1848: A Turning Point?

1848: A Turning Point?

1848: A Turning Point?

1848: A Turning Point?

Excerpt

"1848 was the turning point at which modern history failed to turn." So runs the famous dictum of G. M. Trevelyan, the renowned English historian, summing up the revolutionary movements of the mid-nineteenth century.

Such a statement immediately raises fundamental problems about the very nature of history: Does history move in- evitably in certain directions? Can history be personified and said to be consciously following a certain route, as the great German philosopher Hegel would have it? Can history be regarded in such humanized terms that it might be considered capable of misreading the signposts and thus fail to take the proper turns? And if this be so, can the historian claim to know in which direction history may be moving? Can he determine when history is following along its preordained track or is temporarily derailed?

Fascinating as such abstract speculations regarding the nature of history and histori- cal knowledge may be, it would probably be wrong to read such implications into Trevelyan's well-known remark. Instead, he was merely summarizing in metaphorical terms his interpretation of the events of 1848 in relation to preceding and subse- quent events. Believing that political and social developments during the first half of the nineteenth century had made it possible for mankind to turn from despotism to freedom, Trevelyan found the insurrection- ary outbursts of 1848 to represent a crucial point in such a transition; to him the re- establishment of autocratic rule throughout Europe in the 1850's indicated that although 1848 seemed destined to be a turning point --in fact, history failed to turn.

But not all historians would agree with Trevelyan's interpretation of the develop- ments leading up to the revolutions of 1848 and their impact on the subsequent course of events. Indeed, it is precisely on these points that historians differ most in their views of the meaning and significance of 1848, and it is on this very question of historical interpretation that this selection of readings is focused. Making use of Trevelyan's metaphorical concepts we are here concerned chiefly with the following questions: If history can be said to travel along certain lines, just exactly what path was it following prior to 1848? Was 1848 a possible turning-point or a mere halt by the side of the road? If history did change its course in 1848, did it turn in the direc- tion anticipated by the historians? The answers to these questions are not simple, for they require knowledge and under- standing not only of the events of the 1848 period themselves, but also of their connec- tion with the developments before and after this brief era of revolutionary outbreaks.

If, on January 1, 1848, a man in the street had been asked, "Which way is Europe going?" he might well have replied, "Nowhere in particular," for the social and political map of Europe appeared much the same as it had been after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. With the exception of France, Belgium, and England (where po- litical changes in the 1830's had resulted in the establishment of liberal but not democratic states), most of Europe lived under regimes of political repression, auto-

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