“My most secret thought,” confided Prince Metternich in 1829 “is that old Europe is at the beginning of the end.” As the chief architect of the Concert of Europe, Metternich knew only too well how precarious the continent’s balance of power could be. In his exhaustive and definitive exploration of Europe’s history from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the outbreak of the First World War, Professor Richard J. Evans tells us that throughout the 19th century, above all else, “the pursuit of power permeated European society”. It was a time when man, or more precisely European men, sought to conquer uncharted territories, build empires, shape landscapes, and even eradicate the epidemics that had previously decimated their populations.
For any historian writing about the long 19th century, the shadow of Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy inevitably looms large. It is a shadow Evans readily acknowledges and steps out from by dedicating The Pursuit of Power to the late Marxist academic. However, in his quest to produce a more truly global analysis than Hobsbawm’s “Eurocentric” work, Evans also admits to seeking inspiration from the German historian Jürgen Osterhammel, whose seminal study The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century was first published in 2009, the same year he began The Pursuit of Power. Despite Evans arguably being Britain’s most notable authority on the Third Reich, his latest volume harks back to his pre-Cambridge days, drawing upon his vast experience of teaching 19th-century history, as well as being reminiscent of his earlier works, such as Death in Hamburg (1987).
At over 800 pages, the sheer amount of material covered is staggering in its depth and diversity and in spite of its length, the book’s ability to engage the reader never wavers. Evans leaves no documentary stone unturned, examining everything from cuisine to contraception. The result is an extraordinarily animated portrayal of 19th-century daily life, crossing all boundaries of class, sex and nationality. The political events and incidents covered are illustrated so refreshingly that one could be forgiven for thinking them new ground altogether.
Emphasising that the desire for power was not confined to the upper echelons, each of the book’s eight chapters opens with the story of a seemingly humble observer, such as Jakob Walter, a German stonemason who had found himself conscripted into Napoleon’s Grand Army.
European elites had begun to accept that stubbornly upholding the existing orders would only encourage popular agitation. Instead, they sought to preserve their sovereignty through measured reforms in the hope that these would be enough to placate the people. In many cases, such hopes were soundly dashed.
Evans persuasively presents the revolutions of 1848, often dismissed as a series of failed uprisings, as a watershed, with a “single period of revolutionary change” enduring from 1848 to 1871. Equality, autonomy, suffrage, feminism and aristocratic privilege were all called into question as a consequence of 1848. Europe’s leaders had their noses bloodied for the first time since the French Revolution, rendering them more amenable to the devolution of their own power and the potential political emancipation of the common man, who was generally far better educated and therefore more demanding than he had been in 1789. Furthermore, the unrest of 1848 gave rise to a renewed sense of European nationalism, the echo of which reverberated for decades to come.
But if the 20th century was scarred by the two world wars, throughout the 19th relations between individual European nations were predominantly harmonious, allowing them to turn their attentions towards the capture of other continents and the expansion of their own empires. Of course, bloodshed was still perfectly acceptable when it took place in far-flung foreign lands, but this domestic security enabled Europe’s global dominance during the latter half of the century. As Evans explains, this state of affairs was by no means inevitable after the 1500s, nor was it owing to any innate European superiority, as other historians such as Niall Ferguson have suggested; it was essentially the product of “quite specific historical circumstances”.
Yet circumstances rarely, if ever, remain static. The spread of imperialism, coupled with opposing national interests and ambitions, served to create a markedly different environment as the 19th century drew to a close. When the long-awaited war finally broke out in 1914, European hegemony became one of its many casualties. Another victim was, as Evans notes, “Europe’s slow and uneven march towards democracy”. While Britain continued down this egalitarian path, elsewhere the spread of democracy came to an abrupt halt, with a return to the fervent nationalism sparked by 1848.
Comparative peace and stability had permitted Europe to flourish, but even the best efforts of statesmen like Metternich and Bismarck could not maintain it indefinitely. In an age of revolution, capital and empire, power came at a heavy price.