Book review: The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914

Evans book a reminder that chaos, uncertainty, danger, violence and barbarism are always lurking just around the corner, writes JP O’Malley.

Richard J Evans

Allen Lane, €26.99

Standing in the Foreign Office in London, on August 3, 1914, the British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, turned to a close friend.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe,” said Grey. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Grey’s words were extremely prescient.

Britain was just hours away from joining the rest of Europe in the First World War.

The continent — and indeed the world at large — was about to descend into the most savage depths of collective barbarism ever recorded in human history.

In many ways, 1914 can be seen as a kind of year zero for the violent instability that reigned supreme in Europe for the next four decades.

Indeed, the early decades of the 20th century saw a tumultuous earthquake to two vital ingredients that made the 19th century appear — to political elites at the time at least — that the world was somehow moving inexorably towards an almost celestial-like European centred western vision of progress and wisdom: The huge colonial empires (where Europe added more than 8,600,000 square miles to the territory across the earth it controlled), and, the single world economy, which, for all of its faults, and spreading of inequality and misery, had been a remarkable achievement of 19th century liberal capitalism.

The Infantry prepare to advance during a campaign in the First World War. Picture: PA

There are two possible ways of looking at Europe on the eve of the First World War.

We can look back and see the end of a period of relatively settled, peaceful, and stable existence: In what was the world’s most culturally productive, and politically and militarily dominant continent.

Conversely, we can recognise that the early tremors of social and international upheaval were already firmly in place.

And see 1914 as the beginning of the end for the Eurocentric world that had existed hitherto.

A deeper reading of history would suggest the latter option.

As totalitarian ideologies like Bolshevism, Nazism, and Fascism came onto the scene in the early 20th century, it’s worth remembering that their vicious blood-thirsty ideas didn’t come out of nowhere.

They arose out of a pure hatred of the bourgeois class that had built up so much power in the previous century.

Moreover, if we want to comprehend how mainstream dictatorial political parties of Europe in the early 20th century normalised ideas like genocide, torture, xenophobia, and labour camps, into everyday political discourse: Looking back at the evolution of politics in the previous century is a good place to start looking for answers.

In The Pursuit Of Power: Europe 1815-1914 the British historian, Richard J Evans, takes a nuanced and measured approach to history in his attempt to understand this truly remarkable century: Where Europe reigned over the entire earth — both physically and ideologically — like no time before or since.

Two decades in the making, the book is an incredible undertaking of scholarship, and follows on sequentially from Tim Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815: as part of a nine-part-series of books from Penguin press that documents Europe from antiquity to the present day.

As Evans points out here, what makes the 19th century such a compelling epoch of history to read about, is the level of social, economic, and political change it brought about to human societies across Europe, and the world at large, in such a short period of time.

Evans is no blind optimist though.

This is not a Niall Ferguson triumph-of-western-imperialism-style-narrative.

While apologists for empire may see the 19th century as one of eternal progress, this book pays close attention to the vast inequality, racism, exploitation, and suffering that most citizens across Europe —and in its numerous colonies that spread to the four corners of the earth — were subjected to, while a select few prospered.

This was an era where social Darwinism, ruthless capitalism, inequality, and profit were the defining ideas of the age.

Indeed, one only has to cite the difference between countries in close proximity, like say, Ireland and Great Britain, to see how much this is true.

While Britain in 1850 was leading the world in economic, political, industrial, and cultural achievements, Ireland, on the other hand, had just witnessed the most devastating famine in Europe of the century with a million dying, and a quarter of the entire population emigrating.

As Evans reminds the reader here, underlying the entire crisis of the famine, was “a widespread feeling among the British political and social elite that the Irish had brought their fate upon themselves by being lazy”.

This colonial mentality was coupled with the problem of the infamous corn laws: Where the British imposed extremely steep import duties on grain, which made it impossible to get adequate food supplies to rescue starving Irish citizens from dying.

But it’s not all doom and gloom here.

As Evans’ narrative open up, we learn that the 19th century was a period of give and take too.

While the ruling class, predictably, took as much labour, money, and property, as they possibly could from the classes bellow them, rights were also won by revolutionaries, trade unionists, feminists, liberals, and idealists of all shapes and sizes who never gave up the fight for equality, in spite of the constant adversity, resistance, and violence they faced.

If the 18th century was an era that was predominately obsessed by glory and religion , the entire 19th, and early 20th century, on the other hand, were both periods where the pursuit of power permeated European society.

As Evans aptly puts it himself: “States grabbed for power; governments reached for power; armies built up their military power; revolutionaries plotted to grab power; political parties campaigned to come to power; bankers and industrialists strove for economic power; society increased its power of nature; and, serfs and sharecroppers were gradually liberated from power

by land owning aristocracies.”

In 1800, in economic terms, the lives of most people were not very different from what they had been 140 years before across Europe: Where the economy across the continent remained largely agricultural.

And European society was predominately dominated by rich, hereditary, landed oligarchies.

Here, most of the wealth, power, and prestige, was concentrated in the hands of a single social group: the aristocracy.

BY the mid 19th century, however, massive changes were underway: nearly all of peasant serfs who hitherto had been bound to the land, were freed from their chains.

Evans cites the emancipation of serfs in Russia in 1861 — where 10 million peasants were given title to nearly 100 million acres of lands — as a particularly important historical moment.

In principle, Evans writes: “This was the greatest single act of emancipation and reform in Europe during the whole of the 19th century. A huge class of people who had hitherto been bound to the land in a form of neo-feudal servitude, had been given equal rights as full citizens.”

However, like all historical narratives, nothing is ever that black and white, straight forward, or without irony or paradox. 

As Evans is keen to keep reminding the reader here, the growing integration of agriculture into the capitalist economy created increasing numbers of people who now had to move to the centres of power —cities and towns — with only their labour to sell.

It’s no surprise, then, that when Marx, with his great foresight and intellect, critiquing the capitalist system — by publishing Das Kapital, volume one, in German, in 1867 — predominantly used statistics and examples from the factories of Britain as a model for explaining the exploitation of workers across the western world.

For example, as late as 1850, most Europeans lived in rural settings.

Britain was the exception to this rule, where 50% of people in 1850 lived in towns, due to the rise of the industrial economy.

Thus, one form of exploitation gave way to another. And working conditions for the lower classes became much tougher with the rise of urban-industrial-capitalism, where, as Marx aptly put it: Time became money like no other epoch of history hitherto.

The mid to late 19th century, therefore, saw the birth of two new class structures across Europe. 

The working class, a term given to those who lacked property, and who were forced to eke out an existence, for both themselves and their families, entirely off their own physical labour; and then the newly emerging wealthy bourgeoisie: A class of bankers, traders and industrialists, whose wealth and power grew exponentially; blurring the lines of the traditional class structures of the old aristocracy.

And so class consciousness firmly became a defining characteristic of 19th century society and political discourse.

It’s this theme of friction between the classes, and between social conservatives and radical revolutionaries, that Evans continually returns to here, which makes The Pursuit of Power such a gripping and enthralling read.

The two major historical events of the century — the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the 1848 revolutions across Europe — for example, were both occasions where conservative European statesmen saw international co-operation as a way to prevent further social and political revolution across the continent.

Hoping instead for a return to business as usual: Where the ruling class bossed most of society around with little retaliation or questioning of the power structures.

Moreover, most landmark rights that were won over the late 19th and early 20th for the masses —such as the implementation of the welfare state in Germany and Britain — were carrot and stick led gestures and concessions from liberal governments, who feared a revolt and upheaval from the radicals and revolutionaries, who were growing in numbers.

While the fight for economic power, basic human rights, and dignity — which arose from the principal ideas of the French Revolution in 1789 — is the dominant theme that Evans focuses on here, the length and breath of his study is so wide, that he ensures enough time, space, and ink, to explore the changing nature of culture, technology, the environment, sexual mores, and religious beliefs as the 19th century gave way to the 20th.

If the outbreak of the First World War brought an end to a century of European hegemony, and eventual ruin upon Europe, it’s worth noting, Evans reminds us here, that this was not a sudden or unheralded development.

As the current western global political hegemony/world order appears to be entering it’s darkest and most uncertain phase since 1945 — and as inequality is reaching levels across the western world not seen since the 19th century — this book is a stark reminder that just when order and stability seems to be a permanent fixture of a society: Chaos, uncertainty, danger, violence, and barbarism are always lurking just around the corner.


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