When History Ignores a Turning Point: A Series Of Horrible Twists And Turns
07 June 2014
By Amir Taheri
Three years ago, as Egypt and a few other Arab
countries were in the throes of popular revolt, some
of us wondered whether events would turn the way they
did in Europe in 1848.
In that year virtually the whole of continental
Europe, from France to the borders of Russia, was
shaken by a series of revolutions that shook the
autocratic regimes to their foundations. The revolts
had come after a series of setbacks for the regimes
then in place, aggravated by a continent-wide famine
Inspiring unprecedented romantic euphoria, the events
of 1848 were collectively designated the "Spring of
Nations." The Communist Manifesto, a pamphlet penned
by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, appeared in
February 1848, just as the first revolts were brewing
in Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna, Budapest and Prague. The
pamphlet had promised revolution and, thus, it was no
surprise that the events were quickly dubbed the
"European Revolution." Many commentators saw the
events as a "turning point in modern history."
Soon, however, it became clear that both those who
used the label "revolution" and those who spoke of a
"turning point in history" had jumped the gun. A
revolution could be thus named only after it had
happened, not before or even while it was happening.
That year held a promise of revolution, not revolution
itself. The events did hint at a "turning point in
history," but history refused to turn, instead doing a
pirouette that soon returned it to square one.
By 1852, France was back under a dictatorship more
brutal than that of the relatively liberal King Louis
Philippe, who had been overthrown in 1848. In the
Austrian Empire, the military crushed the uprisings
not only in Vienna itself but also in Italy—.then
under Austrian occupation—and Hungary. In Prussia,
using an iron fist, the despotic regime of Frederick
IV consolidated its position while adorning it with a
veneer of pan-German nationalism.
Why did the 1848 uprisings fail to transform into
fully fledged revolutions?
For my part, I have always believed that the 1848
revolutions ended up stillborn for at least four
The first reason was the cowardice of the urban middle
classes who, having started the uprisings, ended up
being terrified by the prospect of the "unwashed
masses" coming to power. A revolution is nice, even
enjoyable, if one can feel safe in one's house, dining
at a well-laden table, reciting poetry and discussing
the future of mankind. However, it becomes dreadful if
the downtrodden barge in for dinner uninvited.
The French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine,
who had romanticized the revolution in its early days,
ended up warning against "the ghost of chaos" that was
haunting Europe. Mankind has always been troubled by
the choice between freedom and security. The events of
1848 promised freedom but threatened security, at
least of the kind the European middle classes
appreciated. They never considered the fact that one
cannot feel secure if one is not free, and vice versa.
As a result, the very figures that had been in the
forefront of "revolution" ended up pleading with the
military to intervene to "stop chaos."
The second reason was the lack of organization behind
the largely spontaneous uprisings. Organized radical
groups, including socialists, anarchists and
Bonapartists, were among the last to join the
uprisings. For a long while they waited and watched
and threw their hats, some of them tricorns, into the
ring after making sure the despots would crumble.
Once the organized groups seized control of the
movement, they quickly turned it into a vehicle for
their own seizure of power and the creation of a new
status quo that would favor them. The situation was
further aggravated when some groups abused the newly
won freedoms to provoke religious and political feuds,
waking up European demons that had been asleep for
That, in turn, frightened the supporters of the ancien
régime, who regrouped and mounted a
The third reason was the realization by the military
elite that they could grab power for themselves.
Having rejected the established order, the middle
classes were prepared to take a gamble with the
military in the hope of achieving stability. That gave
the military a chance to pose as savior of the nation
from both the discredited ancien régime and the
"chaos" engendered by revolution. The fourth reason
was lack of support from the democratic powers of the
day. The British government made much noise in support
of the "legitimate demands" of the continental crowds,
but did nothing to help them. The United States, later
described by Marx as the "best hope of the suffering
masses," did even less.
In contrast, the armies of Tsarist Russia, Imperial
Austria and Prussia were ready for deployment to crush
the promise of revolution at the first opportunity.
A century later, Europe experienced another "Spring of
Nations," with revolts in Communist-controlled Poland,
Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. It was again
"the promise of freedom nipped in the bud," as Václav
Havel described it.
In the short and medium terms, the European experience
of 1848 was a failure. In the longer run, however, it
shook the foundations of autocracy, created an
appetite for democracy, and rendered the old European
model of imperial state obsolete. From then on,
despite a series of horrible twists and turns, the
course of European history was set by a growing desire
for the rule of law, power-sharing, pluralism and
respect for human rights.
In Europe in 1848, like the Middle East in 2013,
history ignored its turning point, but only for a
while, not knowing it would have to turn somewhere
else down the road.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and
educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive
Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79).
In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday
Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the
Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI).
Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the
Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York
Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique
Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between
1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German
daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of
which have been translated into 20 languages. He has
been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987.
Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published
by Encounter Books in London and New York.