Before the Fall

Eric Hobsbawm

  • Europe Transformed 1878-1919 by Norman Stone
    Fontana, 448 pp, £3.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 00 634262 0

From TV studios to Trinity College, Cambridge, who can resist the historical fascination of the decades before 1914? They are sufficiently ‘contemporary’ for their landscape to be recognisable even in 1983. We are already in a world of cars, aeroplanes, radio communication, movies, black music, abstract art, quantum theory and petro-diplomacy. At the same time, they are almost inconceivably remote, bathed in the light of those lamps which, as Sir Edward Grey said in August 1914, were going out all over Europe, not to be lit again. Norman Stone is right to begin his Europe Transformed with this hackneyed but still troubling quotation, though he is wise enough to avoid sentimentalising anera when the vast majority of Europeans lived lives which, despite modest improvements, were, by our standards, poverty-stricken, primitive and hard. The lights which went out in 1914 were not to leave the whole world in darkness. Nevertheless, if the decades before the First World War anticipate the scientific and technical triumphs, the massive material progress of the 20th century, they also anticipate its worries, its dramas and catastrophes, and its encroaching and eventually universal moral barbarism. Indeed, they incubated all these. War and revolution, and all they were to bring, emerged from the Belle Epoque, not by a series of accidents or missed opportunities, but as its inevitable product.

The problem for historians of this strange and immensely tempting era is that it is both necessary and impossible to cut history into chronological slices. Necessary, because periodisation is not entirely an invention of syllabus-planners or educational publishers. Some periods at least have a certain internal coherence, as is suggested by the fact that historians who have no interest whatever in economic development find themselves naturally breaking up the 19th and 20th centuries into something very like the sub-periods which economic historians associate with the name of Kondratiev, without themselves having any clear, or at any rate agreed, idea as to what they mean. The present book more or less coincides with two of these sub-periods, the era of the so-called ‘Great Depression’of the 1870s and 1880s, and the great global boom which began in the mid-Nineties and ended after the First World War. Its own internal coherence, as Stone plausibly sees it, is primarily political.

On the other hand, it is impossible to understand the shape of this period, or of any other specific period of European history which possesses such internal coherence, except in a wider context. Taken in isolation, they are no more comprehensible than single instalments of a serialised novel, or single scenes of a drama. How much do we need to know of the plot to understand this episode? What do we need to know? The history of 19th-century Europe is plainly incomprehensible except in terms of the development of a capitalist economy, a bourgeois social order, and the peculiar institutions and culture then believed to be necessarily associated with them. But historians will evidently have different views of what and how much readers need to be told, or indeed what they themselves need to know, to make the story comprehensible.

Stone’s context is essentially the crisis and ‘strange death’ of bourgeois-liberal society in Europe. His emphasis is, understandably, on politics – domestic and international – and on culture. For economic growth, scientific and technological innovation, continued, if anything at an accelerated pace. In these fields the old liberal assumption of history as progress could hardly be challenged, though that progress began to crack and destroy the intellectual image of the universe as hitherto accepted. Whether or not we agree with Stone’s analysis of the economic changes of the period – his account of technology is cursory, his treatment of the natural sciences inadequate – he lucidly sketches their effect on politics via their effect on various social classes, notably the growing proletariats and the disgruntled sections of the peasantry and the old artisan-shopkeeping petty-bourgeoisie. (In this respect, as historians, we are all Marxists now, even if we don’t like the name.)

This general manner of situating the history of Europe between 1878 and 1919 has much to be said for it. Is it adequate? In one respect, certainly not. Stone’s history hardly glances beyond the geographical borders of a continent which by the end of the 19th century is incomprehensible except in a global setting. There is virtually no reference to the USA and Japan, except in relation to European diplomatic and military alignments. Yet the USA was already not only the greatest industrial economy in the world but in many ways a model for capitalist development elsewhere, as the internationalisation of so technical a term of American corporation law as ‘trust’ indicates. Indeed, Stone is obliged to make at least a passing reference to Henry Ford and the Taylor of ‘scientific management’. Yet the USA does not figure in his admittedly brief account of the process of business concentration, and one would not guess from his lines on the development of the European automobile industry that it was already dwarfed by the American. By the time of the Russian Revolution America, or Hollywood, was already the world capital of mass culture.

Important though this may be for the economy, technology and culture of Europe, it does not greatly affect the politics which, for most of the time, is Stone’s main concern. Nor is it probably very damaging, at least in the context of a narrowly European history, that the colonial partition of the world in this period is seen entirely from the metropolitan point of view: especially as Stone’s view of imperialism is rather sensible, except for the occasional tendency to regard it, somewhat implausibly, as ‘a product, perhaps, of the declining gentry’. He rightly rejects economic determinism as an explanation of the rush into colonies in the 1880s, while perhaps underestimating the growing significance, in an era of technological transformation and mass consumption, of raw materials and products found only or chiefly in the colonisable world. After all, without a mass market for bananas, no banana republics. On the other hand, at least from the 1890s, he has no time for attempts to argue the economic elements in imperialism out of sight, or to pretend that the rivalry of imperialisms ‘systematised into military-economic concerns’ is not crucial to the genesis of the First World War. No doubt there is more to be said about the European dimension of colonial conquest – on the impact on Western Europeans, for example, of their mostly vicarious experience in the role of supermen ruling over a world of submen: but one need not quibble.

More directly relevant to European political developments is the crisis and collapse, between 1905 and 1918, of the traditional and often very ancient empires, of which the Habsburg and Tsarist realms may be regarded as a Westernised variant. Certainly a history of Europe is not the place for an extended discussion of, say, the Chinese and Persian revolutions, but the Turkish revolution can hardly be omitted, since it laid one of the main trails of explosive which ignited Europe in 1914: that which led, via the annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina and the Italian conquest of Libya, to the Balkan wars of 1912-13 and the Balkan crisis of 1914. Yet while these military-diplomatic spin-offs are naturally mentioned, the event itself – the Turkish revolution – is absent from Stone’s pages.

His neglect of the Ottoman Empire reflects, not only a geographical narrowness, but also a more serious general weakness of the book: a taste for homogenised history. In Europe Transformed all countries have essentially the same history simultaneously, with minor local variations. Everywhere Liberal regimes lose power in the late 1870s, followed everywhere, under the impact of the ‘Great Depression’, by a curious period in which the established political and social order was undermined, notably by the rise of organised mass politics, with which nobody as yet quite knew how to cope. The ruling classes and governments of Europe all embarked on a ‘new course’ around 1890, which consisted essentially in an attempt to conciliate the new political forces – notably the rapidly emerging and growing Labour and Socialist movements. This in turn was everywhere followed from the mid-Nineties by an ‘orgy of nationalism and imperialism’ which would, it was hoped, isolate and disarm those forces of mass opposition which could not be integrated. This did not work. In 1905, ‘the ghost of 1848’ stalked Europe, but its failure led, once again generally, to a new crop of technocratic-bureaucratic governments primarily concerned to conciliate and manage the potentially dangerous mass forces. Once again, they all failed, and between 1910 and 1914 the old order was in crisis everywhere, both nationally and internationally. This was the ‘Strange Death of Liberal Europe’ whose collapse into war and – in some countries – revolution forms the last act of Stone’s drama.

There is a good deal to be said for his insistence on historical forces beyond the control of political action, which largely determine the course of events. In the great debate about Cleopatra’s nose, he is firmly opposed to the ‘if only’ school of those who believe that its length had some major bearing on the fate of the world, never mind what Caesar, Antony and Augustus might have thought. He does not believe that the course of history is determined by a combination of accidents, such as the unpredictable appearance or non-appearance of a Bismarck or Lenin, and avoidable decisions or failures to take decisions, in unpredictable situations which could just as easily have been different. He clearly has no time for those who suppose, wishfully, that better management or plain better luck could somehow have avoided either the 1914 war or the Russian Revolution. One must also agree with him that the history of continents is more than a series of autonomous state histories – that there are tides in the affairs of men which affect all countries simultaneously.

The trouble is, he pushes homogeneity too far – perhaps for reasons of dramatic effectiveness – both by exaggerating the genuine parallelism between different national his lories and by omitting what does not fit. Thus the scenario requires him to argue that ‘around 1905 there were upheavals all over Europe. Many discontents became fused into a detestation of the status quo,’ but also that these were not yet the genuine social revolutions, whose place is provided for as part of the collapse of the old Europe after 1914. Stone therefore collects together signs of a breakdown of government by the right, and of popular agitation, anywhere between 1904 and 1910: these range from changes in parliamentary majorities to revolution, and since parallelism is the name of the game, he fails to consider the possible effect of earlier changes on those which occurred subsequently. Meanwhile he is evidently reluctant to recognise revolutions even where they leapt to the contemporary eye. Thus the Russian revolution of 1905 is merely ‘a wild version of the crisis that everyone else in Europe experienced at this time’, which is rather like saying that the difference between the impact of the Second World War on Yugoslavia and on Denmark is merely one of degree. The statement is technically defensible in some sense, but it is hardly the sense most likely to interest historians. So while his discussion of Russian events is sensible enough, they are, so far as I can see, only once described as constituting a ‘revolution’, and that in passing. The Turkish revolution of 1908 is the incidental victim of his sense of expository tidiness.

The truth is that there was a striking difference, which Stone elsewhere recognises implicitly or explicitly, between countries which had come to terms with that dual revolution, political and industrial, of the 19th century which established the parameters of bourgeois and capitalist society, and those which had not. It was a difference between geographical and historical zones. Statesmen in the first zone were often worried, notably in the years just before 1914, but social revolution was not on the cards, nor was the continuing existence of states with firm but flexible institutional arrangements, such as France, Belgium, Sweden or (in spite of Ireland) Britain, seriously at issue. Conversely, nobody believed in the permanent viability of the old empires which jutted into East and Central Europe. The collapse and disintegration of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires were considered certain, and a revolution in Russia was generally expected. Only the nature, and the frontiers, of the various successor states and regimes were uncertain. Again while the ‘voices of anticipated fascism’ in the years before 1914 might be audible in many places, they were to find effective listeners only in certain parts of Europe.

In short, while Stone rightly stresses the forces which acted upon all parts of Europe, and the succession of common situations in which they found themselves, he fails to distinguish sufficiently between the types of structure and historical experience within the continent. Admittedly he tries to compensate by including chapters about the continental ‘great powers’ (except for Britain, which, often referred, to, is somehow left outside Europe). The chapters are intelligent, perceptive and illuminating, but a series of such chapters does not and indeed cannot come to grips with the broader typological problem. What it does, and is evidently intended to do, is to elaborate Stone’s explanation of the genesis of World War One, which concentrates on four factors: the rise of Germany as a great power whose growing strength increasingly destabilised the European balance, imperialist rivalries in a period increasingly destabilised by the disintegration of the old empires, the new technology and politics of competitive armament, and the internal tensions and pressures of politics in the future belligerent countries.

Though the lines of Stone’s argument are not always clear, and he sometimes hedges his bets, nevertheless the history of Europe between 1878 and 1919, as he presents it, has shape, structure and direction. Other historians of the period will ponder and debate it, compare it with other attempts to come to grips with the problems of that era, and try to assess both the author’s forays into new territory and his debts to the research and ideas of his colleagues – which, in the absence of a learned apparatus, he has been able to acknowledge only incidentally, and in an entertaining and coat-trailing bibliographical essay. But these are not typical readers. Like theatre critics watching a new production of Hamlet, they know the plot – though by no means all the details with which Stone reinforces it – and will concentrate on the novelties of emphasis and interpretation.

The general and student reader for whom the Fontana History of Europe has been written, probably lack familiarity with the basic story. Experts cannot judge their reactions, but they can assess how good or reliable is this account of Europe before the fall. Like all works which survey vast ranges of history, much of it is inevitably based on second or third-hand knowledge, though Stone’s principal field, about which he knows a good deal at first hand, is rather large: Russia, the Habsburg Empire and Germany. Like all such works, this one is obliged to deal with subjects which engage the author’s full attention, or even personal involvement – one detects a special interest in the city of Glasgow and the Jews – as well as with those which are merely in because they cannot very well be left out. About the latter – the history of women, for instance – he sometimes seems not to have thought very much. The range of the topics he covers – often, by the force of compression, in brief and allusive passages scattered throughout the book – is impressive. Unfortunately the index makes it impossible to trace these references. It is pretty useless.

One could, of course, pick out enough errors or imprecisions to use a familiar ploy of unsympathetic reviewers: but a book like this should not be judged like an encyclopedia, and reviewers who have built glass houses themselves should go easy with stones. However, there are avoidable mistakes, and one may legitimately note that the author’s habitual air of confidence can mislead, especially where information is squeezed into the straitjacket of generalisation. This is particularly notable in Stone’s treatment of the Labour and Socialist movements, which is rather approximate, and in the unsatisfactory and ill-integrated final chapter on ‘the cultural revolution of 1900’, the only one in which he fails to resist the temptation to blow intellectual soap-bubbles.

On the other hand, he pays attention to subjects generally neglected in the non-specialist literature, such as the role of religion in the politics of the period and – naturally enough for a Habsburg expert – that of civil servants and bureaucracies. He has a sharp and welcome sense of numbers. As might be expected from the author of an excellent study of the Eastern Front in World War One, he is good on armies and war, and on Austro-Hungary and Russia (which is treated at much greater length than any other state). And he is often perceptive, acute and, so far as I can judge, original.

In short, he has written a consistently interesting, if uneven book, sometimes exasperating and superficial, at other times informed and persuasive. Not the least of its merits is the range of the author’s multilingual reading. Europe Transformed is the work of a historian who is good enough not to have to advertise his merits by knocking dead men. It may constitute an interim rather than a final report on the author’s thinking about the period. But among the numerous attempts to write the history of Europe between the 1870s and the collapse and revolution of 1917-20, none of them really satisfactory, Stone’s is one of the more stimulating.