Magazine | April 17, 2017, Issue

Rise to Dominance

Detail of The Proclamation of the German Empire by Anton von Werner, 1885 (Wikimedia)
The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815–1914, by Richard J. Evans (Viking, 848 pp., $40)

At the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Europe lay devastated. A century later, a new Europe had been created, organized around powerful nation-states. It featured expanded suffrage; better diets and health for its citizens; greater rights for the majority of the rural population, women, and religious minorities, notably Jews; increased levels of literacy for the masses; and advanced transportation, communication, and technological systems. By 1914, Europe stood as a global power, with colonies all over the world. Little did Europeans know — as British historian Richard Evans observes in his magisterial, nearly encyclopedic study of their continent’s 19th-century rise — that the world stood on the verge of an incomprehensible catastrophe.

An estimated 5 million people perished during the Napoleonic wars, including one in five Frenchmen born between 1790 and 1795. This was followed by a devastating harvest in 1816, which caused grain prices to skyrocket. Cholera, spread from trade and troop movements in India, broke out in Europe in the 1820s and returned in 1848–49; typhus and other diseases remained persistent public-health problems. In 1815, Austria stood as the most powerful state on the Continent, but hopes for a balance of power in Europe eroded owing to the emergence of a powerful and unified Germany and nationalist rebellions in Central Europe. Greece and Italy became unified nations. Poland, divided by the great powers of Austria, Prussia, and Russia, was the most notable nation that failed to find independence.

The French Revolution left a legacy of social conflict, social equality, and revolutionary outbursts in 1848 and again in the 1870s. Utopian socialism expressed itself in French thinkers such as Fourier and Saint-Simon, while revolutionary Communist ideology was given powerful coherence by Karl Marx; and Mikhail Bakunin provided justification for terrorism by anarchists and nihilists.

Liberals across Europe called for legal and constitutional reform to expand the electorate and allow freedom of the press and recognition of political parties. These reform efforts were most successful in England and, for a brief period in the 1840s, in France. Revolutionary upheavals that swept across Europe in 1848 brought moderate liberals and diehard conservatives “closer together,” Evans observes, “in a shared fear of the masses.” A new breed of politicians, such as Cavour in Italy, Bismarck in Germany, Louis Napoleon III in France, and Disraeli in England, realized that, in Evans’s words, “the preservation of order and stability required radical measures to co-opt the masses into support of the state”; “nationalism was becoming increasingly powerful, indeed unstoppable, and in their different ways they sought to exploit it for their own purposes.”

The rise of nationalism proved integral not just to national-unification movements but also to the strength of colonialism and empires. This coincided with reorganized armies and arms races. The Franco–Prussian War revealed the superiority of the Prussian military. The Prussian king, Wilhelm I, and his prime minister, Bismarck, used the war to unify Germany, setting the stage for the First World War.

In this century of political turmoil, Europe also underwent a technological and economic transformation, with England playing a critical role in industrial innovation, international trade, and finance. By 1890, Britain had a greater tonnage of shipping than the rest of the world put together. British capitalists and engineers financed and supervised the building of an extensive railway system throughout Europe. Chemical and pharmaceutical industries boomed in England, Germany, and France. Electrical companies produced new sources of power for industry and for private citizens. Cities, once squalid and disease-ridden, were provided with hygienic water supplies and improved public health. The middle class grew in numbers and influence as European economies grew.

Evans maintains that Europe surged ahead owing to “specific historical circumstances” — not to its “intrinsic superiority” (Evans’s phrase describing the opinion of some other historians, including Niall Ferguson). Evans discusses Europe’s rise with much erudition and at great narrative length but does not actually detail what he means by the “specific historical circumstances” that were crucial to this advancement. Here he might have turned to historian David Landes, who named three factors that enabled Europe to become a global economic power in this period: a deeply rooted sense of individualism, the rule of law, and property rights. Evans often passes over these factors or suggests them only by implication. In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), a work not cited by Evans, Landes provides great evidence that Europe’s economic advancement was the direct result of a unique culture founded on political competition, economic freedom, and favorable attitudes toward science and religion, as well as the comparative advantages of its climate.

Evans balances descriptions of material advances in Europe with discussion of growing economic inequality and the pursuit of empire, the latter of which he roots in xenophobia and racism. He dedicates The Pursuit of Power to the late Eric Hobsbawm, a Marxist historian who was quick to note the barbarities in modern European culture and the social inequalities produced by capitalism. Few historians can match Hobsbawm in literary ability, but Evans provides a wider historical understanding of the long 19th century by reaching beyond Europe’s great powers to include the whole continent as far as Russia.

Drawing on recent scholarship on private life, popular and literary culture, and the environment, Evans weaves a rich tapestry of unparalleled historical transformation. In detail and inclusiveness, Evans exceeds Hobsbawm. Evans is neither a historical materialist nor an economic determinist; he understands the role of freedom and accident in history.

His focus, as far-reaching as it is, does tend to downplay the positive role played by religion in this period. Evans emphasizes the growth of secularism that came from the advancement of science, Darwinian evolutionary theory, and literary and cultural criticism. He pays less analytical attention to the role that religion, especially Protestant Evangelical revivalism, played in tempering capitalist greed and inspiring social reform. The 19th century, particularly in England, was swept by religious revivals. This religious spirit fostered moral reform, including anti-slavery, temperance, women’s-rights, and anti-animal-cruelty movements. The wealthy were inspired with a philanthropic impulse to create benevolent societies and to promote better conditions for workers, the indigent, and the ill. Polish national identity survived in large part because of the Catholic Church. Evans discusses these efforts but overlooks the possibility that the 19th century was as much an age of religion as one of secularism.

Evans maintains that, in the course of mass emigration to other parts of the world, “Europe’s social and cultural limits became blurred.” Perhaps, but at the same time British, French, and German literature spread to Asia, Africa, and Latin America; European educational systems were implemented throughout the world; and ideas of Western democracy and the rule of law inspired national reformers in India, China, and Japan, and throughout Africa and the Middle East. Scientific and medical knowledge developed in Europe transformed the world. The impact of European literary, political, technological, and scientific contributions suggests less a “cultural blurring” than a clear, sharp transformation.

The nation-state and the corresponding rise of nationalism characterized the 19th century. Patriotic spirit within the masses of each nation presented the Left in Europe (and the United States) with a political problem: For all their talk of international solidarity, socialist parties and left-wing intellectuals confronted a deeply rooted patriotic spirit within the masses, tapped by right-wing and centrist parties. However much nationalism was founded on what Hobsbawm called “invented traditions” and created national myths, it presented an intractable problem for the Left, as evidenced in the First World War — and today: Nationalism has found new expression in politics following the Great Recession of 2009 and is manifested in Brexit in Britain, Marine Le Pen in France, and anti-immigrant and anti-EU politics throughout Europe.

If the 19th century can be characterized by the rise of the nation-state and nationalism, the 21st century, at least in its first decades, illustrates the power of patriotic expression, a power not easily erased by the global economic integration set in motion two centuries earlier.

– Mr. Critchlow, a professor of history at Arizona State University, is the author of Future Right: The Forging of a New Republican Majority.

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