Sailing against the tide: Tsardom and Russian Society c.1900

Russia – described by Churchill as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ by British political Winston Churchill in 1939 – was as juxtaposed, inscrutable and confusing a political and social entity in 1900 as it has been to many observers from the outside world before and after. Russia at the dawn of the 20th century was a huge, rambling landmass stretching from the Baltic and the plains of Eastern Europe through the steppes, tundra, deserts and high peaks of Siberia and Central Asia to the Pacific shores. The diversity and scope in its geographical features was matched only by the diversity of culture, ethnicity and languages within its borders; a multi-ethnic brew of peoples and religions which central authority believed could only be successfully controlled through an iron-fisted and repressive political apparatus.

The Tsar above all

Russia stood alone of all the great European powers of the age in its refusal to entertain the notion of political evolution towards a form of representative government. The Tsar was acknowledged – not least by himself – as Gods anointed man on earth who had to lead the Russian people by hook or crook. Life under the Tsarist autocracy demanded complete obedience and tribute to the heredity monarchy of the Romanov’s, with critical thinking and political opposition something discouraged in the harshest terms. The ‘Fundamental Laws of Empire’ enshrined this God-like status of the Tsar over his people and defined his autocratic rule as ‘unlimited’ and inviolable. Yet Russia was increasingly seen as a backwards and reactionary bulwark withering in the face of inexorable processes of modernisation and democracy, and it would take a strong and quick-witted Tsar to plot the path the Russian Empire would have to take to avoid falling in line with the processes of change elsewhere in Europe at that time. Tsar Nicholas II definitely was not that man.

The Emperor of all the Russias is an autocratic and unlimited monarch. God himself ordains that all must bow to his supreme power, not only out of fear but also out of conscience.

Fundamental Laws of the Empire, 1832

Nominally, Russia did have official organs of government as the 1900s came into view; the Imperial Council who constituted the aristocratic elites who acted as the Tsar’s close advisors, the Cabinet of Minsters who oversaw the machinations of the vast and sprawling Tsarist bureaucratic machine and the Senate who’s role it was to oversee legal operations and pass laws (only ones the Tsar had to agreed to firstly!). Ultimately – despite the grandiose titles – all these bodies were merely window dressing and acted in an advisory form as they had no authority over the Tsar, who could do as he pleased without reproach or recourse.

Faith & Repression: Russian Orthodox Church c.1900

Nicholas II followed in the footsteps of his own father – Alexander III – in rolling back the reforms and openness (in relative terms – Russia was hardly a progressive tolerant paradise in the 1860s!) which characterised the reign of Alexander II, the ruler who enacted the emancipation of the Russian serfs and generally encouraged economic and political modernisation yet found himself blown up by revolutionaries for his troubles. This act hardened attitudes and stiffened the resolve on the part of the Russian elites to stand strong and resist the winds of change blowing eastwards from Western Europe, and Nicholas II was embedded with arch-conservatism and reactionary values from an early age through his tutor Konstantin Pobedonotsev. This desire to keep Russia free from Western European meddling and influence can be connected to the development of organised Christianity in Russia, with the Orthodox Church fiercely proud of its own independence from Rome and its role as the moral and spiritual voice of the Russian people. The Russian Orthodox Church was arguably the most significant of all the pillar propping up the Tsarist system given its huge influence over everyday Russian life, particularly in the rural areas which were so symbolic and representative of what Russia was (and in many ways still is!) at the onset of the 20th century.

God commands us to love and obey from the innermost recesses of our heart every authority, and particularly that of the Tsar.

Russian Orthodox Church catechism, 19th Century

Whilst the Church preached social conservatism and religious obedience to scripture and Tsar alike, the magnetism of urbanisation and modernisation brought on by the nascent industrialisation of Russia drew peasants away not only from their backwards rural idyll but also away from the dogma of the Orthodox Church. The Church’s compass may have pointed back to medieval feudalism but the direction Russian urban society was moving in was one which was less laden down with religious observance. Indeed, of 40,000 inhabitants of one Moscow industrial suburb in 1900, only one church and priest were ‘serving’ their matters of faith. Increasingly, Russians of the industrial towns and cities were finding other outlets and organs of expression and ‘faith’ – that of political engagement.

Organs of Repression: Police, Military & Okhrana

Another central pillar without which the Tsarist system would have faltered was that of the repressive organs of police and state security services. Despite the lack of opportunity in formalising real and viable political opposition given the ‘Fundamental Laws’ explicitly outlawing such, the full weight of police repression and brutality was meted on those who dared such political alternatives or offered critiques of the Tsarist system. Even moderate political views/criticism could entail internal exile to Siberia or an untimely demise in the network of Tsarist prisons, with the Okhrana merciless and unforgiving in hunting down political opponents real or imagined.

As we will find out as our study of this cataclysmic and volatile period of Russian progresses, having the support and loyalty of the armed forces was integral to being in charge. And so it was in turn of the century Russia, with the Tsar commanding the support of what was yet another repressive, reactionary and backwards organ of power in the Russian Empire. The army (and navy) was a class-ridden, inefficient and ethically corrupt insitituon which was overwhelmingly staffed with poorly motivated illiterate peasants, most of whom had no desire to be part of it let alone fight for whatever purpose they were being told to put their lives on the line for. This was in stark contrast to the increasingly professionalised, modernised and meritocratic militaries taking root in Western Europe (Prussia/Germany, UK for instance) and Russia footed a heavy bill for keeping this bloated and decaying operation afloat – 45% of government expenditure going on armed forces as opposed to 4% on education. Yet for many Russians the military was a source of nationalistic pride and a symbol of Russian power, with past glories a convenient comfort blanket to retreat to. However as they would find out to their intense and crushing humiliation in 1905, the inadequacies and weaknesses of the Russian military machine were masked over by not having faced a European power in pitched combat since the 1855 Crimean War, nor taken part in a European War since 1815.

State of Play: Upper Classes

The social structure of the Tsarist state echoed that of the Ancien Regime of France in the 18th century; a small yet inordinately powerful and influential ruling elite and clergy lording it over a rambling impoverished peasantry and a growing and politically awakening bourgeoisie. And as with revolutionary France ideas and ethics were split as to how best approach the process of reform, progress and equity. Within the upper classes two camps formed; that of the ‘Westerners’ who called for the pressing need for Russia to modernise and reform along representative government lines if it was to keep its place at the table of Great Powers and remain a viable world player. The Slavophiles were the opposing perspective, their vision of Russia’s future embedded in celebration of the unique and organic values and culture which Russia had been founded upon and for Russia to take a separate path from that of mainstream European political thought.

State of Play: Bourgeoisie

The ‘middle’ classes/bourgeoisie – those who had benefited from and capitalised in Russia’s growing Industrial Revolution – was a small but upwardly mobile tranche of Russian society in the 1900s who wished for Russia to go down the ‘Western’ path of progress and development. As components of the globalised industrial world, they were exposed to a flow of ideas, policies and practices from Western Europe which influenced not only their business ideologies but also their political compass too. Naturally, this brought them into conflict with the prevailing autocracy of Tsardom and they used their wealth and influence to begin laying foundations – clandestine or otherwise – for serious political debate and reform. With the increasing reliance on global markets and resources this group became increasingly influential and a thorn in the Tsar’s side given their growing wealth and status. Due to Tsarist suspicion and downright hostility, Russia was still nowhere near maximising her industrial and economic potential with the military taking precedent over society in being the focus of investment and reform. Inadvertently this military obsession helped fuel growth in other aspects of Russian economic output and the ‘Great Spurt’ of the 1890s drove innovation, investment and fresh perspectives on how Russia’s future might look.

State of Play: Peasantry Urban Working Class

The final social class to consider was the largest by far. Constituting 82% of the Russian population in 1897, the ‘dark mass‘ of the Russian peasantry eked out a miserable and hard-bitten existence within the Tsarist system. Despite their emancipation in 1861, life for the Russian peasant was one endured in grinding poverty and with little scope for progress or personal betterment. In part down to their illiteracy and ignorance, the Russian peasantry were utterly beholden to the influence of Tsar and Church, and whilst not overflowing with joy at their lot in life they saw little to draw their ire outwith their immediate mir of village and pastures. Despite their pathetic and miserable lot in life, the peasantry was the focus of much scorn and hostility from the ruling elites, who held a fear that one day the downtrodden masses may wake up then rise up against the unjust and unfair system which repressed them. To this end, education and opportunity were actively discouraged and ‘safe ignorance’ promoted by the officials of Tsardom.

However, despite the cards being loaded against them, the peasantry found a possible avenue out of the drudgery and misery wielded upon them by migrating from countryside to the industrial towns and cities whereupon they formed the nascent urban working class and found themselves exposed to new political ideologies as well as semblances of education and modern life in general. The ‘dark masses’ of the peasant communes would evolve into something altogether more militant, weaponised and difficult to control for a regime which became ever-more out of touch and entrenched against the inexorable rise of the modern world.

Key Takeaways

  • Russia in the 1890s was an increasingly isolated bulwark against modernity and political openness
  • Tsar Nicholas II was particularly ill-suited to being the man at the helm of a nation about to enter such stormy waters
  • Despite the inefficiency and ill-preparedness on behalf of the Tsar and his circle for what was about to hit them – and the lack of trust in the new business and mercantile classes, Russia experienced considerable economic and industrial growth at the dawn of the 20th century
  • Again, despite the litany of mismanagement, ineptitude and aloofness exhibited by the Tsarist regime, most Russians were inherently loyal to him and the Church.
  • Politcal opposition was marginal numerically, but where it did manifest it tended to do so violently and extremism was prevalent.
  • So, how revolutionary was Russia in 1900? Are there any possible factors/catalysts which could alter this situation?


Enter Bismarck, arise Prussia: The Road to German Unity 1862-66

Despite the failure of the ‘experiment’ of 1848-49 and the repressive and reactionary climate which followed, it can be argued that in the long term the seeds of Liberalism (and as it is Germany of the mid-19th Century, Nationalism by association) had been firmly planted to blossom at a later date. And whilst Prussia – with its fast-growing industrialised economy which fed into a burgeoning and increasingly self-confident middle class – may have seemed the most likely candidate in picking up the torch of German unity and progressive political reform, the man who would come to be regarded in time as the figurehead and architect of it all was as far removed as could possibly be in the early 1850s from the leader who would bring Germany together.

Only two things matter for Prussia; to avoid an alliance with democracy and to secure equality with Austria.

Bismarck looking through a counter-revolutionary prism, 1848

Otto von Bismarck had been in many ways an unremarkable, stereotypical son of the Prussian nobility junker class; spoiled, idle and failing to live up to the potential his silver spoon existence had laid out for him. However Bismarck simply wasn’t challenged enough by such an existence, his non-conformist approach to authority and society’s expectations combined with a maverick attitude to life meant that he was unfulfilled by merely following in the perceived righteous path of his class. Amongst a prolific career of womanising, gambling and enjoying the trappings of a hectic social life, Bismarck entered Prussian politics – and public view – as the revolutions of 1848-49 were coming to the boil. He was at first an avowed and unashamed counter-revolutionary, fuelled by ideals of reactionary conservatism and a devotion to the Prussian monarchy who loathed liberalism and the concept of a unified German state in equal measure. His unwavering devotion (and pride) to all things Prussia meant that when he became the Prussian envoy to the revived Diet of the German Confederation the focus of his resentment and disdain shifted from hating on liberals and other assorted progressive types to picking fights with and making life difficult for that other Germanic ‘superpower’ of the age, Austria.

Whilst the majority of his fellow Prussian (and wider Germanic) conservatives saw Austria as the natural ally of conservatives and counter-revolutionaries (and with good reason given their track record over the 19th century!) in the fight against political and social change, Bismarck saw the overbearing presence of Austria in German politics as a hindrance to Prussia and its interests. A loud, brash and intelligent personality, Bismarck agitated within the Frankfurt Diet to undermine Austria’s position as the pre-eminent German power in the 1850s. He obviously touched a raw nerve somewhere as he was summoned back to Berlin and shunted off to St Petersburg to act as Prussia’s ambassador to Russia in 1859. The complex yet brilliant political talents of Bismarck were thus sidelined until the Prussian throne itself was threatened by the constitutional crisis of 1860-62 saw him called back as an almost last resort by William I.

Bismarck’s combination of steadfast resolve, adept manipulation and innate self-confidence avoided the collapse of the Prussian monarchy in the face of political impasse brought about by disagreements on how best to proceed with reform of the Prussian military. The crux of the problem lay in a liberal-dominated Berlin parliament refusing to approve army reforms which would see a much larger and efficient fighting force. The argument became entrenched along the lines of the King wishing for the Prussian army remaining independent of parliamentary control/interference whilst the liberals in parliament argued that the army should be answerable to its own people, and by extension themselves in parliament who would have control over the army’s budget. Such a proud, elitist military culture as Prussia took such matters very seriously and the forces of tradition and conservatism clashed with those of progressive and modern ideals of democracy and citizen rule. The impasse lasted 2 years, with William I turning to his last card on the advice of war minister von Roon and recalling the strong-willed force of nature Bismarck back from his Russian posting. Bismarck navigated a course through the crisis by simply bypassing parliament and funding army reform through increased taxation of the public. Whilst such acts (and his general persona/reputation as a reactionary dinosaur) drew the ire of the majority liberal Landtag, Bismarck calculated that even with all the anger and disgust flying his way there would be no repeat of the violence of 1848-49. Pragmatism, self-assuredness and a knack for being successful were to characterise Bismarck’s political career thereafter.

The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by it liberalism but by its power … Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favourable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood

Bismarck’s famous ‘Blood & Iron’ speech to the Prussian Landtag, September 1862

For Bismarck, the end always justified the means, and no stone would be left unturned in pursuit of such. He was a pragmatic, dogged and quick thinking leader who was able to manipulate and influence friends and foe alike. Bismarck’s intuition at choosing the right option and balancing the competing forces of Prussian traditionalist conservatism and the growth of progressive Liberalism came to be known as Realpolitik. Along with his contemporary Cavour in Italy, Bismarck was alive to the changes sweeping European politics and society at the time and in particular that of nationalism. Whether Bismarck was at heart a Prussian nationalist/expansionist or a German nationalist is a key question from the unit; however it is clear he came to see Prussian and German interests as one and the same. And Prussian interests in the 1860s invariably rubbed up against those of Austria, which Bismarck exploited expertly to bring the disparate sides of the German political landscape together under a common cause.

The immediate goals for Bismarck in the aftermath of his handling of the 1860-62 constitutional crisis was to dislodge Austria as the pre-eminent German political power, and extend Prussian influence/domination over the wider North German region. An opportunity arose when a succession crisis broke out over the twin duchies of Schleswig-Holstein in Northern Germany. Whilst the region was predominately German populated, Schelswig had a sizeable Danish minority and the Danish King had historical claims to the territory. Not for the last time (!), Bismarck exploited the growing trend of German nationalism and its strong emotive appeal to announce Prussia as the champion of pan-Germanic causes when he faced down the Danish claims to the territory and won a short sharp and one-sided war. What he did next is realpolitik at its finest; he agreed with Austrian to split the duchies between both of the major German powers and thus create a point of contention in which Prussia – bordering the newly won territories in contrast to the distant Austrians – held all the aces. The Austrian territory of Holstein – German, Protestant and naturally aligned with Prussian values – would act as the catalyst for the next piece in Bismarck’s jigsaw, the Austro-Prussian war of 1866.

Bismarck worked both openly and behind the scenes in a political and diplomatic sense in setting the scene for the inevitable showdown with the Austrians; using their governance of Holstein as stick with which to beat the Austrians in Prussian and wider German domestic politics and shoring up support (or at the least an indication of neutrality) from other European states in the event the bubbling tension exploded and the Prussians and Austrians resorted to war. Bismarck gave his tacit support to the Italians – also fighting a war of unification against the Austrians – in exchange for a reciprocation of similar back-up and sought assurances from French Emperor Napoleon III that French neutrality would be counted upon too, laying the foundations for conflict. The impending war would not only decide who had control over the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein but also who would be the pre-eminent German power for generations. Bismarck lit the touch paper for war in his proposals to reform the German Confederation in 1866, listing demands which he knew Austria would never agree to (universal male suffrage, continual Austrian exclusion from the Zollverein amongst others) as well as invoking the terms of the Treaty of Gastein and accusing Austria of breaking them. The Austrians, with far larger supply lines, wider territory and a more disparate and diverse population and being farther away from the actual hot conflict zone in Northern Germany, were the first to mobilise (another masterstroke from Bismarck since to the naked eye it was the Austrians who acted first as opposed to Prussia) and the Seven Weeks War began.

Prussia had no right to expect to beat Austria in a war – after all Austria was a larger state, had more political and diplomatic influence and could mobilise more soldiers if needed – and definitely had no right expect the whole thing to be done and dusted in 7 weeks. However a combination of Prussian modernity in its military-industrial infrastructure, access to railways to get troops and materiel moving faster and superior leadership and tactics in battle led to a crushing and humiliating defeat for the Austrians, who were in many ways everything the Prussians were not (poorly led militarily, inferior weaponry, one railway as opposed to the Prussians size and also fighting wars on multiple fronts given their problems with the Italians). Despite this the only major battle of the war – the Battle of Sadow on 3rd July – was equally balanced for a while before Prussian creativity and boldness in military tactics resulted in an eventual rout of the Austrian forces. Neither side had the stomach to fight on much after this; the Austrians obviously exhausted from multiple wars and conscious of the effect humiliating defeats would have on their fragile, multi-ethnic empire and the wider balance of power at a European level, a concern shared by Bismarck who saw the dangers of an Austria which would be too embittered and revenge-ridden to act as an Prussian ally in future as well as the power vacuum a collapse of the Austrian Empire might create.

“We had to avoid wounding Austria too severely; we had to avoid leaving behind in her any unnecessary bitterness of feeling or desire for revenge; we ought rather to reserve the possibility of becoming friends again with our adversary of the moment, and in any case to regard the Austrian state as a piece on the European chessboard. If Austria were severely injured, she would become the ally of France and of every other opponent of ours; she would even sacrifice her anti-Russian interests for the sake of revenge on Prussia.”

Bismarck on the Seven Weeks war

Treaty of Prague & Aftermath

Despite initial reluctance in some sections of Prussian society and politics at waging war in the first instance, it was the cool-headed and rational Bismarck who stood in the way of complete Prussian annihilation of Austria in the wars aftermath. Reasoning that Austria would be more likely to side with their fellow Germans over say France or Russia, he exercised restraint and compassion whilst all around him were calling for a march on Vienna and annexation of Austria into Prussia. Whilst Austria only lost the duchy of Schleswig (and Northern Italy), Prussia was able to annex other German territories by swallowing up all German States north of the River Main, creating a contiguous German state from the Baltic to the Dutch, Belgian and French borders. Bismarck exploited the general atmosphere of triumph and positivity by making liberal concessions in the constitution for the new North German Confederation, where although King and Army were untouchable there was universal male suffrage for Reichstag elections and laws could only be passed by agreement of parliament (two houses) and crown. Liberals who once loathed the very existence of Bismarck now found themselves in grudging (or open!) admiration and a centre ground between moderate liberals and flexible conservatives was reached, giving Prussia consensus politics and a mandate for one day unifying the rest of Germany under the one flag and constitution.

Its debatable as to whether Bismarck set out to unify Germany or extend Prussia, but what is certain is that he set out to limit Austrian influence over wider Germanic affairs, and as such his actions in the years 1862-66 were an unquestionable success. Bismarck now stood astride either side of the Prussian political spectrum and for the most part had support from either, as well as from those in the newly annexed territories. Prussia had gone from a bastion of reactionary conservatism promoting absolutist rule to a politically progressive and industrially dynamic state in less than 20 years since 1848-49. Prussia had achieved this whilst still being widely regarded internationally as a 2nd rate power – definitely not one which merited a place at the very top table of nations (UK, France, Russia) – although its inexorable rise was being noted by Bismarck’s next target – France.

Key Takeaways

  • Bismarck the man was multi-facted, talented, ruthless and intuitive. He was a man of his time and realpolitik was his method of plotting a course through the resistance and detractors who surrounded him.
  • Examples of his realpolitik in practice are many – from his handling of the 1860-62 constitutional crisis through his handling of the diplomatic situations both pre- and post-Austro-Prussian war. However, despite the general trend not everything he did was a success!
  • A gambler/opportunist or a brilliant long-term strategist? A Prussian or German nationalist? Bismarck has been analysed from all angles and its you call as to what really drove him
  • And what really drove him in this period was dislocating then marginalising the Austrians from mainstream German Confederation politics. Despite a natural tendency towards to conservatism in both Berlin and Vienna the two German ‘superpowers’ differed greatly in many other aspects (religion, industry, demographics and in the case of Bismarck leadership) and Prussia were the upwardly mobile new kids on the Great Power bloc whilst Austria’s star was on the wane.
  • Even though German nationalism was occurring by force, Bismarck and Prussia had the broad support of opposing sides of the German political spectrum as well from most Protestant / Northern German States.

Media and Resources

The German ‘Revolution’ of 1848

The ‘old order’ of post-Vienna Europe – that of absolute rulers and their reactionary plutocrats enforcing their rule on a subjugated population – seemed on the brink in the year of 1848. From Sicily in the south through the heart of Central Europe, voices for constitutional reform and national re-awakenings grew in tandem to generate a wave of Republican revolt across the continent. For a while it seemed the rolling back of Europe’s respective ‘ancien regimes’ was as inexorable as it would be successful; yet within a year the revolutions had floundered and fizzled out and the older order was seemingly restored. However, despite the repression and soul-searching amongst the liberals of Berlin, Paris and Vienna in the immediate aftermath of the events, an important seed had been planted for the future.

Obviously our primary focus for this unit is that of how the 1848 Revolutions impacted upon the German Confederation and its constituent states and peoples. Yet the shifting forces and dynamics of European society as a whole mean that a general thread runs throughout – from Ireland in the West to Russia in the East – of social and political upheaval exacerbated by the twin evils of economic depression and rural poverty and famine which created conditions which were ripe for revolution. The pace of industrialisation – whilst varied across the continent – brought with it a new social class and a new political voice, that of the urban working class, who would in time become the source of radicalism and revolutionary fervour. But for now they were not the key enablers for revolutionary success despite the publication of a political document written by a German exile in London by the name of Karl Marx. Germany in particular had been slow to develop as an industrial society; indeed German still wasn’t a nation in the orthodox sense by 1848.

Overview of the wider European perspective and experience of 1848. Specifically German focused media is at the end of this post.

Causes of the 1848 Revolutions in Germany

  • Increasing population: as was the case in much of Europe, Germany witnessed a population explosion in the 19th century. Whilst much of this surplus population was able to emigrate to the USA, there were many who couldn’t and this growth in population placed stress on the German rural society which operated in an almost feudal-style manner which peasants beholden to the Junker (aristocracy) class.
  • Germany may not have embraced industrialisation to the extent of the UK or even Belgium but slowly throughout the 1830s and 40s the early rumblings of the Industrial Revolution lead to urbanisation and rural flight from countryside to city. Much of these new arrivals to Berlin, Munich, Hamburg etc were poor and disenfranchised and found themselves living in squalor – ready recruits for any nascent revolution!
  • A more immediate cause could be highlighted as that of the European-wide economic crisis brought on by disastrous harvests and the devastating potato blight which decimated the diets of both urban – and primarily – rural poor and caused food prices to sky rocket. As with all self-respecting revolutions, the need to be able to feed oneself and family (Peace! Land Bread!) always seems to find a firm foothold in the reasons why change should happen.
  • Whilst Marx’s vision of a class conflict resulting in the overthrow of the status quo by the proletariat (industrial working class) came to fruition at a later date, its hard to argue that class consciousness had any real effect in being a driving force behind the German Revolution of 1848. Only the UK and Belgium had any sense of a developed working class by this time and the German experience hinged more on the angst from landless rural peasants at their feudal existence and a desire from liberal minded middle classes for political reform and an end to inherited privilege and – in small numbers – to absolutist monarchy.
  • A consequence of this desire for change political and socially was the growing awakening for many in the liberal middle classes that the best way forward for the states of the German Confederation was to break down the old and archaic barriers and come together as a unified German whole, thus nationalism was also on the revolutionary agenda (as it was in other areas of Europe such as Italy).

The Events of 1848 in Germany

Baden in the south was the first state to experience revolt, reform and repression in 1848

Given the nature of ‘Germany’ in 1848 it is not a surprise that several revolutions – each with distinct flavour and ambitions – broke out concurrently that year. Once again France was the catalyst for European-wide revolt and upheaval (the king overthrown and a people’s Republic installed in February) and perhaps the visible magnitude of the early success of the French revolutionaries egged on those movements which sprung up in its wake to go that bit extra and further than was absolutely necessary. A case in point being the first German revolution in the south-western state of Baden, where initial success in constitutional reform was undone a few months later when radical republicans attempted to overthrow the whole state in an uprising which failed miserably due to poor organisation and Prussian military intervention. The initial support and legitimacy the movement had gained in the eyes of German liberals and middle classes – the core base of revolutionaries at this period – was lost and the gains of the early reformists repressed.

The counter-revolutionary and reactionary bulwark of Austria itself was not immune to Revolutionary fervour and upheaval in that tumultuous year of 1848. None other than the arch-reactionary and architect of Restoration Europe, Metternich, fell amidst a temporary collapse in Habsburg control in their own capital of Vienna; riots and protests ensued in other centres of the Austrian Empire such as Prague, Milan and Budapest as the Austrian government enacted a series of political and social reforms – a Constituent Assembly, universal male suffrage and a few other superficial reforms – from the safety of the alpine city of Innsbruck. Faced with what may well have been the collapse of their own empire in 1848, the Austrians were less disposed or inclined to intervene in goings-on in the rest of Germany. The fall of Metternich and the ensuing chaos in Vienna emboldened protestors across the German states and specifically in Berlin.

Berlin, bastion of Prussian power and absolutism, saw widespread street violence in early spring of 1848

In terms of Prussian rulers, Fredrick William was an enigma; he was a dichotomy between order and progress, between upholding ‘divine right’ rule and pacifism. This enigma of a king – who hated bloodshed yet ruled over Germany’s most militaristic state – seemed to be genuinely empathetic with the demands of the citizens who called for a New Prussian constitution, improved pay and working conditions as well as the dream of a unified German state and signed off (agreed to) a series of liberal-oriented reforms which pleased the majority and avoided serious violence enveloping Berlin. Yet he was rattled by this apparent challenge to his divine right to rule and would have reservations about being the figurehead for a Prussian drive to unite Germany.

I want liberty: I will have unity in Germany.’

Fredrick William IV, March 21st 1848

Political reform and concessions spread like wildfire through the German states that spring of 1848, with the demonstrations and protests overwhelmingly middle class and peaceful in their methods and make-up. The framework of feudalism which held Germany back was to be dismantled and all German states invited to participate in a newly formed parliament to replace the ineffectual Diet, one which would meet also in Frankfurt but with a clear focus to draw up a constitution for a united Germany. Overwhelmingly the make up of this ‘Professors Parliament’ was middle class, liberal and moderate in plotting a path to a united Germany, with the underlying ambition being that of German peoples united under a Constitutional Monarchy and an elected parliament. ‘Conservative-Liberals’ made up the vast majority of representatives at Frankfurt; radicals and reactionaries were scarce in representation and consensus on the Frankfurt Parliament taking prominence over the numerous German state governments was reached with minimum fuss. However agreeing on a constitution and the boundaries of this new Germany proved much more problematic – should Austria be included in a Grossdeutschland for example or should a Kleinedeutschland with Prussia as the pre-eminent power be the pragmatic solution to national unity – and the Frankfurt Parliament came to be regarded more as a talking shop than an institution that got things done (echoes of the proportional representation approach taken by the Weimar Republic to its constitution).

The Frankfurt Parliament was also undermined by its lack of financial and indeed military muscle. Prussia remained aloof and saw their own constitution and king as superseding that of any outcome suggested by the Frankfurt Parliament, whilst Northern and Southern German states viewed each other with suspicion borne of the religious divide between Protestantism in the North and East and Catholicism in the South. As would be expected from such a middle class, liberal institution the radicals were unsatisfied with the pace of progress and intended goals and on several occasions – one resulting in bloodshed – their protests spilled over into violence which horrified the majority moderates of the parliament. The death knell to the relevance and purpose of the Frankfurt was delivered with the refusal of Prussian king Fredrick William to accept the title of German Emperor; he refused to be answerable to the Frankfurt Parliament as the Constitutional Ruler and wear a crown he described as ‘disgraced by the stink of revolution, defiled by dirt and mud’ and equated to ‘a dog collar, with which they want to chain me to the events of 1848.’ With no leader, no direction and dwindling support the Frankfurt Parliament stumbled along until 1849 when – having been forced out of both Frankfurt and Stuttgart – Germany’s experiment at mixing liberal reform with a framework for national unity had the curtains called on its time.

The aftermath of 1848: Failure and reform

“This Assembly of old women was, from the first day of its existence, more frightened of the least popular movement than of all the reactionary plots of all the German Governments put together.”

Friedrich Engels, scathing of the Frankfurt Parliament 1848
The ‘old guard’ steadied the ship and swept up/crushed remaining resistance in 1849

Ultimately the Frankfurt Parliament failed to be what its members refused to be; an organ of violent political revolution and upheaval which was necessary to overthrow the existing power structures of Germany at this time. Criticised for being too idealist and lacking any sense of substance or pragmatism (hello Weimar Republic!), the Frankfurt Parliamanent’s existence and chances of according success rested not within the numerous debates over constitutional reform but in the ‘buy-in’ from those states who’s influence was critical – Austria and Prussia. The Austrians had no wish to destabilise the status-quo and by association their own political hegemony over Europe, and the Prussians were still too aloof and devoted to their king alone to see the bigger picture and possibilities of being at the forefront of a united Germany. Also, once the threat of being overthrown by the numerous revolutionary movements within Germany in 1848 had receded, most other rulers of the German principalities saw little use for a parliament which would undoubtedly curb and perhaps one day take away their powers and independence. With Austria steadying the ship in 1849 and crushing the remaining movements within their empire, no state was brave enough either to raise their heads above the parapet and call for a progressive and united German nation-state.

Despite the ‘failure’ of both the 1848 Revolutions and the Frankfurt Parliament they spawned, they marked a sea change in German politics and attitudes towards social reform. Feudal privileges were abolished across the German states and even the most conservative politicians recognised the need to involve the middle class – and in some cases the growing working class – in political decision making. Fredrick William navigated this path between liberalism and absolutism in the Prussian Constitution of December 1848 which presented a genuine workable parliament and universal male suffrage under the overall control of the king, who retained executive decision making powers and control of the army. Ironically, in its role as the arch-reactionary to the ideals and dreams of the Frankfurt Parliament and by association the revolutions of 1848 (along with Austria) Prussia won the respect and alliances of more and more German states, gaining crucial allies for the struggles which were yet to come. Prussia may not have explicitly realised it at the time, but they were positioning themselves to take the driving seat in the quest for German unification.

Key Takeaways

  • Initial successes of 1848 were genuinely revolutionary and threatened to topple the existing order completely. Indeed they most likely ‘spooked’ the middle class moderates as having gone beyond their wildest expectations or needs
  • Austria gradually regained its grip on power across all its empire by 1849. The old adage ‘if America sneezes, the world catches the cold’ could be applied perfectly to Austria in relation to the other German states at this time. They were still the main players and the threat of Austrian military action was enough to dampen dreams of liberal reform and German unity being sparked by Frankfurt
  • The Frankfurt Parliament ultimately did ‘fail’ by virtue of its role as a parliament without a cohesive functioning state and most pointedly an army. Without this Austrian hegemony – and desire to keep Germany weak and divided – could not be challenged.
  • Prussia emerged as the saviour for much of the old order by refusing the overtures of the Frankfurt Parliament to take the lead role (and crown) and also for their willingness to crush radical revolts in other German states. However the enigmatic Fredrick William IV set the wheels in motion for Prussia to lead the way as the ‘middle way’ between liberal reformist and conservative traditionalist ideologies and consequently the lead German state and alternative to Austria.
  • ‘Did the Revolutions of 1848 fail?’ – ultimately yes, however they triggered widespread acknowledgement that things had to change within the German states and these reforms – when combined with the coming of the Industrial Revolution on a wide scale to German lands – laid the foundations for the inexorable rise of Prussia and a German national consciousness to follow.

Please find associated resources and additional media links below!

Playlist of shorts on the German experience of 1848
Further insight into the wider European perspective of events in 1848

The Rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s: The Munich Putsch

The year of 1923 seemed to point towards the impending collapse of the Weimar state; hyper-inflation, crisis in the Ruhr with the French and Belgian occupation and an increasingly disconnected, depressed and desperate population still angry about the humiliation of Versailles seemed on the brink. Emboldened by the rapid rise of his own party and personal political reputation, Hitler gambled on using his growing stature in Bavarian politics and spectacularly mounting an audacious coup to overthrow the Weimar govt. in Berlin itself.

In many ways the time seemed perfect for a relative underdog such as Hitler to overthrow the status quo. Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Mussolini in Italy had embarked upon similar audacious nationalistic coups and power grabs, and Hitler felt the situation and dynamics of 1923 in Weimar Germany was as ripe an opportunity as any to carry out similar. From their power-base in Munich and wider Bavaria, the Nazi’s would seize control of key government buildings and organisations and install a revolutionary government there. It was to be hoped that this act – portrayed as saving Germany from the clutches of the ‘November Criminals’ and foreign domination of a Marxist flavour – would in turn inspire the other states of Germany to support and enact similar uprisings, paving the way for a triumphalist march from Munich to Berlin and the keys to power for Hitler and (his still fringe) Nazi Party, echoing the footsteps of Mussolini and his ‘March on Rome’ the year prior.

But the situation in Germany differed from that of Italy. Whilst Italy emerged from WW1 as one of the ‘victors’ the spectre of political violence between left- and right- wing extremists ravaged both nations and political upheaval and turmoil was an experience shared by those in Italy and Germany alike. However where the respective situations of Mussolini and Hitler diverge is in that Mussolini could call on support from much of the Italian political and economic establishment as well as the sympathies of many of the military elites; Hitler meanwhile was not that well known outwith Bavaria and could enlist one figure of a genuinely national level of reputation in support of his cause, General Luddendorf. Despite this, Germany was in dire straits in November 1923 and Hitler gambled on peoples exasperation at the Weimar government and desperation at living through times of hyper-inflation as they catalyst which would springboard the Nazi’s to power – firstly at state (Bavarian) level then onwards to national level.

His faith was to be sorely misguided. Whilst the Nazi’s were undeniably popular in Munich – particularly in the beer halls where their rousing demagogue-infused rhetoric went down well – they did not have the same cachet or gravitas as Mussolini did in Italy or Ataturk did in Turkey to inspire a truly national movement. Indeed Hitler could not even count on the widespread support of his fellow Bavarians, not least those he sought to neutralise in his scramble for power. The 3 main leaders of the Bavarian state government – von Kahr, von Seisser and von Lossow – were not enamoured at being taken hostage and strong-armed into supporting Hitler’s coup on the night of 8th November 1923 and in an example of how poorly organised the whole ‘Putsch’ was were able to escape their captors, sound the alarm bells and notify the military forces stationed in Munich that an attempt to overthrow the German state was underway.

The key ingredient in all successful coups is that of having the military on your side; without this muscle an attempt to overthrow the state will be doomed to failure. Despite their – quite stunningly – naive mismanagement of the situation overnight, by morning the Nazi’s still hoped that their embryonic revolution could cling on to life by attracting the support and sympathies of the military units stationed in Munich. And of course having such a decorated war hero and national icon such as General Luddendorff as your figurehead was something to cling to as the Nazi’s found their attempted coup drifting aimlessly as the morning of 9th November progressed. Deciding to ‘march’ around the city they had hoped to have under the total control by now, the Nazi revolution was a perfect example of incompetence and farce. When they reached the city centre they were met by the army and police. Shots broke out, but the Nazis were poorly equipped and badly organised. Many of their rifles which they had bought off the German Army lacked firing pins. They were no match for the State Police and the army. In the scuffle that followed 16 Nazis and 4 policemen were shot dead. Hitler fled the scene, but was soon captured and arrested, along with Goering, Rohm and Ludendorff. They were all charged with High Treason – a grave offence punishable by up to life imprisonment.

Aftermath of the Putsch

Hitler and his fellow conspirators had been shown to be sorely out of their depth and completely deluded as to their role in the bigger picture of German politics. Despite all the trials, tribulations and problems facing the Weimar government the vast majority of the German people – and most importantly the German military forces and police – were still loyal to them. In terms of understanding the lay of the land politically in Germany in 1923 Hitler miscalculated and misfired badly. However the resulting exposure both in the immediate aftermath of the Putsch and the legal trial which followed was far more positive for Hitler and the Nazi’s. Hitler became a household name through newspaper stories and this reputation grew further through his performances whilst defending himself in court. He utilised his excellent oratory skills to maximum effect and won not only the sympathies of those in the court room but the wider German population through a heady mix of nationalist rhetoric and savaging the weak and ineffective – as he saw it – Weimar Government who had failed the German people. As they say any publicity is good publicity and its better to be talked about negatively than not talked about at all, and the notoriety and appeal of Hitler grew immeasurably from the platform afforded him at the trial.

Hitler realised that trying to seize power using force alone was not going to work. There was little desire amongst the people of Germany for armed revolution. They had seen enough bloodshed over the previous years. He had to devise a new strategy. Hitler came to the decision while in prison that the Nazi Party would take part in elections and win power democratically. Propaganda would be used to build up support for the Party. Once the Nazis were elected to power, then they could stage their revolution. Also it was clear that the Nazi’s were too naive and lacked the necessary political depth and gravitas to be in power at this stage of their development. In a way the failed Putsch bought the Nazi’s time.

Hitler was sent to prison for five years for his part in the Putsch, but he got off lightly. He could have faced life imprisonment, but he had the support of the judges, many of whom disliked the Weimar Republic themselves. Hitler was put in a cell in Landsberg prison, which was relatively comfortable. There, Hitler received all sorts of privileges and enjoyed a very easy life. In the end he served only 9 months of his sentence and used this time to write down his ideas. This he turned into a book entitled ‘Mein Kampf’ (My Struggle) which became an instant best seller. 

Brief summary of the Munich Putsch from the excellent ‘Nazis: A warning from History’ BBC series

Hitler now set about reorganising the Party for the struggle that lay ahead. Young men were recruited into the S.A. and the Party. Hitler knew now that their energy and enthusiasm would be vital for any future success. Joseph Goebbels was put in charge of a new Propaganda campaign and regional Party branches were set up around Germany under the control of Party officials called Gauleiter’s. These officials would spread Nazi ideas over a wide area, listen to local complaints and drum up further support for the Nazi cause.

Extended footage from the TV Drama Hitler: The Rise of Evil covering the key events (in a dramatised form!) from inception to Hitler’s spell in Prison

Please find associated resources below

Those interested may watch this short documentary on Mussolini’s 1922 ‘March on Rome’ and draw parallels / make comparisons between the 2 events

The Rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s: The seeds of evil and totalitarianism

Despite the chaos, destruction and shame Hitler left as his legacy, his time as ‘Der Fuhrer’ of the German Reich lasted a mere 12 years of his life. An unquestionably talented politician and captivating orator, as well as a genocidal megalomaniac who presided over a racist totalitarian state, Hitler is a complex and fascinating study of how an otherwise unremarkable individual exploited the shifting political and social dynamics of his time to re-invent himself from a destitute dreamer to one of history’s (in)famous and pivotal characters.

Hitler’s birthplace of Braunauam am Inn. The Inn river separates Austria in the foreground and Germany on the far bank

Hitler was born on the Austrian side of the River Inn – the border between the respective German and Austro-Hungarian (both ‘German’ states) empires of the period. Hitler saw no distinction between the fate of being under control of Vienna or Berlin – to him all Germans should be united in a Pan-German superstate – and from an early age was imbued with ideals and beliefs centred on German nationalism and the innate superiority of the Germanic people. His father, Alois Hitler, was a gruff and hard-headed man who had forged a successful career in the Austrian customs service despite his very humble beginnings. His mother, Klara – 23 years younger than Alois – suffered mental and physical abuse in a marriage which seemed more for convenience sake than love itself. Hitler snr. was a very strict and over-bearing father to all his children (he had children from a previous marriage) and frequently administered beatings, which alienated his children, Adolf included. Accordingly, Hitler became very close to his mother and increasingly disposed to do the exact opposite of what his father’s expectation were.

Hitler’s academic performance at school was also increasingly shaped by his tempestuous and hateful relationship with his father; from the top of his class at his local elementary (primary) school, Hitler resented the role and influence of his father in plotting a future career path for him and failed badly when stepping up to the Realschule in Linz. His teachers remember a talented but lazy and argumentative student who responded badly to advice and was full of his own self-importance. Hitler himself explained this drop in academic and behavioural standards through the prism of conflict with his hated father, hoping that continued failure at the (relatively prestigious) realschule would persuade his father to relent in trying to get Hitler to follow in his own footsteps and enter the Austrian Imperial Civil Service and instead allow Hitler to pursue his true passion and dream of becoming an artist and transfer him to a classical arts school. Whatever chance there was of such an occurrence happening – given how pugnacious and antagonistic both father and son were highly unlikely – was rendered irrelevant by the sudden death of Alois in 1903. After going through the motions for the following 2 years, Hitler finally graduated school but without a clear direction or path to a career beyond his love for art. At this early stage it was clear Hitler was ‘different’ and would challenge authority whenever he could.

Hitler’s art depicting the state opera house in Vienna. Whilst by no means a ‘bad’ artist’ he wasn’t anywhere near the standard required to make it as a professional

In contrast to his explosive and destructive relationship with his father, Hitler was doted on by his mother and they were extremely close. His mother could see no wrong in her soon and encouraged him to follow his artistic dreams, indulging him in his passion and supporting him in his attempts to enter the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Whilst Hitler was by no means a ‘bad’ artist he was nowhere near the level required to enter one of Europe’s top art schools, and his failure to complete the equivalent of high school left him unable to enter other universities in Vienna. His frustration was soon compounded by the agony and heartache of the news his mother had developed breast cancer with a terminal diagnosis. Hitler genuinely loved his mother and the feeling was reciprocated thus the news – and her death soon after – hit him hard. Emotionally broken, he was soon to find himself financially broken as his financial support died along with his mother and he found himself living the life of a bohemian drifter in the multi-ethnic capital of a multi-ethnic Empire, eeking out a meagre living selling his artwork and picking up menial labouring jobs whilst alternating between living on the streets and in homeless hostels. In short, it was a pretty desperate and directionless existence for the young Hitler, one which most probably laid the foundations to position him to be ripe to be turned / converted towards extremism.

Analysis of Hitler’s paintings and artistic style

Vienna was a melting pot of cultures, ideals and rhetoric and one in which German nationalism and anti-Semitism had a strong foothold. Given Hitler’s lowly status and place on the ladder he found solace and a sense of belonging in being able to feel part of something whilst blaming the ‘other’ (Vienna had the largest Jewish community in Central Europe). Hitler felt particularly resentful when placed the lowly status of his own existence in the context of what he had experienced when cleaning snow from the paths and driveways of the affluent Jewish neighbourhoods of Vienna (worth noting that the overwhelming majority of Viennese Jews lived in poverty similar to Hitler, particularly the ‘ghetto’ district of Leopoldstadt – a fact conveniently overlooked by Hitler). In Hitlers eyes, ‘true’ Germans should not be suffering whilst the ‘alien’ Jewish lived in wealth and comfort, planting a seed of burning resentment and jealousy which would manifest destructively and tragically 30 years later.

Crowds enthusiastically approve the declaration of war on Russia by Germany, Munich August 1914. Whether or not the man in the photograph is Hitler we can be assured that he would have reacted in a similar manner

Hitler did receive incremental payments from his fathers ‘estate’ which intermittently punctuated the life of poverty and squalor he operated in. In 1913 he resolved to leave Vienna and move to Munich in Germany having failed at almost everything he had aimed to do. Even his conscription (not voluntary but mandatory) into the Austro-Hungarian army for his national service was ‘failed’ due to him being deemed unfit for service. However fate would soon align in Hitler’s favour and give him a sense of purpose and being like he had never experienced. The outbreak of European-wide conflict in August 1914 was met with patriotic and nationalistic fervour across the continent and militaries were not as discerning as to signing up cannon fodder for the meat grinder of war as they would have been in peace time. Hitler was enlisted in the German Army and served with – it has to be said – distinction in his time as a soldier. He won medals for bravery including the most prestigious of all in the German Army, the Iron Cross, and was generally regarded well by his fellow soldiers and superiors. His German nationalism fulled further by the horrors and misguided pride of war, Hitler took the defeat of Germany in 1918 particularly badly and his bitterness and angst over the peace terms agreed at Versailles, combined with his existing anti-semitic views, meant he was an ardent believer in the ‘stabbed in the back myth.’ Hitler felt the pain and sense of injustice acutely, something he was to skillfully exploit in later years once he had a national platform to speak from.

We wrap up this insight into Hitlers formative years – he’s now a not so young 30 year old right enough! – by exploring his journey in the years immediately following WW1. Given his sketchy educational and employment history, and the general chaos and upheaval of Germany at the time, Hitler’s only real option was to remain in the German Army whereupon he was given the assignment of spying on the myriad political parties springing up and staking their claim to righteousness. Munich is known as a city of Bier Halles which is where these political parties campaigned and spoke in the hope of attracting support and new members. Hitler was assigned one such (small) party – the German Worker’s Party – and quickly ingratiated himself with it small membership and support base. So much so that he quickly crossed the line between observer and full on member as he found common ground with the core beliefs of the small party, which were nationalistic, anti-semitic, anti-Marxist and anti-capitalist. Hitler quickly became the party’s ‘keynote’ star speaker and attracted large crowds to his sessions in the beer halls which swelled support and membership of the party. Eager to exploit their growing status, the party renamed themselves the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP or Nazi for short) and created a new logo of the swastika, which was designed by Hitler himself. He quickly superseded the existing hierarchy within the party and gravitated from star speaker to party leader by 1921.

Hitler’s energy, enthusiasm and ability to control an audience meant that he was able to deliver his vitriolic and antagonistic rhetoric to an ever growing – and appreciative – audience. Focusing strongly on what he perceived as ‘traditional’ German values, scapegoating the Jews and the Weimar government as the ‘November Criminals’ who had ‘stabbed Germany in the back’ and sold her future away, his position and rhetoric appealed to many of the German people, who were in a desperate position themselves and looking for convenient and simplistic answers to a complex and multi-layered problem facing post-WW1 Germany. Naturally, Hitler’s message found a ready-made audience amongst the disaffected – and unemployed – young men who had so recently returned from war and felt their efforts and sacrifices were being ignored. Hitler moulded these tough and mentally scarred young men into what would act as the Nazi party’s own paramilitary force – the SA (brownshirts). Emboldened by his rapid political ascent within Munich, Hitler already had a taste for something greater, which we will explore in the next post!

Excellent source of information and background to the embryonic development of the early Nazi Party
Longer documentary with dramatised recreations of Hitlers journey from badly behaved teenager to totalitarian overlord of the Third Reich

Please find associated resources below

The Old Firm and football’s ‘forgotten’ disaster: Ibrox Stadium, January 2nd 1971

The end of the old year just passing and the bringing in of the new one to come is an event which is celebrated and commemorated with varying levels of pomp, pageantry and cultural flavouring around the world. For those in Scotland, the New Years celebrations marked the social pinnacle of the year, with Hogmanay (New Years Eve) and Ne’erday (New Years Day) a time where families reunited, made merry and toasted to a successful future in the year to come. Whilst the event itself often took on an anti-climactic and bloated feel – primarily due to mass over-consumption of food and drink on offer over Hogmanay and Ne’erday and the longer festive holiday period – there was always the football to look forward to; as a distraction from the trivialities of family small talk and as a spur to get oneself out the house. In Scotland these ‘holiday’ fixtures invariably involved head to head clashes between teams nearest rivals – ‘derby’ fixtures – which in the case of Glasgow meant bringing in the New Year with an ‘Old Firm’ meeting between two of the bitterest rivals in all world football, Rangers and Celtic.

In a fixture which often defies logic and rationality in explaining its undertones and significance to so many people who aren’t born into it, the ‘New Years game’ between the two hated Glasgow rivals takes on more cultural and sporting resonance than the rest; its a reference point for who you are and what you stand for, your identity, your feeling of community and its associated sense of pride and self-worth … all this felt more intense and magnified around this specific New Years fixture than the multiple other times the two teams often met throughout a season of fixtures. As it is with the study of history events cannot be taken completely in isolation, thus a brief background context is required for those unfamiliar with the fixture (maybe when they change the GCSE or A-Level syllabus to include ‘History of Football’ this wont be an issue!).

Glasgow is a city which can best be described as a fervent hotbed of football, and one which has exerted an historical influence and footprint on the game which belies its current status as a city with a wider population of some 1.7 million people in the wet, windy and often gloomy extremities of North-Western Europe. Once proudly self-proclaimed as the ‘2nd city of Empire’ due to its status as a nexus of trade, commerce, industry and finance during the heyday of the British Empire, Glasgow has suffered more than most the ravages of post-industrial decline and decay and for many of its inhabitants the transition from industrial powerhouse to service-based economy has been a painful one which has left them behind (Glasgow often dubbed the ‘sick man of Europe’ to this day due to its performance on multiple indices of health, wellbeing and poverty). During the city’s – and its surrounding industrial heartlands – days as a powerhouse of empire and industry many migrants were drawn to the regions shipyards, factories, coal mines and mills to find employment and a better life. Of these new migrants to Glasgow and surrounding regions a huge number – my own ancestors included – made the short ferry ride over the Irish Sea, the Irish escaping what had been a century of misery and famine for many during the 19th century.

As with all migrant populations, their arrival ‘fertilised’ the native culture with new ideas, cultures and customs (similar to the ‘Melting Pot’ of the USA) they brought with them, which have contributed to the unique culture and identity of Glasgow today. However, as with any mass migration into a specific city or region, there were also flashpoints and areas of resentment between native and newcomer and 19th century Glasgow – booming, belching and grinding with industry, expansion and commerce – was no different. The reference point of being ‘the other’ in Glasgow manifested itself through religion – the native Scots being Protestant (overwhelmingly Presbyterian) in their beliefs and moral compass whilst the majority – although not all – of the Irish newcomers were of the Catholic religion. From this seed of simple faith-based difference grew generations of suspicion, isolationism, resentment and paranoia, whilst at the same time also harnessing a sense of defiance, siege mentality and associated pride in ones community and culture.

Glasgow’s boom years coincided with the explosion in growth and popularity of a new sport borne out of the English public school system, and one which the Scots took to with particular vigour, passion and skill – Football (what has happened to us since?!). Football naturally became a reference point and rallying call for competing towns and cities, different districts and different communities as it attracted mass followings from the working class – who now had a bit more free time on their hands with the workplace reforms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Glasgow two clubs came to define and be the champions of their respective communities based on religion; Celtic – completely by design as they were formed as a specifically Irish Catholic club to represent their religious community, and Rangers, the club of the ‘natives’ who – whilst founded first in 1872 were never founded on any religious or sectarian basis – quickly assumed the role as the main rival to the immigrant upstarts of the Irish Catholic community and took on the identity as the sporting champions of Glasgow’s Protestant majority accordingly.

Both teams have been at each others necks ever since that first game in May 1888, and have played each other 421 times in total with Rangers (thankfully!) just having a slight edge on their rivals in the head to head rankings. For outsiders – or those who simply just don’t understand or ‘get it’ – the rivalry may seem petty, inexplicable, immature or almost medieval in how two teams from the same city can generate so much hatred and energy from within towards the ‘other’ based on identity and faint notions of religious beliefs – especially in the 21st century. For those of us born into it, its a heady – and at times explosive – mix of passion, expression of self-identity and belief and love for each of the clubs and the game of football itself. Whilst defeats in these games are a real low, theres one fixture from all the years which stands out from the rest as not only the darkest day in the long history of the fixture, but also the darkest day in Rangers history and the history of Scottish football itself – the 2nd January 1971.

As stated earlier, the ‘New Years derby’ takes on a significance and meaning all its own in what is already a unique and iconic sporting rivalry. Often this fixture takes place around the midpoint of the season thus neither team are – usually – completely without hope in terms of making it a successful season with a victory here often seen as a springboard to success in the new year ahead, whether it be to re-enforce an existing lead or to reduce the gap between your team and the team ahead. The unique attraction and aura around the two clubs means that its not only a rivalry played out between those from in and around Glasgow; fans from all over Scotland and Ireland have a passion for one (never both!) of Glasgow’s ‘big two’ and this further adds to the spectacle and intensity of the rivalry.

Thus so it was on a leaden grey, ‘dreich’ ( a great Scottish word that) and gloomy Saturday morning that Scotland gingerly awoke from its New Years celebrations/hangover with fans of each of Rangers and Celtic galvanising and steeling themselves for the sporting battle which was to come. In the case of Rangers fans, this was perhaps more in hope than in expectation as Celtic were enjoying a run of unprecedented success both in domestic as well as European football and were the favourites to prevail that cold gloomy day in January 1971. However, as any fan of either club knows, no quarter or concession is given despite the odds indicating otherwise and in such cases it as much about defending your territory and what is sacred to you from the hated rivals.

Ibrox Stadium in 1971 was a behemoth of a stadium, in fact Glasgow had 3 vast footballing bowls which – in their heydays two of which had accommodated upwards of 100,000 people (Hampden’s record crowd was 149,000; Ibrox 118,000) and Celtic’s Parkhead hosting 92,000 record attendance – given the city’s wider population has been around 1.5m for over 100 years gives an indication of the passion and devotion many ‘Glaswegians’ (name for natives of the city) have for the game. As previously mentioned Rangers and Celtic also act as a magnet for fans across the wider ‘central belt’ (the name given to the densely populated lowland region of Scotland between Glasgow and Edinburgh – and slightly north and south of it – where over 70% of the Scottish population live) thus fans made their way not only from the tenements and streets of Glasgow to the stadium but also from towns and villages across the country in their supporters buses, which would have been journeys full of new year spirit and celebration of ones sporting and cultural identity.

My own grandfather was part of this ‘sporting exodus’, traveling the 30 miles or so from the small Ayrshire mining town of Auchinleck with his fellow Rangers fans in their supporters club, as were 5 teenage lads all from the same street in a similar small mining community from the opposite side of the country in Markinch, Fife. Ibrox was a grand, imposing yet somewhat austere stadium from contemporary accounts of the period, one of the best not only in Scotland but also the UK, yet very much a product of its time with vast swathes of uncovered standing terracing and rudimentary facilities which todays football crowds would find almost alien compared to the comfort and ease of access they enjoy. The maximum capacity had been reduced from its 1930s heyday of 118,000 to a more manageable 80,000 by 1971. Whilst the likes of my grandfather – who would have been in his early 50s – took their places to watch the game in the main ‘grandstand’ enclosure section younger, more vivacious and animated fans congregated in the ends of the vast bowl behind the respective goals. For Rangers fans this meant the Copland Road end of the stadium and specifically the section which the access point was ‘Stairway 13.’

Contemporary accounts of the game point to it being pretty much a non-event in what I – and many others – would like to portray as an often explosive, exciting and captivating sporting rivalry, showing that you shouldn’t trust everything your teacher says. In keeping with both teams respective form around this time in History, Celtic edged themselves into a (very) late lead in the 89th minute with a headed goal from who must have been the shortest player on the pitch, Jimmy Johnstone. Unperturbed, and perhaps imbued with the spirit of defiance which Rangers are famous for, Rangers promptly went up the other end of the pitch and scored their own even later goal through Colin Stein, equalising with what was basically the last action of the game and sending the majority of the 80,000 capacity crowd into raptures of joy at salvaging something from a drab game they thought they had contrived to lose so late on. As both sets of fans set off on their respective ways home – across Glasgow, across all of central Scotland – the Rangers fans would have been noticeably more jubilant and happy, although neither side had too much to complain about. Fans filed out of the stadium towards their supporters buses, cars and public transport stops with eyes no doubt on continuing the remainder of the New Years holiday festivities once they returned safely home. However for many of those leaving the stadium, returning safely home to family, friends and loved ones was something they were never able to do.

The overwhelming majority of the crowd exiting Ibrox that cold January afternoon were completely oblivious to the tragedy that was unfolding in their midst on the steps of Stairway 13, such was the nature of the incident. Conflicting accounts over the years since have muddied the waters of what actually happened on the ill-fated Stairway 13 that day, with a now discredited myth that the crush happened when fans leaving the stadium attempted to gain re-entry to the stadium upon hearing the roar from the stands which obviously marked Rangers late equalising goal, and met with fans already leaving which resulted in a crush. This was discredited at the subsequent Fatal Accident Inquiry where one witness said to do so would have been like “running into a brick wall”. But it was a myth that was to endure for decades.

The most likely explanation as to the immediate ‘trigger’ cause of the disaster would be that whereby a jubilant young fan on his fathers shoulders fell forward into those in front of him, which in turn created a domino effect of fans colliding into and ultimately falling on top of one another. This situation reached a sickening and tragic crescendo between the 1st and 3rd landings of the stairway, where hundreds of fans found themselves trapped in a tangled mess of limbs several bodies deep, with according pressure and lack of chance to get a breath in suffocating many. In a surreal description of the aftermath it was noted that ‘little blood was spilled and few limbs were broken … the victims just looked like they were sleeping.’ The dead and injured had the pressure finally relieved when human chains formed in advance of the disaster area to stop more fans – remember full of joy and happiness at the late goal – descending unknowingly to their deaths, and the process of saving the lives of those they still could began in earnest. In a rivalry which is clearly defined by bitter deep-set hatred, staff members and management of both clubs laid aside differences to help those in need and ferry the injured to ambulances; Celtic’s assistant manager Sean Fallon – a former life-guard – saved one fans life by administering the kiss of life amongst other tales of heroism from a desperately sad situation.

“(it) was like a pack of cards that had been thrown forward; the lower ones were horizontal, others were semi-upright and the last were upright.”

Eye-witness account of the disaster, 1971

“I’ve still got the pictures of that day in my head. They will never go away. I remember coming out of the shower after the game and seeing people being brought in and laid out on the floor.

Derek Johnstone, Rangers player. He himself was only 17 years at the time

The tangled and twisted mess of metal barriers – there ostensibly to make things safer for the crowd exiting the steep stairway – and debris of personal belongings such as watches, wallets, Rangers scarves, glasses as well shoes ripped off by the force of gravity told its own tragic and heartbreaking story. In an area no bigger than the penalty box of a football field 66 souls lost their lives and hundreds more were injured. The majority of victims were teenagers and their 20s, the supposed prime of their lives where youthful freedom and adult opportunities exist side by side. The youngest victim was a 8 year old boy from Liverpool – in a sad irony a fan of Liverpool FC who would face their own tragedy from being involved in similar stadium disasters in the 1980s which his father had the sad experience of being in attendance for both of – and the oldest only 43 years old. One female fan died in the tragedy, and those 5 best friends from the same street in a small mining town in Fife – who were full of wide-eyed hope and devotion to the cause of supporting their team and who had their whole lives ahead of them – perished together on the steps of Stairway 13.

Given the nature of how young and how many fans had perished in the crush – and the profile of Rangers as a club which runs through the heart of Scottish society – the scale of sadness and mourning was on an unprecedented scale with Rangers players and management attending almost every funeral they could ( 20 funerals taking place on the same day in Glasgow alone). Celtic manager Jock Stein – a Rangers fan as a boy and young man before signing for Celtic as a player as well as actively running stretchers back and forth in the aftermath of the disaster itself – called for an end to the poison and toxicity which surrounded the fixture and for fans to forget the ‘divide’ which separated them from the ‘other.’ And for a while at least, stunned into shock, contemporary accounts and sources from the time do indicate – an albeit temporary – softening of hostility and entrenchment between either side of Glasgow’s eternal footballing conflict.

This terrible tragedy must help to curb the bigotry and bitterness of Old Firm matches. When human life is at stake this kind of hatred seems sordid and little. Fans of both sides will never forget this disaster.

Jock Stein, article in ‘The Celtic View’ club magazine, 1971
Rival managers Willie Waddell and Jock Stein tend to the injured and dead on the Ibrox pitch in the aftermath of the crush.

Sadly it didn’t long for the tragedy to be ‘weaponised’ and used as a means to antagonise and dehumanise fans of Rangers by a minority of rival fans, with graffiti often seen around Glasgow mocking the dead and distasteful songs sung towards Rangers when playing both Celtic and Aberdeen. Even the sanctity of the minutes silence to commemorate the victims – held every year at Rangers nearest home game to the 2nd January which invariably is against Celtic every other year – is not considered sacred by a minority of rival fans who find themselves incapable of remaining silent for 60 seconds in respect of the dead, instead preferring to imitate coughing fits, shouting political slogans or refusing to enter the stadium until after the silence is over. These fans – and those who see fit to mock other football related tragedies such as the Munich Air Disaster or Hillsborough also – would do well to look back on how Jock Stein conducted himself both during and in the aftermath of the tragedy and take his lead in showing human decency in memory of what at the end of the day were fellow football fans out to watch a game; no different to what they are doing when going to watch their own teams in the present day.

“It was hellish. There were bodies in the dressing rooms, in the gymnasium and even in the laundry room.

I will never forget the sight of Bob Rooney, the Celtic psyhiotherapist, with tears in his eyes giving the kiss of life to innumerable victims. He never stopped, nor did the Rangers doctors, nor the nurses and ambulancemen.”

Rangers manager Willie Waddell recalling events of the fateful day

My own grandfather was one of those exiting Ibrox that day completely oblivious of the tragedy which had unfolded in his midst. By virtue of both his age and geography of where he lived, he was very unlikely to use the Stairway 13 exit – which would have been more common for those living north of the River Clyde (Glasgow’s main river and demarcation line between ‘north’ and ‘south’ sides) who would use the Glasgow Subway to get home and those who lived to the east and north of Glasgow in places such as Falkirk, Edinburgh, Clydebank and Fife. Instead his supporters bus making the short journey south would have left from a different location thus facilitating use of a different exit to get away easier. Also given his age he was more likely to watch from the ‘Enclosure’ terracing within the main grandstand instead of the more boisterous and youthful Copland Road end terracing. Still, this didn’t stop my grandmother worrying as news of the unfolding tragedy slowly filtered across the airwaves in that pre-internet and pre mobile phone – and often pre phone of any kind in many households – age, as waited anxiously on his safe arrival through the door. This scene was replicated throughout Scotland as many fans wouldn’t find out until much later and went to the pubs and clubs to continue the New Year’s celebrations than make sure to check in at home and say they were safe and well. And what of Rangers themselves; did they as a club have a case to answer in their Ibrox Stadium not being fit for purpose for hosting crowd of such magnitude safely? Did they act upon these tragic events and use it as the catalyst for building a positive legacy of spectator safety and comfort?

The answer to the first question is ambiguous, given the findings of the official government ‘Fatal Accident Inquiry’ and the proceeding civil case raised against the club by a widow of one of those who perished that day. Despite what we would look upon as primitive and archaic facilities with the benefit of hindsight, Ibrox was of a higher standard than other stadiums of the era and as such it was decided by the Fatal Accident Inquiry that Rangers did not have a case to answer in terms of criminal negligence in their role in the disaster; it was, as eye witnesses and the general perception of events both then and now still are, a tragic accident which could have happened anywhere at any time. Yet this isn’t the whole story in terms of that specific stairway at Ibrox Stadium, where two prior crushing events had happened in the preceding decade, one of the crushes resulting in the deaths of 2 fans. Whilst Rangers had acted upon these incidents and made amendments and ‘improvements’ to the stairway in due course, these ultimately helped exacerbate the scope for an even bigger tragedy to occur as by strengthening the barriers and limits of the stairway it ultimately left less scope for fans trapped to escape a future crush, as sadly transpired that fateful Saturday in January 1971.

The civil case raised against the club was damning in finding Rangers hadn’t done enough to mitigate the scope for a future crush event occurring on Stairway 13, and awarded a considerable sum of money in compensation to the widow who raised the case against Rangers. Ultimately though, the world was a different place back in 1971, and the nature of going to sporting events was a different experience entirely to today. Its easy to look back with hindsight and say ‘they should have done this/that’ but the nature of society then was different as were its value judgements, risk assessments and principles on a whole range of issues, with football fans comfort and safety not particularly high on the agenda.

Sadly the tragic events at Ibrox were replicated all too often in the years which followed, with fans perishing in tragic accidents from Sheffield to Bastia to Moscow to Bradford and countless other crushes involving fans who simply went to watch a game of football which all -with hindsight – could have been avoided. ‘Those who fail to learn the lessons of History are doomed to repeat it’ they say, and in the case of football and those in charge of governance and organising the sport they sadly didn’t learn from the events of Ibrox in 1971, or if they did it was all too slowly.

“You cannot judge an event in 1971 by the science that we know and understand now. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. But at that time, this was common practice, there hadn’t been a disaster.”

Professor Keith Still, expert on crowd control, 2020

The same however, could not be said for Rangers as a club. Understandably shook to the core by the deaths of so many within their ‘family’ at their place of worship – Ibrox Stadium – the club and specifically manager Willie Waddell had a more ambitious and futuristic vision in terms of eradicating any future scope for tragedy within Ibrox Stadium, and set Rangers on a path to having the most advanced, modern and most importantly safe stadium in Britain by the 1980s. Modern Ibrox is a testament to this vision and – if anything can be termed us such as given the tragic waste of young life that day on Stairway 13 – a fitting legacy to the memories of those fans no longer with us as a result of the tragic events.

Growing up as a Rangers fan in the 1990s I couldn’t help but be in awe of our magnificent stadium and how much better it seemed than any other stadium in the UK at the time. Rangers were, for a while, arguably the most progressive and forward-thinking club in Britain – debates over a contentious unwritten signing ‘policy’ which was couched in the intricacies of Glasgow and west of Scotland society and culture notwithstanding – at the forefront of not only stadium design and spectator comfort but also in laying the foundations for changes in European club football being one of the key architects behind the now omnipresent UEFA Champions League. We often had an exciting and successful team to compliment our magnificent surroundings during the 1990s and 2000s and, whilst the dynamics of football have shifted and Rangers and Scottish football find themselves marginalised and very much the poor relations of the bloated corporate entity masquerading as a football league to the south in England, we will always remain one of the truly iconic and tradition-laden clubs of world football

Modern Ibrox, with its combination of old and new, is in essence a memorial to the 66 and their memory lives on in the hearts of ever Rangers fan, player and everyone involved in the club. The last decade in particular has not been kind to us in a footballing sense, but our troubles pale into relative insignificance when compared against the tragedy of 2nd January 1971. No football fan should ever go to a game and not expect to return home. Whats in the past cannot be rectified or made better for their grieving families, but we can continue to honour their memory in a respectful and dignified manner each year on the anniversary of the tragedy and in terms of what those poor souls who perished that day would have wanted, win as many games and trophies as possible in their memory. Starting with the game tomorrow, the Old Firm which will be for the first time ever played in front of empty stands at Ibrox Stadium due to the ongoing covid restrictions. A fitting way to mark the 50th anniversary of that tragic day would be for the current Rangers team to march onto victory and raise a smile to the faces of Rangers fans the world over on a day where we remember those not as fortunate to return home safely from our stadium.

Relevant Documentaries & Articles on the Ibrox Disaster

The five boys who didn’t come home: The Story of the 1971 Ibrox Disaster

Liberalism and Nationalism in Germany 1815-71: Economic foundations of the Zollverein

History – from ancient times to contemporary – provides considerable evidence in supporting the belief that economic necessity is the major precursor to social or political change. From ancient times where humans migrated to areas which were the most fertile and productive – fertilising culture and identity as well as the soil on which they farmed – through the Age of Empires and imperial conquest whereby vast swathes of territory were appropriated by (overwhelmingly European) powers for economic gain through to the present day system of global alliances and ‘unions’ based on trading relationships and economic co-operation, money has been what literally makes the ‘world go round.’ And so it was in 19th century, where the wheels of the Unification train were set in motion by the realisation that the German Confederation was wholly inefficient and divisive when it came to generating wealth and prosperity.

The situation is ìdepressing for [German] men who want to act and trade. With envious eyes they look across the Rhine river, where a large nation [i.e., France], from the Canal to the Mediterranean Sea, from the Rhine to the Pyrenees, from the border with the Netherlands to Italy, engages in trade on open rivers and roads without ever encountering a single customs official

Fredreich List, German Economist, 1820s
Reactionary and absolutist Prussia would not have been the first candidate to spring to minds of contemporary Germans of the time to the lead the movement for Unification

Had you suggested to a German liberal-nationalist in the 1820s that it would be the northern partner of the reactionary ‘Peaceful Dualism’ power-duo in Prussia which would be the cradle of German economic progressiveness and nascent Germanic national unit, they would have likely looked on you as one would an alien with 3 heads. Prussia was not a likely candidate to take the nationalist – let alone liberalist reforming – bulls by the horn and drag Germany kicking and screaming into the modern era of nation-states, but as it transpired their actions set the tone and the environment to ripe for such. having accrued additional territories along the Rhine in the aftermath of the Congress of Vienna, the Prussians were frustrated by the multiple and multi-layered array of trading rules, restrictions and most importantly tariffs which they had to negotiate in trading with not only the western portion of their lands (along the Rhine) which were separate from the main Prussian territories but also their neighbouring – and still numerous with over 300 different administrative borders between different political entities – ‘German’ states. As the 2nd largest German state, and a nation which had designs on becoming a genuinely continental power after their success in the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia was acutely aware of these archaic and restrictive economic practices holding her ambitions and aspirations back, and took the lead in abolishing as many internal and pan-Germanic trade barriers as possible in the 1820s.

Whilst some of their fellow German states cast discretion and doubt on Prussia’s plans for economic integration – prophesizing (quite rightly!) that this would act as a precursor to political integration and ergo the end to their independence and sovereignty – and set up competing customs unions (an interesting comparison to this aspect of competition would be to compare to the explosion of railway companies at the dawn of the age of the railroad in both the UK and the US – everyone involved had the same goal and used the same resources and infrastructure – but yet competed with each other and sought to undermine rivals) to counter Prussia’s looming influence and power. Yet resistance was as they futile and eventually what was becoming – in relative terms – the Prussian economic behemoth swallowed them up into what has been described as ‘the most important regional free trade agreement of the 19th century’ – the Zollverein.

The Zollverein was perceived mostly positively by contemporary press of the time.

The Zollverein of 1834 was basically an expansionist version of the earlier Prussian customs unions which continued to grow and involve more and more German states as its economic – and social – benefits became ever more apparent. The success of the Zollverein put more money in the pockets of the average German citizen, standardised economic and customs processes and led to a growing feeling of Germanic cohesion and cooperation across the states. The Zollverein created a huge common market at the center of Europe, echoing much of what Europe as continent has aimed for much of the last 50 years!

The growth of the Zollverein outlined in terms of what states signed up and when. Very quickly it was clear it was better to be ‘in rather than out’ of it.

Naturally, as the instigator and ‘leader’ of this trading bloc, Prussia began to be held up by those with nationalist aspirations as the likely catalyst for any serious steps to be made in the process of German Unification. And within the Prussian corridors of power in Berlin itself, political leaders there saw the benefits the Zollverein offered in extending Prussian political influence across the German Confederation at the expense of Austria, those arch reactionaries and counter-‘everything’ who deemed the Zollverein dangerous and bad for Austrian business. Their policy of Germanic ‘isolationism’ and ‘protectionism’ left them aloof from much of the dynamics and process of change and progress within the rest of the German states, and despite their political influence still being pre-eminent through the 1840s would invariably be left behind as the German states embraced the industrial age, a fact exacerbated further with the explosion in railway building in the 1840s and 1850s.

The Zollverein and the dawning of the Industrial Age in Germany coincided almost perfectly

In summary, the Zollverein not only helped a pan-Germanic economy take root and flourish, it also helped nurture nascent ideas of German unification and progressive economic and political thought and practice whilst propelling Prussia to the forefront of German ‘leadership’ and consigning the reactionary Austrians to a long-term process of decline.

Key Takeaways from this section

Make sure you are secure in your knowledge of the following:

  • Problems facing trade and economic development within the German Confederation in the immediate aftermath of the Congress of Vienna
  • The appeal of customs unions – the Zollverein specifically – to Germans from all walks of life or political affiliations
  • Conversely, be aware of why the Zollverein was not welcomed by some and the existence of competing treaties / unions!
  • Explain the effects and consequences of the Zollverein in developing the German economy
  • As well as its influence and effect on German ideas of nationalism and even liberalism
  • How the coming of the Industrial Age – and in particular the railways – coincided with increased economic cooperation driven by the Zollverein and the combined effects on the prospects of German Unification

Please find associated resources and additional media links below!

Liberalism and Nationalism in Germany 1815-71: How did ideals of ‘reform’ look prior to 1848?

The idea of both political and social reform as well as the concept of a ‘Greater Germany’ was so naive and unrefined in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic period that – despite both Liberals and Nationalists having the mutually inclusive ambition of a ‘unified’ German political entity – there was no consensus as to what form this state might take or how it should be organised and so on. The ideals of Liberals and Nationalists never sat at ease with the other despite the overarching belief in a ‘Germany’ of some sort as an end game.

Brief overview of the key principles of Liberalism and Nationalism in 19th Century European politics. Whilst Liberalism dominated German political debate it was very much intertwined with shared goals of Nationalism also

Liberals – and indeed Nationalists at this stage – where overwhelmingly from the educated, upwardly mobile middle class. Few reformists at this stage were entertaining the concept of universal suffrage and were of the belief that only men of property and wealth should be eligible to vote. Intellectual discourse and debate were their preferred methods of articulation and attack as opposed to violent and militant revolution to uproot and change the status quo. Many would-be reformers primarily were focused on championing constitutional rights within their own states or cities as opposed to a sense of romantic ‘pan-German’ identity, with the attraction of nationalism ebbing somewhat from the forefront of Germanic political discussion the longer into the rear view mirror the period of Napoleonic occupation disappeared.

German students burn effigies and books symbolic of reactionary and foreign rule, Wartburg, 1817

Yet the flames of nationalism never truly died out – especially amongst the vitality and vivacity of the youth – and student societies grew in popularity throughout the years after the Congress of Vienna. Our old friend Metternich added further attraction and intrigue to the notion of joining a student society for young Germans in this period with his overtly draconian and heavy-handed reaction to the murder of a Tsarist informer through implantation of The Carlsbad Decrees (1819). If theres one thing which is sure to attract rebellious and free-spirited youth to a cause its banning them from doing so or outlawing said cause/organisation, and this is exactly what Metternich did when he decreed that student societies should be banned and critical thinking to be severely censored and its proponents investigated.

Metternich’s ‘Carlsbad Decrees’ stifled political freedom of expression in the short term, but led to a longer-term distrust of Austrian meddling in German affairs.

The repression and stifling hand of reactionary Austria smothered much real nationalist debate during the 1820s, but the seed which had been planted by Napoleon continued to take root and saw a renaissance in German cultural expression and folk festivals in the 1830s, which again Metternich sought to stamp out in his usual heavy handed way. Slowly, a divide was slowly widening within the Bundestag of the German Confederation, with a number of German states growing ever more tired and turned-off by the reactionary repression exercised by Austria. As has often been the case throughout history, it was a matter of money which blew the doors wide open for Nationalists within the German lands, and this time Austria was caught severely flat footed on the chase.

Key Takeaways from this section

Make sure you are secure in your knowledge of the following:

  • What it was – generally – that the Liberal and Nationalist schools of thought wanted a future Germany to look like.
  • The role of both Austria and Prussia in restricting the growth of German democracy and national identity
  • The growth of the middle class and effects on aspirations of liberal reform
  • The role of the student societies and their effect on German nationalist thought and ambitions

Please find associated resources and additional media links below!

Liberalism and Nationalism in Germany 1815-71: The road to 1848 – How ‘Germanic Europe’ emerged into the post-Napoleonic world

Prior to the years of Napoleonic conflict and according domination of the Germanic states of Central Europe, the concept of ‘Germany’ as political ideal was vague and distant for all but a very few dreamers and eccentrics. As late as 1789 those who identified as German in a cultural or ethnic sense found themselves divided across a loosely aligned confederation dating from medieval times of 314 different states, each having its own traditions, customs, laws and prerogatives on aspects of politics and society. In essence it was a feudal system, once which the explosion of ideas of equality, reform and emancipation across the Rhine in France shook to its very core, then violently realigned in its own image during the years of Napoleonic conquest (1805-13).

Napoleon inspects his victorious troops, Battle of Jena 1806

Whilst the perception of todays multi-national European experiment of co-operation and ‘Fraternity’ is that of a European Union under nominal German hegemony, in the early 19th century France and Napoleon were without question the driving force in ripping Europe from its archaic shackles and forging a new and progressive – albeit firmly under French direction and hegemony – modern Europe. Ultimately a combination of British naval prowess and a Russian winter campaign meant Napoleon’s ambitions were to be curtailed before ever reaching their full potential, but the period of French domination had left an indelible mark on the conscience of reformer and conservative thinkers alike, not least in the German states which now numbered 39 through annexation by larger German states such as Prussia. Whilst emulating the social achievements of the French Revolution was an ambition for Liberal Germans, others were less keen to embrace the concepts of such – for the times – radical new social system and sought to roll back such revolutionary concepts and secure peace and stability based on the old ways. Step forward Austria – in particular Clemens von Metternich.

Clemens von Metternich, Austrian Foreign Minister and chief ‘orchestrator’ of the’ Concert of Vienna’ 1815

The ‘Vienna Settlement’ of 1815 proved to be a peace conference which delivered a lasting and conclusive peace, in direct contrast to its successor just over 100 years later. However, in contrast to Versailles which sought to deliver a progressive and ambitious future based on self-determination and a League of Nations working in unity, the ‘Concert of Vienna’ in 1815 sought to achieve a balance of power based on principles and structures of the past. The primary architect in chief of this solution was Austria and in particular Foreign Minister von Metternich. Seeking to prevent future instances of revolution and liberal thought by restoring the old system of absolutist monarchies across Europe and censoring and repressing any ‘radical’ voices, the concept of Nationalism was anathema to Metternich. Ultimately it would be this arrogance and refusal to acknowledge the shifting tides of political and social discourse would prove to be his downfall in due course. But for now the old guard and ‘counter-revolutionary’ ideals reigned supreme, and Austria was happy to remain the nominal ‘leader’ of the German-speaking states without actually doing much in the way of leadership.

Although the nominally most powerful German ruler after the Austrian Emperor, Fredrick William III showed little interest in having Prussia take the lead as the pre-eminent German state

The other big ‘winner’ to emerge from the Congress of Vienna was that of the 2nd most powerful and influential German state, Prussia. Prussia had made a considerable military contribution in the Napoleonic Wars and was the most economically well positioned German state in terms of making any moves to expand, but in keeping with the general fashion of the day it was led by a conservative absolutist monarch in Fredrick William III who showed little appetite for political or social reform (Prussia remaining without a constitution of any kind until 1848). Despite the lack of enthusiasm from their political rulers and elites in pursuing anything substantial in terms of reform, the spillover from the French Revolution and Napoleonic rule had planted the seeds of a nascent Nationalist identity within the minds of many – particularly younger – German middle classes which dovetailed with the growth and development of a Liberal movement within the German states which echoed those voices and dreams of their French neighbours less than a generation previously in calling for political, social and economic reform. Whilst both were inherently middle class movements in Germany – perhaps even more so than in France – the dawning of the Industrial Age would act as a catalyst in connecting the dots between the bourgeoisie and workers in years to come.

Key Takeaways from this section

Make sure you are secure in your knowledge of the following:

  • The political landscape of the German Confederation 1815-1830
  • The role of Metternich in suppressing German political and social identity
  • Who the German Liberals were and what formed the core of their beliefs
  • The growth in German Nationalism during 1820s/30s and the challenges it faced
  • The reasons why a unified and cohesive Germany seemed a distant dream in this era

Please find associated resources and additional media links below!

An uneasy relationship: Soviet control over Central and Eastern Europe – The Prague Spring of 1968

The shifting sands of Soviet internal power in the 1960s – Khrushchev being replaced by Brezhnev – heralded a change in the dynamics of the foreign policy and international relations of the USSR and its sphere of influence. The mantra of ‘peaceful co-existence’ – in principle if not always in practice – from the Khrushchev era was cast aside in favour of a more ‘hard-line’ traditionalist form of control and expectations of Soviet allies accordingly. Thus, perhaps not the most opportune time to go about looking to reform the Communist system from within one of the satellite states! Yet in 1968 the Czechoslovak capital of Prague was buzzing with an atmosphere of change and genuine hope and expectation that life was about to get better…

Again its firstly important to understand the background context to the situation in terms of the social and cultural threads underpinning Czechoslovakia. What had once been an integral multi-ethnic region of the quintessentially multi-ethnic empire of Austria-Hungary, the peoples of Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and the Carpathians emerged from the embers of WW1 to find themselves facing the post-war future as the newly forged state of Czechoslovakia. Encompassing a majority of ‘Czechoslovaks’ (the two most numerous ethnic groups lending their names to the new nation-state) with sizeable minorities of Germans and Hungarians within its borders, the new nation was a relative success in the inter-war period, enacting effective and stable working systems of democracy and representation and respect for the various ethnic groups within.

The Czechoslovak state also had a modern industrial economy and was seen as a secure and reliable member of the international community of nations. However, perhaps as a consequence of this success, others cast furtive glances at the new nation and applied old irredentist arguments to stake their claim to various regions of Czechoslovakia. Obviously we have covered in depth the most (in)famous example – Hitler and his designs on the Sudetenland – in other units but both Slovak and Hungarian nationalists also had their eyes on dismembering the Czechoslovak nation to fit their own nationalistic ideals. Thus despite taking considerable damage as a consequence of Nazi occupation and all its trappings during WW2, Czechoslovakia was a much coveted ‘prize’ for those who sought to re-design post-war Europe in their own image – not least the USSR who envied its industrial and agricultural infrastructure. As the Red Army had their boots on the ground there first .. naturally they felt they had the right to enforce their system and their policies upon the Czechoslovaks.

The similarities with Hungary are immediately apparent; both nations had an advanced (in comparison to the rest of the USSR’s new ‘possessions’) industrial economy and a thriving agricultural sector – which as in Hungary as they did in Czechoslovakia – the Soviets asset-stripped and milked to the maximum. Naturally this served to alienate from the brave new Communist world and leave a sour taste in the mouths of both the Czechoslovak and Hungarian people, both of whom saw themselves as more constituent peoples of Mitteleuropa than part of anything more couched towards being ‘Eastern’ and facing Moscow.

The means and methods of acquiring ‘allies’ post-WW2!

Again drawing parallels with the Hungarian experience of 1956 the ‘revolt’ against Soviet control and repression was grounded in calls for economic reforms and increased freedoms both economically as well as politically and socially. Where the two events diverge somewhat is in the overarching ambition of the reformists; whilst in Hungary events reached such a crescendo that Nagy called for an immediate withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and ergo a disavowal of the Soviet system, the popular Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek’s clearly stated intention was to reform the Communist system and enact a popular form of Communism know as ‘socialism with a human face.’ The system wasn’t necessarily ‘broke’ per se, but it could be better managed and more humane and efficient for the people living under it.

“Socialism cannot mean only liberation of the working people from the domination of exploiting class relations but must make more provisions for a fuller life of the personality than any bourgeois democracy.”

Dubcek on his motivations underpinning the ‘Socialism with a human face’ reform program
Czechoslovak reformist Alexander Dubcek warmly greeted by supporters

“Czechs started to feel a national identity again, After many years the people again thought of themselves as part of Western civilization. For the first time in many years, people could travel abroad again. People enjoyed choices because suddenly much more things were possible, be it the field in studies or working opportunities”

Czech historian Milada Políšenská reflecting on the summer of 1968

Dubeck’s reforms were widely popular and met with near universal approval by the Czechoslovak people. However, Moscow and Brezhnev did not look as fondly on the notion of a free media, less centralised economic control and political and social freedoms (such as the right to travel abroad and less powers to the secret police) and the Kremlin feared a ‘domino effect’ of these dangerously democratic ideas spreading across the rest of the Eastern Bloc nations. On the trumped-up pretext of having been asked step in by other members of the Warsaw Pact (again fearful their own fiefdoms might collapse under the weight of freedom and human rights) Brezhnev did as his predecessors had in 1956 and sent in the Red Army to the streets of a Central European capital city.

Oratorio for Prague – an accidental yet definitive documentary-styled first hand account of the realities of both the Prague Spring and subsequent Warsaw Pact repression, 1968

Again we see definite divergence in one outcome at least compared to Hungary; the bloodshed and destruction seen in Budapest in 1956 was by and large avoided with Dubcek pleading for protests to amount to no more than passive resistance – peaceful protests and strikes as opposed to the armed violence in Hungary which contributed to thousands of deaths. The ultimate outcome of both Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968 remained the same; nascent popular reform movements in both were ruthlessly crushed and subsequently repressed by the Soviet Union with a change in leadership in favour of a man Moscow ‘could trust’ to their bidding with minimum fuss or without delusions of reform! As with Hungary ‘the West’ stood somewhat blithely by and looked on; the USA was in the mire in Vietnam and Western Europe were understandably not too enamoured with the prospect of taking on the Soviet military alone.

“Already in January and February, I warned everybody I knew that this experiment will not have a happy ending, the communists are not able to reform themselves… I told them, the Soviet Union will not be able to let our country go. If [they] would have let us reform then all the other countries of the region would have taken the decision as well.”

Czech dissident Jiri Stránský reflecting on the futility of the Spring, 2008 interview

The results of the Prague Spring may have initially shown as amounting to a victory for the USSR; once again they had shown who’s boss in the light of upstart reformists in their sphere of influence and post-Prague 1968 they had the resoundingly shiny and conclusive ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ (giving the USSR the right to invade any Warsaw Pact nation showing signs of divergence from the righteous path!) to deter further disturbances to Soviet hegemony. Again, the question must be asked of how secure Soviet control really was given the complete lack of flexibility and co-operation they exercised in dealing with what were their supposed allies in the Czechoslovak Communist Party. This lack of trust, respect and tact/nous in diplomacy would ultimately be one of the key catalysts in the eventual downfall of the Soviet system

“They may crush the flowers, but they cant stop the Spring.”

Dubcek prior to his removal from Czech Communist Party and transfer to the Forestry Service

Please find associated resources and additional media links below!

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