How the map of Europe was redrawn

Holy Madness: Romantics, Revolutionaries and Patriots 1776-1871 by Adam Zamoyski Weidenfeld pounds 25
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The Enlightenment is always with us. For the past 200 years, the legacy of the French philosophers, American and Russian Revolutionaries and the unionists who forged Italy and Germany (more or less as we know them) out of a host of minor feuding principalities has had immense repercussions on the formation of a secular state, our sense of class and citizenship, and our identity as part of Europe, the Western world as a whole, or as internationalists. Globalisation is not, after all, exclusively about using the planet as one giant marketplace operated by and for the biggest transnational businesses. It is also about the commodity value of whole belief systems, essentially born of a shift from belief in God to belief in Man.

By focusing on the century that led from the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire to the campaigns of Kossuth and Garibaldi, from the writings of Lafayette and de Tocqueville to those of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Adam Zamoyski deals in a currency that has become increasingly unfashionable, even covert. It is that of ideology. Few of us nowadays would confess to being motivated, or even animated, by the ideals of citizenship, nationalism or international brotherhood. But we have only to look at our own history, remembering Shelley, Keats and Byron (only the last of whom rates more than a mention here) to remember how closely a poetic Romantic once marched in step with military campaigns.

It is this, above all, that intrigues Adam Zamoyski and he takes the whole of Europe (and the American Revolution) as his panorama. Zamoyski is in fullest spate when keeping pace with the piratical escapades of the flotillas of ships that set forth off the coast of Uruguay to assist "the political messiah of Italy" (Pope Pius IX): with the fleet feet of guerrilla partisans darting out at and parrying the forces of the Austrian empire; with the explosive drum-rolls of the cannon and the sickly plunge of the bayonet; with the forced marches to the tune of the lonely piper by night and the company band by day. He details the strategies of even the hammiest of generals, explaining why it was that "the spiritual heirs of 1793 (and the French Revolution)" so frequently failed, not only in insurrection but even in terrorism. The repeated instances where the local populace, instead of rising in support, "enthusiastically set about butchering the would-be liberators" or where a local leader (in this instance another "Polish Washington", Ludwik Mieroslawski) assumed command and "rose to the occasion with his usual braggadocio, and followed through with his customary ineffectiveness" are told with a gusto that speaks more of the excitement of the battlefield than of reflection on the predictably dire outcomes.

This account avoids the standard aridity of military histories thanks to two saving graces. One is Zamoyski's ear for the sounds of battle and eye for visually arresting elements. (He is strong on the ad hoc uniforms of the protagonists: Garibaldi's oddball assortment of freedom fighters were dressed in scarlet smocks acquired from an Argentinian abattoir and the summer kit raided from an enemy battalion that left them looking, as one of their number recalled, "like a regiment of Austrian pastry-cooks".) The whole is described as though it were a film script crossed with the kind of rattling yarn with which a battle-scarred soldier might be expected to regale his drinking companions.

The second factor is the reiterated linkage of might and right - or at least self-righteousness, for this was a period of belief in the unity of causes, with each cadre of radicals convinced of the exportability of their liberation struggles. The accent on the often bizarre cults of his chosen period is not of itself novel, but Zamoyski's Catholic background provides the context for a revisionist discussion of the most lasting legacy of the period: its atheism. Zamoyski's resistance to this godless inheritance leads him to detail how the French made the sign of the Cross "in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" and granted the Marseillaise official status as "the Te Deum of the Republic". Also how the Italian Republic introduced a parody of the Ten Commandments with the instructions: "Thou shalt not fornicate, unless it be to harm the enemies of Italy" and "Thou shalt not steal, other than St Peter's Pence [ie. from the Poor Box] in order to use it for the redemption of Rome and Venice," along with a Lord's Prayer proposing that He "Give us today our daily cartridges". Holy Madness enumerates the concessions the purest revolutionary was obliged to make to faith and tradition alongside the travesties. Either way, he encounters remarkable difficulties in the raising of popular consciousness without resorting to transcendental sanctions. Zamoyski's Polish/ American origins also allow leeway in effectively redrawing the map of the period. Eastern Europe is awarded a major role in radical activity, as is the export of the American Revolution north and south through that continent. More neatly still, London is the haven of exiles and the axis of their schemes for much of the 19th century: Francisco de Miranda as well as Karl Marx; Alexander Herzen and Paul Harro Harring; Louis Blanc and Lajos Kossuth; Giuseppe Mazzini and Antonio Panizzi - who found time to design the British Museum Reading Room in between plotting with the carbonari. Beyond them, Naples and the Napoleons had important parts to play: the former as the mythic centre where good rebellions came home to roost; the latter as the bogeyman whose overweening hereditary ambitions rallied resistance from Corsica to Mexico. Perhaps it will only be when we read the history of Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries as composed by a present-day Corsican separatist or a Mexican internationalist that we can enlarge the picture that Zamoyski is painting here.

But the author also has a decided penchant for the little absurdities of history. Some have been fairly thoroughly documented already: academic historians have, already a generation ago, made well-researched mockery of the solemnities of the rites of revolution. Zamoyski's advantage lies in setting religious acts and political parodies firmly in the transnational culture of the period. Ossian is invoked, six volumes of his supposed Epic Poems being forged by one James A Macpherson. He dedicated the bardic sagas to Patriotism and Utopianism, two -isms decidedly out of favour with our own times. Yet the notion of a Nordic tradition influencing a new Enlightenment was crucial to a nascent sense of nationalism in northern Europe. It is there in the writings of the German philosopher Herder, among the first to foment the concept of a unified (in his case, Baltic) Volk. While its Hitlerian adoption could not have been foreseen by Herder, at least he was around to enjoy the founding of a "Community of Saints" (which numbered Goethe among its acolytes) and a community of the "Hugel und Hain (Hill and Copse)" - a group of back-to-nature poets who worshipped in doggerel. And we, as readers, can exhale in relief that the antics of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood , or even an eisteddfod, lie beyond the remit of this book.

This penchant helps to lighten a book of substantial weight and length (450-plus pages), making it seem surprisingly like a volume of short stories in which each one leads naturally into the next. Of itself, no mean feat, but one which at times gets carried away by its own enthusiasms and overtaken by the rush of words. Yet it is a benchmark that will revise our reading of this vivid period; that between the onset of the two Industrial Revolutions, between Blake and Balzac, which saw the birth and rise, not just of nationalism, but of internationalism.