Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Warnings from a Global Century

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Warnings from a Global Century

Article excerpt


The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914

Richard J Evans

Allen Lane, 848pp, 35 [pounds sterling]

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, Durkheimstill 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. …

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