Sunday, February 07, 2010

Europe post 1848: the new conservatism

This post and the subsequent ones are indebted to two text-books in particular: Robert Gildea, Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914, 3rd edn. (Oxford University Press, 2003) and Michael Rapport, Nineteenth-Century Europe (Palgrave, 2005).

Europe post 1848: the New Conservatism
After 1848 the conservative order re-asserted itself, but it did not simply restore the old order. The growing pace of economic and social change made this impossible. The international scene also grew more threatening. Between 1848 and 1878 a series of wars reshaped Europe and destroyed the Vienna settlement.

France under Napoleon III
Following the failure of the Second Republic, France swung to the right. In December 1848, Napoleon's nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-73) was elected President with 70% of the votes cast. On the night of 1-2 December 1851 he mounted a coup against the Assembly, arresting royalist and republican leaders. A plebiscite gave him overwhelming popular approval (7.5m/640,000 with 1.5m abstentions). A year later after a further referendum, he was proclaimed Emperor Napoleon III and his rule made hereditary.

His regime can be seen as both authoritarian and populist, combining the legitimacy provided by elections, with social reform and a programme of economic development.

The constitution of January 1852 had given him sweeping powers including the exclusive right to initiate legislation. Elections were held every six years based on universal male suffrage, but the government designated ‘official’ candidates and harassed opponents. The ranks of the National Guard (the citizens’ militia) were reduced, cafés had to be licensed and the press was censored.

France was a deeply divided country politically. Bonapartists were a minority. On the right there were Legitimists, who wanted the restoration of the Bourbons and were arguably the largest single party and Orleanists who supported the heir of Louis Philippe; on the left republicans. The right supported Napoleon for fear of something worse. Orleanists dominated the National Assembly and supported Napoleon mainly from a fear of anarchy. Many Catholics welcomed the coup but the Church still harboured Legitimists. Nevertheless the dynasty seemed secure when Napoleon’s beautiful Spanish wife, Eugénie, presented him with a son, the Prince Imperial, in 1856.

The regime veered between repression and liberalization. Strikers and members of republican societies were arrested. But in 1854 the regime loosened up and republican journals began to appear. In the 1857 elections, republicans polled half a million votes. But Orsini’s bomb plot (see post on Italian unification) in January 1858 brought in a new wave of repression, with 500 people being deported to Algeria.

Napoleon was fond of referring to himself as a socialist, by which he meant he pursued a vigorous policy of state intervention to promote rapid economic growth.

Piedmont was the only Italian state to emerge with a constitution in 1848 though this was no thanks to the young King Victor Emmanuel II, who had succeeded his father on his abdication. The suffrage was restricted to property owners and who passed a literacy test (8% of the male population). But the king’s authoritarian tendencies were controlled by his liberal prime ministers. Their policies were to curb the influence of the Church, to stimulate economic development and to rule (more or less!) with parliament. In 1852 the centre-right Count Camillo di Cavour (1810-61) became Prime Minister and his policies made Piedmont the most liberal state in Italy.

Before 1848 Cavour had advocated Italian unification through his newspaper, the Risorgimento but in the early 1850s he showed little interest in the question. The king was hostile to the idea – his father had been forced to abdicate because of his premature support and his defeats at the hands of the Austrians.

In 1851 the German Confederation was restored under Austrian leadership. The Austrian Empire under Franz Joseph I (1830-1916) was a very conservative state, ruled by a uniform system in which in theory no nationality would enjoy special privileges but in practice German would be the common language. Some Joseph II’s secularizing reforms were rolled back and the state relinquished some of its responsibilities over marriage, law and education to the Church. The monarchy was unable to eliminate the sense of grievance among the various nationalities. The Italians of Lombardy and Venetia were especially restive.


Prussia’s rapid economic growth after 1850 convinced even conservatives that there would have to be changes. This did not mean a conversion to liberalism. A constitution was proclaimed on 31 January 1850 but it was entirely authoritarian, with ministers responsible to the king alone. The chief minister, Otto von Manteuffel believed that all institutions should be subject to the will of the government. The police in Berlin were put under military orders and were to report on every aspect of political and social life. But more peasants were relieved of seigneurial obligations in an attempt to forestall rural violence and to break the political power of the junkers.

The underlying political problem in the German Confederation was the struggle for influence between Austria and Prussia.

The Crimean War, 1853-6
The primary causes of the Crimean war lay in the ‘Eastern Question’, the political tensions arising from the decline of the Ottoman Empire, ‘the sick man of Europe’. It was ostensibly a dispute between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox clergy over access to the holy places in Palestine. This masked a more general fear of Russian expansion towards the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Both Britain and France were acutely concerned in the Eastern Question. The Russian expansion southwards towards the Bosphorus and into the Caucasus was matched by British expansion into India and for this reason British policy was to back Turkey (the Ottomon Empire). Napoleon III resented his parvenu status in Europe and was particularly resentful of Tsar Nicholas I’s disdain (he refused to call him 'brother'). He was the first French ruler since 1815 committed to undoing the Vienna settlement and he was determined to redraw the map of Europe in France’s favour. For this reason he wished to play the tsar at his own game – the protection of religious minorities – and presented himself as the protector of the Holy Land. At the same time the tsar saw himself as the protector of the 10 million Christians within the Ottoman Empire and believed that he could count on Austrian support in the dispute - though this was a fatal miscalculation. In Russia, France, Britain and Turkey there was strong support for war.

The war began with belligerent moves in the summer of 1853. In June Britain and France assembled their fleets in the Black Sea. In July Russia invaded the Romanian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. On 4 October Turkey declared war on Russia. The Russian sinking of a Turkish fleet at Sinope (see above) on 30 November brought Britain and France into the war in March 1854. The two hegemonic powers of 1815 – Britain and Russia – were now on opposite sides. In January 1855 Piedmont entered the war on the allied side in the hope of winning some rewards in the peace settlement.

The war was ended by the Treaty of Paris in 1856. The main provisions were:
  1. The neutralization of the Black Sea was confirmed, with its waters being opened up to the commercial vessels of the world;
  2. Both Turkey and Russia were forbidden to maintain any sort of military arsenal or dockyard along its shores;
  3. Some Russian territory in Bessarabia at the mouth of the Danube was ceded to Moldavia while the Danube itself was opened up and all nations were given freedom of navigation along it.
Considering its predicament, Russia did not come out too badly from the negotiations. The terms of the treaty hardly put a stop to Russian expansion and barely three years from the Treaty Russia was making extensive land conquests between the Black and Caspian Seas and then the Franco-Prussian War broke out she repudiated the Treaty altogether.

Austria remained neutral yet it influenced the course of the war. Angered at the Russian invasion of the Romanian provinces it mustered its forces and forced a withdrawal in August 1854. The Austro-Russian alliance forged during the Napoleonic wars was now over. Yet Austria also angered Britain and France by refusing to intervene.

The Crimean War destroyed the Vienna system. The main beneficiaries were France and Piedmont. The main loser turned out to be, not Russia, but Austria.