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Is It 1848 All Over Again?

January 29, 2010

Gustavo de la Casas in Harvard International Review:

Historical parallels capture the collective imagination, and for good reason. They offer an intelligible way to understand present events and avoid past mistakes. The Vietnam War, for instance, continues to inform American decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan; it warns us of the perils of lengthy occupations, of public sensitivity to mounting casualties, and of the importance of exit strategies. But there is always the hidden danger of taking such parallels at face value. This is happening now, with the widespread comparison of the current economic crisis to the Great Depression. An ever-larger crop of pessimists warn that, like the 1930s, the coming years will see the arrival of three factors: widespread poverty, extreme popular discontent, and a reluctant Great Power — a perfect storm that previously resulted in failed states and hostile autocracies. These observers arrive at the conclusion that today’s crisis will be no different.

Yet the 1930s holds a historical appeal that, paradoxically, hinges on our limited scope of history. Most people, including the bulk of political scientists, know substantially less about the world before the 20th century. The Great Depression thus monopolizes attention simply because it is the one economic cataclysm in our short collective memory. But proximity in time does not mean proximity in facts. It pays to analyze other recessions to glean insights about future prospects.

An interesting case is the 1848 recession, which unlike the 1930s, did not produce staunch dictatorships. Instead, this severe crisis heralded democratic reforms in the major powers of Austria, France, and Prussia, as well as smaller kingdoms like Bavaria, Saxony, Denmark, and Sardinia. To be sure, the degree of democratization varied across these countries, which were mired in absolute monarchies. For instance, barricading Berliners prompted King Frederick William IV to transition Prussia from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. By 1850, the new constitution guaranteed a two-house parliament and recognized basic individual rights, but the king still retained many powers – such as the right to veto with impunity. [More]

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