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The BBC miniseries Fall of Eagles concentrates on the big political developments and views them through the lens of the monarchs of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The show touches on a variety of important socio-political developments, but it makes little effort to explain these developments, with the partial exception of Socialism, which gets a full episode devoted to Lenin (Patrick Stewart) and his maneuverings within the Communist party. So let’s talk about the movements that form a critical background to the events in the series.



Liberalism and Conservatism

The monarchs in the series make repeated references to ‘liberals’, but exactly what liberals wanted is never directly addressed. Liberalism arguably goes back to the late 17th century, at least as a philosophical movement, but it blossomed as a political movement at the end of the 18th century with the American and French Revolutions. 19th century Liberals, broadly speaking, sought to build on the principles of representative democracy established in those two revolutions (as well as in the 18th century British Parliament). Liberals favored a strong representative body such as a parliament, and wanted this parliament to be elected based on a wide franchise (the right to vote). Different Liberals advocated for a different basis for the franchise: ownership of land, an independent income, adult male status (universal manhood suffrage), or universal suffrage (which would grant women the right to vote), but they all agreed that the general population ought to be directly represented in government. Because they wanted a strong representative element in government, they generally wanted a more restricted executive (either a king or an elected leader) whose powers were clearly defined. Typically, though not inevitably, Liberals wanted to establish a written constitution that clearly laid out the powers of the different segments of the government.

Liberals also tended to favor a notion of basic rights that included such things as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. In the mid-19th century, British member of Parliament and political philosopher John Stuart Mill articulated what became for more than a century the classic statement of Liberal freedom. He argued that the only reason the state was justified in coercing a citizen was to protect that person from interfering with another citizen’s free exercise of their rights. In Mill’s view, the government had no right to restrict what its citizens could think, say, or believe, and could only restrict what they could do to protect the rights of other citizens.


John Stuart Mill

The opposing political position was Conservatism, which emerged out of a reaction against the French Revolution. Conservatives tended to follow the principles of British member of Parliament and political philosopher Edmund Burke, who rejected the idea of human equality in favor of a society in which different people had different levels of wealth and political rights based on inheritance. A society with many different competing social groups, Burke argued, could only change through a process of compromise, which would ensure moderation, slow change, and stability. As Burke saw it, monarchy was the best guarantor of stability because kings had the most to lose during a political upheaval.


Edmund Burke

From Burke’s theories, it followed that what was needed was a strong monarch with wide and less-strictly defined powers. That meant that Conservatives resisted representative institutions or wanted them fairly weak. They favored the political rights of the aristocracy over the rights of the general population, and typically wanted limits on the freedoms that Liberals championed. For example, they often maintained the need for some degree of censorship of ideas and liked the idea of a state church. The Austrian, German, and Russian monarchs in this series are all voices for Conservatism, but the show never identifies them as such because the series is told from their point of view, and to them these positions are simply self-evident. They seek to govern the way their ancestors did, and as a result, they view Liberals as unjustified upstarts.



When I teach Modern Western Civilization, I always have to spend a day talking about Nationalism, because it’s an ideology that had a huge impact on 19th and 20th century Europe. I tell my students that they will have a hard time wrapping their heads around it because they think they know what a Nation is, but they’re wrong. In 20th century terminology, a nation is basically just a synonym for a country. But in 19th century terms, a Nation is not a place but rather a group of people. Nations were comprised of people who had a broad set of common characteristics, typically seen as a common ancestry, shared language, shared religion, and shared cultural values such as a particular style of music, cooking, clothing, and so on (although different Nationalists focused on different sets of these traits).

So, for example, the French are clearly a Nation in the 19th century sense of the term. They have a shared ancestry, a common language, tend toward a cultural Catholicism mixed with agnosticism or atheism, a sophisticated cuisine (which they actually teach in primary schools to ensure that children will embrace it), an inexplicable love of lousy Euro-pop, and so on. In contrast, modern Americans are not a Nation; we do not have a common ancestry, we do not all speak one language (although English predominates, many speak Spanish, for example), we do not all belong to a single religion or denomination, and we have a wide range of styles of cooking and music. In other words, what 19th century people called a Nation we would probably call an ethnic group.

On a social level, Nationalists emphasized that people ought to draw their primary sense of identity from their nation and should be loyal to it. They wanted to convince people that they belonged to a Nation. On a political level, what Nationalists wanted was a Nation-State, that is, a political state (a country) whose boundaries included all the members of the nation. So French Nationalists wanted (and to a considerable extent already had) a state of France that included all the French-speaker parts of Europe. There were a few bits along their eastern frontier that were not part of France, but overall, the French nation was mostly in France.

But other European Nationalists were not so lucky. They tended to have one of two problems. German Nationalists had the problem that ‘Germany’ was not a county in the early 19th century, merely a geographic region like the Midwest. The German Nation was divided up between several dozen small states, each of which was its own country. Italian Nationalists had a similar problem; ‘Italy’ was a geographic term, not a country. These Nationalists pursued a goal of National Unification, seeking to pull their fragmented Nations together into one Nation-State

In Eastern Europe, the Nationalist problem was quite different. There were several dozen small Nations that were subsumed into other countries. The classical example (very relevant for this series) was Austria (or after 1867, Austria-Hungary). Austria-Hungary was technically the union of two separate kingdoms, Austria and Hungary, which were united because the Hapsburg dynasty had inherited the crowns of both states. This state was a multi-National state (in 19th century terms). The western half of Austria was predominantly German, but the eastern half included more than a dozen other National groups, including the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Poles, the Croats, the Serbs, and so on. What Nationalists of each of these different groups wanted was for their Nation to be an independent Nation-State, completely separate from Austrian control. Nationalism was an existential threat to Austria, because if it got a strong foothold there, it would pull Austria apart.


Map of Austria showing all the major Nations

Nationalism often, though not inevitably, went hand in hand with Liberalism, because Liberalism offered Nationalists tools to potentially achieve their goals with. Rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press meant that Nationalists could spread their ideas freely in the face of governments that opposed them. The establishment of a representative legislature based on a wide franchise would mean that Nationalists could try to achieve National Independence or Unification through democratic methods.


The Revolutions of 1848

In 1848, these movements produced a set of upheavals known as the Revolutions of 1848 (also sometimes called the Spring of Nations). Starting in France and eventually breaking out in about 50 different countries, Liberals and Nationalists, among others, agitated for political change. But different segments of the population wanted different things, so the uprisings were not truly coordinated, even within the same country or region. The Revolutions of 1848 were too complicated to explore in detail here, because they played out differently in different countries. So I’ll restrict myself to just Austria and Germany.

In Austria, a group of Viennese university students began a protest in March of the year, demanding an Austrian constitution and a legislature elected by universal manhood suffrage. Emperor Ferdinand I ordered his troops to open fire on the students, killing several and provoking Viennese workers to join the protest in anger over the killings, causing the protest to develop into an armed insurrection.

Ferdinand tried various measures to appease the insurrectionaries. He fired his unpopular chief minister Metternich and ordered the drafting of a constitution in April, but the proposed constitution did not establish a wide franchise and so was rejected. After fleeing Vienna, Ferdinand established an elected legislature.

About the same time this was happened, a Nationalist insurrection broke out in Hungary seeking Hungarian independence. The Nationalists adopted a Liberal agenda known as the 10 Points, which included things such as freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the election of government ministers in parliament, and the abolition of legal and tax privileges for certain classes of people. Eventually Ferdinand sent Austrian troops into Hungary, but they were defeated. This action provoked vehement opposition in Vienna, forcing Ferdinand to abdicate in favor of his nephew Franz Joseph I.


Franz Joseph late in life

Hungary briefly established a Hungarian Republic led by Regent-President Louis Kosuth, whose forces defeated the Austrians several times over the next year. But in May of 1849, the situation turned in favor of Austria when Czar Nicholas I decided to support Franz Joseph. By August, Austrian and Russian forces had crushed the rebellion and re-established Austrian control over Hungary, bringing an end for a generation to Hungarian Nationalist efforts to achieve independence.

The situation in Germany is messier, because ‘Germany’ wasn’t one country, but rather about 3 dozen countries, most of which saw some form of upheaval. In Prussia, which after Austria was the largest of the German states, protesters took to the streets of Berlin in March, demanding a constitution, parliamentary elections, freedom of the press, and the unification of Germany. King Frederick William IV played for time by agreeing to allow a liberal constitution. establishing an elected assembly, and embracing the principle of German unification. In May, the Prussian National Assembly met for the first time, tasked with drafting a liberal constitution. But then in December, Frederick William dissolved the Assembly, imposed a Conservative constitution that vested most of the power in the hands of the king, and allowed the establishment of a bicameral legislature.


Frederick William IV

But in May of 1848, the All-German National Assembly convened in Frankfurt am Main with representatives elected from across the German states (including both Austria and Prussia). It was an overwhelmingly middle class and Liberal group of representatives. It drafted a proposed German Constitution and decided to offer the crown of the proposed new German Empire to Frederick William, who had continued to indicate support for the unification of Germany. But Frederick William contemptuously declared that would not receive “a crown from the gutter.” Frederick’s rejection was driven by two things, his hostility to revolution and his staunch belief in the divine right of kings; he refused to accept that a group of people could select their own ruler. Only God could choose rulers, and if people could choose their ruler, logically they could depose him as well. Frederick William’s refusal of the crown spelled the end of the so-called March Revolution across Germany.

That failure, incidentally, caused large numbers of Liberals and Socialists to flee Germany for the United States. A very sizable number of them ultimately came to my home town Milwaukee, making it the most German city outside of Germany for about a century. The heavily German character of Milwaukee was still fairly evident as I was growing up in the 70s, although it’s mostly faded away now. The heavy Socialist presence in the city is the reason Milwauke had three Socialist mayors in the first half of the century and played such an important role in the growth of the American Labor Union movement.

The Revolutions in Fall of Eagles

The first episode, “Death Waltz” opens with a brief narration about the Revolution of 1848 in Austria.

“1848. The Eagle trembled. New and revolutionary forces are suddenly unleashed. Student protests and demonstrations by a starving and resentful population lead to traditional ideas of monarchy and government being questioned throughout Europe. When Hungarian nationalists took to the barricades in Vienna, the young emperor Franz Josef of Austria ordered his troops to crush the rebellion. Men died in their thousands. Hundreds were shot and hundreds were executed and those leaders who escaped were hanged in effigy. As blood ran in the streets of Vienna, the emperor and his court waltzed beneath glittering chandeliers.”

While everything in that passage is technically correct, it omits the point that the protests toppled Emperor Ferdinand. More importantly, it fails to explain what the protestors wanted. There’s no explanation of Liberalism’s primary principles or indeed any mention of Liberalism at all, and no explanation of what the Hungarian nationalists wanted, or that by late in 1848 it was looking as if the Hungarian nationalists were going to win.

As the voiceover ends, we see the domineering Archduchess Sophie (Pamela Brown) discussing the court protocol with Princess Helene of Bavaria, who is supposed to marry the young emperor. But Franz Joseph (Miles Anderson) instead falls deeply in love with Helene’s sister Elisabeth (Diane Keen), defies his mother and marries her. All of this happened in 1854, not 1848 as the episode suggests. (The only clue to this is a flashback that isn’t obviously a flashback, in which Helene and Elisabeth’s tutor refers to the Revolution of 1848 and the Hungarian revolt.) The rest of the episode concentrates on Elisabeth’s rather unhappy marriage with Franz Joseph. Although he loved her deeply, her feelings for him were rather cooler, and she got on very poorly with Sophie, who sought to control her domestic life.


Keen and Anderson as Elisabeth and Franz Joseph

The episode focuses a fair amount of time on Elisabeth’s growing interest in Hungary and her sympathy with the Hungarian desire for ‘freedom’, as the episode summarizes Hungarian Nationalism. There’s no discussion of the idea of a Hungarian Nation, only that the Hungarians wanted a greater voice in government. The episode asserts that Elisabeth’s dissatisfaction with her personal life made her deeply sympathetic to the Hungarian desire for freedom. One scene touches on one of the underlying issues of Nationalism though. Elisabeth insists on wearing a tiara that mimics a Hungarian style of headdress, which is implicitly a statement of support for the Hungarians, despite Sophie’s efforts to get her to wear something more German. (See the photo above.) The idea that Germans and Hungarians would dress differently because they were different Nations is not explained, so the viewer is left to read between the lines why this tiara is an issue.


Empress Elisabeth of Austria

(Elisabeth, by the way, was one of the great beauties of 19th century Europe. She spent between 2 and 3 hours a day on her hair, exercised and dieted aggressively, and managed to maintain a 16 inch waist despite three pregancies; later in life she had only a 19 1/2 inch waist. After she turned 33, she refused to sit for any more portraits, so that her image in the public mind would always be one of youth and beauty.)

That the Revolutions of 1848 also played themselves out in Germany is not mentioned directly, although Frederick William’s rejection of the ‘crown from the gutters’ is references in a later episode.

To my mind, failing to explain Liberalism and Nationalism in any direct way is a mistake of the series. While the narrative of the event is clear enough for the viewer, the series doesn’t really explain what the issues driving events were, except in the most basic sense that people wanted self-government.


Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.