Warning from a global era: the lessons we must learn from the 19th century

Richard J Evans’s sweeping history of 19th-century Europe, The Pursuit of Power, has much to offer in our current moment.

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Fortunate is the historian who can write on 19th-century Europe, before the world wars and the Holocaust turned the 20th century into a grisly charnel house. And what a rich century it was. So much of what is associated with the 20th century was invented or developed in the previous century – mass politics, nationalism, “modernisation”, social class, mass production.

The cluster of European leaders who populated the age of war and genocide were all born in the 19th century and carried much of its baggage with them. The 19th ­century was marked by railways, motor cars, electricity, the gas supply, telephones, the postage stamp, photography, and the ­urban sprawl and grimy industries that went with it all. The era’s thinkers – Hegel, Marx, ­Darwin, Mill, Nietzsche, Durkheim – still influence the discourses of the 21st century (although Durkheim is one of the few lacunae in the book). The 19th century was a fertile age, giving birth to and incubating the many cultural, social and political forces that shaped the century that followed.

Richard J Evans has clearly enjoyed immersing himself in the age. This is a scintillating, encyclopaedic history, rich in detail from the arcane to the familiar. The canvas is vast and so much is now known about the period, thanks to a profusion of historical writing, that giving shape to the material must have been a daunting task. Yet Evans has risen to the challenge splendidly. The Pursuit of Power mixes political, social, economic, cultural and intellectual history to give a richness of texture and presence that the existing major accounts of the century – many of them written at a time when high politics, great men and balance-of-power diplomacy were what counted as history – were unable to deliver. To achieve that blend and yet retain coherence marks this volume as a veritable tour de force.

Evans reminds us of a number of important realities that growing distance can ­obscure. The most significant is the enduring importance of agriculture in an age that is usually discussed in terms of the birth of modern industrial capitalism and mass urbanisation. Even by 1900, well over half of Europe’s population still lived in villages and worked the land; aristocrats dominated rural communities locally where they still could; food production and distribution were still the main economic activities for much of the continent and, when it failed, as it still did even by the end of the century, famine occurred.

This was also a century in which the female half of Europe’s population was still largely disempowered. Scattered through Evans’s book is the almost universal subjection of women across the continent. Progress was made here and there in the final years of the century, but male insecurity (expressed in one way, Evans suggests, by the prevalence of beards and moustaches) made resistance more entrenched as time went on. Male accounts of gender almost all regarded men as doers and thinkers, and women as emotional and imaginative. “Between harlot or housewife,” wrote the otherwise radical thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, “there is no halfway point.”

Change there certainly was, however, and much of this history charts the formal emancipation of serfs and slaves by the middle years of the century, the growth of parliamentary politics and the extension of the male vote, and the triumph of the national ideal over dynastic imperialism in Greece, Belgium, Italy, Germany and the countries of south-eastern Europe.

Nationalism was widely approved of in liberal circles, because it promised a new source of modern civic identity and a new form of citizenship – but, as the author reminds us, it was a negatively potent force, emotionally unstable and dangerously exclusive. Tied to the growth of “new” European empires in the latter part of the century, the “nation empire” became a source of intense competition that fuelled the final years of crisis before 1914.

Evans is anxious to avoid making his account too Eurocentric, because he is aware that this was in many ways Europe’s global century – one in which other big powers (China, the Ottoman empire) were overtaken and European trade, migration, capital and violence were exported worldwide. His account of empire should leave no one in doubt that whatever the liberal “civilising” rhetoric used to justify imperial power, violence, often extreme, was crucial to it.

The factors which gave Europe that opportunity were developments in transport and communications: global shipping companies, then railways, the telegraph and postal services. As the century progressed, it became possible to travel anywhere in Europe and to have, in a matter of hours, news, stock-exchange prices, family gossip, and so on, all relayed by the post office. This shrinking of space and time was, perhaps, the most remarkable feature of the 19th century.

In one of the most rewarding chapters of the book, Evans discusses the conquest of nature – a theme that takes in not only the railway and the steamship, but the creation of the modern zoo and the decline in Europe’s wildlife. Wolves roamed in packs across much of Europe but were all but wiped out through hunting by the century’s end (one Polish wolf, accustomed to feeding on dead soldiers at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, was shot and killed by a Polish forester who tied his two-year-old child to a tree as bait).

Nature was conquered in other ways: by the burgeoning biological and medical sciences, which began to understand at last the causes of disease and how to combat it; or by psychologists, who tried to understand more scientifically what made people “mad”. Evans observes, like Foucault, that the more efforts were made to understand madness and classify its manifestations, the more likely people were to be classified and institutionalised who were not in any modern sense deranged.

Here and there are visible the warning signs for the next century. Evans discusses the development of scientific racism, which influenced fantasies of racial purity in the post-1918 era. His account of German savagery during the misnamed Franco-Prussian War has sinister implications. In areas where there were suspected francs-tireurs (irregular soldiers), German troops killed the inhabitants – men, women and children – and burned villages to the ground.

It is all too easy to view history in terms of continuities; yet the German atrocities in Belgium in 1914 and the endless murders carried out by Hitler’s forces suggest that the war of 1870-71 established a model for harsh retaliation against enemy civilians. The many acts of violence in the imperial expansion of the pre-1914 years, which continued into the postwar era, also suggest a link to earlier atrocities. After 1918, Europe tried to close the door on the darker elements of its recent past, but they still shaped how many Europeans saw the world.

For all those Brexiteers lauding the “exceptionalism” of Britain’s historical path, Evans has made it clear beyond doubt that Britain was and is a part of Europe, tied by cultural, economic, political and military bonds and sharing the experiences of other parts of the continent. There is no “history of Europe” that can exclude Britain, though textbooks and university courses too often suggest the possibility. For anyone who wants to discover just how entangled Europe’s history is, there can be no better starting point than The Pursuit of Power.

Richard Overy is the author of “The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45” (Penguin)

The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914 by Richard J Evans is published by Allen Lane, 848pp, £35

This article appears in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage