'The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914', by Richard J. Evans - Review

By Heffer, Simon | The Spectator, September 3, 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914', by Richard J. Evans - Review


Heffer, Simon, The Spectator


The Penguin History of Europe reaches its seventh volume (out of nine) with Richard J. Evans's thorough and wide-ranging work on the 99 years from 1815 to 1914. It comes between two formidable books by formidable scholars: his fellow Cambridge historian Tim Blanning took the story from the close of the Thirty Years' War to Waterloo, and the Hitler authority Ian Kershaw covered 1914 to 1949.

Each of those volumes is much as one would expect of the author: Blanning's shows his background as a polymath, and his expertise in the histories of more than one major European power; Kershaw's puts the rise of the Third Reich and its consequences at the centre of his. But Evans developed under the influence of E.H. Carr and the Marxist historians, and his book comes back time and again to issues of class. To label it as straightforward Marxist history would not be fair, though the skidmarks are visible.

Evans dedicates his book to the memory of Eric Hobsbawm, to whom many in the Cambridge History Faculty (where the author was regius professor) accord a reverence and respect that less acute and privileged souls may find hard to understand. To be fair to Evans, class struggles were going on intensely around Europe from the moment Napoleon was dispatched to St Helena, and viewing the history of the ensuing century through that prism is as reasonable a way of doing it as any other, though it cannot be the whole story. Nearly 25 years of warfare had destablised not just governments but entire social orders; and the restlessness that emanated left ruling elites fearing a repeat of 1789. Ironically, it would be France itself that would lead the way in such renewed upheavals, both in 1830 and 1848.

Evans adeptly pulls together the different strands of tension and anxiety that led to the 1848 convulsions: he also illuminates these by reference to the changes in society consequent upon the advances of technology, notably the development of railways. Although this history of necessity dwells on continental Europe, Evans also points out how for much of the century with which he deals Britain led the way: not just in technology (it had the Industrial Revolution before anyone else, which effectively sealed its place as the leading world power in the 19th century, and built most of Europe's railways), but in social matters.

Britain was helped by not having a peasantry or serfs who had to be controlled, and in its Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 began the process of enfranchising those outside the traditional elite. Meanwhile, around Europe, autocracy struggled to survive after the close call of 1848.

As a German specialist Evans is, as one would expect, good on German unification and the key events that preceded it: the rise of Bismarck, the war between Prussia and Austria and, in 1870-71, the Franco-Prussian war, which sealed the wretched fates of both nations for the ensuing 75 years and beyond. His writing on Italian unification is less satisfactory. …

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