What does it take to get Europeans to have a Revolution?

In a recent article about the youth unemployment crisis in Europe and Africa  HFN asked a question:

“What are all these people going to do?”

to which a reader responded:

“If you look on the street, you’ll find the answer … countless uprisings in most European countries will finally generate a profound revolution that will change Europe! 

At this point each one is focused on the problems of his country, but soon will realize that the problems they face are generated by the same source… that will be the moment when they begin to seek each other using social media tools.

From that point on things will get out of control, and the events will happen with extreme violence and at breakneck speed”

This raised a fascinating question: “What does it take to get Europeans to have a revolution?”

In this article, History Future Now looks back at European revolutions over the past few hundred years to find out.  It quickly becomes apparent that the concept of “revolution” needs to be pretty broad and must encompass other aspects of civil unrest and violence, including protest marches, riots, uprisings and civil wars.

What we will uncover was what was needed to get Europeans out of a state of inaction, where they live with the status quo, and into a state of action, where they risk their lives and property to do something about a situation that they are unhappy with.  We look at the causes of these civil unrests and then will ask final, more important, question: do any of these circumstances exist today and can we expect a revolution at some point in the future?

What follows is a turbulent ride through history, looking at the main revolutions, civil wars (which can be seen as unsuccessful revolutions), protests that resulted in change (which can be seen as revolutions that did not happen) and riots.  We will travel through these revolutions in a chronological order.  The reason for this is that historical context is critical in understanding the causes of revolutions.  Revolutions in one country have a significant impact on the counties around it.  Revolutions rarely happen in historical or geographic isolation. What may surprise History Future Now readers is the sheer number of revolutions and civil wars in Europe that have taken place over the past few hundred years.  Over 60 in total.

There are very strong overlaps for all of Europe’s revolutions.  The motivations were similar in the past and are likely to be similar in the future.

Let’s get started.

[NOTE:  This article is also available as a Podcast.  Click here to download.]


Part 2: A history of European Revolutions

English Civil War / English Revolution

The English Civil War, or English Revolution, which kicked off in 1642, is perhaps the most important of all revolutions in modern European history.  What took place here provided the blueprint for many revolutions in the future.

Ultimately, this revolution was about a struggle for control over a country.  On one side you had Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, who wanted to rule the country without interference from Parliament.  On the other side you had Parliament, which, by long tradition and law, was supposed to have significant influence over the governing of the country – including raising taxes- but had been ignored and had its power circumvented by King Charles I.

Before any reader gets carried away thinking that this was about democracy vs monarchy, think again. Parliament was the representative body of the rich and the powerful. Not the common man. The English Civil War was paid for by Parliament on one side, who offered a reasonably reliable salary to the toiling classes who would become their soldiers, and the King on the other side, who was increasingly unable to pay his soldiers.  He lost.

Parliament was fed up with being ignored and decided to fight the legitimate ruler of the country for control.  Parliament won.  Eventually the King was beheaded and Parliament took over.  But Parliament was not sure about what to do after it had won: their initial war aims had been simple- get the King to share power with them, like he was legally obliged to do.

In the end, they handed over power to their commander in chief, Oliver Cromwell, who had led the Parliamentary side to victory.  Ironically, he ended up wielding more personal power than Charles I had ever held.  Parliament was not happy with this and after Cromwell’s death they invited Charles’ son back to England to restore the monarchy with a clear understanding that he would rule in conjunction with Parliament and not as a divinely appointed absolute monarch.  Faced with a choice of permanent exile or becoming king, albeit with strings attached, Charles’ son agreed to their demands. In 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II was proclaimed King.

So the lesson of the English Civil War was not that the English were particularly keen on getting rid of the monarchy.  Rather it was that the upper middle class, who controlled Parliament, were fed up of being ignored by the monarchy and wanted a real voice and real governing power.  That was enough.

The Glorious Revolution

Unlike the English Civil War, this 1688 revolution, which was instigated by Parliament against James II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, was not about control today, but fear about a loss of control in the future.  The Glorious Revolution was essentially a preemptive Parliamentary first strike.

This revolution, which took place within the living memory of many of the participants of the English Civil War, was as a result of Parliament becoming unhappy with the religious persuasions of the monarch, King James II.  King James II, a Roman Catholic, had succeeded his brother, Charles II, a Protestant, in 1685. James II was becoming increasingly supportive of Catholics in a country that was defiantly Protestant.

For the first few years of his reign the Protestant dominated Parliament could live with James II’s Catholic leanings in the knowledge that his heir, Princess Mary, was very Protestant.  In June 1688, however, everything changed when James’ Catholic second wife gave birth to a son, Prince James. Inevitably the new heir apparent would grow up a Catholic and would, as an adult, attempt to roll back Protestantism.

So Parliament invited James II’s son in law, William of Orange, a Protestant Dutchman, to invade the country and to overthrow the King.  William was married to Mary, James II’s daughter.  In November 1688 William landed in England with a large invasion fleet and, after two minor clashes, successfully took over the country.  James II fled into exile with his wife and baby son.

Parliament initially only wanted William to become Regent, with Mary governing as Queen.  When William threatened to return to the Netherlands in disgust, Parliament reluctantly agreed that he should be a co-monarch with Mary.  They were crowned King William III and Queen Mary II.  To prevent any potential Catholic power grab in the future a series of laws were enacted that made life increasingly difficult for Catholics. Many still exist today.

Superficially, this looks like a revolution about religion. It is hard for modern secular Europeans to understand conflicts about religion, especially doctrinal differences between  Roman Catholicism and the myriad of Protestant sects.   Fortunately, we can skip the differences and get to the point: if you were a Protestant with a Protestant monarch you would be okay. If a Catholic came to power you might lose your lands, titles and power.

So Parliament was not really fighting a civil war about religion.  They had risked everything when they fought Charles I and had beheaded him. They had invited Charles II back to be king on their terms. They were not about to throw it all away by allowing a Catholic king and heir to impose Catholicism on them.

So the lesson of the Glorious Revolution is that the upper middle classes of Britain, those that controlled Parliament, would fight to keep their wealth and their power and would pre-emptively strike out at a monarchy that might want to reduce their wealth and power.

Jacobite Risings

The English Parliament had kicked out James II in 1688 and had replaced him with his son In law and daughter, William of Orange and Mary II.  Between 1688 and 1746 a series of rebellions took place with the intent of restoring King James II to the throne.  After the death of James II in 1701 his son was proclaimed King James III by his supporters and was backed by King Louis XIV of France and Pope Clement XI.

In 1702 William III died -Mary II had died in 1694- leaving no children. Mary’s sister, Anne, became queen.  Despite having had an amazing 17 children none survived to adulthood.  So when she died in 1714 Parliament arranged for the Protestant Elector of Hanover, Georg, to become the new King, George I.

So it is easy to see why the Jacobites (from the Latin Jacobus – James) felt that their chosen ones, James II and James III, had a much better claim to the throne than William, Mary, Anne and George I.  Much of the action took place in Scotland and the borders between England and Scotland, providing a lot of the “Scottish” colour that is associated with the rebellion today.

But despite a lot of rebellions over a long period of time, it is hard to describe this a a popular revolt.  Essentially this was another power struggle. This time between Parliament and their chosen monarch (William, Mary, Anne, George) and the usurped House of Stuart (Charles I, Charles II, James II and his son).

So the lesson of the Jacobite Risings was that the upper middle classes of Britain, who ran Parliament and had fought a Civil War and had instigated a coup d’etat with a foreigner to pre-emptively get rid of a potentially troublesome monarch, would fight to keep their power.

American Revolution

The American Revolution, which started in 1775, was a British revolution on American soil.  There were thirteen British colonies in America.  These colonies were governed by British laws and its people were British.

Many of these colonists had left England before, during and after the English Civil War, depending on how their side was doing in the conflict.  Puritans from East Anglia had settled New England between 1629 and 1640 in the run up to the English Civil War.  Between 1642 and 1675 a large number of aristocrats and their supporters from the south and west of England fled to Virginia and Maryland.  Between 1675 and 1715 another wave of immigrants, mainly Quakers from the north of England, settled in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.  Finally, between 1717 and 1775 another wave of immigrants, from the north of England, lowland Scotland and Ulster, moved to Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Kentucky.

What they all had in common was the knowledge that the monarchy was not a superior power that had to be obeyed.  These people had seen their king, Charles I, beheaded.  They had seen England develop a republican Commonwealth with power held by Parliament, with no monarch at all, under Cromwell. They had seen Parliament choose five monarchs: Charles II, William III, Mary II, Anne and George I.

It can be argued that the American Revolution was a rehash of the English Civil War.  The colonists had grown up with an understanding that Parliament was the key to governance and power in England.  Charles I had been deposed because he had been governing the country without any Parliamentary representation for years. And yet the problem was even worse for the British colonies in America.  They had no Members of Parliament at all.

In many respects this was a practical problem.  It took a long time to travel to London from the colonies.  American Colonial Members of Parliament would be away from home for months at a time and would be deciding on matters that had nothing to do with issues in North America.  Only some issues would be directly relevant to them.  No other part of the British Empire had overseas Members of Parliament either.

In addition, it must be mentioned that the colonists did have provincial assemblies which had much higher levels of electoral representation than their fellow citizens back in England, Scotland and Ireland.  Only 17-23% of adult males could vote for the British parliament.  In contrast, about 75% of adult males could vote in American provincial assemblies, which dealt with issues that were directly applicable to them.

This was not enough.  What the colonists objected to was a lack of control.  Politicians in another, distant, country were making rules and setting levels of taxation on them. Without the consent of the American provincial assemblies.

British citizens in America were fighting to take back all of the rights that they had come to expect in Britain, without compromises.  The British had fixed the colonies’ western border in 1763. Now the colonies could head west, uninterrupted.  The British controlled all exports and fleets. Now colonial ships could trade (almost) where they wanted.  The British had imposed taxes, albeit very low ones, on the colonies.  Now the colonies could control their own taxation.

Critically, full sovereignty now lay with American citizens.  This helps explain why America today is so reluctant to tie itself to international agreements that supersede American law.  It also explains why so many British today rile against the European Union, which places the British Parliament in a position not that different from American provincial assemblies to British Parliament prior to 1775.

It is worth highlighting that it was not guaranteed that America would become a Republic, once victorious.  Many thought that George Washington should become their new monarch and wanted to confer on him far more powers than he would ultimately take.  Had another man led the Revolutionary efforts America might well have ended up being another monarchy.

So the lesson of the American Revolution was that wealthy British citizens in America would fight to gain the same rights were enjoyed by their fellow citizens in Britain.

French Revolution

It is terribly ironic that the French monarchy, under Louis XVI, was a major supporter of the British colonists’ bid for independence in 1775 – 1783. Only six years after the colonists won, in 1789, France was ripped apart by one of the most violent revolutions in history.  Louis XVI, who only came to power in 1774, was executed in 1792.

Unlike Britain, which had seen a gradual transfer of power from the monarch to Parliament over centuries, France still maintained a very strong centralised autocratic monarchy.  Louis XIV, who ruled France for an impressive 72 years until his death in 1715, had famously said “L’etat, c’est moi.” (I am the state).  He personified the state and was an absolute, divinely ordained monarch with full control.   Louis XIV was threatened by the Parliamentary antics of the English to his north, which was why he was a supporter of the Jacobins and aimed for the restoration of James II and then James III.

In reality, the French monarchy shared power with another major group: the Roman Catholic Church who ruled a state within a state.  They were the largest single landowner in the country, owning about 10% of the land and they were exempt from paying any taxes.

It was the lack of money that set the stage for the French Revolution, in a similar way that the lack of money set the stage for the English Civil War.   France was in deep financial trouble, partially due to the losses during two major periods of conflict. First, the Seven Years War of 1754 -1763 which was a world war involving all the great European powers and ranged from Europe, North America (where it is known as the French and Indian War), Central America, West Africa, India and the Philippines. Second, was the American Revolutionary War, during which France saw the opportunity to weaken its British rival by cutting it off from its increasingly wealthy American colonies.  In the first conflict France lost.  In the second conflict France won but gained nothing, and still had all the costs.

To resolve the financial crisis Louis XVI called for an assembly of the Estates-General in 1789.  This was a major step.  The last time this had been called was in 1614.  175 years previously.  He needed the Estates-General to gather together because he needed a broad agreement on comprehensive tax changes.  The church and nobility needed to be taxed and the commons needed to get on side.

So what was the Estates-General?  There were three parts. Each part had one, equal, vote.   The First Estate was the clergy.  The Second Estate was the nobles.  The Third Estate was the common people.

But by convening an assembly of the Estates-General Louis XVI had opened a Pandora’s Box.  In the spring of 1789 elections were held for the Third Estate and French males over 25 who paid taxes were allowed to vote.  610 Third Estate members were elected in total.  But nobody could agree on the mechanics of voting for the Estates-General.  So in June 1789 the Third Estate declared themselves as the National Assembly and invited members of the clergy and nobility to join them, which many did.  The new National Assembly then proclaimed that they would not disband until they had drawn up a new constitution for France.

By this stage Louis XVI had completely lost control of the situation.  By calling for the Estates-General to be assembled and permitting the Third Estate to hold elections he lost legitimacy.  By July many Parisians believed that the king was bringing in foreign mercenaries to disband the National Assembly and they stormed the Bastille Fortress on the 14th July to capture the large cache of weapons and ammunition. Civil authority deteriorated and militias began to emerge throughout France.  Meanwhile, the National Assembly worked towards creating a new constitution and in August 1789 published a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The situation in France was rapidly deteriorating and the Catholic Church, who had effectively shared power in France, came under attack.  In November Church property was confiscated -“handed over to the nation”-  and by early 1790 all religious orders were dissolved. Many senior army officers, who had formed part of the nobility, deserted and fled to other parts of Europe.  In June 1791 the King and his wife tried to slip out of the country, dressed as servants.  They were discovered at the border and are dragged back to Paris and were kept under guard.

By September 1791 the king accepted a new position as a figurehead in a new constitutional monarchy.  This did not last long, however, and in the following year the monarchy was abolished and a Republic was declared.  Within weeks France was also at war with its neighbours who had threatened invade if the king was deposed.  Unfortunately for Louis, this made him an enemy of the state and he was guillotined on the 21 January 1793.

The entire French state became militarised to a level that had never previously existed in any other country.  All men and women were involved in fighting against outside, anti-revolutionary, forces.  Despite initial losses, French revolutionary armies were incredibly successful against all of the other powers that it confronted.

This concept of total war was applied internally and externally.  As France was set upon by outside forces, a reign of terror began within France.  Anybody deemed against the new state was eliminated, with the egalitarian execution machine – the Guillotine – being used extensively.

The French Revolution differed from the English Revolution and Civil War in its speed and its scope.  What had started off as a reasonably good idea by Louis XVI to call an assembly of the Estates-General in 1789 rapidly devolved into chaos and death.  Unlike the English Revolution, which affected relatively few people, and was fought over by armies involving a few thousand soldiers, everybody in France was affected.  The revolution lasted until 1799 when Napoleon became first dictator and then Emperor in 1804.

So what was the French Revolution really about?  Clearly as the king had been executed and a republic had been declared it had something to do with a power struggle between a newly elected elite and the monarchy.

It was also about pulling France out of a middle ages time warp. An absolute monarchy and a hugely powerful church made no sense in 1789.  The French could see how successful Britain and America had become over the past decades. The British way of governing seemed to be more enlightened.  Better.

So the lesson of the French Revolution is that French citizens were fed up with bad government that kept them both poor and unable to do anything about their fate. When they were given the opportunity to have power, (thanks to Louis XVI’s fatal call for the Estates- General to be assembled, permitting direct democratic elections by qualified French men), they seized the opportunity and revolted.

Irish Rebellion

For five months in 1798 Ireland was shaken by an odd alliance of Protestants and Catholics who rebelled against British rule.  The Irish Rebellion had been inspired by both the American Revolution and the French Revolution.  French revolutionary forces actually landed in August 1798 to help the Irish and another, larger force, tried to land in October 1798 but was intercepted by a Royal Navy fleet.

From 1607 onwards Irish Catholics had been banned from holding public office, or serving in the army. In 1641 there had been an Irish Rebellion. The English put this down and financiers called “Adventurers” had loaned funds to Parliament to pay for this. Under the 1642 Adventurers Act, the major Catholic landholders in Ireland had their lands confiscated, which was then granted to the Adventurers to either sell off or hold.

Further anti Catholic and Irish legislation was enacted and sometimes repealed. This included exclusions from voting, a ban on intermarriage with Protestants, exclusion from legal professions and judiciary, a ban on foreign education, a ban on conversion from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, a ban on Catholics inheriting Protestant land, a ban on Catholics teaching, etc.  Britain had embarked upon a long term policy of discrimination against Irish Catholics in particular and the Irish in general.

So what was going in Ireland was quite different from all of the Revolutions that we have discussed previously.  The English Civil War was predominantly about the English fighting the English (though it actually had a relatively large Irish and Scottish component to it).  The Glorious Revolution, whilst ostensibly a Dutch invasion, was also about English fighting English.  The Jacobite Risings mainly took place in Scotland and the English north, but was a power struggle between the Parliamentary chosen monarch and an exiled hereditary monarch.  The American Revolution was another power struggle with the British on both sides of the conflict.  The French Revolution was about French fighting French.

In Ireland it was about the Irish fighting a foreign power group that had continuously behaved in an appalling manner against its Irish subjects.  However, we should not look at this through modern eyes.  “Foreign” rule was quite normal for the time.  In the 18th century most of Europe was ruled by family “houses”. Louis XVI, for example, was of the House of Bourbon and was the King of France and King of Navarre, now part of Spain. George III was of the House of Hanover and was the King of Britain (English and Scottish kingdoms had merged under the Act of Union), King of Ireland and King of Hanover.

So to describe the Irish Rebellion as an attempt to throw off the British yoke is anachronistic.  The concept of ‘national identity’ was relatively new and really started to emerge after the French Revolution and only seriously took hold after the First World War with Woodrow Wilson’s ill advised, and much regretted by him, statement that peoples had the right to “self determination”.  This would trigger countless revolutions in the 20th century.

The Irish had been crushed by the British and so they had very little to lose, except their miserable lives, and a huge amount to gain by Rebellion.  They were ultimately unsuccessful at this time though changes in legislation over the coming decades would make their lives less intolerable.

So one of the Irish lessons must be that if you push a people too far and discriminate against them because of who they are and they can see foreigners in their midst taking their lands and wealth you should expect a revolt.

Serbian Revolution

Serbia is a country with a pretty unhappy history, mainly due to its terrible geographic location. It is located in south eastern Europe, with Hungary to the north, Romania and Bulgaria to the east, Macedonia and Albania to that south and Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina to the west.  Thus it sits at the crossroads between Germanic invaders heading south into the Roman Empire, Orthodox Christian Byzantine and the Roman Catholic West and then the Ottoman Turks and the increasingly powerful Austro- Hungarians.  For much of the time between 1394 and 1817 it was fought over by the Ottoman Turks and the Hungarians and then the Habsburgs.  Only on occasion was it independent.

By the early 1800’s Serbs were convinced that they no longer needed to be subject to foreign rule.  The Habsburgs had occupied much of Serbia between 1788 and 1791 and had recruited their fellow Christians against the Muslim Ottomans.  The French Revolution had shown the Serbs that it was possible to topple even a powerful monarchy and by 1805 France, under Napoleon, ruled most of the lands to the west of Serbia, bringing revolutionary ideas right next door.  Meanwhile Russia, a fellow slavic and Christian Orthodox country, had become increasingly assertive and had pushed back the Ottomans from its own southern border.

Between 1804 and 1817 there were two Serbian Uprisings against the Ottomans.  During the First Serbian Uprising demands for self government from the Ottomans gradually morphed into a war for complete independence from the Ottomans.  Belgrade was captured and became the capital of an “independent” Serbia.  The Ottomans fought back, massacred many Serbs and sold others into slavery.  In 1815 a Second Serbian Uprising occurred, which was ultimately successful. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815,  a newly resurgent Russia put sufficient pressure on on the Turks to allow Serbia to become a semi-independent Principality, under Ottoman rule.  Within a generation this semi- independent status morphed into full independence and the Kingdom of Serbia was created in 1882.

There are a number of lessons from the Serbian Revolution. First, historical context is critical. The American, French and Irish revolutions showed the Serbs that the status quo could be changed. Napoleon’s charge across Europe and as far as Egypt had shaken many powerful countries, including the Ottomans.  Revolutionary Serbs could point to neighbouring countries and say to wavering supporters – look, even giants can be slain.

Second, the families that ruled Europe were losing their monopoly on power resulting in the rise of nationalism as a way of creating a self identity.  Serbs were Orthodox Christians speaking a Slavic language. The Ottomans were Shia Muslims speaking a Turkic language. The only thing they had in common was a ruling family that favoured its Muslim Turkic people over everyone else. That was unfair.

A supra national state- which these ruling families essentially provided – needed to provide equal opportunities for all of its citizens. Favouritism towards the ethnic group that had brought you to power locked in inequality.

Had the British allowed rich American colonists the ability to become full Members of Parliament – despite the obvious logistical issues- and both Catholic and Protestant Irish full equality in a state that had no official religion (which by its existence discriminates against those who do not adhere to the official religion)  then it is highly unlikely that there would have been a Revolution in America or Ireland. The same applied to the Ottomans. Had they had no official religion and allowed all of its subjects full access to power then the elites in all of their jurisdictions would have felt no reason to rebel.

The rich have far more in common with international rich than they have with the poor of their own nationality- this helps explain London’s massively inflated house prices today as the international rich flock to it.

This was the secret to Imperial Rome’s success until it went down the path of adopting Christianity as the official religion. Rome allowed ALL its citizens access to power and after the Julio-Claudian dynasty few emperors actually came from Rome. Emperor Constantine’s concept of one God, one Emperor and one Empire sounded good in principle. In practice it excluded all who did not believe in the one official God. And that was a lot of people. Which resulted in a lot of conflict.

Greek Revolution

As has been shown with the recent revolutions in the southern and eastern Mediterranean, revolutions can be contagious.  After the fall of Byzantium in 1453 most of Greece, like Serbia to the north, fell under Ottoman rule.

Interestingly, the Greeks had fared reasonably well under Ottoman rule.  Much better than the Serbs. Constantinople had been a target of Ottoman attacks because it was such great city.  The Byzantines, heirs to the Roman Empire, were very sophisticated and educated.  Many Greeks held senior positions within the Ottoman Empire.

After the successful Serbian Revolution, however, the Greeks decided to have a go against the Ottomans as well. A war of independence broke out in 1821 and officially lasted until 1832.

They were supported in this by Russia, the United Kingdom and France, all of whom had romanticised ideas about Greece.  The English poet Lord Byron and French painter Delacroix helped to provide fantastic PR for the Greeks. This translated into huge financial support to assist the Greeks in their revolt ( the London Philhellenic Committee, for example, provided about £3m) and diplomatic and military support.  The French, British and Russians all lined up in support of the Greeks, despite the fact that many of the countries were fearful that independence movements might backfire and result in bids for independence amongst their own far flung territories.

By 1828 the Ottoman rule over Greece was effectively over.  Over the next four years the Great Powers of Russia, France and Britain negotiated a Greek settlement and went about choosing a monarch for the country. Eventually they chose a Bavarian Prince, Otto of the Wittelsbach dynasty.  He reigned until he was forced to abdicate in 1862.  He was succeeded by George I, who was born Prince William of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, the son of the King of Denmark and a German princess.  German and Danish royal family members ruled Greece until the abolition of the monarchy in 1973.

Clearly, there were significant overlaps with what had occurred with the Serbian Revolution.  They were a Greek speaking Orthodox Christian people in a world dominated by Turkic speaking Shia Muslims.  The impetus to rebel was very similar.

The Americans received a lot of French help in their revolution against Britain.  The Irish received a lot of help from the French too.  The Serbs received help from the Russians.    The Greeks, however, had outside help on an unparalleled scale.  It had the advantage of being a relatively small country dominated by an increasingly weak power, the Ottomans, and had a series of great powers on their side that had recently become enamoured with ancient Greek history and literature.  They were lucky.

So what are the lessons of the Greek revolution? Firstly, their reason for having the revolution – lack of power by the native elites – was pretty standard.  Second, being a “charismatic” country helps a great deal when seeking support from powerful external allies.


Two more French Revolutions

There were so many French Revolutions after the “classic” revolution of 1789 that it is almost hard to keep count.

One occurred in July 1830  (the July Revolution) and another in June 1832 (the June Rebellion – or Paris Uprising).  For those that have read the book, watched the film or seen the musical “Les Miserables” it was the June 1832 Rebellion that took centre stage.

After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 the victorious powers reinstalled the Bourbon dynasty onto the throne of France. The French Republic was no more. The 1830 Revolution resulted in a new monarch, but not new republic. The 1832 Revolution was completely unsuccessful and the King, Louis Phillipe I, survived as king until another revolution, the 1848 Revolution, took place which brought back the Republic.

It is worth noting that Britain’s time as a parliamentary commonwealth – a republic in all but name- lasted significantly longer than the short lived French Republic. However, the concept of Republicanism had affected far more French citizens than British ones.

In the aftermath of Louis XVI’s execution in 1793 all of the nations around France ganged up on it, fearful that republican sentiment would spread beyond France’s borders.   The new republic responded by conscripting pretty much the entire nation. This was very unusual. Warfare prior to this period had been restricted to relatively small armies controlled by elites. During the English Civil War, for example, battles would be fought with between 5-10,000 soldiers on each side.

French Republican armies were huge   This was the only way that the French had a chance at standing up to the array of angry monarchies and empires that attacked it. One of the reasons Napoleon was so successful was that he inherited these huge armies and wielded them in a revolutionary way. When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 it was at the head of an army of 450,000- an unbelievably huge army compared to armies just a decade or two earlier. He once said that he could lose 30,000 soldiers per day. That was the size of an entire army prior to the French Revolution.

The Russian, Prussian and Austrian ruling elites that opposed him were terrified of arming their own citizens in equal numbers as they were concerned that their citizens would rise up in revolt against them.  Yet they had no real choice.  They were forced increase the participation of ordinary citizens into their own armies. Eventually they won.

Despite the fact that France had returned to a monarchy after the republican revolution, the people of Europe had had a glimpse of life under a republic. Once the republican genie was out of the bottle it could not be put back.

So this helps to explain the huge rise of populist revolutions in the 1800s. Ordinary citizens had both seen political power and had been trained to fight.

One of lessons of the Revolutions of 1830 and 1832 was that once a people realised that it was possible to have a revolution and win, it would be more likely to revolt again in the future.  Another lesson was that it is particularly stupid of a government and try and reintroduce the power of the church and the aristocracy.  That was why the Revolution in 1830 took place and Charles X was deposed.

The Revolutions of 1848

We now arrive at the greatest year of revolutions in European history until the collapse of communism in 1989.  There were revolutions in Italy, France, Prussia, Denmark, the Habsburg Empire, Switzerland, the Ukraine, Poland, the Danube, Belgium, Ireland and Brazil.

Some of these revolutions were nationalist – a reaction against being ruled by foreigners.  This was partially the case in the Italian states, which would eventually reunify to form modern Italy, Schleswig where Germans revolted against Danes seeking to fully integrate Schleswig into Denmark, Hungary, riling against the Habsburgs, the Ukraine where Ukrainians revolved against the Habsburgs, Poland, where Poles revolted against the Prussians and Ireland where the Irish revolted against the British.  We have gone through the reasons for nationalist revolutions in the past.

A second reason was a change in social make up of European societies.  Living conditions on rural farms were bad and in 1845 and 1846 a potato blight caused near famine like conditions in much of continental Europe and Ireland (where it was called the Great Irish Famine). This resulted in a lot of emigration from Europe to America and from rural areas to rapidly growing industrial cities, especially in France and Prussia.

Yet living conditions in cities were terrible for most of these economic migrants.  Unskilled workers had to work for very long hours in dangerous conditions.  Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which describes life during the run up to the 1832 French Revolution, shows how harsh life could be.  The concentration of people helped spread ideas of republicanism and socialism and so it is not surprising that people revolted against the inequality that they saw all around them.

Life in industrialising Europe was really terrible for most people.  We forget this today.  The value of labour dropped precipitously as high fertility levels increased the overall size of the population and mechanisation removed the need for many old jobs.  Those who had capital made a lot of money.  Those that did not lived through several generations of misery.

In France the 1848 Revolution was successful and Louis Phillipe I, who had narrowly escaped being dethroned in 1832, was booted out.  A short lived Second Republic was declared.  In Austria and Hungary serfdom – where labour was tied to the land and could be bought and sold – was abolished.  In Denmark the absolute monarchy accepted a new power sharing constitution, which helped to keep them in power, though on a diminished level.

So what are the lessons of the 1848 revolutions. First is that nationalism – a desire not to be ruled by foreigners who had other agendas- remained strong in most countries that were ruled by others. Second is that industrialisation introduces a new dimension to politics. Large numbers of poor people concentrated into cities could result in riots and revolutions that were hard for authorities to contain.


No Revolution in Britain 1848

Before we move on, why was there no revolution in Britain in 1848? Most of the other big European states had.

First, it is worth highlighting that Britain had not been conflict free in the years running up to 1848. Between 1811 and 1817 there had been a series of Luddite riots. Workers had gone on the rampage, destroying factories and industrial equipment such as lacemaking machines and power looms. Much of this work had previously been artisanal and had provided additional income for farmers and people in rural areas. The government was so concerned by this that a Frame Breaking Act was passed in 1812 which introduced the death penalty for these crimes.  New factories had destroyed jobs faster than they could be created. Factories had resulted in higher levels of unemployment which, in turn, reduced the value of labour for those that did have jobs. That made them vulnerable to exploitation by factory owners. If they complained they would be fired and join the ranks of the unemployed.

Between 1838 and 1848 a new working mans’ movement, the Chartists, developed. Their main aim was to widen and deepen Britain’s democratic participation. They had six core aims:

  • 1-Every man over 21 who is not a criminal or insane should be allowed to vote.
  • 2-Voting should be done in secret.
  • 3-You do not have to be rich or own property to become an MP.
  • 4-All MPs should be paid for doing their job.
  • 5- All voting areas should be the same size.
  • 6- Elections should be held every year.


Ultimately the Chartists were unsuccessful in pushing their agenda- due to issues with leadership as much as anything else- and the movement fizzled out in 1848, just when the rest of Europe was in rebellion.

It is also worth noting that British exports eventually helped to improve the lives of British workers. Because Britain had industrialised first it held a comparative advantage in many fields of industry. It’s products were cheaper and better than everybody else’s. This meant that British factories did not just produce goods that undercut British artisanal workers but also undercut artisanal workers in every other country as well. India’s cotton and weaving industry, for example, was crushed under the onslaught of cheap, high quality, British goods.  As demand for cheap British goods increased overseas the value of British factory workers increased, resulting in higher wages which enabled them to benefit from the cheap products they were producing, and better working conditions, as factory owners competed for labour and increased labour organisation pushed for legislation that protected workers.

So what can we learn from Britain’s lack of revolution in 1848?  Core to Britain’s resistance to revolution was political legitimacy. Britain’s weak constitutional monarch and strong parliament meant that citizens who had reasonable wealth and influence could become part of the political elite, either in the lower House of Commons or in the upper House of Lords.  Those that had the power to influence and fund revolutions were already in power. Why bother revolting? Second, Britain was governed by the British. There was no higher, foreign, authority that they had to defer to on critical questions of sovereignty.

These two factors, plus a political system that listened – at least vaguely –  to the poorer working class meant that Britain was flexible enough to adapt to change, rather than break.

Lots of Revolutions 1850-1916

We need to speed up and get to the modern era before we can start to look to the future. There were a lot more revolutions and rebellions over the next 50 years. The causes were pretty similar- nationalism and lack of political power.

They include:

  • 1854 Rebellion in Spain
  • 1859 Second Italian War of Independence
  • 1863 Polish uprising against Russian rule
  • 1867 Irish Feinan uprising against British rule
  • 1868 Glorious Revolution in Spain that topples a Queen Isabella
  • 1871 Paris Commune after France’s crushing defeat by Prussia
  • 1875 Herzegovinian rebellion against the Ottomans
  • 1875 and 1876 Bulgarian uprisings against the Ottomans
  • 1903 Macedonian uprising against the Ottomans
  • 1905 failed Russian Revolution
  • 1907 Romanian peasants revolt
  • 1910 Portuguese Revolution establishing a republic
  • 1916 Irish War of Independence

Russian Revolution of 1917

We are nearly at the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War that started in the summer of 1914. Four years later, near the end of this terrible and unnecessary war, on the 16th July 1918, Russia’s imperial family was executed by a new set of revolutionaries – Communists.

Lenin highjacked the Russian Revolution

Lenin highjacked the Russian Revolution

For most of the 1800s Russia was an unsophisticated backwater. But under Tsar Nicholas II, who came to power in 1894, the country started to emerge as a major European economic power.  By early 1914 Germany began to worry that within a few years Russia’s larger population, combined with rapid industrialisation and an improved railway network, would make her unbeatable in the event of a war.  Curiously, France had the same concern about Germany. Germany, which had emerged on the world stage as a unified nation only 40 years before, after the Franco-Prussian War which France lost, now had a larger population than France and a stronger industrial base.  Within a few years, France feared it would never beat Germany.  Thus both France and Germany preferred to have a war sooner, rather than later.

Germany, encircled by potentially hostile nations on all sides, rightfully feared for its existence.  Bismarck, one of history’s finest statesmen, had managed to keep all of Germany’s enemies on the back foot.  After he had been dismissed none of his successors were capable of maintaining the web of alliances necessary to protect Germany.  Russia and France ended up forming an official alliance.  So when Germany got embroiled in its own ally’s war – that of Austro-Hungary against Serbia after the assassination of the Habsburg heir to the throne in Sarajevo in June 1914 – it quickly found itself in a terrible dilemma.  Russia formally supported Serbia.  Germany formally supported Austro-Hungary.  Thus if Austro-Hungary went to war with Serbia, Russia would come to its aid, forcing Germany to come to Austro-Hungary’s aid.  Which meant that France would come to Russia’s aid and Germany would be attacked on both sides.

This was a bad position for Germany.

Fortunately, Germany had a brilliant strategist, von Schlieffen, who devised a plan in 1905 to allow Germany to first attack and defeat France within 42 days before Russia was able to respond and attack eastern Germany.  With France defeated and the western front secure, Germany would then turn on its larger enemy to the east and defeat Russia.


It did not quite end up that way.  Russia mobilised first and faster than expected.  French resistance was harder than expected.  And then there was the issue about Britain.  Britain, unexpectedly, declared war on Germany.

The German Kaiser and the English King were cousins.  The English royal family was German, from Hanover.  They had defeated France together in 1815.  France was England’s historic enemy.  France had no formal military alliance with Britain.  Britain was a naval power. Germany was a continental power. They could have been perfect allies. The problem was that Prussia and Britain had signed an agreement in 1839 to ensure the independence of newly created Belgium.  The von Schlieffen plan called for Germany to bypass France’s fortifications and transit through Belgium on its way to France.  Since Belgium refused to allow German soldiers to transit freely through its lands Germany triggered the Belgium neutrality agreement and Britain found itself legally obliged to go to war with Germany.

While Germany got stuck in France, it did brilliantly against the Russians.  Arguably had Germany not invaded France and had just attacked Russia, and only put up resistance against France in the west, France would never have had British and American help in defeating Germany.  The western front would have remained a stalemate and Germany would be victorious in the east.  There would have been no world war and Germany would have probably won.

So what does this have to do with the Russian Revolution?

By October 1916 Russia had lost nearly 2 million men killed, 2 million prisoners of war and 1 million missing.  These losses were deeply destabilising to the country.  In February 1917 things had gotten worse and a revolution broke out in Petrograd.  Workers went on strike and the soldiers that the Tsar ordered to quell the rebellion mutinied.  His army chiefs and remaining ministers  recommended that he abdicate, which he did.  No one wanted to succeed him and so the country fell to a provisional government, which put him under house arrest.

Now history gets really strange.

The head of the Bolshevik party, Vladimir Lenin, was in exile in Switzerland.  German officials calculated that if Lenin was to return to Russia at this time he would be able to foment a revolution which would lead to Russia’s pulling out of the war.  Germany’s eastern front would be secure and it could then put all its attention back to defeating France and Britain in the west.  They sent Lenin back in a sealed train, so that he would not foment revolution in Germany along the way, and he arrived in Petrograd in April 1917.  By September 1917 there were 200,000 Bolshevik party members, a ten fold increase from a few months previously.  In October, feeling that there was enough Bolshevik support, Lenin kicked off a second, major revolution.  In November the Bolsheviks called for a cease fire on all fronts and, after the French and British refused to go along with this, Russia unilaterally declared a cease fire on the eastern front in December 1917. 900,000 German soldiers switched from the eastern to the western front.  Germany’s gamble with Lenin had paid off.

Of course, this was not the end of the story.  The following year Russia descended into Civil War and it took a number of years before the Bolsheviks were fully in control over the country.

So what are the lessons of the Russian Revolution?

First, even a big country, like Russia, could fall to a revolution. It was under significant stress.  Millions of its soldiers were dead, POWs or missing.  Its government appeared weak and its rulers legitimacy had been weakened by the traumas of war.

Second, the circumstances of the birth of communism were extremely rare and it might never have happened.  A lot had to go right for the revolution to take place.  There was no reason to suggest that the Russian Revolution needed to be a communist revolution.  The Provisional Government was not communist. It could well have resulted in Russia turning into a Republic at worst, rather like what happened in the 1789 French Revolution.  It was Germany’s deliberate injection of the communist virus, Lenin, into Russia that changed the outcome of the Russian Revolution.  Lenin was deadly effective.  The initial, successful, revolution had been hijacked by a secondary revolution.

Third, the communist virus had found a major power to become its first host.  Communism cried out for world revolution.  It was not good enough for one country to become communist.  Everybody needed to be socialist.  This meant that Russia would actively try to promote socialism in other countries.  This was different, other nationalist revolutions did not have the aim of fomenting nationalist revolutions in other countries.

1918 Revolutions

It was not just Russia that was convulsed at the end of the First World War. Most of the major powers were critically damaged.  The only real victor was the United States, who had arrived late, after Germany was starving and almost on its knees- as they were to do in the Second World War.

The defeated were really defeated. Royal families were toppled, countries dismembered and huge swathes of territory were reallocated to new countries. The unequal and unjust peace would make a Second World War almost inevitable.

Much of the cause of this dismemberment was thanks to a speech given by the American President, Woodrow Wilson, on 8 January 1918  whereby he explicitly called for the peoples of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire to break free of their masters.  Essentially this was the same trick that the Germans did to the Russians. For European subjects of Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary this was a very welcome statement and they prepared themselves to take advantage of this new self determination sentiment.

A month later, he expanded on his 14 Points speech and declared that “National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.  Self -determination is not a mere phrasal it is an imperative principle of action.”

Wilson’s allies, who dominated and governed huge swathes of the earth without the consent of its peoples, were shocked.  Wilson’s Secretary of State was also shocked – America also had many overseas possessions, ranging from Puerto Rico, Hawaii to the Philippines.


By July/ September 1918 Germany’s military leadership became convinced that defeat was imminent. Ludendorff, who famously had led an insane, but successful, night assault against Belgian fortresses of Liege at the outbreak of the war and now was head of the Army, told the Kaiser that French and British forces would break through the western front within days. Peace feelers were sent out and when they were rebuffed German forces started to mutiny. The Kaiser was persuaded to abdicate and on 11 November 1918, Armistice Day, a cease fire was declared and the war was effectively over.

Germany became a Republic and a civil war ensured over the next few years as factions, including the Communists and the prototype Nazi party fought each other.

At the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed on 28 June 1919, Germany was carved up, with millions of ethnic Germans ending up as minorities in newly created countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia, and was forced to pay huge reparations.


Austro-Hungary suffered a very similar fate.  By October 1918 a provisional government of German-Austria was established. At the end of the month a new democratic republic of Hungary officially dissolved the union with Austria.  On the 11th November the Emperor Charles I of Austria abdicated and a day later a German-Austria Republican government came into being. Shortly after newly established countries of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Kingdom of Serbia, Croats and Slovenes emerged from the rump of Austria.

While Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, Austria-Hungary formally signed a separate agreement in September 1919, the Treaty of Saint-Germain, which recognised all of the territorial losses that had taken place over the past few months.  Like Germany, it was forced to pay reparations and had significant restrictions placed on the number of military personnel it could have.

Ottoman Empire

If you think Austria and Germany had a raw deal after the end of the First World War, it was nothing compared to the radical dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.  In October 1918 an armistice was signed with the Allied powers and the Ottoman Empire, bringing the war to an end.

Over the next few years the Allies systematically pulled the country apart, resulting in the establishment of an independent Republic of Turkey, run by Mustafa Kemal (Attaturk) in 1923.  New countries were created and were generally run by either the French of the British.

So what are the lessons from the 1918 Revolutions?

First, is that all of these new republics came about as Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empires were about to collapse.  In many respects this was a repeat of what had happened the previous year to Russia.  The Habsburgs and Ottomans were family dynasties who ruled over many subject peoples who were not of the same ethnic, cultural or even religious background.  As discussed previously, this in itself was not the problem.  The problem was that the Habsburgs and Ottomans favoured their own people over their subject people.  And that caused resentment.

Second, like the Greek Revolution, these newly independent countries could not have occurred without the support of the big, victorious powers.  This was either indirectly, via Wilsonian declarations of the rights of self determination, or directly as in the case of Allied military intervention in the Ottoman Empire.

Lots more revolutions

We are now going to jump ahead until the next major group of European revolutions, which took place in 1989.  The major event after the First World War was the Second World War which resulted in the partition of Europe into US and Soviet spheres of influence from 1945.  There were occasional uprisings against Soviet rule, such as the 1956 Hungarian uprising, and both Portugal, Spain and Greece which had been under dictatorships, reverted to democratic rule in the mid 1970s. The Irish in Northern Ireland continued their struggle against the British.


The Revolutions of 1989-1991

1989 was a big year for change in Europe.  Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Albania all saw relatively peaceful transitions from communism to democratically elected governments.  Germany reunified.  Romania’s revolution was more brutal.  Czechoslovakia would break into two in 1992 and Yugoslavia would break into many bits.  In 1991 the Soviet Union was dissolved, resulting in a huge number of new countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

The collapse of communism is complicated, and worthy of a separate article in its own right.  Since we are primarily interested in the lessons to be learned, we will cut to the chase.

Firstly, we know from previous revolutions that the domination of one group of people by an outside power is a cause for resentment and frequently revolution.  The Soviet Union did this on a massive scale.

Secondly, even if ultimate power did not lie with the Soviet Union, Communism did not provide free access to power for all of its citizens. If you were part of the communist party you were fine.  If you were not, then you had no access to power or legitimacy.

Thirdly, people in Communist countries gradually could see that the West had a higher standard of living.  Communism kept people poor.  And people resented that.  In East Germany, for example, it was possible to see fellow Germans in West Germany enjoying a better life.  Shooting East Germans who tried to escape to the West did not inspire confidence that Communism was a better solution to democratic capitalism.



So lets have a recap looking at the Revolutions so far.  What have we learned?

One lesson is that a lack of equal access to power by parts of society is deemed unfair and will frequently result in revolutions. This lack of access can be further split into two parts:

  • social inequality within an ethnic group;  and
  • ethnic inequality between two or more ethnic groups.


The following revolutions were basically ones of social inequality within a country. One social group had power and wealth, such as a monarchy or dictatorship, and another larger social group wanted access to that power- though not necessarily for others lower down on the social ladder. There are 24 European revolutions in this category, which include:

The English Revolution of 1642,  Glorious Revolution of 1688, American Revolution of 1775,   French Revolutions of 1789, 1830, 1832 and 1848, the Spanish Rebellion in 1854, Glorious Revolution in Spain in 1868, Paris Commune of 1871, Russian Revolution of 1905, Portuguese Revolution of 1910, Russian Revolution of 1917, German Revolution of 1918, German-Austrian Revolution of 1918, Portuguese, Spanish and Greece overthrow of dictators in mid 1970s, and Communist Revolutions in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Albania in 1989.

The next batch of revolutions are also about the inequality of power, but in these cases it was one ethnic or national group who held a discriminatory, near monopoly, power over one or more other ethnic or national groups.   There are 39 European revolutions in this category, which include:

The Irish Rebellion of 1798, Serbian Revolution of 1804, Greek Revolution of 1821, European wide revolutions of 1848 in Italy, France, Prussia, Denmark, the Habsburg Empire, Switzerland, the Ukraine, Poland, the Danube, Belgium and Ireland, Second Italian War of Independence in 1859, Polish uprising against Russia in 1867, Herzegovinian rebellion against the Ottomans in 1875, Bulgarian uprisings against the Ottomans in 1875, Romanian revolt of 1907, Irish War of Independence of 1916, Austro-Hungarian Revolutions of 1918 resulting in  Czechoslovakia, Poland, Kingdom of Serbia, Croats and Slovenes, Hungarian uprising, Creation of new countries after the fall of the Soviet Union on 1991 – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

A second key lesson is that revolutions are contagious, but not necessarily about the same issue.  The early revolutions, in England, America and France were all inter-related.  They built up on each other.  The French Revolution was heavily responsible for the creation of the modern state and modern conscript army.  This had huge ramifications across Europe in the revolutions of 1848, some of which were driven by social inequality issues and others by ethnic inequality issues.  The collapse of Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman empire at the end of World War I set off another huge wave of revolutions.  Finally, the collapse of Communism in 1989-1991 triggered another wave of revolutions.  Both of these latter waves of revolutions combined ethnic and social inequality issues.


Part 3:  Today and Tomorrow

Most revolutions start with protests or riots and if they are sufficiently strong compared to the ruling authorities they can then turn into revolutions. Some of these revolutions will be fully successful and will change the government, some will result in a civil war where neither party is strong enough to prevail and some will be crushed and die out.

It is for this reason that the various protest groups and riots that have hit Europe over the past few years are so fascinating from a historical perspective.  In North Africa and the Middle East many of these riots turned into successful revolutions that toppled the government.  In Syria the revolution failed and the country has fallen into a civil war.  Since we have established that revolutions are contagious, the successful revolutions in North Africa have helped inspire many of the rioting groups in Europe and vice versa.  We also know that the actual cause of the revolution may be slightly different from one country to the next, but revolutionaries can act under the cover of other revolutions, which makes the ruling authorities more susceptible to violent pressure.

So where have the recent European riots and protests been?  Lets look at some examples.

Spain 2011-ongoing

The Spanish demonstrations started in May 2011 in Madrid and dozens of other cities, right before local and regional elections.

Spain’s riots are not ethnic inequality driven.  There is no foreign ruling class.  It is a social inequality problem.  The unemployment rate in Spain is extraordinarily high, with over 50% of young people under 25 without a job.  This means that they lack access to the basic rights of a job and an income that they can be proud about.  They have been excluded by society and none of the political parties have a good answer to their problem. As so many are on unemployment benefits austerity measures, needed to try and balance Spain’s budget, hit them directly.  The Sinde law in February 2012 also affected young people – this allowed the government to close down websites that show or allows for the illegal downloading of copyrighted content such as music and films.  Since young people are more likely to be both poor and want to download illegal content this directly affected them and was seen to protect corporations at the expense of the people.  The discovery of widespread political corruption at the very top of Spain’s government did much to solidify the view that older, richer, parts of society were getting more than their fair share.


Greek Protests 2010 – ongoing

In May 2010 Geeks rioted in protest to plans to cut public spending and raise taxes as part austerity measures to stop Greece from falling into a financial crisis.  Papandreou, the Prime Minster, told the country that there would be more public sector pay cuts, pension reductions, new taxes on company profits, more taxes on cigarettes and alcohol and a higher level of VAT.  This helped Papandreou secure an IMF and EU loan.

Many of the protests were initially peaceful but some deteriorated into violence, especially in Athens. In May of 2011, following the Spanish protests and riots, more rioting broke out.  At the end of June there were violent clashes between riot police and protestors as parliament voted to accept EU austerity measures.

In February 2012 as many as 500,000 protestors gathered outside the parliament building in Athens to protest against more EU and IMF imposed austerity measures.  45 buildings were set on fire.  A few weeks earlier there were two 24 nationwide general strikes called by Greece’s two largest labour unions.

United Kingdom 2011

In March 2011 a demonstration organised by one of the country’s largest trade unions, the TUC, resulted in a 500,000 people marching in London.  There were similar protest marches in Manchester, Perth, Liverpool, Leicester, Ipswich, Bristol and Edinburgh.  On June 30th, a one day strike was held by public sector workers angry about cuts to pension plans and retirement policies. In November another 21,000 schools were closed due to strikes.

The causes were similar to what was going on in Greece and Spain – protests against austerity measures and a general perception of unfairness.

Occupy Movement 2011

The Occupy movement was originally a US protest against the increasing wealth disparity in society. Inspired by the Arab Spring  and protests in Spain and Portugal it soon spread to over 95 cities in 82 countries.

One of the key slogans was “We are the 99%” – a reference to the huge concentration of wealth held by the top 1% of income earners.


Why has there been no revolution?

Despite the fact that much of Europe has faced large protest marches and riots since 2010 no country, so far, has fallen to revolutionary forces.  What do these protests and riots have in common with the past, and what is different.

One thing that they have in common is that this is a widespread movement and spans many countries.  This was the same during the 1848, 1917-19 and 1989-1991 pan European revolutions.

Another factor is a sense of social injustice.  As Europe gets relatively poorer more people, especially the young,  are excluded from the work place and lose hope for the future.  Europe’s citizens are looking for someone to blame.

A final factor is a sense that many of these problems are caused by foreign influences.  Bankers in particular are targets of vitriol – they are seen as aloof and their international nature makes them appear to be foreign oppressors.  Effigies of the German Chancellor are frequently burned in Greece as they point to Germany’s dominance of the EU as the cause for harsh austerity measures.

So the European protests have much in common with the causes of revolutions in the past but also some key differences.

First, social revolutions in the past had clear distinctions between “them” and “us. A monarchy, an aristocracy, the church are all very identifiable.  They lived in distinctive buildings, wore distinctive clothing and were distinctly attackable.  Communists had separate buildings, had special offices and special privileges.  But today the differences are far more muted.  It is not clear, exactly, who people are rebelling against.  Thousands of public sector employees were going on strike against their own government.  Politicians are relatively easily removed from office, during elections, but it is not clear why you would vote for another party instead.  They are too similar.

Second, while there is a foreign inequality element to these protests, it is also very muted.  It was clear to the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires who the foreign oppressors were.  They wore different clothes, spoke a different language, worshiped a different god.  Today foreign oppression comes in the form of the EU and international bankers.  But there is no EU state.  There is no banking state.  They don’t live somewhere different to ordinary citizens.  They are amorphous.

Third, governments are reasonably good at adapting now to change.  Because they have been democratically elected they are more in touch with citizens than governments were in the past.  A monarchy or communist / military dictatorship could be relatively aloof, and thus out of touch, from normal people.  This gives democracy both legitimacy and flexibility.

Fourth, earlier European societies were more familiar with military organisations.  Today, most young Europeans have had no military experience at all.  After the French revolution, war broke out across most of Europe.  Young men were called up and conscripted to fight in France, Prussia, Russia and elsewhere.  That helped set the stage for the 1848 revolutions.  The 1917-19 revolutions came on the back of the First World War where most young men had also been trained and organised to fight.  The 1989-1991 revolutions were started by people who had had decades of military conscription, thanks to the Cold War.  They were trained to fight and to be organised.   Most young people today were born after the collapse of communism.  The nearest they have to fighting experience is on their PlayStations and Xboxes.  From a government’s perspective having a conscript army is a dangerous thing.  People are more likely to rise up against the government than to be used in fighting another country.  That is why Napoleon’s revolutionary conscript army was so devastating in the early 1800s.

Fifth, the welfare state provides a significant buffer against inequality and poverty.  Young people may hate being unemployed, but they do have a meagre income from the state.  They can live at home and are not forced on the street.  A lot of entertainment is cheap and accessible  – especially illegal downloaded content on  cheap laptops and tablets.

Finally, social media makes it very easy to spontaneously call for a protest march or a riot.  Getting people out on the street is the easy part.  The problem is that this also makes it very difficult for leadership to emerge.  All successful revolutions in the past had some form of leadership.  You needed leadership in order to organise people to go out and protest, to tell them where to go, what to do and what to protest about.  Leaders needed particular skills, like charisma, personal bravery, risk taking, great timing and diplomacy to get large numbers of people to revolt and then to govern them once the former government had been overthrown.



So does that mean that you won’t see any revolutions in Europe in the future?

Not so fast.  A certain number of things could change, making a revolution more likely.

First, governments can overreact and thus make themselves a much clearer target for opposition groups.  If they become more rigid they are more likely to break. Killing a few rioting protestors is a sure way to galvanize the opposition. Revolutions love martyrs.

Second, strident efforts by the EU, a supra national body, will galvanize support against the EU. It is easy for national politicians to redirect anger against them onto the EU and they will.  This increases the chance of a country deciding to leave the European Union.

Third, many young European Muslims are and have been fighting alongside Muslim brethren during the Arab Spring. Many of the feelings of injustice in the Arab world are shared by young Westerners, though the targets of their anger are quite different. They bring back radical ideas, practical organisational skills and military experience.

Fourth, many European budgets are at breaking point. As more young people stay unemployed their ability to pay income taxes is effectively nil. Many others are in dead end jobs that pay little and thus provide little tax revenue for the country. The only people who can pay are the rich locals and rich foreigners. They are likely to be subject to very high levels of taxation. They will respond by hiding their assets. Ultimately this will be a world with less tax income and greater demands. Something has to give. Unemployment benefits, state sector salaries and pensions are likely to be cut. This will create a pool of very angry, hard up citizens.

Finally, there is no real revolutionary leadership today. But that may change. The Russian Revolution in 1917, for example, was hijacked by the Bolsheviks under Lenin. Social media today means no real leadership. But it could equally be harnessed by a core group of revolutionaries who have a clear agenda that is well communicated.

And that might be enough for Europe to have a successful revolution.



History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

HFN on Twitter