In 1815, those with political power in Europe—the aristocracy and the monarchy—felt that international cooperation was the way to restore political order and prevent a recurrence of social and political revolution. This was understandable following many years of war, even before the horrific spectacle of the French Revolution and the widespread destruction and death at the hands of Napoleon’s invading armies. There was some cooperation but what, for the most part, did happen gives the eminent British historian Richard J. Evans the title for his magnificent new book, The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, the latest volume in the excellent Penguin History of Europe series.
Evans explores power in many manifestations, from that exercised by the state to the efforts of individuals and groups to improve their lot. During the century covered by this book, there were only a small number of wars in Europe, limited in impact and duration, but governments still sought imperial and diplomatic power and built up their armies, industrialists and bankers wanted economic power, and political parties and revolutionaries strove for political power. Nationalism became both a unifying force as well as a divisive force in numerous states.
Societies were able to increase their power over nature with advances in science, medicine and technology, and new sources of power emerged, from steam to electricity, and from the power loom to the internal combustion engine. Although Charles Darwin and the vast majority of scientists and scholars regarded their discoveries as being compatible with Christianity, their efforts opened the door for intellectual challenges by others to the power and influence of religion.
Part of the masterly narrative focuses on individual lives and shows that arguments and struggles about inequality were at the heart of 19th-century European politics. Millions of people, particularly women, peasants, farmers and Jews, were given greater equality of status. It should be emphasized, though, that equality and emancipation were only partial and conditional, often achieved at great personal cost. Women, for example, might participate in revolutionary uprisings and help build barricades, but men would not allow them to have a say in politics. In raising questions about the rights of men, however, by implication questions were raised about women’s rights as well, and some women used this opportunity to advocate for female emancipation.
The Revolutions of 1848, perhaps the most influential series of revolutionary actions of the age for those without power seeking it, came in the midst of a deep and widespread sense of economic malaise. Desperate, poverty stricken masses staged mass demonstrations that caused a great crisis of confidence in governments throughout Europe. Evans disagrees with those historians who have dismissed the 1848 Revolutions as timid affairs, citing the violence of the crowds, the lynching of hated officials and the storming of palaces and offices.
Throughout the book, there are brief sketches of important but not always well-known personalities who played important roles and information about origins of words coined in this period including “scientist” and “anti-Semitism.”
This outstanding and authoritative synthesis, weaving social, political, diplomatic, cultural, engineering, scientific and economic history, is eminently readable and so carefully crafted that I was always reluctant to put it down. It will help readers appreciate the period of Europe’s growing dominance in the world as seen from variety of perspectives and better understand some of the roots of World War I.