Europe between 1850 and World War One:  Mass Politics and State Authority


Conservative reaction after 1848

One case in which these issues can be seen is England.

• Failure of the Chartist Movement to win political reforms and extend voting rights in 1840s.

• Loose coalition of left liberals, radical republicans, and socialists push for voting reform in 1850s

• Conservative Party (Tories) led by Disraeli push for even wider voting reforms in late 1850s, based on belief that the lower classes are basically conservative and nationalistic, and will support Tories if they promote imperialism/patriotism

Another case is Prussia (northern Germany)

Another case is France under Louis Napoleon Bonaparte

The Crimean War (1854-56) came in the middle of this decade of conservative reaction.

1860s: A decade of conservative-led change

Reforms in Russia. In early 1860s, the new Tsar Alexander II led a series of major reforms with the aim of building up Russia’s economy and military. These included:

Three crucial ideas to keep in mind about these reforms:

1) they were change “from above,” by the Autocratic regime, in an effort to keep Russia and world power and preserve the system of Autocratic rule

2) they did successfully accelerate the processes of capitalist economic development and urbanization in Russia, together with all of the social changes that go along with such processes (the growth of new social classes, etc.)

3) the limited and often contradictory nature of these reforms (serfs freed but with little land and required to pay the state for emancipation, local governments created but given no real decision making authority, attempt to build rule of law at the same time as continued centralized control of Autocratic regime that was not limited by any constitution, etc) would contribute to great social and economic tensions. This helps explain the revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917. Radical intellectuals saw these reforms as disappointing half-measures that kept the system of Autocracy (the Russian form of Absolutism) in place.  As a result, a radical revolutionary movement began to emerge in Russia in the 1860s.


Italian Unification:

In 1848, liberal movement for Italian unification led by radical nationalists like G. Mazzini. When (incomplete) unification finally occurred, it was largely the result of efforts by Conservative statesman Count Cavour of Piedmont-Sardinia.

In the late 1858 Cavour together with Louis Napoleon’s France launched a war against Austrian control over much of Northern Italy. (LNB wanted to weaken Austria and wanted some territorial gains [ Nice]). But in 1859, LNB backed out of the war (in part afraid of political conflict with the Vatican). Cavour’s war with Austria was largely successful, but Italy was still divided into multiple kingdoms.

Cavour did not want to work with the more radical nationalist groups, because he feared any potential for social revolution led by liberals (and especially by socialists). But in 1860 in the southern parts of Italy, the leftist nationalist leader Garibaldi led a successful rebellion/war against the Bourbon monarchy in Sicily and in southern Italy.

The division between the supporters of Cavour and those of Garibaldi was based on two major issues: should a united Italy be a centralized state (Cavour’s view) or a federation; and should unification leave the old aristocratic ruling class and the wealthiest elements of the bourgeoisie in power (Cavour’s position). To cut off Garibaldi’s advance, Cavour invaded central Italy (including the Papal States) in August 1860 (with support from France). [ forces soon had to withdraw from the Papal States] He then pressured Garibaldi into accepting the annexation of the south into a “united” Italy under the control of Piedmont-Sardinia.

The Piedmontese King, Victor Emmanual , now became the constitutional monarch of a “united” Italy. The new government was based upon a highly centralized state system (with Turin as the capital), with the institutions of Piedomont imposed on the rest of the country. In practice, though, the country was hardly unified; deep regional loyalties and rivalries remained, the country was far from any kind of cultural “national” unity, and the danger of rebellion against the center was considerable.  Still, what Cavour had done was achieve “unity” from “above,” without any social revolution that would have disrupted the power of existing elites.


Germany and unification in the 1860s:

The revolutions of 1848 had failed to unify Germany. In Prussia, King Fredrich Wilhelm had restored monarchical rule and established a new “authoritarian” constitutional system (previous lecture). Germany would be unified around Prussia in the 1 860s, as a result of the efforts of King Wilhelm I and his brilliant conservative minister Otto von Bismarck.

The death of Fredrich Wilhem in 1861 brought to Prussian throne Wilhelm I, who believed that Prussia would united Germany through its military and economic dominance.  In 1861-62, Wilhelm’s attempts to institute a new military buildup were blocked by liberals in the legislature, who feared it would further strengthen the Junkers (and who wanted a “citizens’ army”). This led to a constitutional crisis.  Wilhelm appointed Bismarck, a conservative Junker, as his prime minister. Bismarck dissolved the parliament, repressed the left liberals, divided the opposition by making promises of concessions to the right liberals, and in this was controlled the legislature by the end of 1862.  Bismarck laid out his agenda for unification in his 1862 “blood and iron” speech. Unification through military and economic might and ultra nationalism. The key question was, would Germany unite around Prussia in North or Austria in South?. The Prussians under Bismarck quickly strengthened their trade agreements with northern German states. But unifying the rest of Germany would require war.

In 1866, a conflict with Austria over who would politically dominate the territory of Holstein gave Bismarck a chance to whip up ultra-nationalistic fervor in northern Germany in favor of war. Prussia easily defeated Austria, which cemented its dominance in the north. But Catholic southern German states resisted Prussian dominance and would not join the new German confederation. Bismarck had united northern Germany without any social revolution, in a way that put the Prussian elites in power. Now, to do the same over the south, he would use a war against France, in 1870-71.


Louis Napoleon and France in the 1860s:

Support for Louis Napoleon began to disappear in the mid-1860s, due to conflicts with the Catholic Church and the small business community and the re-emerging radicalism of the workers movement. In response, and facing opposition from liberals in the parliament, LNB made a series of concessions (e.g., he restored freedom of press and limited free public assembly in 1868 and accepted parliamentary review of government policies in July 1869). The new constitution of 1870 made significant concessions to parliament, but it also recognized Louis Napoleon as the head of state. Parliament began asserting its independence in early 1870, in particular over issues of foreign policy. Parliament and LNB competed with each other to appear “tougher” on the issue of Spanish succession, in which France opposed Prussia’s efforts to place a member of Prussian King Wilhelm’s family on the Spanish throne. Both factions in French politics hoped to use confrontation with Prussia as a tool to secure their own domestic political goals.


The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71:

On 19 July 1870, France declared war on Prussia. The war was a disaster for France, and after several major military defeats, LNB removed the Premier appointed by parliament and again assumed control over all aspects of government. On 2 September 1870, LNB was captured at the front in yet another French defeat. On 4 September, the parliament declared France a Republic (the Third Republic) and formed a “Government of National Defense.” But on 19 September, the Prussians placed Paris under a state of siege. The city was blockaded and starved.

On 2 January 1871, the French government capitulated to Prussia, and asked that it be allowed to hold new elections before signing the peace treaty. Elections were held on 8 February, and a National Assembly began meeting on 12 February. On 23 February 1871, the Assembly appointed an old Liberal leader (Thiers) to form a new government. On 26 February, Thiers signed a peace treaty with the German Empire that 1) gave Germany 500 sq. miles of economically important territory (Alsace and Lorraine), with a population of 1.5 million; 2 required that France pay an indemnity. Under the treaty, German troops were to occupy Paris on 1 March 1871.


The Paris Commune:

On 18 March, the remaining population of Paris and the Paris National Guard refused to disarm and allow the Germans to enter the city. When ordered to do so by the government, they rebelled and seized control over the city. Thiers and the government then fled. On 19 March the people of Paris began elections for the Paris Commune, an absolutely democratic self-government. All men voted, and in most districts women voted, too. The Commune began meeting on 28 March: in addition to organizing the defense of the city, the Commune also instituted a large number of democratic social reforms. On 6 April 1871, the French government and army attacked the Commune. The Communards defended the city successfully until 21 May, when the army broke its way into the city. A week of bloody fighting followed, and on 28 May 1871 the last fighters of the Commune were killed. Over 100,000 people were then arrested: many were executed, and thousands were exiled. This was the last major popular uprising in France until the 1960s.  On 31 August 1871, Thiers was selected as President of the Third Republic. He would be overthrown by conservative General MacMahonon in 1873. Political dominance of the Third Republic would thereafter bounce back and forth between conservatives and right-liberals.


German Unification and Its Challenges:

In 1870-71, Bismarck and King Wilhelm used the Franco-Prussian War to pull the remaining southern principalities (except Austria) into a united German Empire. The German Empire was declared on 21 January 1871.

Bismarck initially sought broad political support for unification by appealing to center-liberal political factions. But when in 1873 the world economy went into a depression (known world-wide at the time as the “Great Depression”), and the German middle class moved further to the right in its political sentiment, Bismarck abandoned his policy of compromise with liberals and built a political of the center-right and far right. This political alignment would dominate Germany through World War One.

Social tensions in the united Germany

Policies to Promote Conservative Stability in the German Empire, 1871-1914

This combination of policies may have prevented social tensions in Germany from boiling over into revolution. But they also helped reinforce the authoritarian aspects of German political culture, promoted ultra nationalism and intolerance towards minorities, and helped push Germany along the path that would lead to World War One, as we will see in a later lecture.