reader’s own ideas on the subject. However, be that as it may, and keeping in mind Stearns’s frequent allusions to dates, facts, and names pertaining to the 1848 Revolutions, the book is not all-encompassing, nor does it pretend to be so. A general background to the period is required to fully understand all of Stearns’s references in his book. If Stearns’s book were to be viewed from the standpoint of a purely independent study, the reader would have to have had some foreknowledge of the key elements of the revolutions. As such, a bit of pre-textbook reading prior to undertaking Stearns would be most helpful in understanding the text.

1848: The Revolutionary Tide in Europe is broken up into four separate parts. The first part is centred on the concrete causes of the revolutions, explaining how such an explosion of revolutionary fervor was even possible. What made the Revolutions of 1848 different from all preceding ones - having “few parallels anywhere in world history” - was the extent to which they were “the result of direct revolutionary contagion,” as well as the extent to which “revolution [assumed] virtually continental proportions” (Stearns 1). The Revolutions of 1848 “defy easy explanation because they occurred during a time of rapid social transformation” and because “they embodied elements of the old and the new,” but of course, as with most such risings, their inherent patterns in terms of causes are repetitive because there are inexorably drawn towards the resolution of discontent, whether it be social or economic, foreign or domestic (Stearns 11). The major reason for the virulence of the 1848 Revolutions and the degree to which they broke out is the extent to which each social class was negatively and similarly affected over the past few decades. It cannot be denied, for example, that the “horrors of working-class life” worked toward “the detriment of health and family life” for the lower classes (Stearns 15). Even in the countryside, the lower-classes were often faced with “increases in the hours of work” or financial ruin due to the “death of rural manufacturing” (Stearns 29). The middle class, with its expanding influence and numbers, sought “to take political control” but faced exclusion due to the fact that “most of the middle class lacked the vote” (Stearns 36). It was indeed the discontent of the middle-class, specifically the professional people, which “provided the immediate spur to revolution” (Stearns 45). In the coming risings in 1848, the only trouble was uniting the rest of the middle class with them, and alienating one other specific group of people – which the middle-class found easier to debate rather than to act upon. The elite or upper classes, who held the power and controlled the government, “had outdated conceptions about [the other classes]” and were thus “caught by surprise when the actual uprisings occurred” (Stearns 64). As Stearns puts it, it was the “unready governments, headed by indecisive rulers and undoubtedly about their own future, obviously facilitated the conversion of street fighting into full-scale revolution” (Stearns 65).

In the second part, Stearns discusses the actual nature of the revolutions themselves as determined by the area in which they occurred. Stearns does a good job in explaining each major revolution, for though “the revolutions displayed a common dynamic,” he nonetheless “discussed [them] one by one, for each was distinctive in many aspects” (Stearns 70). To begin with, it is important to note that, “most of the revolutions of 1848 broke out rather haphazardly” and usually resulted in “brief, confused periods of demands and demonstrations” (Stearns 69). In France, the people “wanted a more flexible political system, including an expansion of the suffrage which would enfranchise a larger segment of the middle class and would make elections harder to manipulate” (Stearns 71). Adding to the fact that the French people had already, just a few decades before, experienced a powerful and long-lasting revolution and the already liberal minded state of the government, it is no wonder that France can be considered a catalyst for the Revolutions of 1848. Stearns himself acknowledges that, “the February revolution in Paris spread rapidly in Central Europe” and “induced a flood of petitions and demonstrations that aroused the common people and could lead to outright revolt” (Stearns 94). In the other countries of the Habsburg monarchy, Italy, and Germany, it was the more specific movements of liberalism and nationalism that spurred revolution. A good example of this feeling was the Hungarian diet’s “proposals for autonomy” from the Austrian Empire which indeed led to the establishment “of the new Hungarian state” (Stearns 104).

The third part details the immediate impact of the 1848 Revolutions, which “though it saw little durable accomplishment, helped fuel the hopes of later radicals and spurred conservatives to ponder new ways to defend the established order” (Stearns 167). For example, in the years immediately following 1848, there was a “production of constitutional proposals by moderate revolutionaries and the granting of some concessions by the reestablished governments” (Stearns 185). However, these allowances were accompanied by more revolutionary uprisings in 1849, which were often met with repression and reprisals. It is to be noted that these final “[flurries] of radical agitation ended quickly and tragically,” with seemingly less effect and resolution than those of 1848.

In the fourth and last part of 1848: The Revolutionary Tide in Europe, Stearns concludes his study with an overall concise and accurate view of the patterns and failures established in the Revolutions of 1848, as well as their lasting legacy. “The fundamental flaws in each of the risings”, as Stearns puts it, “consisted of the liberal mentality of the revolutionary leaders and the profound social cleavage between the liberal and lower-class forces involved in the revolution” (Stearns 225). Stearns also points out that it was class warfare that was the key element that fueled all successful revolutions, later contributing to the revolutions in Russia and China, but that was lacking in those of 1848. But the overall effect of the 1848 Revolutions concerning the continental status quo in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars cannot be overlooked or denied. Stearns himself stated in the very first part of his book that undoubtedly, “the revolutions [had] shattered the diplomatic framework of Europe that had been created by the Congress of Vienna” (Stearns 6).

But on a more national scale, the revolutions had a much less potent effect, due to the inability of the various classes to work together or agree on policies and ideals to enact or support. More often than not, their intentions were in blatant contradiction with each other, and it was for this reason that no lasting, or even far-reaching, solution could be reached in any of the affected countries. Liberalism, at the time, was generally confined to the middle-class, and adding to the fact that the middle-class was “[unable] to turn against the aristocracy to cement their position,” it was only to be expected that they did not constitute “a real revolutionary effort” (Stearns 233). On the other hand, radicalism had “genuine potential as a revolutionary doctrine, [but] lacked a real constituency” – owing to the fact that the radicals “did not organize well” and “were not sufficiently numerous to form a revolutionary movement” (Stearns 237). Faced with liberalism and radicalism, most citizens opted for nationalism, which though capable of forming “the most potent and persistent revolutions,” was “incapable of cementing a bond between the middle and the lower classes” (Stearns 234). Though the revolutions undeniably failed, they “demonstrated the power of several political ideologies to move men,” playing an important role in the development of a “modern political personality” (Stearns 246).

In conclusion, Stearns accomplished his goal of describing and illustrating the causes, onsets, and results of the various European revolutions of the year 1848 in a well-argued and interesting book. Though the text, like practically all works, has a few minor problems, it still remains clear, albeit sometimes a bit dense, in its explanations. What makes Stearns’s book a masterpiece is the thoroughness with which he analyzes and interprets various aspects of the problems of the period’s transitory phase. After reading this book, one can certainly say that it was written for an audience with a high level of reading and writing. Some basic background information, as previously mentioned, as well as knowledge of major events and figures, of the revolutionary period is strongly recommended to know before even attempting to read this book. Overall, the work was thought-provoking and interesting, and it should be read by anyone interested in European history.

© 2011 Gregory Markov


Stearns, Peter. 1848: The Revolutionary Tide in Europe. 1st ed. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974.


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