Prague, 1968 - AFP - December 2011
Residents attemtping to stop a Soviet tank, Prague, 1968. Photo by AFP
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In the summer of 1830, a Jewish-born German journalist was visiting Paris. He had been born as Loeb Baruch, but he changed name to Karl Ludwig Borne and became a Lutheran Protestant. Borne was a childhood friend, and later bitter enemy, of Heinrich Heine. He had arrived in Paris to write about the situation in the country following the July Revolution, which had compelled King Charles X to vacate the throne to his cousin Louis-Philippe. The new king took upon himself a series of constitutional restrictions; his coronation was considered a victory for the values of liberalism in Europe. Earlier a similar revolution occurred in Spain.

For his part, Borne was very enthusiastic and believed that these events marked the beginning of a new era. In an article he published in his newspaper, Die Wage, Borne called what was destined to happen in Europe "the people's springtime" (that is the wording that appeared in the first English translation of his work).

It is thus customary to attribute the coining of this phrase to him. But this was not a particularly original stroke of brilliance: Spring as a symbol of blossoming and blooming, and of belief in goodness, already "starred" in the literature, art and music produced by German Romanticism. It also seems reasonable to presume that Borne, who was born in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt and would naturally remember the seder nights, was familiar with the words of Moses, who also spoke of spring in a political context: "Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage ... This day ye go forth in the month Aviv" (literally, "spring"; Exodus 13:3-4).

In the 18 years that went by after France's July Revolution, Europe experienced a wave of national upheavals, political and social, that reached their climax in 1848-49 and were called, collectively, the Spring of Nations. People in almost every European country took to the streets to demand social justice, national unification and liberation from the yoke of foreigners. In France these events eventually led to the overthrow of Louis-Philippe, the very man whose coronation marked the advent of the first "spring."

There is something captivating about the optimism that this phrase conveys; it also contains a great deal of naivete.

A linguist named Ben Zimmer, who has a website called Visual Thesaurus, contends that the first event in the 20th century that was described in terms of spring was the introduction of liberal reforms in Russia in 1904. Since that time, the image has frequently been attached to numerous events, mainly in Eastern Europe: East Berlin, 1953; Warsaw and Budapest, 1956; Prague, 1968. It is hard to determine why the struggle in Prague in particular won such massive and sweeping sympathy, from one end of the world to the other. Perhaps because the attempt to rise up against Soviet oppression occurred in the 1960s - an especially "springlike" decade also on university campuses in Europe and America. In any case, the Prague Spring became the symbol of all political springs, even though it was brutally crushed - or perhaps because of that. Additional "springs" appeared to bloom for a while in South Korea, Beijing and Tehran.

Use of the term "Arab Spring" is not new either. It appeared in The New York Times Magazine back in 2003. Also Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim wrote in February 2005 that the presidential elections in his country might bring with them an Arab spring.

Here then is a commonplace cliche, the use of which is spreading in the Israeli media to distant realms, such as, this past week, "Lod spring" to describe the urban renewal effort in that city and "capital market spring." But in the spirit of the cliche that says that after spring comes summer, autumn and winter, one may be permitted to point out that many of the bright political "springs" turned out to be illusions that did not last long, and led to "a rainy day," to borrow another cliche.

The Spring of Nations in the 19th century gradually brought about the abolition of the feudal enslavement of many of Europe's peasants and the institution of certain liberal civil rights, but did not prevent the creation of immense empires of oppression that dragged Europe into World War I. The springlike 1920s quickly gave way to the murderous era of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, and to World War II. The springs in Berlin, Warsaw, Budapest and Prague were soon put down by the force of Soviet tanks. The Moscow spring that preceded the collapse of the communist empire in the late 1980s did not give Russians a regime of freedom and democracy. The Tiananmen Square spring wilted fast as well. And as the winter of 2011-2012 nears, there is still no certainty that the events that were described, perhaps too hastily, as the Arab Spring will indeed bloom as hoped.