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Posted on Apr 12, 2011 in War College

History Repeating Itself: Is 2011 the New 1848?

By Peter Suciu

Egyptian anti-government demonstrators gather at Cairo's Tahrir square on February 3, 2011 calling for the ouster of embattled President Hosni Mubarak. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

The streets of large, dirty national capitals were full of protesters. It began peacefully enough, the protesters wanted better working conditions, more freedom and an end to government corruption. Soon the clashes became violent and bloody. There were riots in the streets, national guardsmen and army units called up, and in one nation a nearly full blown civil war.

But this wasn’t Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, Bahrain or Libya. It was 163 years ago and it happened across Europe. The European Revolutions of 1848 are often called the “Year of Revolution,” or the “Spring of Nations.” It began in France, where revolutionary sentiment had been simmering for years, perhaps even decades. And soon it spread across Europe.


Interestingly, Imperial Russia – a nation that would eventually be brought down by violent revolution – was somehow spared this Springtime of the People. It along with Great Britain, the Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire was unaffected in the year 1848 by popular uprisings. With few other exceptions – notably Switzerland and Portugal, which had just experienced Civil War – most of the rest of Europe was rocked by revolution, or at least revolutionary sentiment.

Yet, by the end of the year – and the subsequent mild revolts of 1850 – little changed on the map in Europe, and little else in the governments. While Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power already this year, and concessions are still being offered as the protestors remain in the streets, most of the European leaders maintained power – for a while at least.

But what 1848’s turmoil resulted in more was that the cracks in the system appeared visible. The status quo also changed.

Barricade on the rue Soufflot (painted by Horace Vernet) is a scene from the French Revolution of 1848.It was in France, where the Revolutions of 1848 began, that there was the biggest change. The so-called “February Revolution” was driven by both nationalist and republican ideals – which today might seem like a strange mix, but no more so than the calls for freedom alongside those of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It essentially brought down the constitutional monarchy of King Louis-Philippe, a man who did not want to reign in the British sense at all. The result was the creation of the French Second Republic, and headed by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte.

This Second French Republic would last just four years, with Louis-Napoleon becoming Emperor Napoleon III by founding the Second French Empire in 1852. He would eventually fall, and his empire with him, to another rising power, namely Prussia in 1870.

A decade prior to 1848 Prussia was a secondary state in Europe. It had barely survived the Napoleonic Wars a generation earlier, but in another decade would begin down a path leading to the unification of Germany. However, some disaffected Germans – notably freethinkers and bourgeois liberals – migrated to the United States, taking their money and more importantly skills with them.

Austria on the other hand, was weakened enough by the Hungarian uprising that it required Russian assistance to quash it. Less than six years later when Russia needed help as it found itself engaged in the Crimean War against the Ottoman Empire, France and Great Britain (and the Kingdom of Sardinia), Austria would not return the favor, issuing instead the famous statement, “’We shall astonish the world by our ingratitude.”

The Italian states also “benefited” from the revolutionary movement, and in just over a decade would also be unified as the Kingdom of Italy.

Revolution was not new, and since the American Revolution of 1776 the nationalist and republican spirit spread. But 1848 was different. Much like with the ongoing revolution of 2011, it was about technology, and the spread of information.

Just a decade earlier people in Berlin might have only heard about the uprising on the streets of Paris days or weeks later, but the electric telegraph changed that, essentially shortening the time it took for news to flow. Likewise, people would travel on railroads, making the trip across Europe in days instead of weeks. The word spread from Paris, first to Munich, which led to the downfall of the Bavarian King, and then to Berlin.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya it was social media – Facebook and Twitter — that allowed users to communicate and for the word to spread. What began months ago in Tunis spread to Cairo to Amman to Sana’a to Daraa. When Egypt pulled the plug on high-speed Internet access, those in the streets turned to dial-up modems 20 years old and kept spreading the message with the outside world.

Technology is also what had allowed the government to act. Just as state-controlled newspapers could print what the government wanted to be read in 1848, so too can state-controlled TV show the masses what the government wants them to see today. And while 19th century railroads helped quickly transport troops as needed, technology today shows that a protest cannot easily become a true rebellion.

The pen is said to be mightier than the sword, but ask the rebels in Libya how their Toyota trucks and small arms stand up against Libyan tanks and fighter jets? And as Russia helped save Austria in 1848, it is NATO’s superior forces that are saving those Libyan rebels today.

Another facet that is worth exploring is that the revolutions of 1848 occurred mostly in Europe, with the exception being Brazil. These were nations that shared a similar culture and government style – perhaps one reason Great Britain was spared was its constitutional monarchy – and were loosely tied together through the old balance of power with the Congress of Vienna.

Thus today, the revolts are happening in similar Middle Eastern nations that have had long ruling, and in many cases corrupt and even brutal, autocratic leaders. There is also the fact that these are “young” nations in the sense that they experienced a baby boom in the last three decades; and thanks to modern medicine more of these children have grown up to reach adulthood. The result across the Arab world is more people under 30 than over, and living with rampant unemployment and stagnant economies.

So too, early successes – rather than early failures, such as the 2009 Iranian protests – in the Middle East may have inspired others. In January, just 14 days into 2011, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – who came to power in a 1987 bloodless coup – was driven from power. Soon the streets of Cairo were filled with protesters, and from there it has snowballed.

The sad conclusion of the Revolution of 1848 was that it did not result in immediate freedoms or even lasting democracies – after all France was a monarchy with the Second Empire less than five years later. This is because, as historians have argued, the people were ready for change, but not necessarily for democracy. We should remember this as we look at Egypt and Libya. The downfall of Mubarak and Ben Ali won’t necessarily mean regular elections, or even a peaceful transition to power. As we’re seeing in Libya, there is a long way to go.

Europe and 1848 should also remind us that the Spring of Nations also is seen as the start of the long fuse that led to World War I. So we should remain cautious but hopeful that the Winter of Revolutions in the Middle East heads somewhere better.

1 Comment

  1. Population density, greater communication linkage, weapons of mass destruction and a reduction of resources spells disaster.

    Evolution of political bodies can also be palpated. As we see governmental styles of leadership fail – one question remains. Which governing body can operate most efficiently that will service the people within such body? Sooner or later, people have to get tired of destruction and a majority has to come to common grounds with a minority.