Constitutions and Geopolitics - Social Protest and Search for Stability: An Alternative Historical Perspective on Europe

The project started in in the autumn of 2007 with a series of seminars at the Renvall Institute.

Outline of the project

Constitutions became the instrument to define the political power and to provide guidelines as to how to control it. The early nineteenth century can be described as the starting point for the constitutionalisation of Europe. Sweden 1809, Spain 1812, Norway 1814, France (Charte constitutionelle) 1814, the South German states of Bavaria, Baden and Würtemberg 1818/19, the constitution of the Deutsche Bund 1815, the Netherlands and Congress Poland 1815, all got constitutions. This was the constitutional moment of Europe. Also Russian reform plans were part of this European pattern in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, but they were never implemented, which provoked protests and revolt after the death of Alexander I (1825). Without getting a constitution in the proper sense Finland was in 1809 guaranteed considerable autonomy as a grand duchy within the Russian empire. The Finnish constitutional debate has so far been viewed basically in its connection to the Russian debate and to its Swedish legal heritage, which in many respects was left intact after 1809, and much less so to the West European debate.

The constitutionalisation of Europe has often been seen as the first step towards the final break-through of democracy, understood as parliamentarianism and popular sovereignty. The beginning was marked by the French Revolution, which has been seen as a European prototype for the establishment of popular sovereignty, and the American Revolution, arguably with the first written constitution in the world (1789). England with the Glorious Revolution (1688/89) and without any written constitution has been seen as an exceptional case rather than a European standard.

The question of the philosophical and theoretical underpinning of the European constitutions has been central. Enlightenment philosophy has been seen as the most prominent source of inspiration. Enlightenment philosophy/political revolution - constitution - parliamentarianism are the decisive links in a chain that has been outlined in this long-term teleological and progressive development towards parliamentarianism and democracy.

In the cases of the Swedish (1809) and the Norwegian (1814) constitutions the question about the precise mix between Enlightenment philosophy and influences from the French and American Revolutions on the one side, and domestic historical heritages on the other has been central in the academic debate. However, also those who have emphasised the specific domestic cultural heritage have underlined the political progression. A long history of free peasants was outlined and seen as the provider of immanent forces for change towards popular power. Norwegian nineteenth century historian Ernst Saars is with his sketch of the Norwegian history from the medieval times until 1814 exemplary in this respect. In Sweden Fredrik Lagerroth and Pontus Fahlbeck in the early twentieth century developed corresponding views.

There are some problems which have not been considered in the academic and political elaboration of this historical teleology towards sovereignty and freedom. The most evident problem is the fact that Europe after Vienna 1915 was a conservative not to say reactionary continent with the Holy Alliance as the key instrument of political control with the aim to prevent full expressions of popular power as they had remerged in the French Revolution. Napoleon provoked reaction and search for stability. The peace in Vienna in 1815 imposed a power check upon Europe in geopolitical and military political terms. There was as Reinhart Koselleck argued in works in the 1960s a strong connection between geopolitical power and domestic political control of popular power. This connection has to a considerable extent been ignored in the historical debate. The more precise relationships in this connection remain to be elaborated, however. The key question that we want to put is to what extent the constitutions reflect this development of a conservative/reactionary Europe and how more precisely the connections between revolution, reform and restoration looked like.1 Our scenario also makes the (failed) European revolution of 1848, and its predecessor in 1830, more understandable. Why this revolution, if everything went smooth with the constitutionalisation of Europe around 1815? The revolutions in Europe in 1830 do as little fit in the conventional view of liberal progression, but should be seen in terms of liberal containment and crisis after Vienna.

The project wants to map out a more complex Europe - and the place of the North in it - where the key issue was legitimisation of power and the search for stability in an unstable world. Economic, social, administrative, political and cultural processes were entangled in various patterns, which provoked what Koselleck called the Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen, spatial differences in terms of development stages between various parts of Europe, and differences and tensions between unsynchronised economic, social and political processes.2The tensions, demarcations, overlappings and spillovers in these processes of simultaneous lack of simultaneity suggest a European pattern of muddling through with progressive steps and setbacks, revolution, reform, and reaction in great complexity and great variety. Liberalism was far from permanently established with the French Revolution but permanently challenged and in a continuous state of fragility and crisis.

1. For the thematic complex Vienna Congress-constitutions-legitimacy see Wolfgang Mager, "Das Problem der landständischen Verfassungen auf dem Winer Kongress 1814/1815" inHistorischer Zeitschrift Vol 217 1974 pp 296-346 and Volker Sellin, "Heute ist die Revolution monarchisch. Legitimität und Legitimierungspolitik im Zeitalter des Wiener Kongresses" in:Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken Vol 76 1996 pp 335-361. In this context attention should also be drawn to Volker Sellin, Die geraubte Revolution. Der Sturz Napoleons und die Restauration in Europa. Göttingen 2001, which is of great relevance for the project in general.

2. Reinhart Koselleck, "8. Die agrarische Grundverfassung Europas zu Beginn der Industrialisierung" in Louis Bergeron, François Furet and Reinhart Koselleck, Fischer Weltgeschichte. Band 26. Das Zeitalter der europäischen Revolutuion 1780-1848. Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag 1969 pp 230-261, here 258.