Rhineland Radicals


Sperber, Jonathan.  Rhineland Radicals: the Democratic Movement and the Revolution of 1848-1849.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

In this interesting, thorough, and well-written book, Sperber challenges us to reevaluate the German revolutions of 1848, and indeed, pushes us to see them as stretching out until 1849.  First, we must understand the nexus of socio-economic tensions that were present in the lead up to 1848.  “Toward the middle of the nineteenth century,” Sperber writes, “much of the social and economic conflict in Germany centered around preservation of abolition of pre-capitalist market restrictions like feudal tenures or guilds.”  The main factors that made up the “triangle of tension” were the market, the state, and the church (467).  The “great grievance” of the independent and small producers centered on access to markets, which were usually controlled or subsidized by the state through taxes. The deciding factor of democrats being able to mobilize discontent seemed to be confessional divides: if the confession of the ruling monarch was opposite to the aggrieved populace, there was more conflict and political action.

More than a reevaluation of the liberal revolution of 1848 in Germany, Sperber’s book seems to be a defense of the democratic revolutionaries.  Sperber attempts to contextualize the liberal movement and show that a narrow set of constitutional goals was not the only thing that characterized the movement.  The democrats, particularly in the Rhineland region, appealed to the grievances of women, soldiers, and peasants; but, the peasants were the most important group, because they had the largest numbers, and they had the most to gain from a new arrangement of state, market, and church.  Therefore, the democrats did not simply campaign about liberal rhetoric when approaching the peasants.  They “increasingly put themselves forward as leaders of popular struggles, attempting to direct them toward left-wing political ends” (473).  In other words, far from being a small group of bourgeois liberals, the democrats actively attempted to tap into the larger grievances of the disenfranchised.

Moreover, far from seeing 1848 as a failure, Sperber argues that it was a success in terms of mass political organization and engagement.  Exactly as discontent with the Frankfurt Parliament’s failure grew, so did the numbers and mobilization of the democrats’ movement.  So, spring of 1849 should be seen as the culmination of the revolution, not a “farcical epilogue” of the March revolution (475).  Sperber argues that the revolution was only able to gain ground after February-March 1848 (which is when it’s traditionally seen as failing) because that failure acted as an impetus for more people to act, and the democrats were able to stear that discontent into a second phases of the revolution (35-54).  And more people did take action into the spring of 1849 even though (and because) the Frankfurt Parliament had been defeated.  In the end, the monarchies’ states simply had more manpower to put down the revolution.  So, Sperber ultimately argues for us to view 1848 as a crushed revolution as opposed to a failed one.

In light of Sperber’s “triangle of tension,” in which the state played an important role by controlling access to markets, we can see nationalism in Germany as opposed to the power of states.  These democrats wanted a national German republic because they were against the strong monarchical states that were ruling them.  Overall, Sperber complicates the traditional view of 1848, which pays too much attention to the strictly parliamentary aspects of 1848, or on the dichotomy of pre-modern and modern.  In doing so, he challenges us to redefine our conceptions of “revolution” much like Eley and Blackbourn did in The Peculiarities of German History.

Categories: Book Review, German History | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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