Monday, August 11, 2014

The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851 by Jonathan Sperber.

The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851, was designed as a textbook for early undergraduate and (optimistically) advanced high school students. As such, it does not contain intensely complex theory regarding the events. It is a basic depiction of the occurrences and major players of the period.  Some will find this approach refreshingly straightforward; a delineation of what happened without the haze of a historian’s pet theories and self-congratulatory mental gymnastics. Others will find the work unchallenging.

This is not to say that the portrayal is all action and no thought, like so many books on military battles. Sperber spends the first half of his book discussing the pre-revolutionary environment and the causes leading to the struggles of 1848. Those already familiar with living and working conditions in Early- to Mid-19th Century Europe, who are reading primarily to inform themselves about the revolutionary years, will find this section tedious with no new information; they can skip directly to Chapter Three, “The Outbreak of Revolution.” These following chapters illustrate the rise of mass movements with particular attention to the varieties and structures of rebellious organizations.

Just about every reader of this review has grown-up within a representative form of democracy. Even those inured to the vicissitudes of history can find themselves discouraged by a story of flowering republics crushed under the military boot of autocratic kings. It was a dramatic burst of freedom and equally quick reversal. But Sperber does an excellent job of coddling the reader by discussing at length the groundwork laid by this continent-wide revolt. Post-1848 monarchs, while not required to draft a constitution, were seen as backward and faced importunate nagging from below if they did not. Press censorship was no longer a given strategy of conservative regimes. The process of organizing an opposition had been inculcated. Most importantly, people became acquainted with and accustomed to democratic notions. If seen as the first steps in a learning process that culminated, through persistent dedication, in our current period of widespread republican government, the bitter pill of this period will be swallowed in a spirit of more philosophical and sanguine remove.

I cannot say that The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851 will be the most exhilarating read you’ve ever had (unless the period and events alone excite you), but it will be appropriately informative and clear.

Sperber, Jonathan. The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 2003.

For review of a book on prior causes & events resulting in the European Revolutions, see: