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The European Revolutions of 1848 and 1989: A Comparative Analysis

The revolutionary years of 1848 and 1989 stand out in modern hi story as unique and extraordinary periods in which essentially spontaneous popular disturbances simultaneously brought down governments. The 1848 revolts were far more widespread than those of 1989, seriously affecting, if one counts all of the then-separate lands of Germany and Italy, about 50 countries in almost all corners of Europe, while the 1989 revolts were confined to about five countries in eastern Europe (with major after shocks to follow over the next three years in Albania and Yugoslavia) . 1848 was also a far more violent year then 1989, costing (if one includes 1849), tens of thousands of lives in battles and another several thousand in executions, not to mention over 100,000 jailed or forced into exile when the reaction came, while in 1989 the loss of life was confined to at most several thousand in Rumania (followed by several thousands more in Yugoslavia).

Yet the commonalities in 1848 and 1989 of background and causation, and the similarity in patterns of development, spont aneity and contagion, not the least of which was the almost immediate collapse of seemingly well-entrenched regimes in both years, go far beyond the bare facts that both years saw widespread upheavals and both witnessed major developments in many of the same cities, such as Prague, Berlin, Leipzig, Budapest and Bucharest. A combination of often fundamentally similar political, economic and nationalistic grievances created both revolutionary years. Anger over long-standing and suffocating forms of pol itical repression was the single most important impetus in both years, as demonstrated by the fact that middle class intellectuals as opposed to starving peasants or urban workers played the key leadership role in almost all of the affected regions (Poland in 1989 and perhaps Albania in 1990-91 are quasi-exceptions) in both 1848 and 1989. In the lands most deeply affected in both years, the regimes were characterized by rigid censorship, bans on political opposition and extensive secret police networ ks. Many of these factors are too well known as part of the key background to 1989 to require any extended comment here (it is reported that the German secret police [Stasi] files weighed 5,000 tons and would have stretched for 100 miles, perhaps giving even American Federal Bureau of Investigation head J. Edgar Hoover a run for the paranoid sweepstakes), but the striking similarity to 1848 requires attention. Rudolf Stadelmann, in his Social and Political History of the German 1848 Revolution< /CITE>, analysed the background to the 1848 revolts as follows:

The heaviest grievance of the nation remained the suppression of the freedom of expression. What caused a deep and apparently implacable rage against the police and military state was constant petty pestering by gendarmes and border officials, the secretaries and the bureaucrats who harassed individuals. . . what bore down on all citizens without distinction was the disgrace of constraint. This was called to mind da ily by the blanked passages of the censor in the newspaper, by the never-ending measures of conscientious state officials and teachers. . . In terms of numbers there were actually not so many, a few hundred perhaps who sat in prisons or were involved in degrading trials. But they were all known and their cause was taken to everyone's heart [shades of Havel and Walesa, now the presidents of Czechoslovakia and Poland]. If Austria and Prussia. . . had allowed public opinion free expression, then, fro m all that we know, Germans would not have relinquished the path of peaceful reform.

Economic grievances were long-simmering and chronic in eastern Europe during the pre-1989 period, while the economic background to the 1848 revolts was especially rooted in the acute crisis of 1845-47. The economic background to 1989 included the combination of far lower living standards in Eastern Europe as compared to the west; a marked slowdown in economic growth, as average increases in GNP collapse d from a respectable 4% or so annually across Eastern Europe in 1960-1980 to a catastrophic 1% or so after 1980; and the frustrations of daily economic life caused by this stagnation, combined with the well-known problems associated with often-incompetent central economic planning and the lack of incentives. In 1848, the economic crisis resulted from the lingering effects of the unprecedented and massive agricultural failures of 1845-47, which in turn set off a serious industrial-commercial crisis as high food prices devastated people's ability to buy anything else. One third of the population of western Germany was on relief by 1847, over a quarter of a million died of starvation and disease in Prussian Silesia and Austrian Galicia, and food riots became common in much of Europe by 1846-47. The nationalistic grievances in 1848 and 1989 were significant but took a back seat to political and economic travail: in 1848 it was anti-Austrian sentiment in Italy, anti-Habsburg sentiment in Prague and Budapest, anti-Russian and anti-Turkish sentiment in Rumania, German-nationalist sentiment in divided Germany and Polish nationalism in partitioned Poland. In 1989 lingering resentment over Russian domination clearly played some role in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, if not much of one in Albania, Bulgaria and Rumania, and German nationalism again played a key role in a once-more divided Germany.

Finally, one must mention the parallel roles played by changes in political leadership. Th e encouraging role played by Mikhail Gorbachev for democratic movements in eastern Europe was extremely important, not only for his reform example in the Soviet Union, but for his increasingly clear hands-off east Europe policy. In the pre-1848 period, the reforms of Pope Pius IX in Rome following his election in 1846, which included an amnesty for political prisoners and an easing of censorship, had a truly catalytic effect in encouraging democratic movement throughout Italy, not to mention creating true despair among conservatives, like Metternich, who lamented, "A liberal pope! That's really something new." Other seemingly more liberal rulers who came to power in several countries as the result of royal deaths in the early 1840s also played a role, especially in Prussia, where the accession of Frederick William IV in 1840 spurred enormous and ultimately futile hopes for reform.

The actual outbreaks and spreads of the 1848 and 1989 revolutions were strikingly similar, marked in both case s by mass demonstrations which spread as if by contagion in 1848 from France and in 1989 from East Germany. Although there were quite serious clashes and significant loss of life in 1848 in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and, above all, in Milan, before regimes capitulated, while in 1989 serious fighting occurred only in Romania, what is striking in both years is how quickly almost all governments gave in, without really using anything like the force they had at their disposal. It is clear that the vast majo rity of the regimes quite simply lost their nerve, having suffered a collapse in confidence that they could, and often one suspects, that they even should, prevail. The first demands and the first concessions almost everywhere in 1848 and 1989 were the granting of various political freedoms, including expansion of the suffrage and the granting of constitutions in 1848, the introduction of multi-party politics and free elections in 1989, and the abolition of censorship and liberation of political priso ners in both years. The results in both cases was an immediate explosion of newspapers and political organizations and a carnival atmosphere celebrating the new liberties. [See article on Civil Liberties and the 1848 Revolution.]. By January, 1990, for example, fifty one political parties had registered in Czechoslovakia; in Hungary the number of private book publishers increased from two or three underground organizations in 1988 to three hundred open publishers in mid-1990; in Poland an estimated six hundred new publications emerged within five months; and even in Romania the number of periodicals quadrupled within one year. One reporter noted in April 1990 that Polish writers were keeping practically every printing press, mimeograph machine and photocopier in Poland working round the clock.

While truly astonishing political progress has been made in post-1989 eastern Europe and marked Europe in 1848, in both cases difficulties quickly arose in the areas of economics and nationalit y conflicts, spawning strikes and other forms of disorder, which collectively soon created a considerable sense of disillusionment and sometimes encouraged or created serious internal division within the new governments. In both 1849 and 1989 the revolutions led to enormous economic uncertainty, with resultant adverse consequences for business confidence and investment, increases in unemployment, rising crime rates (in the first half of 1990 crime rose an estimated 40% in Hungary and 70% in Poland) an d strikes unprecedented in numbers and magnitude. In 1848, the demands for alleviation of the economic grievances of the working class led to the bloody suppression of a working class uprising in Paris in June, with thousands killed, and of labor protests in Berlin and Vienna; such developments led almost everywhere to growing unease among middle class members of the revolutionary coalition, and ultimately to class-based splits within the new reform governments which paved the way for the subsequent r eactions. In the wake of 1989, internal divisions among reform elements have also been serious, especially in Romania, Albania, Poland and Bulgaria (leading to the collapse or electoral ouster of governments all four cases), but except for a few instances in Romania and the tragedy in Yugoslavia they have not been nearly as bloody as in 1848 and have been generally based on potentially compromisable political\ideological differences rather than deep and largely unbridgeable call cleavages.

Nonetheless, clearly the post-1989 East European economic crisis poses the greatest threat to the new regimes; surely it is symbolic that in East Berlin the former secret police headquarters in now and unemployment office. In 1990, according to the best if admittedly not entirely reliable statistics, partly because they are based on comparisons to highly dubious pre-1990 statistics, there was an average decline in GNP 15% across eastern Europe, and 1991 witnessed a further decline of about 10%. Wit h the end of government subsidies of basic commodities, inflation rates averaged about 20% across eastern Europe in 1990, and reached about 40% in 1991. With the closing of inefficient factories and unneeded offices, unemployment rates, in societies which previously guaranteed work and basic social services for all, reached perhaps 10-15% across eastern Europe in 1991 and probably 40% in what used to be East Germany (from which about 10,000 people continued moving west in the following months). Thes e developments have been compounded by worldwide developments such as the recession, the diversion of western interest and money by the Persian Gulf war, less German interest in the rest of eastern Europe because of the economic needs of East Germany, the massive foreign debts owed by some of the east European countries ($40 billion in Poland alone), the needs to virtually overnight rebuild long-mismanaged and decrepit industries to compete in world markets and to earn hard currency due to the loss of former bartering arrangements and guaranteed Soviet and east European markets, and the enormous confusion over laws affecting property ownership investment, taxation and virtually everything else critical for a free market economy.

In both 1848 and 1989, economic turmoil was compounded by rising nationality conflicts. In 1848, the stability of the revolutionary regimes was severely undermined by conflicts which pitted Hungarians against Austrians, Slovaks and Rumanians, Poles versus Germans, and Austrians versus Italians, Czechs and Hungarian. After 1989, Yugoslavia was blown apart by nationality conflicts and Czechs and Slovaks split up the Czechoslovak state; less serious flare-ups have occurred in Polish-German, Hungarian-Rumanian and Hungarian-Slovakian relations.

In 1848, the combined effect of the economic, social class and nationalities conflicts, together with the continued power of reaction in Russia, the failure of the new regimes to gain control of their own armies and bureaucracies (or even to oust, in Austria and the German states, the old monarchies) and the continued strength of monarchical-aristocratic-clerical ideologies in large segments of the population, especially in rural areas, led to the downfalls of the regimes and a new period of harsh reaction by 1849. A similar return to the status quo ante seems inconceivable, however, in contemporary eastern Europe, even though the regimes created in 1989 and afterwards in Romania and Albania (and to a markedly l esser extent in Bulgaria are clearly frail), Yugoslavia has blown apart and it is hard to not see Pilsudski-type tendencies in Poland, particularly given the uncertainty caused by the political splintering reflected in the Polish elections. (On the brighter side, the situation in East Germany is clearly irreversible, the strength of democratic elements in the Czech Republic and Hungary makes a return to authoritarian rule seem unthinkable there also.) Even if democracy breaks down in the more fragile regimes of Albania, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland (and authoritarian regimes remain in power in states of former Yugoslavia) a widespread return to the prior forms of communist totalitarianism is most unlikely. Communism in eastern Europe, which was generally a largely foreign-imposed ideology bolstered and festooned with place holders, corruption and secret police, has been far more discredited in 1989 and the forces for change are correspondingly far stronger than was the case with the pre-1848 reg imes, which were not only based on an ideology cemented with place-holders, corruption and secret police, but were also genuinely rooted in hundreds of years of tradition and gradual historical development. While the bulwarks of the old regime remained largely intact after the 1848 revolutions, communist parties have largely disintegrated in Poland, Hungary and the Czech and Slovak Republics and have been rendered either toothless or appear to have become genuinely transformed in the former East Germa ny, Bulgaria, and the non-Serbian\Montenegrin remnants of Yugoslavia (the situation in Romania and Albania is admittedly still murky in the first years following the turn). The survival of a reactionary Russian Empire ready, able and willing to suppress the 1848 revolts compared to the disintegration of the Soviet Empire and triumph of reform forces in Russian after 1989 is another absolutely critical difference, and even a successful right-wing putschist regime in Russia would probably have its hand s full domestically and be unable to seriously entertain thoughts of east European hegemony. Another major difference between 1848 and 1989 is the existence of an ideologically friendly (if financially stingy) west in 1989, compared to a disinterested Britain and France and an essentially inward-turned United States in 1848. In short, while only a true optimist would expect a stable, peaceful transition to an entirely democratic and prosperous eastern Europe during the last decade of the twentieth ce ntury, a reactionary restoration a la 1848 is just as certainly not in the cards. History may repeat itself in striking bits and pieces but eastern Europe is not about to enter a time warp.

Robert Justin Goldstein

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JGC revised this file (http://www on February 24, 1999.

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© 1999 James Chastain.