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.’

Perhaps no less important for the pursuit of power were revolutionary changes in the quality and quantity of information people had about the world. At the end of the 18th century, when experts debated whether the population was growing or shrinking – Malthus’s essay of 1798 is the most famous contribution – their conclusions were based on speculations, most of them wildly inaccurate. The first truly effective British census was carried out in 1841, producing what the Manchester Guardian saw as one of the wonders of the world: ‘Imagine a pile of [census] schedules, seven millions in number, and forty tons in weight, and who will say that Egypt or Greece, Palmyra or Rome, ever reared a superstructure more imposing?’ ‘Bureaucratic administration,’ Weber wrote, ‘means domination through knowledge.’ As the 19th century went on, governments knew vastly more about both their land and population. This new knowledge was often difficult to acquire, but once collected it could be preserved and then refined and expanded. Some of the century’s most significant technological advances helped enable data to be gathered: printing presses and typewriters, as well as steel pens, standardised forms and file boxes. Political innovations like conscription and popular suffrage, both of which required the acquisition and accessibility of accurate records about large numbers of people, depended on their existence.

At the same time, Europeans were deploying lethal force in increasingly efficient ways. In military affairs, as elsewhere, the railway had an effect, speeding up troop movements and expanding the scale of warfare. New weapons – breach-loading rifles, machine guns, improved artillery – gave armies greater firepower, increased the size of the battlefield and transformed strategy. On the eve of the First World War, the aeroplane, first used in combat in 1911 by the Italians in North Africa, added a radically new dimension to warfare. Those who could master the new technologies of power – railways, steamships, bureaucratic expertise, as well as modern weapons – had an enormous advantage. This meant a massive expansion of European control. Between 1880 and 1913, colonised territory more than doubled, from 25 to 53 million square kilometres; as a result an additional 200 million people came under imperial rule. Even where Europeans did not exert direct authority, their mastery of the new instruments of power enabled them to undermine the sovereignty of weaker states. By the end of the century, a number of such states (Burma, Hawaii) had ceased to be independent, while others (the Ottoman Empire, Persia, Abyssinia, Siam) were struggling to survive.

In the second half of the 19th century, Europe’s global pre-eminence was also a consequence of the reluctance of the United States to use its extraordinary economic potential as the basis for geopolitical power. Within the context of world history, the expansion of the American economy is one of the century’s most significant developments: between 1860 and 1913, the US share in world manufacturing increased from just over 7 per cent to 32 per cent; in 1860, American industrial capacity ranked fifth in the world, by 1913, it was first, well over twice that of any competitor. But even in the 1890s, when the US built a battle fleet and began to acquire colonial possessions, a remarkable gap remained between its economic strength and its willingness to project power on the international stage. In 1913, the US army, with fewer than 100,000 men, was half the size of Belgium’s; that same year, the State Department in Washington employed 213 people, including clerks and custodians, while the diplomatic and consular corps numbered around 450 worldwide. In the 20th century, when the US, reluctantly and often ineptly, began to accept the geopolitical implications of its economic capacity, the European age would come to an end.

Europe’s global hegemony was still secure as the new century began, though individual states were becoming uneasy about their place in the international order. In part this was due to the emergence of three new powers: Germany, Japan and a somewhat ambivalent United States, all of which had resolved serious domestic problems in the 1860s (two of them with civil wars). By the 1890s there was a sense that the competition for territory was becoming more intense. Statesmen were convinced that they would have to fight harder to hold on to what they had and act more aggressively to grab what was left. Lord Rosebery told the Royal Colonial Institute in 1893 that the British Empire had no choice but to keep expanding: ‘We are engaged at the present moment, in the language of mining, in “pegging out claims” for the future.’ All this strained the international system in new ways and brought the great powers to the brink of war. This happened twice over Morocco, as Germany, trying to increase its colonial possessions, challenged France’s influence on the country, and encouraged reckless acts of aggression such as Italy’s war against the Ottoman Empire in 1911-12. It was also an important factor in the collapse of the international order in 1914.

The new technologies of power also changed the balance of forces within states. The ability to deploy better equipped armed forces more swiftly, and to acquire more accurate information about their citizens, greatly enhanced governments’ capacity to suppress dissent. In 1871 Jacob Burckhardt began his lecture course on the ‘Generation of Revolution’ by noting that since 1789 the revolutionary drama had been a constant feature of European life: ‘We are perhaps only at the beginning,’ he told his students, ‘or in the second act.’ Burckhardt was wrong: the revolutionary sequence did not continue in Europe. Only at times of national defeat – Russia in 1905, Eastern and Central Europe in and after 1917 – would popular insurrections be possible, and even then they would usually not succeed.

However important the great revolutions were, the most profound changes in the public life of 19th-century Europe were the result of gradual developments in the way people imagined and experienced politics. The most obvious example is the expansion of electoral politics, effected by the spread of representative institutions throughout the continent, the extension of voting rights to an ever larger proportion of the (male) population, and the formation of a broad range of institutions – parties, interest groups and associations – that attracted millions of members. These developments were themselves part of a larger, more diffuse process of democratisation through which men and women – as workers, consumers, husbands and wives – tried to acquire some measure of control over the world around them. ‘In the long run political society cannot fail to become the expression and image of civil society,’ Tocqueville wrote, and in the 19th century political society was the expression of an increasingly mobile, dynamic and prosperous civil society.

No term better captures the promise of 19th-century politics than emancipation. Throughout Europe, from the Irish Sea to the Urals, legal restrictions on political, social and economic activities of serfs, artisans, Catholics, Jews and many others were removed, as governments dismantled the power of landlords over their tenants, guilds over their members and cities over their residents. The benefits of emancipation can be overstated. In some places at some times – Ireland during the famine, for example – people suffered as intensely as they had in any earlier period. Emancipation was rarely without cost: sometimes the removal of restraints simultaneously destroyed protections, leaving serfs and artisans fully exposed to the logic of the market or the power of the state. As the experience of Jews and women (and African-Americans) shows, the path to full emancipation was long and steep and frequently blocked. Even when legal emancipation was achieved, old obstacles remained and ancient prejudices took new forms. But we should not underestimate emancipation’s significance. For the first time, millions of Europeans had the chance to shape their own destinies, to choose where they lived, what work they did, when and whom they married.

The world at large remained a violent place in the 19th century. The expansion and defence of colonial rule was often the occasion for conflict, generating an endless series of what the British military writer Charles Callwell called ‘small wars’, wars that might have seemed small to the European powers but were often immensely destructive for the subject peoples involved. In addition to these persistent outbreaks of violence along the imperial frontier, there were a series of major conflagrations in the century’s middle decades: the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), in which as many as twenty million people died, was perhaps the bloodiest ever civil war; 640,000 men were killed in the American Civil War (1861-65), 2.5 per cent of the population, comparable to about seven million people today; in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), Paraguay lost more than half its population including almost all of the country’s adult males. In contrast, 19th-century Europe was relatively peaceful. Wars were infrequent and, when they did occur, comparatively brief; seven times fewer Europeans died in combat between 1815 and 1914 than in the preceding century. The blood feuds, riots and outbreaks of rural disorder that had been endemic in traditional society now receded to mountainous regions where the authority of the state was weak.

Among the many virtues of Evans’s book is his recognition that the pursuit of power includes struggles for control beyond Weber’s definition. In a chapter entitled ‘The Conquest of Nature’, Evans describes efforts to overcome some of mankind’s ancient enemies: famine, which killed hundreds of thousands of Europeans in the 1840s, virtually disappeared from Europe after agricultural innovations and better distribution systems made it possible to feed a growing population; epidemics that had once struck with devastating unpredictability were now rare and more easily contained, while diseases like smallpox were on the way to extinction. Extensive fires, like the one that virtually destroyed Hamburg in 1842, were increasingly rare. Europe’s cities became safer, better lit and healthier. More people had access to clean water, while the flush toilet made it possible to banish the pungent smell of human waste, which had once seemed a permanent feature of communal life. ‘A good sewer’, Ruskin wrote, was ‘a far nobler and a far holier thing … than the most admired Madonna ever painted’.

The Pursuit of Power tells the story of this century extremely well. Evans gives clear and persuasive accounts of revolutions, political movements, constitutional developments, European and imperial wars and territorial changes. He also examines subjects often neglected in general surveys: religion, crime, public health and the changing role of women. I only wish he had been more decisive in his final chapters. He concludes his discussion of prewar European politics by writing that although the spread of democratisation seemed unstoppable in 1914, ‘it was carrying along with it the seeds of its own destruction.’ He doesn’t, however, make clear what these seeds were, who planted them and whether they were always destined to bear the fruit they did. His account of the final breakdown in the international system in the summer of 1914 is similarly inconclusive, caught somewhere between the conventional wisdom that holds Germany responsible for the outbreak of war and the revisionist interpretation recently advanced by his Cambridge colleague Christopher Clark. (It is unfortunate that Evans decided to end a book so full of new and interesting material with Sir Edward Grey’s familiar lament on 3 August 1914 that Europe’s lamps were being extinguished – a darkness for which Grey himself was partly responsible.) Was it bad luck, a few miscalculations made by a handful of statesmen that set in motion the 20th century’s terrible destructive decades? Or were the causes of these calamities more deeply rooted in the means and ends of 19th-century Europeans’ pursuit of power? By describing in such impressive detail the century’s rich and complex history, Evans reminds us why these questions remain so compelling.