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State Repression 19 Century

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Did the state capacity for repression grow as rule became more consensual in the period 1815-1914?

It is possible to define political repression in broad terms. Robert Justin Goldstein refers to the denial of all sorts of liberties, for example, the removal of freedom of speech, press and assembly, as well the right to vote. Repression has usually been carried out against a group that has opposing, negative or dangerous views in the eyes of those in power. It is important to note that this repression could take both violent and non-violent forms, an example of the latter being the restriction of suffrage on the basis of class or wealth. Pierre-Jules Baroche, a prominent French minister, demonstrated this in the middle of the nineteenth century, when he stated that “universal suffrage, left without guidance to contend with local passions, might become a real danger”. Thus, repression did not always involve dramatic or bloody use of physical force. As a topic, state repression and its relationship with the rise of general consensual rule spans many wider issues of the period. These themes include the interplay of rival political ideologies, industrialisation, the rise of mass politics, social change and reform, class conflict and revolution.

There is perhaps a distinction to be aware of between ‘the state’ and its position in the wider ‘government’ of nations. It is helpful to apply Weber’s definition of the term, which perceives a centralised organisation, with a legitimate “monopoly of violence”. As more governments derived their power from the people, this potential for repression can paradoxically be seen to have increased. But in actuality, it appears to have been little used and overshadowed by the greater freedoms that were gained in the period.

It is possible to divide the period up chronologically, to draw out the rate and extent of changes over time. The years 1815 to 1850 went largely in favour of the status quo, with repression being used in a more or less traditional way, to ensure politics remained the preserve of a certain elite. From 1850 to 1870, this was beginning to change, with the upper middle classes more involved in government and repression focus on the lower echelons of society. In the final years from 1870 to 1914, the rise of mass politics, parties and the ability of the lower classes to bring about change, suggests that repression had become much more limited. In the first instance, this brief chronology reinforces the fact that repression interacted with the nature of government and other political forces, for example mass political movements. It remains questionable whether repression, or more precisely the struggle against it, actively influenced the gradual increase in the size of the politically active population, or whether other factors were more important and the decline of repression was more of a symptom that locomotive of change.

Indeed, the key turning points of the period coincided with the revolutions of 1848 and the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war. Such events were clearly influential on the development of government and the use of repression. For much of the period though, it was the case that repression was strong, gradually declining over time whilst consensual government built, but only in the latter phase from 1870. Nevertheless, already the boundary between potential and actual repression has been breached. Whilst there was a decline in actual repression, the capacity of the state to repress was rising continually. The first phase from 1815 to 1850 began with a restoration of the status quo after the upheaval of the 18th Century, with plenty of examples of repression. It ended with the success of repression being much more questionable, and building demands and hopes for reform. Successful repression can be seen from 1819 to 1921, when various tensions throughout Europe boiled over into open revolt. In France, the cause was the aftermath of the Revolution, and attempts by royalists to reassert dominance.

In Britain, industrialisation and urbanisation causing economic problems, at their worst in Ireland, underpinned wider protests at the elitist nature of government. Italy and Germany were dealing with growing nationalism, which was opposed to the settlement of Vienna and the subsequent securing of the map of Europe as it stood, with fragmented states in central Europe. Meanwhile, nationalistic tendencies in the Balkans and Greece were fuelled by the decline of the administrative power of the Ottoman Empire. Whatever the cause, repression was widely the answer at this time. In France, following the assassination of the Duke of Berry and subsequent anger led to press censorship and imprisonment without trial, as well as a clampdown limiting the electorate size. In Britain, unrest was dealt with by restriction of habeas corpus and the banning of all unregistered public meetings in 1817-1818. In 1819, one Henry Hunt was addressing a protest of some 50,000 people in St Peter’s fields in London, when mounted troops were sent in, killing fifteen and injuring several hundred. The satirically named ‘Battle of Peterloo’ preceded further repressive laws by the government. Ireland saw the reassertion of the Insurrection Act, yielding thousands of prosecutions and some 400 executions between 1820 and 1826.

In German states, unrest took on a much more constitutional element. Already, demands for constitutions brought some results, with thirteen out of thirty nine states succumbing. Nevertheless, in spite of this early growth of consensual government, Metternich was able to turn the hanging of Karl Sand in 1820 to the advantage of a more conservative cause, introducing some comprehensive restrictions on printed works. In Italy, there were attacks on suspected revolutionaries, such as in Naples, where suspected men were publically whipped. Russia and the East more broadly saw similar acts of repression, for example during the ‘arakchevyevshina’ from 1815-1825, which crushed riots and purged academic works and institutions of those promoting change to the status quo. The 1830 to 1832 wave of revolutions were likewise repressively shut down, despite having more widespread backing and tangible demands, such as expansion of the franchise. For example, France saw 300 people shot during the April 1834 revolt of silk weavers in Lyon and a thousand people were imprisoned from 1830-40 for striking.

In 1832, Germany saw censorship of several societies that denounced the government and many arrests and deaths in the Wachenstrum revolt in 1833 Frankfurt. Italy saw repression in Piedmont and Genoa, as well as Tuscany, Naples and Lombardy-Venetia, after Mazzini’s attempts at revolution in 1833. There was severe Russification in the Russian Empire around the same time, leading to 9000 Poles fleeing in 1830. The story was the same in Austria and in Britain, where the “Tithe War” and “Captain Swing Riots” saw many arrests, executions and transportation sentences. Habsburg Emperor Francis said, in 1831 “I wont have any innovations…This is no time for reforms. The people, as it were, are badly wounded. One must avoid irritating these wounds by touching them”. His conservatism was somewhat flawed. For many of the events of unrest were response to repression itself. The Polish uprising in 1830 was triggered by reports of imminent arrests, German protesters demanded constitutional government and liberal politics in 1830 and the silk weavers from Lyon vowed to “live free working or die fighting”.

It was the perceived failure of the Reform Bill in Britain to actual change the political setup, which helped inspire mass politics In this light, it would seem that repression itself fuelled a desire for consensual rule, and it was not the case that as the latter grew, so did the former. In the early part of the 1840s, and from then on, there was a further rise in liberalism and nationalism, breeding dissent. This was caused by industrialisation intensifying, causing social and economic problems. It was also influenced by the death of several monarchs in Denmark, Sweden and Prussia, and the abdication of William I of the Netherlands. With each new regime came hopes and demands for reform. There had actually been a slight weakening of repression, such that works like ‘Comment Upon the Constitution’ by Jan Rudolf Thorbecke, could creep in demands for constitutional reform in 1842. This was another time of political demands then, as demands for suffrage rose with nationalist tendencies, liberalism and other responses to the exclusive and repressive nature of rule. After 1845, when economic failure hit in a more notable way, these tensions were brought to breaking point. A doubling of the price of potato and grain from 1845 to 1847 hit hard, especially in Ireland, where one million people died and another million emigrated to escape the gruelling poverty. 1948 saw the publication of Karl Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’, which coincided with a notable rise in mass politics and working class involvement.

By the time of the 1848 revolutions, economic failures had contributed to the broad base appeal of political action. Repression had contributed to establishing political reform as the central demands. This was evidenced by the fact that France saw the abdication of Louis Philippe, and the immediate expansion of the franchise to all men, a freeing up of the masses and renewed freedom of assembly. Emperor Ferdinand revealed the position of European conservative monarchs, when he said, “Tell the people that I agree to everything” in the heat of revolution in March 1848. Brutal military force eventually crushed all of the revolutions in 1849, which was followed by a period of intense repression – with thousands arrested, executed, conscripted, whipped or forced into self-exile to escape retribution. But despite all of this, the building forces of ideology and mass politics, repression had proved, albeit briefly, insufficient to preserve the status quo. Conservative governments were forced to set the precedence of concessions to maintain a diluted form of control instead. From this, it already becomes clear that there was a cyclical trend of revolution and repression, with constant interaction of those revolting and those repressing, creating a pattern peaks and troughs of opposition and control.

The period of 1850 to 1870 saw both a peak and trough. Coming out of the events of 1848-1849, repression was at its highest, and the appetite for revolution was minor. A three-class voting system was introduced in Prussia, allowing the social elite to dominate. Any pockets of violent opposition were crushed, for example there were 25 executions following a conspiracy to revolt in Hungary in 1852. An army from Austria subdued Parma after Duke Charles III was assassinated in 1854. Constitutions and institutions introduced to most German States in 1848 were dissolved. Almost no real constitutional development took place in Russia, and Germany under Bismarck was barely reformed. In Britain, for most of the 1850s it was considered that no social or political reform was required, even though only 4% of the population had the vote. Various factors ensured that this situation changed. The most important ones were economic success, the emergence of stronger Socialist parties, a decline in post-revolutionary repression and the political repercussions of foreign affairs, such as French and British victory in the Crimean war, seen as a triumph of liberalism, and Austria’s defeat in 1859.

There was a distinct, though not overwhelming, reform of the political situation, facilitating greater involvement, or at least representation for the lower classes. A mix of reform and reestablishment of the status quo took place then, varying with nation. In France, the right to strike was awarded in 1864 and having failed in foreign affairs, in Mexico in 1867, opposition was countered through further concessions, for example by granting freer press, assembly, trade unions and in 1870 the setting up of a way of ministers being answerable to Parliament. Belgium also legalised trade Unions, but kept the franchise restricted as in the Netherlands. Suffrage in Britain was expanded from 1.4 million to 2.5 million in the 1867 reform bill, but military repression took place against Irish revolutionaries of the Fenian movement. One way of understanding the strands of reform that appeared within general conservative systems would be to view concessions as necessary to the preservation of control – sacrificing a little bit to avoid having everything taken by revolutionaries.

The abolition of Serfdom in Hungary (1848) and Russia (1861) certainly responded to a general fear of revolution. As Tsar Alexander II put it to the Muscovite nobility in 1856, “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to await the time when its abolition would begin from below.” This would support the view of a cyclical process, slowly building concessions, as each bout of opposition attempted to avoid the next bout of repression and vice versa. A second interpretation might make use of something Bismarck revealed to a Hanoverian diplomat in 1865, when he said: “I do not want…lawyers to be elected, but local peasants…I do not wish to provide support for democracy…[but] If I…could send here in Prussia 100 workers from my estate to the ballet box, then they would outvote every other opinion in the village…that is what I hope to achieve…” This demonstrates how politicians may have sought to manipulate reform to secure political benefit, but also exposes early reforms as potential red herrings. For if concessions won over certain groups of the lower classes, they might be inclined to support the status quo and vote against the change espoused by smaller groups.

These alternative views highlight how a rise of consensual might be viewed as either part of a gradual elimination of repression, or integral to its preservation. In truth, both things were probably happening at the same time. But from 1850 to 1870, it is important to remember that preservation of the conservative status quo was very much the norm. Despite specific national examples, political reform was a small part of, or a side show to that. It was not an alternative, yet, to repression. In conclusion, repression was clearly in decline over the period and in relation to consensual government. Yet, it is possible that consensual government partially emerged out of an a series intense periods of repression verses opposition, yielding compromises on the issue of political reform over the period.

Surely, structural government changes and the use of repression interacted in a way that changed both phenomena. States across Europe developed the ability to exert change from above and intervene in everyday lives like never before. This was the means of repression, but as described above, was ultimately the means of reform. Ideologies and industrialisation were perhaps crucial to explaining this, but it was not the case everywhere. Regional differences had always been important. As a final note, it might be worth glancing outside of the period, towards the future of twentieth century totalitarianism. As Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler would show – although in practice, repression had been in decline, the actual capacity for state repression had not been deleted and had serious potential in the modern, industrial world.

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