Posts Tagged With: 1848

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.

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Enlightened Nationalism


Levinger, Matthew.  Enlightened Nationalism: the Transformation of Prussian Political Culture, 1806-1848.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Levinger’s book explores how conservatives and reformers alike tried to define Prussian, and perhaps German, identity in the face of pressure from France as well as unrest from within.  The story of these four decades that emerges from Levinger’s work is not one of strong disagreement and infighting.  Instead, consensus exemplifies the overall mood; both reformers and reactionaries held political harmony as the goal of any development.  There were three main reasons for the perceived need for harmony: the ideals of the Enlightenment, French aggression, and the absence of a single nation state (228-229).

Levinger shows that the terms “conservative” and “reformer” may be too simple to describe the forces that were trying to stabilize Prussia after Napoleon’s conquest and later ousting.  He shows that all aristocrats were not necessarily against representative assemblies, nor were all reformers against the monarchy.  In fact, the goal of both sides was political harmony through “Enlightened nationalism,” which would allow a peaceful coexistence of nation and monarchy (229).  One would assume that such a coexistence would require dramatic compromise on the part of both conservatives and liberal reformers.  But Levinger shows that both sides envisioned a rationalized monarchy that coexisted with an Enlightened, educated populace.  In this sense, nationalism was not anti-monarchy, because the Enlightened nation was to be organized for the king, not against him (229).  Indeed, what both sides strived for was an “enlightened nationalism,” where nationalism referred to the Prussian leadership’s plan to mobilize the whole population, and enlightened refers to an emphasis on Bildung and state rationalization as a means to that end.  Dedication to this Enlightenment Bildung is an important part of Levinger’s book, and he demonstrates that both reformers and reactionaries were dedicated to the establishment of an Erziehungsstaat.

The presence of the French forces also plays a vital role in Levinger’s story.  For, when one was under foreign rule, one had to speak of national interests, not just the selfish interests of one’s own estate (94).  The political leaders wanted to invigorate the people against the French, but didn’t want to give up the traditional hierarchies.  This forced both the monarchy and the landed aristocrats to confront the notion of nationalism – and what form German nationalism should take.

Methodologically, he explores political discourse and its implications, showing that “words have consequences” (93), and sometimes unintended ones at that.   As the aristocracy campaigned for civic freedoms and Bildung to achieve their own goals, these ideals spread to other estates where they worked against the supremacy of the aristocracy.  Moreover, Levinger reveals the direct interaction of discourse and action by showing how the discourses of the Enlightenment ideals limited the actions that political actors could potentially take.  For example, the Enlightenment ideal of harmony would not allow serious reformers to undertake radical action, which would create chaos (225).

Ultimately, the liberal revolutions of 1848 failed because the understanding of the German “nation” was too contested and therefore could not stand against a united, conservative will.  But I wonder how much of a failure 1848 could be, in Levinger’s terms, if both sides had the same goal (rational monarchy & enlightened populace), because, as he states, in 1848, Wilhelm II decreed a constitution, and Prussia became a constitutional monarchy.

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

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