The similarities between the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt last spring and the ones in Europe in 1848 are striking. In the early months of 1848, the sclerotic and reactionary political systems that the European monarchs had developed after Napoleon Bonaparte's 1815 defeat collapsed. Prince Klemens Wenzel Metternich, who was the state chancellor of the Austrian empire and a symbol of the despised old order, slipped out of Vienna on March 15 as an angry mob marched in. Along with Metternich, the Austrian empire's 23-year-old repressive dictatorship vanished. In Italy, France, and the German states, the old order crumbled as well. The scene was not unlike that of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's own flight from Tunis 163 years later and the wave of revolutions across the Middle East that followed. In both cases, the crowds in the streets were glad to see the dictators go but unclear on the social and political orders that should replace them.
The revolutionaries of 1848 had a model on which to base their fight: the French Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which the French National Assembly approved in 1789, had laid the groundwork for upheavals to come. It declared: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good." This doctrine was social dynamite. "The gradual development of the principle of equality is, therefore, a providential fact," the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote later, "and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress."
Napoleon spread the ideas of the enlightenment and revolution to the European continent at large, usually at bayonet point. Between 1800 and 1815, he consolidated control over an expanding empire by replacing traditional, often unwritten, legal codes with rational, written ones and replacing old administrative districts with new. "Careers open to the talented" -- Napoleon's answer to that great French demand for equality of opportunity -- turned provincial lawyers into statesmen and drummer boys into marshals of the empire.
After Napoleon's defeat, the violent political and social upheavals of his era were not forgotten. When the revolutions of 1848 broke out three decades later, many expected them to follow the same template -- universal suffrage, followed by revolutionary upheavals, followed by Jacobin terror. There was some basis for this belief: In the midst of the upheavals, the "springtime of nations," as it came to be called, another Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, returned from exile. On the strength of his name, he was elected president of the French Republic in 1848 by an overwhelming margin. He won 5,434,226 votes. The second-most popular candidate, General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, the man who crushed the workers' rising of June 1848, won 1,448,107.
Yet Otto von Bismarck, then a representative in the newly created Prussian legislature, did not expect the terror and Napoleonic expansion to come again. In a letter to his brother in March 1848, he wrote, "As long as the present government in Paris can hold on, I do not believe there will be war, doubt that there's any urge to it," continuing that "the motives of 1792, the guillotine, and the republican fanaticism . . . are not present." From his remote outpost in Prussia, Bismarck saw that the forces of change were no longer those of the original uprisings in 1789. The leaders of Paris in 1848 were imitating what they had read in books. In Tocqueville's memorable phrase, "The whole thing seemed to me to be a bad tragedy played by actors from the provinces."
Even as the conservatives at the court of the irresolute King Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia gathered their forces to stop the uprising and prevent universal suffrage, Bismarck saw that the vote could be the king's greatest resource. In voting for Louis Napoleon, he believed, the people of France had selected the one candidate who stood for order. A decade later, he astounded his benefactor, General Leopold von Gerlach, by his bold acceptance of democracy. In 1848, he noted, "Louis Napoleon did not create the revolutionary conditions . . . he did not rebel against an established order, but instead fished it out of the whirlpool of anarchy as nobody's property. If he were now to lay it down, he would greatly embarrass Europe, which would more or less unanimously beg him to take it up again."
What Bismarck had in mind, however, was not true democracy but something capable of appeasing the crowds, some of democracy's institutional forms safely tempered by a monarchical constitution and an army loyal to the king. In 1848, the European emperors and kings, nervous as they were, could count on the loyalty of their soldiers. The generals and the officer corps all belonged to the high aristocracy or the gentry and owed their status to the monarchy. The armed forces and the crowned commanders in chief were thus mutually dependent. As the Prussian general Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg said to Prince Wilhelm, "If your Royal Highness deprives me and my children of my rights, what is the basis of yours?"
Meanwhile, most of the foot soldiers were peasants. Like the aristocracy, they had little love for the loud and enthusiastic middle classes whose revolution they had to quell. When they tried to bring order to narrow streets in town centers, the contents of chamber pots and boiling water rained down on them. Most European cities had no proper local police, and the armies of the old regimes had no experience fighting in the streets. For want of an alternative, the generals withdrew the troops from city centers to figure out what to do next.
Across Europe, revolutionaries filled the resulting power vacuum with speeches and draft constitutions. But reactionary forces had already started to gather. The upheavals had not reached as far as the Russian empire, and Czar Nicholas I moved his huge army westward. The Austrian emperor, backed by Nicholas and the Croatian general Count Josip Jelačić, began to crack down on the Hungarian revolution. Meanwhile, Austrian General Joseph Radetzky moved in to defeat the Italian revolutionaries, and the French general Louis-Eugène Cavaignac mobilized the Parisian middle classes to crush the social movement in the Parisian slums.