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Response to Review no. 422

I am grateful to the reviewer for his balanced account and for the care with which he has read my volume. In the following I defend some of the strengths of the book against criticism, but I acknowledge that these points should have been made clear in the revised edition of the collection.

Croce explained in his Teoria e Storia della storiografia that all history is contemporary. Rather than seeing this as a problem, the fact that our perspective on historical events changes over time and that social, cultural and political transformations of society result in new perspectives on the past justifies our existence as historians, engaged in continuous re-interpretations of the past. In this sense I agree with the reviewer’s concluding sentence, that ‘today’s politics and the current political climate enormously influence how historical events are commemorated and remembered’. This is true not only for ‘today’s’ political climate, in particular if one thinks about the changing interpretations of 1848 over the past 150 years. However, Fortescue denies that seeing 1848 as a European phenomenon is a new idea, implying that the interpretative framework adopted in this collection of essays might be less ‘contemporary’ and its focus less ‘presentist’ than stated in the reviewer’s conclusions. Indeed, most of the contributions to the volume demonstrate that the contemporaries of the revolutions, both in the centres and in the peripheries of the uprisings, understood the events as a European phenomenon. The political activists made reference to a shared European idea, which placed national demands within a wider European context; and in particular the social question in 1848 was seen as a European problem, which could not be resolved through national solutions. But while this perspective was clear to the immediate observers of the events at the time, with very few exceptions neither the historiography in the aftermath of 1848, nor the more recent literature that appeared around the commemorations in 1998/1999, make the European dimension of the revolutions the focus of their interpretations. The substantial review sections on 1848 in Passato e Presente, 46 (1999), Revue d’histoire du XIXe siècle, 14/15 (1997), or Archiv für Sozialgeschichte, 39/40 (1999/2000) illustrate that the main focus of research is still on the revolutions’ role in the history of national political developments. More innovative is the regional focus of some of the recent literature, exemplified also by some of the contributions to the volume under review. There are, of course, numerous studies which compare two or more ‘national’ cases of 1848, or works on specific aspects of the revolution in a cross-national comparative framework; but similar approaches do not necessarily discuss the revolutions’ European dimension. In my collection of essays, the cases of Bohemia, of the border region between Baden, Switzerland and France, or the glorification of Robert Blum in French workers’ songs demonstrate that despite the role of the ‘national question’ in 1848, events were perceived in their wider European dimension. In Frankfurt, claims for ‘cosmopolitan unity’ rather than ethnically-defined nationality represented a minority, but had an important impact on the events. In particular, several of the contributions to this volume demonstrate that the commemorations of 1848 during the past century and a half turned the revolutions into events of primarily national importance, contrasting with the original European context of the revolutions. Valentin has explained that only in 1848 ‘nationalism and internationalism became contrary poles’, but he argued this specifically with reference to Germany. Only very recently a new generation of historians has rediscovered the trans-national, European and cosmopolitan context of the national movements, questioning the received narratives of national histories. As part of this trend, the volume under review analyses the relationship between the international ideas which marked the revolutions and their national commemorations which integrated the events into national narratives.

The reviewer suggests that the volume should have explored the European theme ‘with more regard to such topics as urbanisation and the role of cities in the revolutions of February and March 1848, and the ‘European’ factors which help to explain the eventual triumph of reaction’. The European dimension of the reactionary forces has for a long time been a major topic in the history of international relations and in traditional political histories of nineteenth-century Europe; already at the time French chansonniers referred to the ‘Europe of the Radetzkys’, contrasting with the ‘European springtime of peoples’. However, Fortescue is right to point to the importance of a particular urban focus in new interpretations of the revolutions. The urban stages of the revolutions have been the topic of a number of more recent publications, which emerged in the context of the 1998 commemorations, an approach my volume did not want to duplicate. I refer here in particular to several chapters in the crucial collection of essays edited by Dieter Dowe et al. (1)

Considering the growing awareness among historians for a need to transcend the national framework of historical investigations, it might seem surprising that the European dimension of the revolutions of 1848 was not explored more thoroughly by the works which appeared around the 150th anniversary of 1848. Several recent collections on 1848 refer to Europe in the title, but most of the time Europe remains the sum of its nation states.

(Postscriptum: Like so many trades, the historical profession is characterised by the trend towards globalisation. Therefore one might question whether it makes sense in a review to remark on the national backgrounds of contributors or authors. Without wanting to appear pedantic, I have to correct the reviewer when he states in his first paragraph that the authors of the volume are ‘British or German academics, apart from the late Jan Havránek (formerly Professor of Modern Czechoslovak History at the Charles University, Prague) and Simonetta Soldani (Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Florence)’. As a matter of fact, the ten authors of the volume come from six different ‘national’ backgrounds; the ‘British’ and ‘German’ contributors to whom the reviewer refers include a US citizen and an Austrian – an interesting oversight in the context of this particular book, considering that one of the authors of the volume argues that only in the USA did the commemorations of 1848 keep alive the revolutions’ cosmopolitan character. However, to echo Bertholt Brecht, most of the contributors to the volume have ‘crossed the borders more often than they have changed their shoes’, and one should be cautious to draw any conclusions about the intentions of certain chapters solely on the basis of their authors’ passports. I do not deny that the authors’ trans-national identities might actually be the key to the book’s European focus.)

 

Notes

1. Europe in 1848. Revolution and Reform (trans. D. Higgins, Oxford, 2001), ed. D. Dowe, H. -G. Haupt, D. Langewiesche and J. Sperber (first published in German by Dietz in 1998, before the first edition of my volume).