Echoes from the Far Side

James Sheehan

  • The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914 by Richard J. Evans
    Penguin, 848 pp, £12.99, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 14 198114 7

Max Weber defined power as ‘the ability of an individual or group to achieve their own goals or aims when others are trying to prevent them from realising them’. The pursuit of power was not, as Richard Evans seems to suggest in his introduction, a distinctive feature of 19th-century Europe. What changes over time is not the fact that people seek power, but the means by which they do it, as well as the nature of the contest with those who resist them. In 19th-century Europe, an extraordinary collection of new technologies greatly increased the ability of some individuals and groups to impose their will. Consider that quintessential 19th-century innovation, the railway. In the decades after 1815, railways expanded with remarkable speed: by 1880, there were more than 100,000 miles of track in Europe. By the end of the century railway lines had spread across much of the planet, among them strategically important routes across North America (the transcontinental line was completed in 1869) and Eurasia (the trans-Siberian was constructed between 1891 and 1904). Everywhere they were built, railways altered the way millions of men and women experienced time and space: the train, Jacob Burckhardt wrote in 1840, ‘glides in 33 or 35 minutes to … distant Potsdam … It really flies there like a bird.’ They also greatly enhanced the ability of governments to project power, allowing them to penetrate their territories and control their populations as never before. Without the railway, the creation of the modern state would have been impossible. Changes in maritime travel were hardly less revolutionary. By the end of the 19th century ships made of steel and powered by steam had made ocean voyages quicker, cheaper and, for the first time in history, predictable in timing. The ability to sail against the current opened up vast inland areas that had been inaccessible to outsiders. Conrad’s journey up the Congo in 1890 would have been impossible only a few years earlier.

With improvements in the transportation of people and commodities came innovations in the flow of ideas and information. The 19th was a century of letter-writers: as well as extraordinary correspondents like Alexander von Humboldt, who is said to have written more than fifty thousand letters in his long life, millions of ordinary individuals could now send one another messages easily and economically. The British postal service delivered 564 million letters in 1860 and 2.3 billion in 1900. And then there were the new communication technologies: the telegraph, telephone and, after the turn of the century, radio. In the 1850s and 1860s the laying of undersea cables connected the continents for the first time. In the summer of 1789, when British and Spanish naval forces confronted each other at Nootka Sound, on the western coast of Vancouver Island, it took several months for word of the encounter to reach London. A century later, news travelled in minutes, informing or inciting the public, empowering or embarrassing statesmen, making it feasible and necessary for governments to respond immediately to distant crises. ‘From the present time forth,’ the British geographer Halford Mackinder wrote in 1904, ‘we shall have to deal with a closed political system … one of worldwide scope. Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe.’

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