Secret Society Movement

The secret society movement was a powerful European phenomenon in early 19th century. Everywhere, such secret conspiratorial formations developed partly because of the restrictions on organized politics imposed by the Restoration regimes. Radical secret groups with their initiation ceremonies, hierarchical chain of memberships, secret symbols and codes were sometimes direct offshoots  of  Masonic lodges.

Very often the secret societies represented the more radical sections of a fairly widespread liberal movement in Europe with the main political objective of constitutional  government. In the larger European context, the secret society activities of course became a part of the nascent nationalist politics, the full implications of which were  realized  during  the 1830’s.


Turbulent  1820s  and 1830s

Around the middle of the 1820s, a fresh bout of the revolutionary fever came with the failed Decembrist uprising in Russia and the   relatively

successful Greek revolt. Decembrists attempted a military coup de tat in December 1825 when the death of the Czar provoked the uprising of the soldiers in St. Petersburg. The Russian artillery could easily disperse this uprising while a similar action of a few days later in the Ukraine was suppressed in the same manner. The leaders of the uprising, including Colonel Pestel were hanged and  many  more  exiled  to Siberia.

Russians succeeded in imposing the treaty of Adrianople on Turkey by which Turkey agreed to the autonomy of Serbia, the Danubian principalities and Greece. Later in 1830, by the Treaty of London, Greece’s complete independence  was  recognized.

The result of all this was the complete collapse of the Metternich system even though Austria managed to retain its sphere of influence in Italy and the Balkans. Despite his obsession with legitimism, Metternich was unable to prevent a European combination against the Turkish Monarchy.

The July revolution in France was a brief and quick affair. The restored monarchy failed to defend itself against the popular combination of liberal parliamentarians, the Parisian mob and disgruntled soldiers. The provisional government was established and on 30 July, the king’s cousin, the Duke of Orleans was asked to take over as  the head of the state. In the first week of August,  a crown of the French people was offered to the Duke of Orleans. In France, the 1830 revolution was completed with the establishment of a constitutional  monarchy.

Radicals in Germany and Italy saw the monarchial governments as obstacles to the politics of integration; to them, their overthrow was the precondition for a unified nation-state. Radical nationalism in Italy found its greatest exponent  in  Guiseppe  Mazzini  (1805-1872).

This was also the period when smaller, mostly Slavic nationalities, of the Austrian empire  in the eastern reaches of the continent – the Czeches, Slovaks, Croats, Slavs, Ukrainians and Romanians – began to assert their identities as nations by reviving their historical and folk traditions.


Age of Masses

In 1848 Europe made its cautious entry into ‘the  age  of  the  masses’.  Political  mobilizations


began to acquire a popular following in an attempt to overcome the limitations of the politics of secret societies that had dominated the different phases of political unrest earlier in the century. Economic distress certainly contributed to  this  process  of mobilization.

In 1845 the potato blight caused acute food shortages, followed in 1846 by worse grain crop  in a several hot summer. The consequent steep rise in the prices of foodstuffs resulted in food riots in many places. Such distress was aggravated by economic recession, which produced  urban  unemployment.

The European revolts in 1848 began with the Swiss Civil War in which the radically inclined Protestant cantons were locked in a battle with  the conservative Catholic cantons. In this battle the radical Protestant Cantons were ultimately victorious as Metternich’s attempt to bail out the conservative Catholic Cantons failed. The events in Switzerland clearly demonstrated that the defenders of the established order were incapable of stopping the tide of the     revolution.

Despite the revolutionary euphoria all over Europe, and a significant move towards parliamentary government, the revolution ultimately “stopped at the foot of the throne”. Except in France, in most parts of the continent, monarchial government remained in place with very little changes in even their administrative structure.

From mid-1848, the revolution began to stage its retreat. In a series of dramatic confrontations, the revolutionary forces were overwhelmed. Moderate factions within the liberal movement worked out compromises with conservatives and monarchists, and together played a crucial role    in suppressing the second round of revolutionary insurgency  in  1849.

The European revolts in 1848 despite focusing on parliamentary government failed to change much the character of monarchical government. Even in France the revolutionary forces failed to check the rise of Louis Napoleon’s    dictatorship.

The process of centralization began in the sixteenth century in both Britain and  France  but in England the nation of national unity was more advanced  and  continuous  while  in  France  it

remained only political unification till the coming of French Revolution. Political debates provided the theoretical structure of the French nation- state formation was continuous and the economic integration was as much the product of state direction as of the activity of business  groups and  manufacturers.

The rise of the British nation-state was the result of the English union with Wales, Scotland and Ireland thereby creating a multi-national state. The initial problem of separate identities was greatly resolved by the process of capitalist development and economic growth. However, the French state had to become a vehicle of capitalist development.

Separate class identities merged in the British state though representative institutions like parliament and political parties. In France the class identities and class conflicts manifested itself in the state and determined the nature of French nation state which remained involved in social issues.

Despite the systematic efforts to suppress democracy in Europe the spread of liberal ideas could not be held back indefinitely. The revolution of 1848 which engulfed most of Europe led to an accelerated movement towards democracy and nationalism. It brought Napoleon III to power in France, hastened  the unification of Germany and Italy and stirred national sentiments in the multi-national Austrian empire.

New states like Greece, Belgium and Serbia came up as a result of the revolutions of 1830   and 1848. After 1848, the Unification of  Italy and that of Germany were significant political events and a total vindication of middle class nationalism.

The simplification of the political map of Europe by the reduction in the number of states within the German Empire; the quickening  of  the pulse of Spanish nationalism during the military campaigns of the Peninsular War; and  the rise of Italian and German nationalism based on the inspiration of the French armies, the Napoleonic role in nation-state building and the contagion of revolutionary and democratic ideas helped to spread the gospel of nationalism in Europe. It appealed to the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie which spearheaded the movement  for Italian and German unification. Mass   politics


in the late 19th century was to give an additional fillip to nationalism especially in Eastern Europe, a region which was relatively backward compared to the more industrialized parts of Western Europe. Tilly observed, “The European state-making process minimized the cultural variation within states and maximized the variation  among  states”.

Gerschenkron argued in his book Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective that in countries like Germany and Russia which began to industrialize later than Britain – the first industrial nation – the role of the state was much greater. To compensate for a late start the state played an active role in creating appropriate conditions for rapid industrialization by creating a system of tariff protection and aiding a process of  cartelization  of industry.

The doctrine of free trade liberal capitalism   as propounded by Britain was challenged by the German economist Friedrich List to enable the German economy to develop behind protectionist walls and to catch up with Britain. The businessmen and industrialists favoured political unification because their self-interest as a class was linked with the creation of a national marked for German entrepreneurs. In Italy the weakness of the bourgeoisie gave greater salience to  the role of the landlords and urban professionals in the  movement  towards  economic unification.

The study of nationalism in the small states  of Eastern Europe by Miroslav Hroch yielded the notion of three phases in the development of national movements. In the first stage or phase    A there was primarily an emphasis on culture, literature and folklore; in phase B pioneers of the national idea and its publicists occupied centre- stage. It was only in the third stage – phase C – that the national movements acquired mass support  on  any  significant scale.

It was only after the growth of a sense of cultural nationalism based on a sense of language, culture and history that nationalism as an idea influenced the smaller nationalities of Eastern Europe. The break-up of the Hapsburg Empire    of Austria-Hungary led to the creation of new nation states of Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. In most cases the nationalist idea preceded the growth of the nation-state. The democratization  of  polity  in  Europe  helped the

popular mobilizations around the issues like language and empire-building which strengthened the feeling of nationalism among people. The modern states also played crucial  role in giving shape to nationalist feelings and forging the nation-states. In Eastern Europe, except Russia, the cultural issues proved to be more important in giving rise to national sentiments.