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Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Bismarck And The Arab Spring
In 1848, a wave popular revolutions rocked Europe's authoritarian
regimes. How those upheavals played out holds lessons for the future of the
By Jonathan Steinberg
Otto von Bismarck
similarities between the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt last spring and the
ones in Europe in 1848 are striking. In the early months of 1848, the sclerotic
and reactionary political systems that the European monarchs had developed
after Napoleon Bonaparte's 1815 defeat collapsed. Prince Klemens Wenzel
Metternich, who was the state chancellor of the Austrian empire and a symbol of
the despised old order, slipped out of Vienna on March 15 as an angry mob
marched in. Along with Metternich, the Austrian empire's 23-year-old repressive
dictatorship vanished. In Italy, France, and the German states, the old order
crumbled as well. The scene was not unlike that of Tunisian President Zine
el-Abidine Ben Ali's own flight from Tunis 163 years later and the wave of
revolutions across the Middle East that followed. In both cases, the crowds in
the streets were glad to see the dictators go but unclear on the social and
political orders that should replace them.
revolutionaries of 1848 had a model on which to base their fight: the French
Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which the
French National Assembly approved in 1789, had laid the groundwork for
upheavals to come. It declared: "Men are born and remain free and equal in
rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good."
This doctrine was social dynamite. "The gradual development of the
principle of equality is, therefore, a providential fact," the political
philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote later, "and all events as well as
all men contribute to its progress."
spread the ideas of the enlightenment and revolution to the European continent
at large, usually at bayonet point. Between 1800 and 1815, he consolidated
control over an expanding empire by replacing traditional, often unwritten,
legal codes with rational, written ones andreplacing old administrative districts with new. "Careers open to
the talented" -- Napoleon's answer to that great French demand for
equality of opportunity -- turned provincial lawyers into statesmen and drummer
boys into marshals of the empire.
Napoleon's defeat, the violent political and social upheavals of his era were
not forgotten. When the revolutions of 1848 broke out three decades later, many
expected them to follow the same template -- universal suffrage, followed by
revolutionary upheavals, followed by Jacobin terror. There was some basis for
this belief: In the midst of the upheavals, the "springtime of
nations," as it came to be called, another Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew
Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, returned from exile. On the strength of his name, he
was elected president of the French Republic in 1848 by an overwhelming margin.
He won 5,434,226 votes. The second-most popular candidate, General Louis-Eugène
Cavaignac, the man who crushed the workers' rising of June 1848, won 1,448,107.
Otto von Bismarck, then a representative in the newly created Prussian
legislature, did not expect the terror and Napoleonic expansion to come again.
In a letter to his brother in March 1848, he wrote, "As long as the
present government in Paris can hold on, I do not believe there will be war,
doubt that there's any urge to it," continuing that "the motives of
1792, the guillotine, and the republican fanaticism . . . are not
present." From his remote outpost in Prussia, Bismarck saw that the forces
of change were no longer those of the original uprisings in 1789. The leaders
of Paris in 1848 were imitating what they had read in books. In Tocqueville's
memorable phrase, "The whole thing seemed to me to be a bad tragedy played
by actors from the provinces."
as the conservatives at the court of the irresolute King Frederick Wilhelm IV
of Prussia gathered their forces to stop the uprising and prevent universal
suffrage, Bismarck saw that the vote could be the king's greatest resource. In
voting for Louis Napoleon, he believed, the people of France had selected the
one candidate who stood for order. A decade later, he astounded his benefactor,
General Leopold von Gerlach, by his bold acceptance of democracy. In 1848, he
noted, "Louis Napoleon did not create the revolutionary conditions . . .
he did not rebel against an established order, but instead fished it out of the
whirlpool of anarchy as nobody's property. If he were now to lay it down, he
would greatly embarrass Europe, which would more or less unanimously beg him to
take it up again."
Bismarck had in mind, however, was not true democracy but something capable of
appeasing the crowds, some of democracy's institutional forms safely tempered
by a monarchical constitution and an army loyal to the king. In 1848, the
European emperors and kings, nervous as they were, could count on the loyalty
of their soldiers. The generals and the officer corps all belonged to the high
aristocracy or the gentry and owed their status to the monarchy. The armed
forces and the crowned commanders in chief were thus mutually dependent. As the
Prussian general Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg said to Prince Wilhelm, "If
your Royal Highness deprives me and my children of my rights, what is the basis
most of the foot soldiers were peasants. Like the aristocracy, they had little
love for the loud and enthusiastic middle classes whose revolution they had to
quell. When they tried to bring order to narrow streets in town centers, the
contents of chamber pots and boiling water rained down on them. Most European
cities had no proper local police, and the armies of the old regimes had no
experience fighting in the streets. For want of an alternative, the generals
withdrew the troops from city centers to figure out what to do next.
Europe, revolutionaries filled the resulting power vacuum with speeches and
draft constitutions. But reactionary forces had already started to gather. The
upheavals had not reached as far as the Russian empire, and Czar Nicholas I
moved his huge army westward. The Austrian emperor, backed by Nicholas and the
Croatian general Count Josip Jelačić, began to crack down on the Hungarian
revolution. Meanwhile, Austrian General Joseph Radetzky moved in to defeat the
Italian revolutionaries, and the French general Louis-Eugène Cavaignac
mobilized the Parisian middle classes to crush the social movement in the
Berlin, the handsome and charismatic field marshal Friedrich Graf von Wrangel
had a different strategy. On October 9, 1848, the army paraded from
Charlottenburg into the heart of Berlin and drew a huge, cheering crowd. The
event showed that the revolutionaries had lost support and that the army had
regained its prestige. The "springtime of nations" had ended, but the
changes it brought were no less important -- even if they were not what the
revolutionaries had sought. Back in control, the conservatives founded
newspapers, strengthened local police forces, and reconciled themselves to
elections and parliaments. They used their social connections to influence the
monarchs. In Prussia, a group of deeply conservative, evangelical Christian
noblemen formed the Camarilla, a secret cabinet, to make sure that the king
resisted the liberals.
anti-revolutionary forces also borrowed heavily from the revolutionary
playbook. Aided by new technologies and railroads, they strengthened
administration and modernized the bureaucracy. Pope Pius IX whipped up the
fervor of the masses through the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pilgrimages,
and popular festivals to show where the public's loyalty truly rested. The
1840s had been years of poverty and unrest, but 1850¬-73 saw the first modern
economic boom, and a long wave of prosperity followed. Bismarck, a country
squire and political genius, used Germany's new semi-democratic political
structure to rise to power. By his close contact with General Leopold von
Gerlach, the king's adjutant, he passed his ideas directly through the
Camarilla to the king.
lesson from the "springtime of nations" is that it is easier to
overthrow the old regime than build a new one. Today, the crowds on the Arab
street have no Bismarck to guide them to even limited democracy. New arrivals
squabble with the ministers and generals of the old regime, the Islamic
religious parties with the secularists, the urban activists with conservatives
from villages and tribes. The revolutionaries call for "democracy"
and "freedom," but nobody knows exactly what those terms might mean
for societies imperfectly modernized and without the European experiences of
rights, constitutions, and equality. Happy endings seem implausible.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Affairs on
28/09/2011 -JONATHAN STEINBERG is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European
History at the University of Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of
Bismarck: A Life.