The Divided Path: The German Influence on Social Reform in France after 1870

By Allan Mitchell | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

The Demographic Imperative

Long after its prime, liberalism is likely to strike the impartial observer in retrospect as an exercise in rhetoric. And for explicable reasons, so it was. Every knowledgeable European of the mid-nineteenth century was somehow aware that society was undergoing a fitful and permanent transition through industrial expansion. One needed only to ride a train, pass by a factory, or walk a city street to witness the more obvious effects. Yet exceptional was the person who possessed any coherent notion of the dimensions of that change. It is in fact remarkable how little most people knew about their own collective experience. Partly that ignorance was a function of illiteracy. But even the wealthy and educated portions of the populace did not travel widely beyond their country estate or favorite spa. What they knew of the world outside their circle came from a few exotic novels, from reports of foreign correspondents in daily newspapers, or perhaps from the pages of a fashion magazine that reported the latest trends in etiquette and style.1

Two ingredients were lacking that we, a century or so later, virtually take for granted: an international perspective and an accumulation of precise data. Absence of the former is hardly surprising, and we cannot wonder that the average Frenchman had only the vaguest conception of whom he was fighting in the war of 1870, or why. On the other side were "les boches"--enough said, so it was thought. The absence of exact numbers through much of the nineteenth century was a no less significant, if less durable, factor of the national mentality. Regular census reports had existed in France since the Restoration; and the Statistique gnrale de France was avail

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