The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848

By Paul W. Schroeder | Go to book overview

17
The Shadow of Revolution, 1841-1848

DOMESTIC affairs dominated Europe in the 1840s. Until the 1848 revolutions and the international conflicts they spawned, there appeared to be few, if any, major developments in international relations. Those that occurred seem important only in portending and setting the stage for these revolutions, representing, as it were, creaks and groans in an ageing building at the first tremors of a coming earthquake.

The generalization is sound, but like most it can be taken too far. Some international developments, though unsensational, had important effects. A small revolt and civil war in Switzerland effected a permanent change in Switzerland's constitution and its international position. Britain and France, after some improvement in their relations, became opponents over an apparently trivial issue and remained so at a time when co-operation between them could have made a real difference both for them and for Europe. The joint suppression of a small Polish revolt by the Holy Alliance powers preserved their alliance at a time when it might have split apart without endangering European peace, as its breakdown would do later. Some developments of the 1840s, in international commerce, for example, pointed not towards trouble and revolution but towards peace and progress.

Yet the generalization holds: not much happened in international politics before 1848, and what did happen looks like a prologue to the main revolutionary drama. A further comment may be useful, however. The international developments of the 1840s were significant, not because they signalled that revolutions were on the way or indicated why they would occur. On these scores they are largely redundant; no revolutions were more widely foreseen or are more readily explained than those of 1848. They were and still are significant instead in giving clues as to why the d revolutions had the results they did, particularly in international politics. To be more specific, the international events of the 1840s help us understand why the revolutions, which attacked the Metternich system and the Vienna system with equal force, would succeed

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