1848: Year of revolution.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Sperber, Jonathan
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: 1848: Year of Revolution (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Rapport, Michael
Accession Number: 230778735
Full Text: 1848: Year of Revolution. By Mike Rapport (New York: Basic Books, 2009. xii plus 416 pp. $29.95).

The revolutions of 1848 have long had a public relations problem: less acclaimed, less remembered and certainly much less esteemed than their counterparts of 1789, 1917, or, more recently, 1989. Over the years, there have been various literary efforts to restore the mid-nineteenth century uprisings to a more dignified place in the European revolutionary pantheon, and bring their excitement, struggles, aspirations, victories and defeats to a general audience. The best-known English-language example of such a work is Priscilla Robertson's 1952 book, The Revolutions of 1848: A Social History. In spite of its name, Robertson's was not a social history, but a dramatic narrative, focusing on climactic scenes and colorful revolutionary leaders. Since 1952, social and, more recently, cultural historians have been studying, in a mote analytic mode, social conflicts, political organizations, mass movements, and cultural and discursive articulations of politics and of the nation before and during the mid-nineteenth century revolutions. Much of their work has been summed up in publications appearing during the revolutionary sesquicentenary in 1998. Reading Mike Rapport's new history of the 1848 revolutions poses the question of whether the results of all this analytical scholarly research, focused more on groups and structures than on individuals and events, can be incorporated into a narrative history, designed for the general educated reader.

There can be no doubt that Rapport's book is just such a history. Written in an eminently readable style, with repeated efforts to evoke the pathos of the events, the book has the familiar 1848 set pieces--the Parisian June Days, the Frankfurt National Assembly, Garibaldi's heroism in the Roman Republic and Kossuth's rallying Hungary to war against Austria--but it also includes less well known episodes, such as the great Romanian mass meeting in Blaj, or the uprisings in the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. As a specialist on French history, the author seems a little unsure at times when he discusses central and eastern Europe--it is incorrect, for instance, to say that the Jews were "granted full civil rights" in Prussia in 1812 (p. 170), and the parliament meeting in Prussia during 1848 was a constituent national assembly, not a diet (p. 218)--but, overall, the factual narrative is reliable. The volume is graced with a number of excellent illustrations, including some that are quite unfamiliar. I particularly liked one showing the mass meeting in Blaj, done in a primitive style.

If 1848 Year of Revolution does conform to the model of a broad narrative account for a general reader, along the lines of Priscilla Robertson's work, it does not tit some other historical genres. The hook does not lay claim to being a serious, scholarly synthesis of the 1848 revolutions, as a glance at the footnotes will confirm--not only ate they almost all to secondary sources, but a very large proportion are to textbooks and general accounts; many of the important monographs on 1848 go unmentioned. It is not a textbook either, since there is no bibliography or other aids for students.

Bringing Robertson's work up to date is not just a matter of adding or subtracting from a narrative; it also involves taking into account five decades of a very different kind of scholarship, part of a broader intellectual movement that has transformed what it means to write history. Rapport attempts a reconciliation by placing chunks of social and cultural history into his narrative: popular anti-Semitism and debates on the emancipation of the Jews, as well as women's political participation are put at the end of a chapter on the "springtime of the peoples," (pp. 170-79); the labor movement and communism, including Marx and Engels, appear after an account of the June Days (pp. 211-18); social conflicts in rural areas, and the mass movements of the peasantry in a discussion of the rise of counter-revolution in the fall of 1848 (pp. 268-79). Some of the important subjects of recent social and cultural history studies are left out. We learn nothing about the development of political associations, and the creation of widespread networks of political clubs in France, Germany, Italy, or, more tentatively, in the Habsburg Monarchy. Rapport does have a useful discussion of the competing aspirations of nationalist movements in central and eastern Europe, but he has little to say about the organizations that spread the sense of belonging to a nation, the cultural expressions of national identity or the extent to which different social groups perceived themselves as being part of a nation.

Although as elegantly and smoothly written as the rest of the book, the insertion of these chunks of analysis in the midst of a narrative leads to a certain disjunction. The story Rapport tells, following the classical accounts of Robertson and many other historians, is of an initial victory of the revolutionary movement overcome, by fall 1848 at the latest, by a resurgent counter-revolution. The sudden re-emergence in the narrative of revolutionary struggles in the spring of 1849--in France, as late as December 1851--appears difficult to understand without a discussion, missing in the book, of the growth of political clubs and their role in political mobilization. Treating the actions of the peasants under the heading of counter-revolution means not being able to explain how there was considerable rural participation in the insurgent movements of 1849-51.

All in all, then, Rapport's effort to combine an older tradition of narrative history evoking revolutionary passions and great figures, with the results of newer, more analytical studies of social structure, social conflict, political organization, and cultural articulation of political life, is not entirely successful. Still, the book is a lively story, written in a dynamic style and nicely illustrated. Given the general state of the trade book market, and the reluctance of publishers to bring out works on older, unfamiliar historical topics, it is a pleasant surprise that this work saw the light of day. It will be interesting to see how it is received by general-interest reviewers and the book-buying public.

Jonathan Sperber

University of Missouri
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