A lengthy book detailing key historical developments in Europe between 1815 and 1914 can be tiresome, especially if it reads too much like an encyclopaedia, yet Richard J. Evans’s “The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914” is a masterful summary of the events and people of the period. In a loosely chronological fashion, moreover, attention was paid not only to the grand (geo)political developments which shaped countries and communities, but also to the individuals who experienced the effects of these developments. And it is through these stories – supplemented, for instance, by first-hand quotes, excerpts from speeches or documents, and even works of literature – that the reader gets a sense of what it might have been like.
Each of the eight chapters starts with a narrative, of a person who has lived through the years and therefore epitomises broader themes, and the chapters then close with a summative socio-political commentary of the state of affairs. Amid the high-level wrangling among politicians and their territories, it is hard not to be moved by the rates of rural and urban poverty, and even in the move from serfdom to the urban work environment, life for the average European was comparatively solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Against this background, the writer then expounds upon the respective historical themes, many of which were fascinating learning points for me:
- The long shadow cast by the French military leader Napoléon Bonaparte (and the French Revolution, on the ancien régime (the system of hereditary monarchy) and the Concert of Europe, formed after the Congress of Vienna for dispute resolution.
- Serfdom and the emancipation of the rural poor (“a huge class of people who had hitherto been bound to the land in a form of neo-feudal servitude had been emancipated from its chains and given equal rights as full citizens”), with the concurrent acceleration of industrialisation during the Industrial Revolution, giving rise to the urban poor, especially in the capitals.
- The rise of nationalism and the principle of national self-determination, with the revolutions and counter-revolutions following 1848 sowing the “seeds of the empire’s decay”. With the eventual formation or unification of Italy and Germany, the decline and disintegration of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires were documented too.
- On socio-economic developments, I really enjoyed the many sections about urban improvements and developments, which later transitioned to the rise of the bourgeoisie (or city dweller) and their counterpart, the proletariat.
- The relationship of Europe and its dwellers with the environment, with attention paid to the trends of natural and manmade disasters. There was also discourse on space and time, in terms of their measurement and their implications.
- Literature, culture, and the arts: On the move from romanticism to realism (also in art, architecture, music, and religion), and the impact of enlightenment on the education systems for Europeans.
- On the emergence of the welfare state – partly as a response to the rise of socialism and “the growing popularity of left-wing politics” – and the concomitant spread of parliamentary and democratic politics (in the United Kingdom, in the particular), and the extension of the franchise or the vote.
- And finally, on colonialism, exploration, and imperialism. “Imperialism was propagated by governments keen to gain popular support for the principle of maintaining, usually at some cost, their overseas possessions”.
I highly recommend “The Pursuit of Power” to other casual readers like me. Evans explained the focus on power in the preface, that as the century progressed, “people increasingly prioritise power over glory, honour, and comparable values that had been [previously] dominant”, and this applied to states, governments, armies, revolutionaries, political parties, bankers and industrialists, and serfs and sharecroppers. The breadth and depth of the book mean future reads are necessary, though there is already much to chew on, on the first read.