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.)

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