In premise, this is more of a meditation on history than a ‘strict’ history book. Zamoyski had some thoughts on nationalism, and faith, and wrote this book to explore his thoughts. The general theme is that as the church lost its place of primacy in European society, the habits of thought remained, and devotion got redirected to the idea of ‘the state’.

It’s an interesting idea, and he’s certainly onto something. I’d kind of like something a bit less nebulous, though it’d probably go over my head. At any rate, in Holy Madness, it’s obvious that he has found every case of religious imagery, or ecstatic feeling in the writings of 19th Century revolutionaries. But I wonder how much (or really, how many people) doesn’t follow that theme? Perhaps its a consistent tone/theme across the vast bulk of them, but since there’s no examination of that, there’s no way to know. Certainly, he does show a strong ideal of martyrdom in a lot of writings.

Overall, there’s certainly some very interesting things going on here. The end of the French Revolution and Napoleon left a lot of people with unfulfilled dreams in Europe. Whenever some new ‘national project’ came up these people would show up to try to help, aiding revolutions with fundraising for arms, and a people who could form up revolutionary units to fight for a glorious death in the name of liberty. The three decades after 1815 in Europe aren’t dangerous for the ideals unleashed to cause the population to rise up (the general population in the countryside often wanted no part of it), but instead dangerous for all the flotsam and jetsam of previously wrecked hopes washing back and forth across the continent.

Post 1848… ‘revolutionary society’ is shown to be the transition out of the age. Some of what these men have been fighting for is happening politically. The new idealists have very different views, and the people who are powering all this struggle are aging out. The social circles get smaller every year, and while they still hold their decades old grudges, its becoming harder to fire everyone up for a new cause.

To a certain extent the formation of Italy and Germany mark the end of the movements this book is following, but it’s not quite presented that way, with things tending to trail off, not quite off-screen, but not really focused on. As with any natural process, there’s no neat end, no turning of the page, though there is further summary of where some of these passions went next.