(Photo credit – Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, 1849 – Wikimedia Commons)
Until 1871, no one in continental Europe or anywhere in the world with knowledgeable connections to Europe, as in North America or areas under European domination in other continents, questioned that the greatest European power after the United Kingdom was France. Britain, as unchallenged mistress of the world’s oceans and the wealthiest nation on earth, was in a class by itself. Despite all France’s tumultuous peregrinations from one regime to another, France was still the continental power most to be reckoned with in case of conflict or threatened conflict anywhere in Europe.
In 1848, an incredible series of revolutions and near revolutions had shaken Europe’s established order of Kingdoms and Empires, catalyzed once more by the French overthrow of the latest (and last) King and the establishment of The Second French Republic. The effects of that political earthquake shattered the ultra-Conservative control of Europe’s political and social life which had been imposed from on high in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, and which had been enforced since then by the Holy Trinity of Autocracy, Austria, Russia, and Prussia.
Chinks in the Vienna order had inevitably appeared. When the Belgians revolted against the repressive royal regime of the Netherlands in 1830, the Three Autocrats pressured France’s new “Bourgeois King”, Louis-Philippe, to send in French troops to crush this violation of sanctioned order. Great Britain stepped in and “suggested” to the French that this would be most unwise, for the British intended to support Belgian independence. When Prussia threatened to come to the aid of the Dutch to crush this revolution, Britain and France jointly declared that Belgium would become a recognized neutral state and convened a convention in London to which all the Great Powers were signatories guaranteeing Belgium’s territorial integrity and political neutrality in any future great power disputes.
The Belgian episode was not even the first time the Congress of Vienna’s guarantee of the sacrosanctity of the Old Autocratic Order had been set aside. Greece had revolted against Ottoman tyranny in 1821, and the Turkish repression was so brutal that Western volunteers, filled with sympathy for the birthplace of ancient classic culture, one of the cornerstones of the West’s identity, joined the Greek rebels by the hundreds, as in a modern crusade against heathen Turks of old. The Autocrats at first declared hands off, for if rebels were justified in one place in overthrowing tyranny, how could they consistently repress the incipient liberalization movements within their own borders while encouraging them in another just because they happened to be Greeks. Besides, the ancient Greeks had been too close to democracy at their pinnacle, and they could hardly support that.
However, the British were not bound by “The Holy Alliance” or Austrian Foreign Minister Metternich’s post-Vienna machinations to crush any sign of rebellion and revolution anywhere on European soil. Sympathy for the Greeks in France was high as well. Disgusted and pressured by public opinion to take a hand in ending the genocide and massacres taking place in Greece and among Christian subjects of the Ottomans outside of Greece, in 1827 British and French Mediterranean squadrons were sent to “observe” off the coast of Greece. In the course of its patrols and “observations” near the Isle of Hydra at Navarino, they sank the Turkish-Egyptian Fleet which was carrying large reinforcements to the hard-pressed Turkish forces in the Morea.
Not to be outdone, and confessing a new conscience about allowing their Greek “brothers in the Orthodox faith” to be massacred by Muslim infidels, Russia declared war on Turkey, breaking ranks with Austria and Prussia, which had sworn neutrality. This war lasted till 1829, and one of its peace provisions, once more insisted on by British intervention, as the British were alarmed by Russian ambitions to capture and control Istanbul, was to recognize Greek independence. Austria was also alarmed by Russian expansionism into the Balkans, where Austria had her sights set as well. Russia was warned to scale back its demands on Turkish territory and accept Greece’s independence. The overall effect was the shattering of the Holy Alliance and the isolation of Russia.
With the Holy Alliance now thoroughly broken as of 1830, and the Vienna Congress order badly shaken, the Poles rose against Russia to regain their independence in late 1830. In 1831a full-blown war erupted after initial Polish success.
There was a large Polish émigré community in France, and especially in Paris, as there had been since Napoleon’s time. But in 1831, France was half a continent away and Louis-Philippe was as far as a monarch could be from Napoleon the Great. France sent its sympathy and moral support, and the Poles fought with great gallantry and futility. The King of Prussia sent troops to help the Russians crush the rebellion with great slaughter, for Prussia had its own Polish ethnic regions which it had usurped in the Partition of Poland among Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1795. The Austrians kept an eye on their own Polish regions, but sent no troops into Poland itself, although asked to by Russia. More Poles emigrated to France, and refugees from terrible Russian oppression flooded even into Prussia and Austria.
But what of 1848? Russia’s liberal elements had gone underground and maintained a very precarious existence within the Tsarist empire after the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. While revolutionary and liberal democratic fervor were sweeping across Western and Central Europe, Tsar Nicholas 1 made sure little news of it leaked into his realm and ruthless police actions snuffed the least glimmer of stirrings out as soon as they appeared.
Meanwhile in France, great things were afoot, much to the envy of the Russian and Polish exiles, who discovered they had some things in common. However, Russian hubris and pan-Slavic Messianism towards all other Slavic peoples has always prevented the formation of any unified action plan. Ultimately, it seems, Russians view the rest of the Slavic world as their rightful sphere of imperial mission, and even the Greeks, who are certainly not Slavs, seem to be annexed to this notion by virtue of their Orthodox faith. For Russia inherited the role of Protector of the true Orthodox Christian Faith following the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 at the hands of the Turks.
The French abolished their monarchy for the second time in 1848 and wrote themselves yet another constitution. However, finding the turmoil of what began to look like a return to resurgent Jacobinism (now wearing a Socialist costume with newly-minted Marxist credentials licking its heels) too much to stomach, in 1850 the voters elected the Second Republic’s First (and only) President in the person of non other than Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the Great One!
Louis-Napoleon was not his uncle, but he was no political dolt either. He had a ready-to-hand playbook. In 1851, with the pretext of maintaining law and order and assuring the security and prosperity of the Republic for the benefit of everyone of all classes, Louis-Napoleon had himself confirmed as “President for Life” by plebiscite. (The plebiscite/referendum had been Napoleon the Great’s favourite tool to claim the sanction of popular approval for his most critical changes to the regime.) This was followed in 1852 by – you guessed it! – Louis-Napoleon assuming the Imperial Crown as Napoleon III (II had been I’s very briefly reigned son in 1814, after I’s first abdication), once more receiving a massive sanction by plebiscite.
Which takes us down the road to 1870-1 and Revolution #4.
TO BE CONTINUED