Richard J. Evans’ The Pursuit Of Power: Europe, 1815-1914

Sir Richard J. Evans, formerly a professor of history at Cambridge University, knighted for his contributions to historical scholarship, is most famous to the public for a trilogy of books he penned on Hitler’s Third Reich: The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power, and The Third Reich at War, surely the most comprehensive coverage of that era available to lay readers. But prior to his arrival at Cambridge in 1998, Evans bounced around various European universities teaching 19th century European history to undergraduates, and it was from that experience that this book took its form. The Pursuit Of Power: Europe, 1815-1914 is the seventh book in Penguin publishing house’s ambitious “History of Europe” series, covering two millennia of events. And while the century sandwiched between the events of, on the one hand, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, and on the other, the First World War, might seem rather uneventful by comparison, these years saw momentous changes sweep the continent, driven by the ambition for more power: economic, social, political, industrial. It’s a fitting sequel to the previous volume, The Pursuit Of Glory, for the animating spirit of the age had clearly shifted, and many of the innovations of the age had consequences that would take decades to fully develop.

Technological progress, enacted at blinding speed, defined this century. “In 1815,” Evans writes, “the railway, the telegraph, the steamship and the photograph were barely visible over the historical horizon. By 1914, Europe was entering the age of the telephone, the motor car, radio and cinema.” Physical distance appeared to shrink as railroads spread, and new, more precise ways of keeping and standardizing time were developed. Accustomed to modernity, we cannot now fathom what psychic and philosophical consequences were wrought by this new access to speed and efficiency. Evans quotes from the British historian Thomas Carlyle, who compared his first ride on a train at night to the “likest thing to a Faust’s flight on the Devil’s mantle,” and the century would prove his metaphor apt, for the price of so much technological growth was a terrible confusion: were men driving technology forward, or was technology driving man to some unknown destination? Evans deftly weaves between the large and the small, the lowly peasant labourer and the commanding politicians, so that we never lose sight of the fact that all of Europe’s power had to be generated somehow, and as glamorous as trains and cargo ships were, and as much wealth as they generated for the industrialists, the entire affair was set in motion in a distinctly unglamorous place: the coal mine.

Between 1815 and 1830 coal output in Britain virtually doubled, from 16 million tons a year to 30 million. As late as 1860, Britain was still producing more than twice as much coal as the whole of the rest of Europe put together. As demand grew, so mines had to be sunk deeper to access coal seems hundreds of feet below the surface. Water had to be pumped out of the mine, air circulated along the pits and galleries, gallery roofs held up with timber props, coal hauled to the surface and taken away by specially built canals or, in the 1840s increasingly, by rail.

Prior to the enactment of labor laws, young boys (prized for their small stature) were conscripted to explore seems, and pregnant women often miscarried from pulling coal wagons. Collapses were frequent and deadly, but the day-to-day existence was plenty perilous on its own: gas explosions, falling rocks, sudden onrushes of water, runaway mine carts. Initially, Evans tells us, candles were used to explore the darker depths, but these often ignited on contact with trapped gases; the Davy lamp, invented in 1815 to prevent just such catastrophes, ended up proving a more dangerous invention than the candle, as it allowed miners to go deeper into the earth, multiplying the risks of cave-ins.

All of this new wealth precipitated a change that had been heralded since at least the French Revolution: the decline of the aristocracy. Vast sums of money created a new class of powerful people without official titles, and the rising wages and living standards of the poor made them a more formidable political force than ever before. It was in Britain, leader of the industrial revolution, that the franchise was rapidly expanding, in 1832, 1867 and 1884. Perhaps even more consequentially, the state as we now know it began to take its form, replacing the remnants of feudalism with the promise of guaranteed freedoms (of movement, labour, inheritance, and equality before the law). Many of the former lords and nobles found a new calling, lending the prestige of their titles to wealthy corporations by agreeing to sit on their boards. And of course underwriting – in the most literal sense – all of these changes was the financial sector, now more than ever a force to be reckoned with. “In France the 1848 inheritance records showed that only 5 percent of the fortunes left at death were in stocks and shares, while 58 percent were in land or houses; but by 1900 the former figure had climbed to 31 percent and the latter declined to 45 percent.” Fantastically large fortunes were made on the basis of these new industries, and with them a new aristocracy, united not by blood or breeding but wealth and power.

What emerged in fact from the social changes of the nineteenth century, as bourgeois businessmen invested in landed property and aristocratic estate-owners invested in industry, was anew kind of elite, based above all on wealth, mixing together large landowners, bankers and businessmen, industrialists and investors, some with titles, some without, but all living more or less the same style of life, wearing the same kind of clothes, and indulging in the same kind of amusements.

The much-maligned elites of today, with a common origin in finance and industry, emerged from world history in the 19th century industrial boom, and while the industries may have changed, the similarity of life and habit that Evans points to has remained. Their sudden rise precipitated another lasting legacy of the era, the growth of political ideologies: nationalism and liberalism, the political thought of Marx, Engels, Comte, Fourier, Proudhon and Pankhurst and the countless intellectual heirs each spawned.

European imperialism also reaches its crescendo in this period, with major and minor powers vying for control of land in the aptly named “scramble for Africa,” a period that bequeathed us a theory of racial hierarchies and concomitant racial purity. Here is Evans’ description of a German “concentration camp,” where the Herero were housed against their will and used as labour for the German empire (an improvement, it should be said, on the prior policy of extermination):

At the worst of the camps, on the rocky terrain of Shark Island, off the Namibian coast, the prisoners were used as forced labourers, fed on minimal rations, exposed to bitter winds without adequate clothing, and beaten with leather whips if they failed to work hard enough. Every day bodies were taken to the beach and left for the tide to wash out into the shark-infested waters. The camps also became sites of scientific investigation, as the anthropologist Eugen Fischer (1874-1967), later to become a leading ‘racial hygienist’ under the Third Reich, descended on the town of Rehoboth to study its mixed-race inhabitants (whom he called, unflatteringly, the ‘Reheboth Bastards’). In 1905 ‘racial mixing; was banned by the colony’s German authorities, and in 1909 interracial marriage and cohabitation were made punishable by the loss of civil rights. These measures introduced the term Rassenschande, ‘racial defilement’, into German legal terminology; it was to resurface thirty years later in the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Laws outlawing intermarriage between Jews and ‘Aryans’.

Unsurprisingly, the loss of life was staggering: “The Herero population, estimated at 85,000 before the war, was reduced to 15,000 by the end, while up to 10,000 out of a total of 20,000 Nama were exterminated. Of some 17,000 Africans incarcerated in the concentration camps, only half survived.” The scramble for Africa inevitably exacerbated tensions within Europe, as some countries gained and others lost ground, and the jockeying for more wealth and power drove military spending and bred a series of tangled political allegiances that culminated in the cataclysm of the First World War.

For a book with this wide a scope – a century of history, encompassing all of Europe and Russia, it is astonishingly detailed. Evans vivifies his sweeping summaries with precise and memorable details. Just how influential was the horse-and-carriage method of transport? He cites figures suggesting that an average of 20,000 tons of manure in London and 100,000 tons of manure in Berlin were removed from the streets each year. In his chapter on crime and punishment, he describes the vast crowds that would gather to watch public executions, and the frequent fights that would break out between family members of the deceased and local thieves hoping to sell the corpse to an anatomy college. As a general rule, industry advanced and health and safety standards lagged far behind. To illustrate this point, Evans describes “phossy jaw,” the affliction suffered by the young women (teenage girls, truthfully) employed in making white-phosphorus matches: “their gums began to ulcerate, their teeth fell out, and their jawbones began to rot, exuding a vile-smelling pus, sometimes through the nose.” The end result of all this labour is a thorough, detailed and coherent history, a crash course in an entire century of political, technological and social development that makes the ensuing century of mechanized murder and global combat horrifyingly intelligible.