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Opinion: When History Ignores a Turning Point | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Protesters wave Egyptian flags during a protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, April 8, 2011. (Reuters)

Three years ago, as Egypt and a few other Arab countries were in the throes of popular revolt, some of us wondered whether events would turn the way they did in Europe in 1848.

In that year virtually the whole of continental Europe, from France to the borders of Russia, was shaken by a series of revolutions that shook the autocratic regimes to their foundations. The revolts had come after a series of setbacks for the regimes then in place, aggravated by a continent-wide famine in 1846.

Inspiring unprecedented romantic euphoria, the events of 1848 were collectively designated the “Spring of Nations.” The Communist Manifesto, a pamphlet penned by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, appeared in February 1848, just as the first revolts were brewing in Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna, Budapest and Prague. The pamphlet had promised revolution and, thus, it was no surprise that the events were quickly dubbed the “European Revolution.” Many commentators saw the events as a “turning point in modern history.”

Soon, however, it became clear that both those who used the label “revolution” and those who spoke of a “turning point in history” had jumped the gun. A revolution could be thus named only after it had happened, not before or even while it was happening. That year held a promise of revolution, not revolution itself. The events did hint at a “turning point in history,” but history refused to turn, instead doing a pirouette that soon returned it to square one.

By 1852, France was back under a dictatorship more brutal than that of the relatively liberal King Louis Philippe, who had been overthrown in 1848. In the Austrian Empire, the military crushed the uprisings not only in Vienna itself but also in Italy—.then under Austrian occupation—and Hungary. In Prussia, using an iron fist, the despotic regime of Frederick IV consolidated its position while adorning it with a veneer of pan-German nationalism.

Why did the 1848 uprisings fail to transform into fully fledged revolutions?

For my part, I have always believed that the 1848 revolutions ended up stillborn for at least four reasons.

The first reason was the cowardice of the urban middle classes who, having started the uprisings, ended up being terrified by the prospect of the “unwashed masses” coming to power. A revolution is nice, even enjoyable, if one can feel safe in one’s house, dining at a well-laden table, reciting poetry and discussing the future of mankind. However, it becomes dreadful if the downtrodden barge in for dinner uninvited.

The French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine, who had romanticized the revolution in its early days, ended up warning against “the ghost of chaos” that was haunting Europe. Mankind has always been troubled by the choice between freedom and security. The events of 1848 promised freedom but threatened security, at least of the kind the European middle classes appreciated. They never considered the fact that one cannot feel secure if one is not free, and vice versa. As a result, the very figures that had been in the forefront of “revolution” ended up pleading with the military to intervene to “stop chaos.”

The second reason was the lack of organization behind the largely spontaneous uprisings. Organized radical groups, including socialists, anarchists and Bonapartists, were among the last to join the uprisings. For a long while they waited and watched and threw their hats, some of them tricorns, into the ring after making sure the despots would crumble.

Once the organized groups seized control of the movement, they quickly turned it into a vehicle for their own seizure of power and the creation of a new status quo that would favor them. The situation was further aggravated when some groups abused the newly won freedoms to provoke religious and political feuds, waking up European demons that had been asleep for decades.

That, in turn, frightened the supporters of the ancien régime, who regrouped and mounted a counter-revolution.

The third reason was the realization by the military elite that they could grab power for themselves. Having rejected the established order, the middle classes were prepared to take a gamble with the military in the hope of achieving stability. That gave the military a chance to pose as savior of the nation from both the discredited ancien régime and the “chaos” engendered by revolution. The fourth reason was lack of support from the democratic powers of the day. The British government made much noise in support of the “legitimate demands” of the continental crowds, but did nothing to help them. The United States, later described by Marx as the “best hope of the suffering masses,” did even less.

In contrast, the armies of Tsarist Russia, Imperial Austria and Prussia were ready for deployment to crush the promise of revolution at the first opportunity.

A century later, Europe experienced another “Spring of Nations,” with revolts in Communist-controlled Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. It was again “the promise of freedom nipped in the bud,” as Václav Havel described it.

In the short and medium terms, the European experience of 1848 was a failure. In the longer run, however, it shook the foundations of autocracy, created an appetite for democracy, and rendered the old European model of imperial state obsolete. From then on, despite a series of horrible twists and turns, the course of European history was set by a growing desire for the rule of law, power-sharing, pluralism and respect for human rights.

In Europe in 1848, like the Middle East in 2013, history ignored its turning point, but only for a while, not knowing it would have to turn somewhere else down the road.