1848 and 2011: Bismark and the Arab Spring
Protesters like these in Yemen could learn from the revolutions of 1848.
October 5th, 2011
12:30 PM ET

1848 and 2011: Bismark and the Arab Spring

Editor's Note: Jonathan Steinberg is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of Bismarck: A Life.

By Jonathan Steinberg, Foreign Affairs

The similarities between the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt last spring and the ones in Europe in 1848 are striking. In the early months of 1848, the sclerotic and reactionary political systems that the European monarchs had developed after Napoleon Bonaparte's 1815 defeat collapsed. Prince Klemens Wenzel Metternich, who was the state chancellor of the Austrian empire and a symbol of the despised old order, slipped out of Vienna on March 15 as an angry mob marched in. Along with Metternich, the Austrian empire's 23-year-old repressive dictatorship vanished. In Italy, France, and the German states, the old order crumbled as well. The scene was not unlike that of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's own flight from Tunis 163 years later and the wave of revolutions across the Middle East that followed. In both cases, the crowds in the streets were glad to see the dictators go but unclear on the social and political orders that should replace them.

The revolutionaries of 1848 had a model on which to base their fight: the French Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which the French National Assembly approved in 1789, had laid the groundwork for upheavals to come. It declared: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good." This doctrine was social dynamite. "The gradual development of the principle of equality is, therefore, a providential fact," the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote later, "and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress."

Napoleon spread the ideas of the enlightenment and revolution to the European continent at large, usually at bayonet point. Between 1800 and 1815, he consolidated control over an expanding empire by replacing traditional, often unwritten, legal codes with rational, written ones and   replacing old administrative districts with new. "Careers open to the talented" - Napoleon's answer to that great French demand for equality of opportunity - turned provincial lawyers into statesmen and drummer boys into marshals of the empire.

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After Napoleon's defeat, the violent political and social upheavals of his era were not forgotten. When the revolutions of 1848 broke out three decades later, many expected them to follow the same template - universal suffrage, followed by revolutionary upheavals, followed by Jacobin terror. There was some basis for this belief: In the midst of the upheavals, the "springtime of nations," as it came to be called, another Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, returned from exile. On the strength of his name, he was elected president of the French Republic in 1848 by an overwhelming margin. He won 5,434,226 votes. The second-most popular candidate, General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, the man who crushed the workers' rising of June 1848, won 1,448,107.

Yet Otto von Bismarck, then a representative in the newly created Prussian legislature, did not expect the terror and Napoleonic expansion to come again. In a letter to his brother in March 1848, he wrote, "As long as the present government in Paris can hold on, I do not believe there will be war, doubt that there's any urge to it," continuing that "the motives of 1792, the guillotine, and the republican fanaticism . . . are not present." From his remote outpost in Prussia, Bismarck saw that the forces of change were no longer those of the original uprisings in 1789. The leaders of Paris in 1848 were imitating what they had read in books. In Tocqueville's memorable phrase, "The whole thing seemed to me to be a bad tragedy played by actors from the provinces."

Even as the conservatives at the court of the irresolute King Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia gathered their forces to stop the uprising and prevent universal suffrage, Bismarck saw that the vote could be the king's greatest resource. In voting for Louis Napoleon, he believed, the people of France had selected the one candidate who stood for order. A decade later, he astounded his benefactor, General Leopold von Gerlach, by his bold acceptance of democracy. In 1848, he noted, "Louis Napoleon did not create the revolutionary conditions . . . he did not rebel against an established order, but instead fished it out of the whirlpool of anarchy as nobody's property. If he were now to lay it down, he would greatly embarrass Europe, which would more or less unanimously beg him to take it up again."

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What Bismarck had in mind, however, was not true democracy but something capable of appeasing the crowds, some of democracy's institutional forms safely tempered by a monarchical constitution and an army loyal to the king. In 1848, the European emperors and kings, nervous as they were, could count on the loyalty of their soldiers. The generals and the officer corps all belonged to the high aristocracy or the gentry and owed their status to the monarchy. The armed forces and the crowned commanders in chief were thus mutually dependent. As the Prussian general Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg said to Prince Wilhelm, "If your Royal Highness deprives me and my children of my rights, what is the basis of yours?"

Meanwhile, most of the foot soldiers were peasants. Like the aristocracy, they had little love for the loud and enthusiastic middle classes whose revolution they had to quell. When they tried to bring order to narrow streets in town centers, the contents of chamber pots and boiling water rained down on them. Most European cities had no proper local police, and the armies of the old regimes had no experience fighting in the streets. For want of an alternative, the generals withdrew the troops from city centers to figure out what to do next.

Across Europe, revolutionaries filled the resulting power vacuum with speeches and draft constitutions. But reactionary forces had already started to gather. The upheavals had not reached as far as the Russian empire, and Czar Nicholas I moved his huge army westward. The Austrian emperor, backed by Nicholas and the Croatian general Count Josip Jelačić, began to crack down on the Hungarian revolution. Meanwhile, Austrian General Joseph Radetzky moved in to defeat the Italian revolutionaries, and the French general Louis-Eugène Cavaignac mobilized the Parisian middle classes to crush the social movement in the Parisian slums.

In Berlin, the handsome and charismatic field marshal Friedrich Graf von Wrangel had a different strategy. On October 9, 1848, the army paraded from Charlottenburg into the heart of Berlin and drew a huge, cheering crowd. The event showed that the revolutionaries had lost support and that the army had regained its prestige. The "springtime of nations" had ended, but the changes it brought were no less important - even if they were not what the revolutionaries had sought. Back in control, the conservatives founded newspapers, strengthened local police forces, and reconciled themselves to elections and parliaments. They used their social connections to influence the monarchs. In Prussia, a group of deeply conservative, evangelical Christian noblemen formed the Camarilla, a secret cabinet, to make sure that the king resisted the liberals.

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These anti-revolutionary forces also borrowed heavily from the revolutionary playbook. Aided by new technologies and railroads, they strengthened administration and modernized the bureaucracy. Pope Pius IX whipped up the fervor of the masses through the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pilgrimages, and popular festivals to show where the public's loyalty truly rested. The 1840s had been years of poverty and unrest, but 1850¬-73 saw the first modern economic boom, and a long wave of prosperity followed. Bismarck, a country squire and political genius, used Germany's new semi-democratic political structure to rise to power. By his close contact with General Leopold von Gerlach, the king's adjutant, he passed his ideas directly through the Camarilla to the king.

The lesson from the "springtime of nations" is that it is easier to overthrow the old regime than build a new one. Today, the crowds on the Arab street have no Bismarck to guide them to even limited democracy. New arrivals squabble with the ministers and generals of the old regime, the Islamic religious parties with the secularists, the urban activists with conservatives from villages and tribes. The revolutionaries call for "democracy" and "freedom," but nobody knows exactly what those terms might mean for societies imperfectly modernized and without the European experiences of rights, constitutions, and equality. Happy endings seem implausible.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jonathan Steinberg.

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Topics: Arab Spring • Middle East

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    According to Mr. Steinberg's report above, this does not bode well for the right-wing thugs in Washington who want so desperately to preserve the old order in the Middle East plus expand their control even further into that part of the world. Hopefully, the regime of that cursed Ali Abdullah Saleh will fall as well as that of the very corrupt king of Bahrain. I'm quite familiar with European history during the 19th century and on can hope for a repeat performance in the Middle East.

    October 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
    • steveinmo

      Uh...yeah, right. Just look what came after in Europe. Two world wars and utter destruction. And they're not far off today from being right back in the middle of that system. Some improvement... I've spent time in the middle east and watching the deception called the arab spring is troubling. I fear you're quite right, even if you don't have a clue. The upheavals going on are the forebears of devastation and destruction.

      You have to study the history of the middle east to understand and recognize the pattern that it has always taken an iron hand to keep the people of any country there in-line and obedient. It's their nature, and I'm not meaning to be insulting to the arabs in saying this. Even the Lord told Abraham that Ishmael and his descendants would be as untamed beasts. And history has proven that out time and again over the millenia.

      The unseen danger of what's coming is because we (as in Obama in creating the arab spring) upended an entire region with no knowledge of who to support and no way to stop those that are worse than those they just deposed.

      October 5, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Reply
      • Daniel

        Wrong, steveinmo. Barack Obama no more created the Arab Spring any more than John Adams created the French Revolution. Both were spontaneous. In fact, the so-called Arab Spring poses a rather serious threat to America's current hegemony in the Middle East.

        October 5, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
      • steveinmo

        @Daniel,
        If you recall, Pres Obama called a meeting of prominent "professional" internet bloggers to the White House for a meeting shortly before the Arab Spring began. And all of a sudden, when the uprisings started, cell phone service and internet access suddenly became basic human rights??? Forget food & water, but let's fight for internet and cell phones for the mob, and lets feed our friends and allies to the lions in the process, intentionally to cause unrest. All that serves to do is create discord, dissention, and promote/provoke unrest. This was provocated – I'm not saying scripted, but fortuitously provocated and allowed to happen. And look what we're getting as a result.

        As for it being a threat to the U.S. I agree. Many things he's doing are a threat to that.

        October 6, 2011 at 1:02 am |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    I doubt the author has managed to highlight all the historic events of 1848. Revolutions were widespread all over Europe except for Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom. They brought little changes due to the strength of reactionary forces. The notable forces behind this movement “springtime of nations” in various countries were the enlightened, liberal middle-class, like the ones in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

    October 5, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    In France the universal suffrage was the main issue of the February Revolution. The Second Republic saw discontent in June. The social uprisings were the first ever in European history and the workers were badly beaten.

    October 5, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    The March Revolution 1848 were tokenistic in the German States and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The reactionary Metternich was driven out of Vienna and the dual monarchy on the Danube remained intact.

    October 5, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  5. Badre

    Mr Jonthan's view might be right but as a Tunisian living in Europe but decided to return back home to support my country when it needs me, i am much more optimistic than that. it could be true for the middle eastern Arab countries and revolutions (and even at 100%). The view is underestimating the learning factor and experience as well as the effect of the technology used. This Arab generation is already in the heart of the 21st century, is well educated and brain drain of the west benefited a lot from the Arab contribution at individual levels, but most if the ressource remains in the Arab oppressing regimes in the middle east and North Africa, under dictatorships that were supported by the west. in Tunisia +90 pc of 16 yo are educated and most of the young people now have some university degree, those people that did not find sufficient opportunity to lunch their businesses, to continue education or just to live better due to corruption, oppression and economic servings to some foreign powers rather than to the people (non democratic regimes) are much different from the generation of Europeans in the 19 th century. The Arab youth (it is a youth uprising) is internet generation that grew up using technology, reading, searching, ...and learning from what is happening in the world. When i returned back home i found a population that discusses about everything, does not worry about any debate, that is still reading learning and trying to find the pro and cons of all kind of political experiences from the US one to the Singapore's one. The view of Mr Jonathan could be true for certain countries but certainly not to all Arab countries...the major factor to consider is: EDUCATION LEVEL.
    Thank you

    October 5, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Reply
    • John

      I agree. Most of the authors arguments are flawed. The situation for the Arab spring is different. However, it is natural for these revolutions to take time to mature.

      November 8, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  6. Badre

    Mr Jonthan's view might be right but as a Tunisian living in Europe but decided to return back home to support my country when it needs me, i am much more optimistic than that. it could be true for the middle eastern Arab countries and revolutions (and even NOT at 100%). The view is underestimating the learning factor and experience as well as the effect of the technology used. This Arab generation is already in the heart of the 21st century, is well educated and brain drain of the west benefited a lot from the Arab contribution at individual levels, but most if the ressource remains in the Arab oppressing regimes in the middle east and North Africa, under dictatorships that were supported by the west. in Tunisia +90 pc of 16 yo are educated and most of the young people now have some university degree, those people that did not find sufficient opportunity to lunch their businesses, to continue education or just to live better due to corruption, oppression and economic servings to some foreign powers rather than to the people (non democratic regimes) are much different from the generation of Europeans in the 19 th century. The Arab youth (it is a youth uprising) is internet generation that grew up using technology, reading, searching, ...and learning from what is happening in the world. When i returned back home i found a population that discusses about everything, does not worry about any debate, that is still reading learning and trying to find the pro and cons of all kind of political experiences from the US one to the Singapore's one. The view of Mr Jonathan could be true for certain countries but certainly not to all Arab countries...the major factor to consider is: EDUCATION LEVEL.
    Thank you

    October 5, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Reply

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