Satyajit Das: History….One Thing After Another!

Yves here. The book Das reviews covers 1780 to 1920, which pretty much coincides with the period I concentrated in in college, then called the “modern” era, or the start of the Industrial Revolution through World War II in England and France (one instructor was bold enough to take us up through the 1960s in France). But as Das notes, the fashion in how to study history (and literature) has changed. Then, social history, and very narrowly focused inquiries, were in vogue. Nevertheless, a book that tried taking all those microcosms and turning into a huge sweeping canvas back in my day was Theodore Zeldin’s A History of French Passions, and Osterhammel’s book seems to have similar ambitions for changing how history is written, and not just what people think about it.

By Satyajit Das, a former banker and author of Extreme Money and Traders Guns & Money

Jorgen Osterhammel (2014) The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century; Princeton University Press

In Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, the student Rudge describes history as: “just one f***ing thing after another”. The statement was originally that of Professor of History at Cambridge Herbert Butterfield. The substitution of “f***ing” for “bloody” was a sign of the advance of civilisation since the 1940s.

Jorgen Osterhammel’s fine The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century is anything but a linear recitation of events. Instead, it swoops, shimmies and carves ellipses and spirals through the facts to give readers an insightful view of the nineteenth century in all its complexity and confusion.

In a work of great scholarship, Professor Osterhammel, a distinguished historian from the University of Konstanz, and his able translator (from the original German text) Patrick Camiller have fashioned a remarkable picture of the nineteenth century. At around 1,000 pages, 3,000 endnotes and a bibliography citing over 3,000 items, it brings new meaning to the term block buster. With uncharacteristic Teutonic humour, the author wryly states: “Once readers have entered the book, they should not worry: they will easily find an emergency exit.”

New Old, Old New

The nineteenth century holds a fascination for historians. It is seen as the pivotal moment in which the world changed, laying the foundations of modern civilisation.

Building on the Enlightenment, the human species moved beyond religious superstition, altering political, social, scientific, technological and economic structures. Monarchies gave way to nation states, with increasing democratic enfranchisement of the population, at least in some of world. Governments accumulated and centralised authority, exercising unprecedented power over populations.

Knowledge and understanding of nature increased rapidly. Medical advances increased life expectancy. Mankind learned to use fossil fuels, creating the industrial economy and allowing unprecedented ability to travel relatively rapidly. The economic and technological changes promoted parallel development in trade, finance and governance.

The practice of statistics and censuses conducted by the state emerged, allowing the growth of social sciences. Libraries and museums began more common, recording and creating permanent stores of knowledge. Developments in printing, film and photography allowed propagation of information. Concepts, such as individual freedom, free speech, national identity and equality, emerged.

In essence, in the nineteenth century, many of now common structures, objects and practices came to prominence. Even the problems of later ages, such as globalisation, labour abuses, environmental degradation and genocide, have their conceptual basis in this period of history.

Confluence and Dissonance

Professor Osterhammel’s nineteenth century is both ‘long’ and elastic. As the author notes early in the text: “I shall therefore with a deliberate lack of discipline repeatedly look far into the twentieth century or even to the present day”.

Transformation covers the period from 1780 to 1920, depending in the specific area. The period 1770 – 1830 is the transition from the Old Regime to the modern world. 1830 to the 1880s is the core. From the 1880s to 1920, is the century’s prolonged fin de siècle. Transformation seeks to encompass political arrangements, political philosophies, international relations, economic matters, social institutions, social beliefs and structures, labour force, education and scholarship and much more. It also attempts this on a global scale encompassing most of the earth’s surface and its peoples.

Such a histoire totale requires a structure which allows the organisation of a vast body of information, balancing global trends and regional differences. Eschewing a chronological approach, Professor Osterhammel organises the text around approaches, panoramas and themes.

Section one – Approaches – outlines key pre-suppositions or general parameters, namely memory and self-observation, time and space. Professor Osterhammel argues that the nineteenth century was when unprecedented amounts of knowledge were gathered and organised into archives, libraries, museums, exhibitions and encyclopaedias. The period also saw increased precision in measurement and mapping. It was also when information could be rapidly transmitted around the world. For example, the concept of ‘time’ is a nineteenth century construct, with standardisation of time zones around Greenwich Mean Time evolving.

Section two – Panoramas – outlines “eight spheres of reality”: mobility, living standards, cities, frontiers, empires and nations, international organisations, revolutions and the state. Professor Osterhammel chronicles diasporas and migrations, growth of cities and the expansion of human occupation encroaching on undisturbed nature in a more extensive way than in previous ages. He documents the rise of nationalism and the idea of a nation and empire. Professor Osterhammel reviews revolutions, tentative progress toward democracies, primarily for men, and the reinvention of monarchy.

Section three – Themes – focuses on the evolution of an economy and society built around energy and fossil fuels, labour markets, networks and connections, changes in hierarchical relationship, knowledge, civilisation including slavery and freedom and religion.

The exquisite detail of historical phenomena underlying each theme, each evolving across unique context in different regions, is frequently insightful.

The picture that emerges is of a Euro-centric period, with European dominance a major factor of a one-way discourse with much of the world. English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace termed it “the unblushing selfishness of the greatest civilised nations”.

Professor Osterhammel, a specialist in Chinese history, never avoids the complexities and ambiguities. He describes how for many nations, the period was a disaster. For China it was a century of humiliations. Native, often ancient institutions were unable to resist Europe’s hegemony, being dismembered and neutered. The process created the foundation of unstable nation states with intrinsic tensions which are still present today, especially in Africa and the Middle East.

Professor Osterhammel identifies European double standards in relation to concepts like equality before the law, citizenship and democracy as it applied to subject nations and even to minorities within countries. While important, the abolition of slavery in the US was less significant than assumed as it created new forms of segregation and economic bondage. It would require the activism of the twentieth century civil rights to begin the redress of these new issues.

Transformation’s treatment of empire, imperialism and colonialism, its most immediate manifestation, is not entirely convincing. European failure to apply the same standards that it espoused at home in its colonies and European cultural imperialism still affects North-South relationships. The author argues that colonialism and imperialism are so essential to the nineteenth century that he has refrained from relegating their impact to single chapters. The contrary argument that their importance deserves special treatment is equally supportable.

The book’s cursory treatment of religion, saved for the penultimate chapter, is inconsistent with Professor Osterhammel’s observation that it was central to the century. Examination of the contrast between Western missions to convert third world pagans and increasing religious toleration in Europe itself, although anti-Semitic sentiments were rising, would have been interesting.

The role of women is not explored in detail. Developments in science are also lightly covered. The impact of the revolutionary theory of natural selection, promoted by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, are not discussed sufficiently. Coverage of intellectual, artistic and cultural developments, other than a brief digression into opera, is minimal.

Perhaps the most interesting omission in Transformation is the perspective of ordinary individuals and their day-to-day lives. Perhaps, this is consistent with the book’s abstract nature, which avoids individual voices, key personalities and makes minimal use of illustrations, charts, maps or graphs.

But these criticisms are minor. Global history as presented in Transformation is highly sophisticated and geographical inclusive. It combines sweeping themes (the development of global capitalism, the network effect of improved transport and communications technology, Europe’s self-appointed civilizing mission) with occasional pointillist touches (schooling, world languages, emancipation of slaves or racial thinking).

The book is very readable, with a plethora of memorable turns of phrase. Perhaps the most amusing is Professor Osterhammel’s recounting of the definition of “great power” by other “great powers”. It seems that this was no easy task, resulting in the tautological construction that it was a state that other great powers recognised in principle as co-equal or (in the language of duels) “capable of giving satisfaction”.

Transformation’s great strength is that it avoids a simplistic central proposition –the journalistic inane ‘big idea’. Instead we are presented with confluences and dissonances. Contradictions are everywhere, with no one unifying characteristic dominating. It is also refreshing to flit between Newcastle and New Delhi, the Hapsburg Empire and the Meiji or Qing courts or Paris and it Caribbean colonies.

In the end, Transformation forcibly reminds us of the complex processes of events and evolution. As Karl Marx observed: “Men make their own history but they do not make it as they please: they do not make it under self-selected circumstances but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted”.

Is Meta Better?

Transformation’s meta-history, concerned with interpreting large trajectories rather than what happened, also poses fascinating questions about historical method and its function. Large scale global history is now the rage, in the same ways as economic, social, cultural or gender history was at different times in the last half century.

Examples of such global history include Fernand Braudel 1949 book on the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II and more recently Sir Christopher Bayly, 2004 The Birth of the Modern World 1780 to 1914 (2004). Each makes comparisons and connections over long time periods across geographies and disciplines. Like Mr. Bayly’s work, Professor Osterhammel argues that the roots of the present lie in the nineteenth century.

Past global histories – H.G. Well’s 1920 The Outline of History, Arnold Toynbee’s massive A Study of History published between 1934 and 1961 and Sir Walter Raleigh’s much older The History of the World – were treated with scepticism. Yet, today global histories have acquired a new currency.

Having virtually exhausted chronological detail, historians have shifted their focus to interpretive analogies. Borrowing a metaphor from Braudel, Professor Osterhammel argues that analysis using a series of sub-systems is like passing through door after door thereby entering the halls of the human past.

But such panoramas present intellectual challenges. Past events, understood through the lens of surviving or deliberately preserved historical records, may not be capable of being fully understood when forced within a vast thematic context. The need to shape the narrative means that individual nuance must be sacrificed. Causality or parallel developments in different geographies are forced rather than real. The surface richness comes at the cost of depth.

Perhaps, Rudge was correct and it is simply one event after another. In Oscar Wilde’s Salome the characters play metaphoric games about the moon. Tired of the quest for resemblances, one character Herodias says: “No the moon is like the moon that is all”.

The global history approach also points to a very twenty-first century need – a desire to understand the present in terms of the past and in those echoes find consolation or answers to today’s pressing problems. Historians naturally encourage this, allowing both gainful employment and greater influence.

Franz Kafka probably understood the risks of this better than most. In one his stories, a dog complains that as history moves onwards each generation inherits more wisdom which it must take care to forget.

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  1. Newtownian

    Das’s review is interesting but doesn’t exactly make me want to go out and buy this book.

    Maybe if the title was qualified a bit like – ’19th Century European impacts on the world economic system’ or something a little more appropriately modest.

    It has me a little curious about how well it references/relates to Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Ages’ trilogy which covers the same timeframe and three similar periods under Age of Revolution, Age of Capital and Age of Empire. Could this be a flawed copy/attempt at post Marxist revisionism.

    The omissions are also interesting – no religion?! If you are trying to develop a grand theory its hard to see how to leave that out why people believed in at and indeed when they changed and what might have happened and how far it progressed.

    As to moving beyond religion/received wisdom it would be fun to see what Phillip Pilkington thinks of that considering his scathing reflections on economic theory and the religion like cargo cult surrounding it.

    A final questionable aspect that sounds like its present – yet again – is the placing of human beings, especially European ones, at the centre of the story in demi-god like roles, en masse at least, if not so much in individual roles. Some years back one Jared Diamond published a book entitled Guns Germs and Steel whose underlying question is whether maybe we are more reactors to the environment, resources and tools presented to us than Masters of the Universe astride the world like some Randian superman. It doesn’t sound like this book will add anything.

    1. Mel

      A thousand pages and it left you wanting more! Wow! I’m trying to scam one of my relatives into buying it.
      It’s a point from Nietzsche and probably others that with modernism, religions (at least the ususal suspects) have lost their power to bind, and properly might not be called religions at all any more. Lately the Archdruid has been discussing Progress as one of the meaningful modern religions. I can imagine Progress being infused through the whole kilopage.

  2. susan the other

    This review left me cold. I’d rather indulge in an ‘all and everything’ history of a tiny niche. Go infinite.

  3. flora

    Histories without a direct narrative can be useful as reconstructs to understand one aspect of a period of time.
    See Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The Proud Tower’, essays about America and European countries covering the 25 years of the la belle epoque before WWI.

    Based solely on this review, it sounds like Professor Osterhammel’s book title is making a far grander claim, a total history, without narrative. A total history written without narrative by a Western historian makes me wonder if Western intellectuals have lost the thread, as they say.

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