Historians and Politics in 1848

by Mauro Moretti

Shortly after Johann Gustav Droysen joined the University of Berlin, during the winter semester of 1861–62 he devoted a considerable number of his lectures to the period between 1848 and 1852. In a letter to his son, he noted the difficulty of talking with ‘calm and pragmatism’ about events in which he had been involved. In 1848–49 Droysen had in fact been a deputy in the National Assembly of Frankfurt, where he had defended its attributions and powers with a view to a German constitution. On reconsidering those events, which retrospectively assumed more than a political significance, Droysen declared himself increasingly convinced that history was ‘eine praktische Wissenschaft’ [a practical science] both complex and dense with implications. He may have been thinking of his acrimonious exchange with Ranke at Berlin. Ranke, who approved the refusal of the imperial crown by Frederick William IV, had then said to Droysen ‘Sie verstehen die Geschichte nicht!’ [You understand nothing of history!]. Droysen’s reply was no less brusque: ‘It will be history that shows who understands better, you or me!’

Other German historians, of greater or lesser repute, were deputies at the 1848–49 Assembly: Gervinus, Sybel, Dahlmann, and Waitz, for example, as well as Karl Hagen, a professor at Heidelberg, and Wilhelm Adolf Schmidt, who taught at Zürich before returning to Germany to take up a post at Jena. Not all the historian deputies militated in the liberal-constitutional centre of the assembly as members of the ‘Casino-Partei’ formed largely of academics. Some of them – Dahlmann, Droysen, Waitz – sat on the thirty-member constitutional committee, and made significant contributions to its work. The final failure of the assembly did not diminish its impact in mobilizing and orientating the intellectuals. The Frankfurt Parliament was certainly the most important collective experience for historians during the revolutionary biennium of 1848–49. A large part of the intellectual elite had acted with clear anti-revolutionary and anti-republican intent; and the emergence among the better-known historians of a ‘Kleindeutsch’, Prussian, constitutional, and Protestant stance was one of the most significant outcomes of their participation – although other German historians, for instance Gervinus and Mommsen, kept their distance in various ways. Other significant historiographical and national events rotated around the Frankfurt Parliament: suffice it to mention the refusal of the Bohemian historian František Palacký to attend, as well as the numerous issues connected with the decline of the greater Germany line and the relationship with Austria.

It is not inappropriate to cite at the origins of the 1848 French Revolution the names of three historians: François Guizot, Adolphe Thiers, and Jules Michelet. The course taught by Jules Michelet at the Collège de France had been suspended on 31 December 1847 by ministerial decree; and Guizot, from September 1847, had been head of the French government. Also suspended were the courses held by the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, and by another French scholar, the historian and literate Edgar Quinet. In a lecture delivered on 23 December 1847, Michelet had spoken thus of the Revolution: ‘It offers you what no people of the world yet possesses, a legend of national unity.’ Moreover, Michelet had invited his students not merely to read books about the Revolution but to pay attention to the voices in the streets still crowded by witnesses – tireless sixtyand seventy-year-olds who thronged the Paris thoroughfares engaging in every sort of traffic – and talk to them, those ‘men of courage and patience’. Thus the students could learn the many things living and unwritten that it was important for them to know. The streets would soon retake the floor. Michelet warned the administrator of the Collège de France in a letter of 3 January 1848. His teaching – he wrote – imparted moral and social pacification, while the government instead opened the tribunes and universities to the enemies of thought. In those days, the personal destinies of the three scholars interwove.

Guizot had been one of the political protagonists of the July Monarchy: minister of the interior, of education, and then of foreign affairs from 1840 to 1847, he had achieved power at a critical juncture. He had then been sacrificed by Louis-Philippe, but to no avail, in face of the first popular uprisings of February 22.

Adolphe Thiers, for brief periods head of the government in 1836 and 1840, and one of Guizot’s main adversaries, then unsuccessfully sought, together with other exponents of the dynastic opposition, to save the monarchy from collapse. Guizot was forced into brief exile in Great Britain. On his return to France a year later, he entirely abandoned public life and devoted himself to writing.

Also Thiers, but as a consequence of the Bonapartist coup d’état of December 1851, was arrested and forced into brief exile; but he continued his role in French political life until the early 1870s as an opponent of the war with Prussia, a repressor of the Paris Commune, and provisional president, from 1871 to 1873, of the Third French Republic. Whereas Quinet, in the uniform of the National Guard, had entered the Tuileries Palace, Michelet had not taken part in the uprisings; his name appeared in a first list of the members of the provisional government, but he was not thereafter included. As a supporter of the provisional government, Michelet was the protagonist of an imposing ceremony held on 6 March 1848, in the amphitheatre of the Sorbonne, to celebrate his reinstatement to his chair. Quinet was also present on the podium. Michelet made a speech in which he alluded to oppressed Poland, starved Ireland, Germany controlled by censorship, and Italy poised between life and death.

Two days later, in Turin, Cesare Balbo became head of the first constitutional government of the Kingdom of Sardinia. He was one of the most eminent Italian historians of the time; in 1846 he had published a synthesis of Italian history which had achieved notable success. On 3 March of that year, Michele Amari had returned to Palermo. The historian of the Sicilian Vespers, and future author of an essential history of the Moslems of Sicily, and in exile since 1842, Amari had attended Michelet’s course at the Collège de France. After his return to Sicily, he assumed various government posts, and until May 1849 he sought to defend at least the constitution and Sicilian independence from Naples. He then returned to exile in France. At Milan, Carlo Cattaneo, an insurgent against the Austrians on March 1848, an essayist and historian of federalist and democratic persuasion, assumed military leadership of the revolt. After the defeat of the Italian national movement, he was exiled to Switzerland, where he began a collection of documents and testimonies on the Italian events of 1846–49, published between 1850 and 1855.

Moretti, M. (2010). Historians and Politics in 1848. In L. Raphael & I. Porciani (Eds.), Atlas of European Historiography. The Making of a Profession 1800-2005 (pp. 8–9). Palgrave.




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