An engraving showing the battle in front of Palermo Cathedral during 1848 Sicilian revolution (Old Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

In 1871, the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt began his lectures on “The Age of the French Revolution” by telling his students that the title of the course was misleading. The age of revolution, he pointed out, was not limited to what happened in France after 1789; it was still going on, indeed “we are perhaps only at the beginning or in the second act.” This revolutionary drama “is unlike anything in world history.”

In the history of revolutions, the upheavals of 1848–49 have a special place. Unlike 1789, which came as a shock to contemporaries, the mid-century revolutions were anticipated by many observers, most memorably by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who sent the text of the Communist Manifesto to the printers just before the first sparks of political violence began to appear. When the revolution arrived, it turned out to be—again unlike 1789—a continental phenomenon, in Christopher Clark’s words, “the only truly European revolution that there has ever been.” Widely anticipated and rapidly extending from the Channel to the Russian border, the revolution dominated European public life from the spring of 1848 to the autumn of 1849. But in the end, its outcome has usually been seen as disappointing. The year 1848 was, as one historian put it, “the turning point where modern history failed to turn.” Among Clark’s many achievements is to demonstrate just how deeply misleading this judgment turns out to be. The revolution of 1848 was many things; “a failure” is most definitely not one of them.

Revolutions, Clark reminds us, “are never just about the dreams of revolutionaries. They unlock the tensions and resentments building within a society, not just the progressive ones.” The first three chapters of Revolutionary Spring examine the underlying tensions and resentments that would shape the revolution’s origins and outcome. First and foremost was a web of social conflicts that inspired radicals, convinced liberals that change was both necessary and possible, and frightened just about everybody else. While Clark is cautious about establishing direct causal links between social unrest and revolutionary action, a widespread sense of social dislocation did nourish the interplay of hope and fear that, in 1848, as in every revolution, was at the heart of the process. By the 1840s, there were many other sources of hope and fear: conflicts about the role of women in public and private life, intense national aspirations and frustrations, unresolved questions about the function of religion in modern culture and the always-vexed relationship of church and state. About these and many other matters, Clark has new and interesting things to say.

Clark begins his account of the revolutionary spring in Palermo, where in early January 1848 printed notices proclaimed that a revolution was scheduled for 12 January. In fact, no revolution was planned for that day; an isolated individual, not a powerful conspiracy of insurrectionists, had posted these proclamations. In Palermo, as in most of the other outbreaks of political upheaval that followed, what happened next was driven by misdirection, misunderstandings, and mistakes: crowds gathered, often more out of curiosity than anything else, troops were mobilized to confront them, and then something—stones hurled from a rooftop, shots fired in panic, barricades hastily erected—set off a cycle of violence. “The strangest thing about the uprising that began on the evening of 12 January,” Clark writes, “is that it was ultimately successful.” Within two weeks of the uprising’s tentative beginnings, Palermo was in the hands of the insurgents; the old regime had apparently collapsed.


Revolutionary impulses spread from the streets of Palermo to one European city after another. The sequence of events differed from place to place, but everywhere deeply rooted tensions and an immediate sense of opportunity and danger inspired the advocates of change and at least temporarily paralyzed the defenders of the status quo. More than any other single cause, the collapse in governments’ confidence in their own right and ability to rule enabled the revolutionaries to triumph that spring. These separate revolutions, Clark argues, did not “cause each other, as the aligned pieces in a domino effect cause their neighbors to fall.” But they were also not independent of one another because all were “rooted in the same interconnected economic space, unfolding within kindred cultural and political orders, and precipitated by processes of socio-political and ideational change that had always been transnationally connected.”

Revolutionary Spring is about a particular historical moment, but it is also about how people’s vision of history shaped their view of the world.

Like their origins, the results of these revolutions were at once separate and connected, the products of particular situations and of a complex web of personal, political, and military relationships. In most of Europe, the revolutionary coalitions that had triumphed in the spring sooner or later began to unravel. Liberals and radicals, united by their discontent with the existing order, eventually discovered that they had very different ideas about what should take its place. As significant as these partisan divisions was a notable waning of revolutionary energy; as often happens, men and women succumbed to the insistent demands of everyday life, in which there were still jobs to be done, crops to be harvested, and children to be fed. At the same time, the forces of order began to realize that they were by no means as weak as they had initially feared. Most important of all, regular armies remained intact, ready and willing to act against the insurgents. In some places, the revolution ended with a whimper, but in others, violence—occasionally intense and destructive violence—was required to restore order. In a brief but moving section on “the dead,” Clark provides some vivid examples of the high price people paid for their participation in the fight for a new world.

Although the revolution did not fulfill the dreams engendered by its early triumph, its significance for Europe’s future was immense. Many of the reforms introduced in 1848, including some of the constitutions promulgated in almost every state, survived. A few, like the Danish Basic Law of June 1848, are still in place. In the revolution’s aftermath, many states introduced new economic policies, strengthened their administrative institutions, and reorganized their urban spaces. There were also important changes in how people viewed the ends and means of political action; in both foreign and domestic politics, a new “realism” was now regarded as essential for success. As important as these results of the revolution were, however, few of them corresponded to the hopes and fears that had prevailed in the revolutionary spring of 1848. As Karl Marx wrote in the winter of 1851, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.” He was writing about Louis Napoleon’s seizure of power in France, but he must also have had in mind the collapse of the optimistic expectations that he had expressed in the Communist Manifesto just three years earlier.

The story of 1848 and 1849 has been told often and well, but never with the breadth and depth of this extraordinary book. By recognizing, though not being overwhelmed by, the enormous complexity of his subject, Clark fulfills Albert Einstein’s aspiration to make things “as simple as possible but not simpler.” His account of the revolution is full of well-chosen examples, those telling events and fascinating personalities that make history such a rich and exciting subject. Finally, we find in these pages a number of compelling insights—about historical causality, the individual’s role in history, the nature of revolutionary change, and more—that encourage the reader to stop and reflect on the wider significance of Clark’s narrative for our understanding of both past and present.

Revolutionary Spring is about a particular historical moment, but it is also about how people’s vision of history shaped their view of the world. The revolutionaries and their opponents had strong convictions about the part they should play in Burckhardt’s great revolutionary drama. The Parisians who tore up cobblestones to build barricades, the parliamentarians who gathered in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche to debate Germany’s future, the reactionary courtiers who tried to stiffen the backbone of their frightened monarch in Berlin—all were moved by both the demands of the present and the apparent lessons of the past. Among the many valuable lessons to be learned from Clark’s book is that in the third decade of the twenty-first century, as in the middle decades of the nineteenth, learning from the past is both inevitable and inevitably difficult to use as a guide for the present. In this respect, as in many others, Clark is right to sense a certain kinship between ourselves and the protagonists of his exciting story. “The people of 1848 could,” he concludes, “see themselves in us.”

Revolutionary Spring
Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849

Christopher Clark
$40 | 896 pp.

Published in the October 2023 issue: View Contents

James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is professor emeritus of history at Stanford University.

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