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Analogy is always tempting amid contemporary uncertainties. It can also be distracting or misleading.

From the outlet of the Arab spring, drawing parallels with 1848 in Europe has offered potential insights. Here are two situations in which revolution spread quite rapidly across a region, though of course not uniformly, and in which claims about human rights and political representation loomed large.

Other connections now suggest themselves, two years into the process. Most obviously, the 1848 revolutionaries, in centers like Berlin, failed (like their counterparts in Egypt) to secure the military or provide reliable alternatives to it. This would haunt the revolution then, as it is doing today. 1848, again in centers like Prussia, was also bedeviled by tensions between social and political goals, on the one hand, and other ideologies (nationalism then, Islamism now?), which ultimately hampered revolutionary drive.

1848 also had complex social dimensions, among classes and between rural and urban; comparable contemporary analogies might, or might not, be interesting. By 1848 standards, most current Arab spring analysis seems inadequately focused, though it’s admittedly easier to do social assessments after the fact. Overall: there are enough ongoing parallels between 1848, particularly in centers like Berlin or Vienna, and the Arab spring to stimulate further discussion and possibly some additional research. Of course the fit is inexact: there was no 1848 Syria, to take an obvious case. But if some parallels hold up, they invite further inquiry. In an immediate sense, the 1848 revolutions failed, again because the bases of the old regime were not really overcome; though also because of social divisions and ideological distractions. But in the aftermath, as in Bismarck’s Germany, several revolutionary goals actually were partially achieved, creating a different (though not really revolutionary) state and society. Is this a pattern to anticipate down the line, in Egypt and elsewhere? And compared to current uncertainties, is it a hopeful or discouraging prospect?

Whatever the outlook, analogy-shoppers should keep 1848 offerings in mind, and centers in addition to France. The history warehouse is well stocked.