Parallels Between 2011 Uprisings And 1848 Revolutions in the Middle East have inspired many comparisons, but they may look more like the European revolutions of 1848. As University of Missouri professor Jonathan Sperber tells Guy Raz, 1848 — like the modern Middle East — saw a wave of working-class uprisings spurred by frustration with entrenched dictators, high food prices and a citizenry with new access to information.
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Parallels Between 2011 Uprisings And 1848

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Parallels Between 2011 Uprisings And 1848

Parallels Between 2011 Uprisings And 1848

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GUY RAZ, host:


In the western Libyan town of Zawiyah, rebel forces appear to have held up troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi for a second straight day. The capital of Tripoli is still under Gadhafi's control. But in towns across the east, his grip on power is slipping, including in the key oil refining town of Ras Lanuf.

Libya, of course, is our cover story today. In a moment, we'll hear the latest from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Libya.

But first, comparisons, whether they tell us anything about what's been happening in the Middle East these past two months. You've probably heard a lot of them.

Unidentified Man #1: It's 1968 all over again.

Unidentified Man #2: Although I would remember, though, in 1989...

Unidentified Woman #1: 1979, it was...

Unidentified Man #3: 1989.

Unidentified Woman #2: 1979.

Unidentified Man #4: Remember what happened in 1989...

RAZ: 1989, the year the Soviet Empire fell apart. The speed in drama of what happened that year looks a lot like 2011 in the Middle East. But there's another year to consider, 1848. And it was that year when Europe witnessed the largest and most sustained wave of revolutions in world history.

Dr. JONATHAN SPERBER (Curator's Professor, University of Missouri): My name is Jonathan Sperber. I'm the curator's professor of history here at the University of Missouri.

RAZ: Jonathan Sperber has been thinking a lot about the protests in the Middle East lately. He normally spends more time thinking about the 19th century, but he can't help but see the parallels between 1848 and 2011.

Dr. SPERBER: Everyone's heard of the (unintelligible) in Ireland and it affected all of Europe. Food prices were very high and was followed by a recession in 1847.

RAZ: High food prices, a bad economy, an entrenched entitled ruling class, corrupt monarchs, limited social mobility, government-sponsored thugs on the streets. And then you had the rise of newspapers, so information could move from Budapest to Brussels in a matter of hours.

Dr. SPERBER: All sorts of things going on had created this increasing mood that something would have to change in Europe.

RAZ: And as in Tunisia, a single protest sparked a wildfire.

Dr. SPERBER: It starts with the rising in the city of Naples in Southern Italy in January of 1848.

RAZ: The unrest soon spread to a much larger, much more influential country at the time.

Dr. SPERBER: The big event is what happens in France, in Paris.

RAZ: The demand for reform and more accountable government swept through the cities of France.

Dr. SPERBER: In three days, it's street fighting. At the end of February, the monarchy is overthrown. The republic is proclaimed. In 1848, to proclaim a republic meant to proclaim yourself a radical.

RAZ: Now, word travelled fast. This is the beginning of the golden era of rail travels. So, in Berlin, trains from Paris would arrive daily.

Dr. SPERBER: People hung around the railroad station waiting for the latest news from France.

RAZ: The idea that revolutions could occur in France gave Germans and other Europeans confidence to try the same thing.

Dr. SPERBER: That's exactly what happened.

RAZ: The uprising spread all over Europe.

Dr. SPERBER: Major cities like Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Milan. Riots, demonstrations in Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Denmark, Germany, Italy, very obscure places like the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, Italian possessions of the Habsburg Monarchy, everywhere. It's the single largest wave of revolution in European history.

RAZ: New governments were established all over Europe, but they didn't last. And within a couple of years, most of the revolutions were defeated and counterrevolutionary forces returned to power. It seemed the status quo was back.

Dr. SPERBER: But when we look ahead a quarter of a century, by the 1870s, there are constitutional governments everywhere in Europe except for the Czars' Empire. And in France, there is, in fact, in the 1870s, once again, a republic. So in the short run, the revolutions are unsuccessful.

In the long run, rather more than one might think. I really hope that it won't take a quarter of a century for revolutionary change to reach the Middle East.

RAZ: That's historian Jonathan Sperber from the University of Missouri. He spoke to us from the studios of KBIA in Columbia, Missouri.

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