The death and destruction that two world wars among other conflicts inflicted during the 20th century might persuade some to see the 19th century as a tranquil era of peace.
Richard Evans’ book, enthralling as a narrative and wonderfully useful as a work of reference, will dispel this nostalgia. Europe in Victorian times was a turbulent period of massive change involving revolutions, the slow birth of liberal democracy in some areas and elsewhere the violent appearance of new dictatorships, new republics and even (perhaps especially) new monarchies.
There were wars in plenty. Although confined in space and participants they were still accompanied locally by those old medieval terrors: pestilence, famine, slaughter of civilians and persecution.
Moreover, if you think the horrors of ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a modern concept read Richard Evans on the liberation of the Greeks from Ottoman rule, or the desperately sad history of the Armenians – or the Aboriginal Tasmanians. The serfs were freed and the middle class rose as the nobility declined. All these tales of woe and triumph Evans remorselessly dissects.
Not all is violence and repression, however. The 19th century possessed hundreds of thousands of people who firmly believed in the concept of progress and they had ample evidence of it. British engineers harnessed steam to machinery and to transport and gave a dynamic boost to that economic miracle we call the Industrial Revolution.
Railways once launched in England spread surprisingly rapidly across Europe because British engineers exported engines, rolling stock and lines and installed them while British investors financed them. Steam also revolutionised industry and Britain grew ever wealthier since British mines extracted more coal than all European mines added together and was its largest single export unsurprisingly. Meanwhile textile production grew astonishingly.
The Vienna Conference of 1814–15 tried to put the revolutionary cork back in the bottle but the old systems were doomed. What developed next forms the labyrinthine sagas of this remarkable book. With extraordinary courage Evans has embarked on a history not just of politics or culture but rather of everything that was going on within a century within all European countries including states that did not exist in 1815: medicine, literature, nationalism, politics, music, socialism, education, art, economics, anti-Semitism, public welfare. All are transforming and Evans’ ambitious book tells us what changed, who changed it and why, for every European country including Russia.
Naturally one of his leading ‘changers’ is Prince Bismark, but he overlooks my favourite Bismark story. Asked shortly before his death what fact within his knowledge would be of huge importance during the approaching 20th century the statesman replied: “That the peoples of Great Britain and the United States speak the same language.” Attaboy!
Author: Richard J. Evans