Saturday, 28 February 2015

Europe after 1848: conservatism and change

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. 


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 per cent of the male population). But the king’s authoritarian tendencies were controlled by his more 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 and economically advanced state in Italy.

Following the failures of the Roman and Venetian Republics, Italian patriots were increasingly considering the idea of uniting Italy under a ruling dynasty - and this had to be the House of Savoy (the monarchy of Piedmont/Sardinia). However, though before 1848 Cavour had advocated Italian unification through his newspaper, the Risorgimento, in the early 1850s he showed little interest in the question. The king was hostile to the idea – he had little concept of 'Italy' and his spoken Italian was poor.


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 of the eighteenth-century emperor 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.


Otto von Manteuffel
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 latest book on the subject is Orlando Figes' The Last Crusade. For a review see here. 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 Ottoman 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 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, somewhat surprisingly, Piedmont entered the war on the allied side in the hope of winning some rewards in the peace settlement. Many of the the Piedmontese soldiers died of cholera and Piedmont made no contribution to the war.

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 when 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. By 1856 she was dangerously exposed, having few friends.

The Crimean War achieved little but it destroyed the Vienna system. 

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