Modern European History

Writing European History


Eric Hobsbawm was right when he called the twentieth century an age of extremes, and the phrase applies especially well to Europe.[1]  Starting in 1914, the continent was engulfed in total war for thirty years, followed by an unprecedented 45-year period of peace, even if it was a peace imposed by the Cold War.  How then should one tell the story of twentieth century European history?  Such a task requires one to confront questions of narratives, perspective, and themes.  Was it the gradual and haphazard, yet inevitable progress of capitalism and liberal democracy, relegating the world wars as regrettable aberrations of “true” European history?  Or do the darker moments of the twentieth century overshadow Europeans’ later achievements?  In Dark Continent, Mark Mazower portrays Europe’s twentieth century as one characterized primarily by violence, an era in which ideologies inspired entire peoples to fight to the death.  Bernard Wasserstein presents a continent continuously caught between two extremes in Barbarism and Civilization.  Lastly, Tony Judt’s book Postwar begins in 1945, but demonstrates how the previous thirty years of global war remained a defining influence on Europe after the war’s end, acting as the foundation for a new Europe committed to learning from its mistakes.

Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century is considerably shorter than the other two books, but this can be attributed to the fact that his book is meant to be more of an extended essay than a full survey of Europe in the twentieth century. At the core of his book is the assertion that Europe’s twentieth century was defined by three competing visions for the future or Europe and ultimately the world: liberal democracy, fascism, and communism.  “Europe’s twentieth century is the story of their conflict,” he writes (xv).  Consequently, competition and violence are the heart of Mazower’s narrative.  Throughout his provocative and eloquently written book, Mazower demonstrates how all three ideologies were seeking to improve the world through the establishment of a New World Order.  “Like it or not, both fascism and communism involved real efforts to tackle the problems of mass politics, of industrialization, and social order; liberal democracy did not always have all the answers” (xii).

Another major goal of Dark Continent is to highlight the historical contingency of this European era. “Though we may like to think democracy’s victory in the Cold War proves its deep roots in Europe’s soil, history tells us otherwise” (5).  His narrative shows that fascism and communism were just as European as liberal democracy, though it is easy to retrospectively consider them anomalies of European history.  The Nazi “utopia was also a nightmarish revelation of the destructive potential in European civilization,” he writes (xiii).  What made Nazism stand out from the other European visions was the fact that it turned European imperialist mentality on other Europeans.  Consequently, Mazower argues that the Nazis’ “greatest offence against the sensibility of the continent” was treating Europeans like Africans, turning Europeans into barbarians and slaves (73).

After 1945, the forced peace of the Cold War “brought the continent the most precious commodity of all – time” (249).  Even though the emergent European Community (and later, the European Union) curtailed national sovereignty of the member states, Mazower argues that by the end of the 1990s, Europe had decided that social cohesion was of greater value than individuality (360). While Europe may have achieved a level of peace and economic prosperity, Mazower’s book does not really end with a positive note.  He concludes that “The real victor in 1989 was not democracy but capitalism” (397), and that one reason Europeans live with democracy today is “partly because it involves less commitment or intrusion into their lives than any of the alternatives” (397).  After half a century in which states took full control of the public and the private spheres, Mazower argues that Europeans have come to appreciate one of democracies “quiet virtues:” it gives people a retreat and allows for a private life (xv).  In other words, he feels that the stability of contemporary Europe comes not from dedication to an inherently peaceful ideology, but instead from Europeans’ settling on democracy because of their ideological exhaustion.

Bernard Wasserstein’s Barbarism and Civilization: a History of Europe in Our Time begins with a quote from Walter Benjamin:  “There is no document of civilization that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism” (vii).  This quotation sets the path for the rest of Wasserstein’s 850-page book; as such, readers see violence and peace occupying the same space in the story.  His book begins (like Mazower’s) in 1914, because the outbreak of World War One signals the ideological beginning of the new century.  He refers to the world of 1914 as a time of “dying empires” and “rising nation-states” (9), and expands by declaring that “Nationalism, not socialism, was the most explosive political force in much of central and eastern Europe, all the more so because it was frustrated and pent up by the authoritarian structures of the multi-national empires” (36).  Ethnicities and nation states play central roles in Wasserstein’s book.  Once the European nations were able to gain stability by the 1950s and 1960s, they had to learn how to deal with new ethnic minorities (like the Turkish workers in Germany), especially as Europe became a continent of immigration instead of emigration.  When discussing the 1991-1992 wars in Yugoslavia, Wasserstein writes, “The war brutally exposed the limitations of the European diplomatic system and its inability to resolve conflict arising from profound ethno-religious cleavages” (733).  This example – beyond revealing that Wasserstein’s book takes all of Europe into account, and not just central or western Europe – demonstrates Wasserstein’s skepticism of nation states’ ability to provide a peaceful environment for its ethnic minorities.

Barbarism and Civilization is primarily concerned with political, economic, military, and demographic developments, though he does offer glimpses into other areas (there is a four page section dedicated to sex and sexuality).  I was also surprised to see that decolonization was explicitly addressed in only eleven pages since the loss of colonies in Africa and Asia was so symbolically and economically important to the old imperial powers.  One way that Wasserstein’s account differs from Mazower’s is that Wasserstein’s focuses much more on individual actors than larger political ideologies. But by doing this, I wonder if he underestimates the power of ideas.  He refers to Hitler as a self-pitying misanthrope (397) and comments that fascist ideas were the “primitive rationalization of gangsterism” (160).  Wasserstein is right to highlight the influence that particular individuals had, but it may be easier to dismiss individuals as misanthropic than to fully give credence to the origins and power of their ideologies.

Tony Judt’s Postwar: a History of Europe since 1945, on the other hand presents a narrative based on ideologies.  His book starts in 1945 and so does not dedicate time to studying the actual events of the world wars.  Instead, the work focuses on the place the dark half of the century has held in Europeans’ minds since 1945.  World War One destroyed Old Europe and World War Two laid the foundations for a new one, he argues (6).  He quite provocatively claims that the work of Hitler and Stalin actually allowed for the post-1945 stability because theirs were projects that sought to unify and hegemonize European peoples.  Ethnic diversity only worked under multi-ethnic empires; that same diversity could not work under nation states.  “Between them, and assisted by wartime collaborators, the dictators blasted flat the demographic heath upon which the foundations of a new and less complicated continent were then laid” (9).

But the World War era also provided stability for the post-war Europe in another way.  Judt argues that for fifty years, the atrocities of Hitler’s Europe remained silent and that this silence was vital to the establishment of European stability.  Only after social, political, and economic stability were achieved were Europeans able to begin fully studying and confronting what it soon became clear was a European-wide complicity in the murder of the Jews.  In the post-1989 world, Judt argues that “Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket” (803).  After Marxism lost its legitimacy through the knowledge of Soviet atrocities, Europeans witnessed the death of “grand narratives,” or single explanations that tied the march of history to one’s destiny (563).  Particularly after the collapse of Communism, Europeans were left with no competing ideologies with which to make sense of their world and use as the basis of identity.  Instead, Judt suggests that the Europeans’ violent past has become the unifying “other” for present day Europe.  Only by acknowledging the dangers of rampant capitalism and nationalism, by recognizing the destruction wrought by Europeans – epitomized by the Holocaust – can one be considered part of the new, unified “Europe” of today (830).

While they may focus on different themes throughout their narratives, all three authors position Europe into a larger, transnational or global history in the same way.  Each scholar concludes that the history of the twentieth century is the history of Europe’s relative decline in the world.  Wasserstein posits 1914 as already marking the “beginning of the end of the Eurocentric world” (1).  Mazower points out that the economic crises of the 1970s revealed to Europeans the weakness of nation states and “the need for concentrated action to defend their way of life against global competition” (328).  He adds that while the European nations themselves enjoy relative stability and peace, globally “Europe has lost its primacy, and perhaps that is what most Europeans find hardest to accept” (403).  From the beginning of his book, Judt tells readers that his is a “history of Europe’s reduction” (7), but Europe’s loss of relative political and military dominance in the world is not portrayed in a negative light.  In fact, he concludes by stating that, In spite of the horrors of their recent past – and in large measure because of them – it was Europeans who were now uniquely placed to offer the world some modest advice on how to avoid repeating their own mistakes” (800).  Again, this highlights Judt’s emphasis on the stabilizing and educational role Europe’s violent past can play in today’s effort to create a stabile and peaceful Europe.

These books offer three different ways of conceptualizing modern European history.  Mazower holds Europe’s divisions, competition, and violence as paramount, stating that, “The “Europe” of the European Union may be a promise or a delusion, but it is not a reality” (xiv).  Ultimately he argues that Europeans will only find lasting stability by giving up on the effort to define a single, unifying “European” identity.  “If Europeans can give up their desperate desire to find a single workable definition of themselves…they may come to terms more easily with the diversity and dissension which will be as much their future as their past” (403).  Wasserstein claims that, “Civilization and barbarism walked hand in hand in Europe in the course of the past century.  They were not polar opposites, but…locked together in a dialectical relationship” (793).  But while Wasserstein mentions this coexistence at the beginning and end of his narrative, readers may question if he feels that barbarism and civilization really coexisted, or if Europe’s twentieth century can be viewed as a transition from barbarism to civilization.  And lastly, Judt believes that the new “European” model can only be successful if it’s based on accepting Europe’s violent past.

[1] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. New York: Random House, 1994.

Books under review: 

Mazower, Mark. Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Wasserstein, Bernard. Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. New York: Penguin Press, 2005.

For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

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Sexuality in Europe: A 20th Century History


Herzog, Dagmar.  Sexuality in Europe:  A Twentieth-Century History.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.   

Subject: A thematic and chronological overview of how Europeans have viewed and understood sexuality between 1900 and 2010.

Summary & Main Arguments: 

In a display of her mastery of the topic, Herzog deftly reveals how and why the twentieth century in Europe really was the “century of sex.”  By the turn of the century, she argues, societies’ obsession with ideas about sex meant that sex, and an increasingly predominant conception of a sexuality, influenced the other aspects of society that we don’t generally think of as being connected with sex: politics and economics (as well as those areas more traditionally connected to sex: religion and morality).

The main purpose of Herzog’s book is to challenge the notion that the “history of sexuality in the 20th century” is simply a story of liberation and progress, of overcoming barriers to reach sexual liberation and legal-political equality (she is firmly convincing in this effort).  Instead, she offers a more nuanced view of this history, one that she does not deny is ultimately successful in achieving victories for women and sexual minorities (she also shows how these processes create sexual minorities).  “To tell only a narrative of gradual progress would be to misunderstand how profoundly complicated the sexual politics of the twentieth century in Europe actually were” (1).

She lays out three issues that highlight the sporadic, stop-and-go nature of the developments of how Europeans understood sexuality:  1) backlashes feature prominently in her history.  Many of the major developments in the story can be seen as a backlash to a previous movement.  For example, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s is portrayed – in large part – as a backlash against the conservative tides of the 50s.  As time goes on and media and technology improve, these backlashes become more extreme, yet with shorter duration.  2) A second theme that she highlights is that the new, radical views of sexuality were not accepted by all, and they were not all perceived as utopian (even by self-identified liberals).  There were problems embedded within the new sexual norms, as well as defining what those new norms should be (or what a society without norms at all would look like).  Another problem was that people tended not to realize that sexual policies were tied to other issues like racism.  3) The third issue she brings up is that, while “sex became burdened with enormous significance” (2), it did not mean the same thing to everyone.  This ambivalence created –as well as highlighted existing – anxieties about a society in which sex was “free.”  (Fears of rape, abuse, exploitation, for example).

Apart from complicating the story of progress, the book’s other great strength is explicitly showing how sexual issues became political.  “In a constantly reconfigured combination of stimulus and regulation, prohibition and exposure, norm-expounding and obsessed detailing of deviance, liberalizing and repressive impulses together worked to make conflicts over sexual matters consequential for politics writ large” (3).

It’s impossible to highlight all of the book’s observations and points here, but I do want to mention a few that I found the most enlightening (from each chapter):

1) Between 1900-1914, sexuality was re-conceptualized, spurred by three factors: issues concerning prostitutes forced society to study the inequality of sexual responsibility among men and women.  She also shows how – through eugenics – the state succeeded in harnessing the power of fertility to reach political (and racial) goals.  Lastly, she shows how sex scandals (usually centered on homosexual acts) spread through a new print culture influenced societal beliefs of homosexuality, thus helping to define homosexuality as much as the medicalization of homosexuality.

2) World War One (by removing men from women and placing them in all male situations, also leaving more women among themselves back home – and by creating a period of instability in general), “dramatically quickened changes in the organization of understanding of sexuality that had been underway since the turn of the century” (45).  Moreover, WW Two witnessed a period of state intervention in citizens’ sexual lives that was hitherto unprecedented – by democracies as well as totalitarian regimes. Democratic countries were characterized by ambivalence: while cracking down on homosexuality, they were loosening the state’s control on contraceptives and abortion.

3) The Cold War period was one of sexual conservatism and wanting to return to a pre-war normality.  But, the seeds of a more liberal movement were already planted in steady economic growth, new consumer opportunities, and a growing understanding of “privacy.”  This formed a small place for liberal activists to get a foothold and then push for reform in the 1970s.

4) While the media perpetuated the tenets of the 1960s/70s sexual revolution, promoting free love and using sex to sell, it also exposed the conservative nature of the laws still on the books in these countries.  This allowed the minority of activists to initiate activism.

5) This chapter has the most information and can be daunting:  Due to the explosion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, there was initially a conservative backlash.  However, Herzog argues that the very real threat to society’s health forced Europe to grow more comfortable with confronting issues of sexuality (and sexual acts themselves).  This leads to an appreciation of human sexual diversity and the privacy of one’s “bedroom,” (though we see an increased government participation in sexuality through safe sex campaigns).  Perhaps most interesting is her handling of European Islam.  As Islam spread in Europe, traditionally conservative parties, beginning in the mid 1990s, took up sexually liberal stances (on abortion and homosexuality, for example) in order to se themselves apart from the “sexually oppressive” Muslims.  Gay and lesbian Muslims were able to use the LGBT-friendly space in Europe to redefine what Islam meant for them.

My comments: This is an excellent book.  It’s well written, and packed full of information – all into 220 pages.  It’s dense in info, but still accessible and can easily be used for undergrads because while explaining different views of sexuality, she avoids the theoretical jargon.  My one complaint is that she doesn’t look at east Europeans until they become nominally “European” – until after the fall of Communism, and in some cases, until their admittance into the EU.

For more books on European history and the history of sexuality, see my list of reviews HERE. 

Categories: Book Review, History, Modern European History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Life under Totalitarian Regimes

War on Cancer

Robert Proctor’s study of science and medicine under National Socialism and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work on everyday life under Stalinism both offer intriguing insights into what life was like under two totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.  Proctor grapples with the question of whether we can see anything “good” or even “progressive” coming out of the same regime that produced Josef Mengele and state-sanctioned euthanasia programs for the sick, elderly, and handicapped.  Proctor concludes that recognition of Nazi public health campaigns against cancer does not equal an endorsement of Nazi medicine; but he asserts that we must recognize that “the Nazi war on cancer was the most aggressive in the world,” even if this recognition only complicates our understanding of the Nazis’ aims (4).  Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, looks at life for “everyday” people under Stalin’s regime in Soviet Russia in an effort to define normalcy.  How did men and women adjust to a life of material shortages, surveillance, and random terror? What did daily life look like for them?  Interestingly, while Fitzpatrick attempts to study the formation of a new normal life or routine, what her book ultimately highlights is the formation of a new, normal Soviet citizen under Stalinism.

In the Nazi War on Cancer, Proctor studies Nazi leaders’ public health campaigns, focusing specifically on their attempts to prevent cancer within their sphere of influence.  He reveals that Nazi Party leaders and doctors led initiatives that helped raise awareness between the connections of environmental factors (chemicals and asbestos, for instance) and the development of cancer.  They promoted new ideal diets for the Germans, encouraging healthy eating (even going so far as forcing bakeries to sell whole wheat bread) (130), the avoidance of alcohol, and even herbal remedies that were believed to lower the risk of cancer  And it was in Nazi Germany that the connection between tobacco and lung cancer was first made (176), leading to a massive anti-smoking campaign that included banning of smoking in public places as well as strict laws on advertisement for cigarettes.  Proctor deftly presents these facts and shows that the Nazis’ efforts were more focused on prevention rather than cures, but all throughout his book (and most clearly in his prologue and concluding chapter), he explicitly grapples with why he felt compelled to write the book in the first place.  Of course it was not meant to exonerate Nazi doctors for their other, more infamous acts (even though he shows that between 1950 and 1990 German women have experienced the most drastic drop of lung cancer mortalities than any other Western nation – a result he believes could possibly be tied to Nazi anti-smoking efforts, 268). Instead, Proctor argues that acknowledging these more “socially responsible” aspects of Nazi policy gives a more complex and accurate understanding of life under Nazism.  “Both elements – the monstrous and the prosaic – are key” to understanding the realities of Nazi science and medicine (277).

In complicating the picture, Proctor reminds his readers that these “progressive” campaigns must be viewed in their historical context.  Yes, the Party leadership, along with the doctors who supported them, wanted to prevent cancer in their population.  But they had a very narrow definition of who belonged in the Aryan Volk, which meant that their ideas of public health were steeped in racism.  Just as Nazis wanted to purge the Volksgemeinschaft of racial enemies like Jews, they wanted to cleanse the German body of impurities like cancer.  In this vein, Hans Auler, a Berlin professor and researcher claimed, “It is fortunate for German cancer patients, and for anyone threatened by cancer, that the Third Reich has grounded itself on the maintenance of German health” (71).  Proctor then sees Nazism as “an experiment of sorts – a vast hygienic experiment designed to bring about an exclusionist sanitary utopia” (11).  In this light, “the Nazi campaign against tobacco and the ‘whole-gran bread operation’ are, in some sense, as fascist as the yellow stars and the death camps” (278).

By bringing out these connections, Proctor reminds us that the relationship between science and politics, or between science and society is much more intricate than we may think.  Science was neither a neutral subject, removed from the effects of politics and society, nor was it simply a tool of Nazi ideologues.  The

relations between “science” and “society” are more complex than is commonly imagined. Even in the microcosm of Nazi cancer research we find very different ways that science can express politics, and vice versa…Fascists were arguing over what kinds of science should be supported, and scientists were arguing over what kinds of fascism should be supported (251-252).

Nazi ideologies set some of the directions of medicinal research and public health initiatives, just as science and medicine helped shape Nazi ideology.  “Public health initiatives were pursued not just in spite of fascism, but also in consequence of fascism” (249).  By adding these nuances to our understanding of life under the National Socialist regime, we learn that “Nazism was a more subtle phenomenon than we commonly imagine, more seductive, more plausible” (7).

In Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Sheila Fitzpatrick studies the emergence of what she calls Homo Sovieticus, a “social species” that developed in response to the transformation of everyday life under Joseph Stalin.  The term “Soviet” makes it into Fitzpatrick’s rhetorical classification because the Soviet state was a “central and ubiquitous presence” for individuals living in Russia during this period (3).  In this book, Fitzpatrick studies a vast range of everyday processes: obtaining goods, travelling, telling jokes, finding housing, marriage and divorce, voting, avoiding the secret police, and more.  Interestingly enough, she does not take working and the workplace into consideration, because that would mean that she could talk about only one section of society: men (but she also shows that almost ten million women joined the labor force in the 1930s, so one wonders why women could not be taken into consideration when studying the process of working under Stalin, 139).  Despite this absence, the rest of her material is enlightening.

The predominant characteristic of everyday life in Stalinist Russia during the 1930 was shortage.  Shortages of basic material goods such as clothing and food accompanied near complete absence of luxury goods, which were randomly dispersed among the new cultural elite.  Additionally, an influx of nearly 10 million peasants into Russia’s cities created gross housing shortages that the state seemed to overlook in lieu of its efforts to industrialize and modernize other sectors of society.  The ubiquity of shortage led to cultural shifts in Russian society.  New words and phrases entered the common vocabulary.  People no longer spoke of “buying” goods, but instead of “getting” them; men and women carried “just in case bags” for the unlikely chance that some product was being distributed while they were in town (40).

Fitzpatrick reveals how, by the 1930s, the main function of the Soviet state transitioned from the redistribution of wealth and goods to the basic distribution of all goods to its citizens (39).  In a life plagued by shortage, not money or production, but personal connections became the currency to acquire goods.  Blat (“influence” or “pull”) “subverted the meaning of Stalin’s great economic restructuring, creating a second economy based on personal contacts and patronage parallel to the first, socialist, economy based on principles of state ownership and central planning” (65). The inefficiency of the State to distribute even the most basic of goods, despite its dogmatic emphasis on rationalized central planning, forced its citizens to become risk takers.  Shopping became a survival skill and blat undermined the state’s control on distribution; corners were cut to meet unrealistic goals in the labor force.  Ultimately, the need for goods was greater than the fear of being caught on the black market.

A life of chronic shortages became the new, “normal” everyday life for Homo Sovieticus.  Fitzpatrick’s discussion of “normal” reminds me of Marion Kaplan’s discussion of normality and “catastrophic gradualism” in Between Dignity and Despair, in which she shows that people quickly become accustomed to new normals.  But while Fitzpatrick shows that new routines were established in Stalinist everyday life, she also reveals that the people themselves did not think of their life as normal.  The hardships of life they were experiencing were understood as temporary, a transition period into a life of abundance.  This mindset reveals another aspect of life under a totalitarian regime (or one could argue under any regime): the leaders’ ability to influence its citizens’ collective memories.  She describes these collective memories as “common property,” stories that help “make sense out of the scattered data of ordinary life, providing a context, imposing a pattern that shows where one has come from and where one is going” (8).  These sets of stories helped Homo Sovieticus understand their period of transitional hardship leading to a “radiant future,” position themselves in a great modernizing crusade to overthrow the backwardness of imperial Russia, and understand themselves as preparing for the final battle with capitalism.  All of these mentalities allowed Russian citizens to see normal life as something just around the corner, worth working for; but Fitzpatrick shows that life under Stalin had indeed established new, everyday routines, a new normal that would prove to be anything but temporary.

Both Proctor and Fitzpatrick urge us to reevaluate our understandings of life under National Socialism and Stalinism.  Nazism’s apparent concern for its (narrowly defined, “racially pure”) citizenry may help explain why everyday Germans were willing to follow the movement and overlook its more radicalized aspects.  According to Fitzpatrick, most people in history accept their governments simply because they perceived that there was no other choice – and Russians under Stalin were no different (225).  The omnipresent existence of state surveillance and arbitrary terror “encouraged fatalism and passivity in the population, instilling a sense that the individual was not and could not be in control of his own fate” (219).  “Us vs. them” mentalities are important in both stories, though in different ways.  Russian citizens (“us”) identified with each other in relation to – and often against – the state (“them”), a group of men calling the shots and causing shortages from their position “up there” in the government.  The Nazi state, on the other hand, sought to create an “us” that included both state and people who were meant to serve each other.  The “them” was meant to be racio-political enemies of the German Volk.  In both cases, the party-states and citizenry saw themselves as not only modernizing, but ultimately vanquishing the troubles of modernity while capitalizing on its fruits.  This process of perceived modernization helped provide a cohesion and goal for Nazism and Stalinism, both of which promised to usher in a new era for humanity.

Books under review:

Proctor, Robert. The Nazi War on Cancer. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila.  Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

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European Mass Culture in the Context of Global War


European Mass Culture in the Context of Global War

The twentieth century was very much a European century.  European imperialism reached new heights and on two occasions European conflicts grew to engulf the globe in war.  Each of the books we read for this session address cultural aspects that contributed to these far-reaching forces of change on the “dark continent.”  Volker Berghahn seeks to explain the “orgy of violence” that erupted from Europe between 1914 and 1945. He attempts to look beyond surface level political causes and to instead explain the structural mechanisms of peace and violence in terms of material well-being.  Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi also draws our attention to deeper shifts in Western culture to help explain the rise of fascism in Italy.  By bringing in the lens of aesthetics, she challenges us to reimagine the way we view politics and how they interact with other spheres of life.  James Andrews also examines the connections between the state and civilian society by looking at the ways in which two separate Russian regimes interacted with scientific organizations that were working on the popularization of science.  Moreover, by situating his study in Russia, Andrews prompts us to question what is meant by “European” and whether or not Russia can be included in that definition.  And finally, Erez Manela directly confronts the definition of European, civilized, and modernized by exploring the ways the 1919 Versailles Treaty affected colonized people across the globe.  By removing Europe from the center of the story, Manela forces us to rethink our concepts of “center” and “periphery” as well as the role that European powers were perceived as playing in international politics.

In Europe in the Era of Two World Wars: From Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society, Volker Berghahn lays out his argument for why Europe fell into total war twice during the twentieth century.  According to Berghahn’s model, Western civilization stood at a cross roads at the dawn of the twentieth century. These cross roads represented two different paths into the modernized, industrialized future.  On the one hand was a civilian model of modern society, in which the modes of production were used to mass-produce consumer goods that were then peacefully mass consumed by a democratic civilian populace.  Berghahn then offers the United States as the epitome of this civilian model (5).  The other option for organizing modern society, according to Berghahn, was the militaristic model.  In this model, “violent men” controlled the government to use the industrial processes to produce weapons of war in order to achieve imperial or racial goals.  The twist in this model is that these products that were mass-produced were not mass consumed, but rather consumed civilians through warfare and death.

Berghahn’s book then, is the story of how European societies faced this confrontation between two competing ways of organizing modern life.  He offers three obstacles to the realization of the dream of “creating a civilian mass-production and mass-consumption society” before 1914:  First, violence still persisted at high levels in schools, the home (strict patriarchy), and in/through the armies.  Second, the unequal distribution of the gains caused by capitalism created tension among classes of people.  And third, and most important, the institution of imperialism, which he understands as Europeans’ attempt to bring up their own standard of living was based on a system of violent exploitation (11-16).  Berghahn understands imperialism as one of the three types of totalitarianism, alongside Communism and fascism (21).  In fact, he concludes the interwar years of 1919-1938 could not be a successful phase of re-stabilization because the stability at home in Europe depended on the continued exploitation of the colonies and the non-Western world (72).

What made the two World Wars different than previous wars was the fact that military leaders and other “violent men” realized that, because of technological advances, any new war would be all encompassing.  Moreover, there was less of a push to protect civilians from this type of war because in a total war, the line between civilian and combatant was blurred or all together ignored.  In addition, authors such as Jünger and Ludendorff, who believed in always being fully mobilized for a total war, “provided the men of violence of the interwar years with not only the pseudo-justifications but to a considerable degree the recipes for their deeds” (84).  This militaristic model of organization penetrated all levels of society so that by 1939, violent measures against civilians had become an integral part of the German way of warfare (100). Berghahn then concludes that ultimately the American model of civilian organization was triumphant.  Fortunately, the destroyed Western European nations were able to pick and choose what they wanted to import from the American model, so that “Europe, too, became a region of the world whose societies were civilian-industrial in outlook” (139).

Berghahn’s argument is a materialistic one in that everything depends on material-well being.  It seems that civilians are only able to interact peacefully and keep “violent men” at bay if they have products to consume.  Moreover, the way that Berghahn discusses violence, it seems that it is something that is contagious and spreads outward from “violent men” to infect an otherwise peaceful human nature, which I don’t find incredibly convincing.  Lastly, he speaks of the triumph of the civilian model over the militaristic one, but what about the fact that the “violent men” of both World Wars were only defeated by violence?

In Fascist Spectacle: the Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy, Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi also seeks to explain violent phenomena of the twentieth century, though she focuses specifically on the emergence of fascism.  Unlike Berghahn, she does not focus on modes of consumption, but instead uses the notion of art as a lens to understand the rise of fascism in Italy.  Falasca-Zamponi argues that until her book was written, Emilio Gentile’s notion of fascism as a “political religion” had been a convincing way of understanding the movement.  But, in her book, she argues that fascism should bee seen as an aesthetic, a set of principles similar to those that drive an art form.  In this light, the politician is seen as an artist, sculpting a creation out of his people.

Falasca-Zamponi shows that fascism was only able to emerge and take root as the result of a historical nexus of conditions that was unique to that period.  One condition was the creation of “the masses,” which we have studied in another session.  Several factors contributed to the creation of the masses, including communication technology and an expanding print culture.  A second condition was the “arts for art’s sake” movement, which disassociated art from the arousal of the physical senses.  Under this movement, art was meant to be created and appreciated simply for what it was, rather than for how it made the viewer feel.  A third condition is what she calls the larger shift from the emphasis on “character” to “personality” in Western culture. Earlier, one was meant to embody “character,” which encompassed controlling one’s impulses and making oneself presentable in public.  Falasca-Zamponi argues that new technology and new disorders placed a greater emphasis on “the self” (as opposed to the social cohesion that was kept by members all representing proper character), and thus led to an emphasis on personality, which included “being yourself” while still being likable.  In this model, individuals with strong personalities could both be themselves and compel others to like them (45-46).  A fourth condition that was unique to Italian culture was Italian history; the presence of Rome in Italian history, coupled with the continued presence of the seat of the Catholic Church meant that Italians were accustomed to both a glorious (and glorified) past as well as being surrounded by the pomp, circumstance, and pageantry of the Church.

All of those conditions allowed for the possibility of fascism’s success in Italy.  Mussolini, whom Falasca-Zamponi quotes extensively, saw himself as an artist, a creator.  Under the particular fascist aesthetic (which was never static or complete, but constantly evolving), the politician was an artist who should sculpt the effeminate masses to unlock potential and create powerful soldiers for the cause.  But under the “art for art’s sake” mentality, the artist had no ethical boundaries, and therefore the politician had no ethical limits to what he could or should do.  Mussolini’s personality was perceived as exceptional and this allowed him to step into the role of leader, artist, and creator in one.

Mussolini and his fascists were preoccupied with crafting particular images of the movement.  They created specific (and largely false) histories and myths for themselves, but Falasca-Zamponi reveals the reflexive nature of symbols and myths.  While fascists may have created, through their cultural and political power, particular myths and symbols (ways of speaking, dressing, and living), these symbols took on a life of their own and then defined what the fascists could do from that moment on (118).  In this light, the aims the fascists set for themselves (constant movement, creation, vitality through conflict and violence against bourgeois materialism, capitalism, individualism, and liberal democracy) meant that international war was inevitable.  Once the Italian masses had been sculpted into perfection and inner enemies ousted, the only option open to the fascist movement, which portrayed itself in melodramatic terms as more than a political regime, was to expand its violent vision outwards.

James Andrews’ Science for the Masses: the Bolshevik State, Public Science, and the Popular Imagination in Soviet Russia, 1917-1934 brings our discussion away from violence, and directs our attention to another aspect of European mass culture: the popularization of Western science from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s.  Whereas we saw a complete intrusion of the government into the private sphere in Falasca-Zamponi’s study, Andrews shows us a delicate coexistence of private and state sponsored endeavors to spread scientific knowledge among the masses.  In imperial Russia, the popularization of science was tied to education, and was organized by voluntary scientific organizations through museums and journals.  As with the music journals in Applegate’s Bach in Berlin, print culture played a defining role in the popularization of science in Russia.  After the 1917 revolution, the Bolshevik state provided both political and financial support to these popularization efforts because they were in line with Bolshevik campaigns to spread Enlightenment education and ideals.  Under the New Economic Policy era of the 1920s, the science popularization movement boomed because of increased funding from the state, and the fact that the Soviet state found it important to maintain non-governmental associations (172).  Moreover, because of ties between state officials, association leaders were able to better navigate through the new Bolshevik bureaucracy (59).

Stalin’s cultural revolution, which began in 1928, changed all of this, though.  Enlightenment ideals were now seen as vestiges of a liberal, bourgeois period, and so it became official policy that scientific knowledge was no longer to be pursued or taught for its own sake.  Instead, the emphasis was on the utilitarian aspects of science.  In other words, the masses were no longer seen as creators of knowledge, but instead as the recipients of state-approved knowledge.  But Andrews shows that not everyone was willing to accept this new approach to science that was filled with Soviet propaganda about the superiority of Soviet science and technology.  Workers were able to somewhat define their own interests and let it be known that they did not like the propaganda with a side of science; instead, they wanted applicable, technical training for their jobs.

Examining this study on Russian history raises several questions pertinent to our sessions:  What is modern and what is European?  It is often argued whether or not Russia is a part of Europe, and I think that Andrews’ book shows that perhaps it is important to ask when can Russia be considered European.  Both under an imperial government and a Bolshevik socialist one, Enlightenment ideals spread, sometimes with substantial government support.  It was not until 1928 that the Stalinist government decided to control rather than support scientific knowledge and purposefully identify against Western Enlightenment ideals.  Perhaps at this moment, Russia becomes less European?  It is interesting to also note that Andrews’ book challenges us to rethink 1917 as a complete breaking point in Russian history, because in some ways there are far more continuities across the 1917 line than breaks.

Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism continues this endeavor of questioning European values and how far they reach beyond the geographic confines of Europe itself.  This study zooms out to look at Europe and America through the lens of Europe’s colonies, areas that are very “European” in the sense that they are an important way European societies define themselves.  Manela studies the effects that Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric about a new world order based on self-determination and liberal democracy had on colonized people around the world.  Wilson’s 1917 speech (and other subsequent ones) laid the groundwork for what Manela calls “the Wilsonian moment,” which lasts from the fall of 1918, when an Allied victory in the war was assured, to the spring of 1919 when the failure of the Wilsonian promise became apparent.

This Wilsonian moment created an atmosphere of encouragement and hope among nationalists pushing for independence in Egypt, India, China, and Korea.  Though representatives from all of these colonies were barred from the peace negotiations in 1919 (except China, which was not officially a colony, but was the victim of a web of arrangements by foreign powers that checked its sovereignty), nationalists in these territories were able to use Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination in an attempt to claim their place in the new international order.  The greatest contribution of Manela’s work is that it reveals how anti-colonial nationalism cannot be understood in national terms, but must be viewed in an international context.  Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Korean nationalists called for self-determination based on the new international standards that Wilson laid out; they sought to present their case on an international stage; and finally, they sought the aid of international pressure against their colonizer to help them achieve their goal of independence.  Moreover, international media allowed nationalists to know that other peoples were also pushing for similar goals (64).  Manela draws special attention to how the presence of so many Korean patriots abroad played a decisive role in Korea’s national movement.  These Korean patriots living abroad, who were dedicated to international, cosmopolitan liberalism, were able to get around the Japanese censors to gain and share information with Koreans back home and with the world on Korea’s behalf.

Beyond showing how movements for national determinism were placed squarely in international developments, Manela’s book helps explain why anti-colonial revolts broke out across the globe in the spring of 1919.  As it became apparent that Wilson’s promises were meant only for European nations, nationalists elsewhere realized that they were going to get no support from the American president that they had, only months before, adored as a sage-like savior.  But instead of losing hope from the fact that Wilson himself wasn’t going to help, these nationalists still saw power in Wilson’s rhetoric, and so they harnessed it and switched gears.  The first few months of 1919 were filled with revolts and uprisings in Egypt, India, Korea, and China; in each case, independence was won, even if it took decades to achieve it.  But, it’s important to realize that it was only after these nationalists understood the Wilsonian moment as a failed promise that they turned to open confrontation as an answer to their problems.

Ultimately, Manela’s work is a study of power: political power, the power of ideas, and the power of words and their (un)intended consequences.  The revolt against the West by anti-colonialists was not a result of the Great War, but was instead a direct result of the failure of the idealized peace that came afterwards.  While politicians attempted to keep political power flowing from the metropole to the colonies, Wilson attempted to define what it meant to be modern, enlightened, and civilized.  What peoples on the peripheries of the Versailles negation didn’t realize was that Wilson’s definition was narrow, had a blatant racial component, and was only meant to be applied to the West.  But, the power of Wilson’s words could not be undone, and the anti-colonialists took his rhetoric and launched revolts with them.  Manela concludes that while many viewed 1919 as an expansion of imperialism for Great Britain and France, the moment actually laid the groundwork for imperialism’s undoing (11).

In fact, all of these studies reveal how the modern era – with its developments in technology – allowed words and ideas to take on new powers.  On a basic, yet important level, technology allowed more efficient communication among a larger group of people in further corners of the world.  But as Vanessa Schwartz and others have shown, technology (along with other cultural developments) allowed for individuals to think of themselves as one part of a larger “people” or populace.  In short, the modern period saw the creation and rise to prominence of “the masses” as not only an audience, but also an important political tool and player to be considered in all decisions.  These masses acted as both the receptors and tools of political leaders’ ideas, as well as the inspiration for and creators of other ideologies.  As we have seen, the masses allowed for fascism and wide scale violence, but the masses also helped nurture the popularization of Enlightenment ideals and movements for national self-determination.  These are all parts of the European story.

Books under review: 

  1. Manela, Erez. The Wilsonian MomentSelf-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  2. Berghahn, Volker, R. Europe in the Era of two World Wars: From Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  3. Andrews, James T. Science for the Masses: The Bolshevik State, Public Science, and the Popular Imagination in Soviet Russia, 1917-1934. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2003.
  4. Falasca-Zamponi, Simonetta, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

For a longer list of books on Modern European History, see my post here

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European Mass Culture in the Context of Global War by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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European Modernity & Mass Culture


Modernism & Mass Culture

In our past sessions, we have explored different transformations that historians have designated as marking Europe’s transition into the modern era.  We have discussed technological advancements, processes of secularization, nationalism, and the transformation of conceptions of time and space.  The books that we read for this session add culture to this discussion. Each of these authors approach the ambiguous topic of culture differently, and thus come to different conclusions about the causes and implications of the profound revolutions in European culture.    Did cultural transformations reflect or produce changes in the political sphere?  Did the emergence of a mass society created by technological innovations create a vast, alienating sea of individuals, or a new sense of community based on the “spectacular realities” of modern life?  And what can we make of European culture’s collective “journey inward,” its turn towards psychology and psychoanalysis as the source of answers for life’s troubles?  The five authors for this session all contribute to a greater understanding of European modernity by attempting to answer these questions.

In Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics & Culture, Carl Schorske explores the cultural world of the Habsburg Empire’s capital at the end of the nineteenth century.  Vienna’s small class of bourgeois liberals lies at the heart of Schorske’s story, and he argues that we must view liberals in Austrian culture as occupying a different place than liberals in France or Britain. In this way, Schorske’s argument can be seen as part of the Sonderweg thesis that is often applied to Germany’s transition into modernity.  According to Schorske, it was the failure of Austrian liberalism to overthrow the landed nobility and secure political authority for itself that marked Austria as different than the Western European powers and set it on a separate path of development. 1848 marked a defeat of the liberals against the aristocracy, and it was not until the 1860s that the liberals gained a constitutional regime almost by default.  “Not their own internal strength, but the defeat of the old order at the hands of foreign enemies brought the liberals to the helm of the state” (5).  This was only a partial victory, though, because the liberals were forced to coexist with an aristocracy that mocked them and thwarted their every attempt to accrue more political authority.  The only option left to liberals, Schorske argues, was to turn to culture as a means of ersatz authority to make up for their lack of actual political power.

As a result, the bourgeois liberals began imitating aristocratic tastes in architecture and art, since art “was closely bound up with social status, especially in Austria” (296).  Eventually, however, sociopolitical events caused these liberals to relate to art in a new way.  “If the Viennese burghers had begun by supporting the temple of arts as a surrogate form of assimilation into aristocracy, they ended by finding it an escape” (8).  According to Schorske, they were seeking a refuge from forces that they had inadvertently unleashed onto the thousand-year-old empire.  Although the liberals were proponents of parliamentarianism, they sought to restrict representation; only after people were educated with Enlightenment ideals could they be trusted with a vote.  These ideals spread beyond the liberal’s control, however, and various groups within the multi-ethnic empire began using liberal ideals to fight for their own inclusion in political processes.  So while the liberals were directing a nationalism against the aristocratic cosmopolitans above them, Slavic and Pan-German patriots were arguing for autonomy from below.  The Austro-German liberals “succeeded in releasing the political energies of the masses, but against themselves rather than against their ancient foes” (117).  In this light, Schorske uses Freud’s notion of Oedipal revolt, of “son” revolting against “father” to explain how the Viennese liberals were ultimately defeated by their own ideals.  By the century’s close, the liberals retreated from the public sphere into the introverted sanctity of the private sphere, leaving the nationalistic masses to dominate politics.

Deborah Coen challenges this narrative in her work Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life.  In an interesting book that utilizes the method of biography, Coen questions the “retreat” of liberals to private life as a “defeat.”  Instead, like Gerald Geison, she questions the notion of a fundamental separation between private and public spheres.  She’s able to do this by focusing on one family, the Exners, who were a “scientific dynasty” in Vienna.  By focusing on their family dynamics and their influences on the wider political and scientific communities, Coen is able to demonstrate that for the Austrian Bildungsbürgertum, or middle class intellectuals, “academic work and family life occupied the same social sphere” (31).  The home acted as a space for the Exners, and others like them, to not only discuss work and politics, but to also actually contribute to their work, thus “bridging the public and private lives of its inhabitants” (23).  Central to her argument is Coen’s assertion that “Liberal identity in Austria lay not only in an ideology but also in a character – a style of speaking, reasoning, and interacting, the product of an individual’s education in the broadest sense of Erziehung” (11).  A vital part in cultivating this liberal character was retreating from urban life, summering in quaint villages situated “in nature,” and not only observing nature, but participating in it as well.  Moreover, the Exners did this as a family at their “colony,” Brunnwinkl, along with other Viennese liberals who also summered at the Wagnersee, creating a seasonal “liberal space” where scientific and philosophical ideas were nurtured so that they could be spread back in the “public” sphere at the end of summer.  Thus, Coen argues that “cultivation of the domestic sphere was not a retreat from politics but a precondition of liberal identity” (90).

Coen also addresses the impact of uncertainty on liberal culture.  Where the Enlightenment ideals of the certainty of nature led to beliefs in unwavering laws of nature (scientific determinism), new discoveries and methods of interpretation led to the realization that perhaps nature was best understood as a set of probabilities rather than certainties.  In other words, phenomena were no longer dictated by natural laws, but instead were seen as having a higher (or lower) mathematical probability of occurring.  This new way of understanding mirrored the socio-political revolutions occurring as nationalistic and democratic waves overthrew the old social hierarchy.  Schorske argues that the liberals saw the acceptance of uncertainty as the “death of history,” a complete break with past understandings of the world, and thus retreated from politics and sought explanations in deep internal sources.  The relativistic “psychological man” replaced the traditional “rational” man of the old liberal ideals.

Coen claims that this view is simplistic and wrong.  Acknowledging that nature and society are more complex than previously understood did not destroy liberals’ worldview.  Instead, liberals like the Exners were able to “tame” and “manage” uncertainty through quantitative theories of probability, which contributed to two goals: defeating Catholic dogmatism, and providing a plan of action in the face of crippling relativism (10).  “Skepticism was thus not liberalism’s downfall but instead a vital element of liberal culture and natural science in post-1848 Vienna” (13).    In this light, psychoanalysis and similar sciences were not an admission that there was no real truth, but simply another chance to understand the world.  Franz Exner, for example, argued that “psychology should become to the interior world what natural science was to the exterior” (50).  Ultimately, Coen’s account adds more nuance to Schorske’s story, showing how liberals were able and willing to adapt to larger historical changes instead of just retreating to the private sphere (the home, and the inner self) in defeat; moreover, Coen’s characters are active actors contributing to the new, modern world, instead of just reacting to it.

Vanessa Schwartz’s Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris addresses another phenomenon related to the birth of modern culture: the rise of a mass society.  In a thoroughly entertaining piece of history, she challenges the idea of the new mass culture as a repressive, alienating phenomenon.  She sees the “spectacularization” of reality in Paris, which included the creation of “the public,” as a means of community building, where people did not feel alone in the crowd, but genuinely felt a camaraderie with other Parisians.  Schwartz’s analytical focus here is the gaze – she studies what people are looking at, who’s doing the looking, and how they are looking.  Therefore, unlike in Foucault’s portrayal of modern culture in which “the crowd” is seen, or is the spectacle (the object of the state’s attention), Schwartz’s portrayal changes the perspective and the crowd becomes the one doing the seeing.  In other words, the urban crowd became a society of spectators.  This is an important shift, because no longer is mass culture seen as something that is overwhelming and happening to individuals who feel lost or alone in a sea of other individuals.  Instead, mass culture is something that is partially shaped by the crowd, which is portrayed by Schwartz as group of actors. Schwartz’s characters are not mindless consumers; their demands and expectations shape the possibilities of the producers.

Spectacular Realities examines a number of media forms that helped create this crowd by turning everyday reality into events, things that should be first read about (she emphasizes the importance of the growth of literacy), and then gone out and experienced or seen for oneself.  “Like the boulevards, the press – especially in its sensationalization of the everyday – promoted the shared pleasures and identification of individual city dwellers that transformed them into “Parisians”” (26).  Going to see dead bodies in the morgue was like “real life theater,” turning death into an aspect of modern life.  Wax museums recreated scenes from daily life and let viewers “view themselves” in a narrative form, because the curators always set up the displays in a particular fashion to tell a specific story.  Wax museums, in other words, let modern Parisians see themselves as a spectacle from the viewpoint of a spectator (131).  Ultimately, while Schwartz’s book provides a plethora of important and entertaining information, the overall point of her book shows that the “spectacularization of everyday life” and the creation of the urban crowd deserves a spot among the study of democratization and technological innovations in the formation of modern society and culture.

Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Springs: the Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age is a grand, yet confusing book, in my opinion, and in fact, its composition seems to reflect the very break with tradition and sense of uncertainty that his subjects felt during the era of the Great War.  The 1913 debut of the Russian ballet The Rights of Spring in Paris “rightly stands as a symbol of its era and as a landmark of this century,” Eksteins claims (16).  The reason is because the ballet’s music, choreography – its entire production – expressed revolutionary new ideas. On the eve of World War I, its message was that “If there was any hope, it was in the energy and fertility of life, not in morality.  To an audience decked out in its civilized finery, the message was jarring” (50).  This feeling of change and detachment – the signposts of modernity that were brought about by technology – were accelerated by World War I.

Eksteins studies the power of the masses and their influence on geopolitics in particular.  He devotes a lot of attention to Germany, because he feels that the German experience lies at the heart of the modern experience since “she more intensively than any other “developed country has given evidence to the world of the psychic disorientation that rapid and wholesale environmental change may reproduce” (68).  However, I find his treatment of Germany problematic mainly because he speaks in overgeneralized terms (“the Germans” did this, or “the Germans” wanted that).  He claims that “Germany had been the country most willing…to promote the breakdown of old certainties” (156), yet 100 pages prior he was describing how the German masses were clamoring to see, and almost worship, their conservative Kaiser, and how this pressure not only forced the imperial government into war, but also swallowed up any opposition (63).

In find Eksteins’ discussion of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic more interesting, plausible, and useful.  Lindbergh, upon his arrival in Europe, became “the new Christ,” the “most famous man ever” (242-244).  This was because he straddled two worlds created by the devastation of World War One.  One world was one of “positive values, revolving around family, religion, nature, and the good and moral life.”  The other was a “modern” world that was exhilarated by the act of flying over the Atlantic alone.  “The act was everything” (250).  After a war, the dimensions of which defied all comprehension, conservatives found a harbinger of traditional values in gentlemanly and self-made Lindbergh, while others – including “the masses” – saw Lindbergh as a star, a representative of man’s conquest of nature through technology.  These same ideas of conquest and progress through social engineering were taken up by the National Socialists who ultimately twisted and perverted morals to the extent that “death was the supreme manifestation of life” (330).  Complete and utter destruction through war (what Eksteins calls Germany’s “endless right of spring”) would purge and cleanse the world, allowing for new and pure life to emerge triumphant.  Ultimately, I remain very skeptical of Eksteins’ book. I am not sure if it is meant to be a way that the two world wars can be viewed, or an attempt to explain them.  I wonder if he is not just conducting his own grand ballet here.

Finally, George Mosse’s work Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars explores the ways in which war, and the Great War in particular, affected how nations understood mass death.  Mosse asserts that the modern world, beginning with the French Revolution, was characterized by a sense of loneliness, particularly amongst its bourgeois citizens.  This is how he explains the large number of volunteer soldiers in every war since the Revolution.  Because of this sense of loneliness and meaninglessness, men volunteered to fight for a greater cause.  This symbolized a shift away from men simply being called into action by their monarch.  “Men’s loyalties were being redirected from dynasty to the fatherland,” Mosse states (20).  This notion of a greater cause – beyond being a motivation for men to volunteer for the war in the first place – was also used to justify the death caused by the war.  Death, then, was turned into a noble sacrifice on behalf of the nation and its people.  This leads to the creation of what Mosse calls the Myth of the War Experience.  This myth became a tool of nationalism, and was essentially a coping mechanism for those nations that lost in the Great War.  For instance, in Germany, trauma and defeat led to the strengthening of nationalism and the War Myth as “a civic faith” (10) in which monuments and memorials can be seen as shrines to the fallen dead.  It is important to note that only the memories and experiences of veterans that matched with the larger aims of nationalism were commemorated in cemeteries and monuments (37).  In this way, nationalism was in the business of establishing and perpetuating official memories for the Myth of the War Experience.

He has an interesting section on the trivialization of the war, by which he means the processes in which the war was “domesticated” (141).  War themed books and toys allowed citizens to take control of the war, which seemed much smaller and manageable as a result.  In short, it allowed people to grow accustomed to warfare, thus dulling the impact of mass death.  Moreover, Mosse argues that changes in the ideals of masculinity, notions of activity and vitality, as well as the ideal of serving one’s nation in any way possible, all contributed to a brutalization of politics after the Great War (159).  This brutalization limited the number of possibilities open to politicians when tensions led towards a second global war in the 1930s.  World War II ended the Myth of the War Experience, though, because the Myth was not able to deceive people any longer.  More people experienced the war first hand due to a blurring of the boundaries between battlefield/home front and soldier/citizen.  Also, pictures, movie footage, and radio broadcast allowed more people to experience the war as it happened, and also exposed them to the new atrocities of modern warfare like the Holocaust (202).  This shattered the Myth and nations had to come up with new ways to deal with the mass death of the modern world.  The concept of “sacrifice” no longer sufficed in the face of Auschwitz.

All of these books reveal the turn of the twentieth century as a moment in European history characterized by far reaching change.  Technology, science, and geopolitics transformed cultures, which in turn affected politics, science, and technology.  The mass destruction and death caused by the Great War seemed to cut off the modern world from the past.  Eksteins shows that even the Victors experienced a sense of shattered reality.  They had achieved victory; now what?  (238).  Schorske in particular shows that while the masses were becoming active in politics, at least a part of society was becoming more introverted, looking inward for answers to the woes of modern life.  Individuality and “the self” took on a level of importance unparalleled to that point.  Indeed, Nikolas Rose claims that it was during this era that Europeans invented “the self,” looking for something deep within that was essential and true.[1]  Essentially, I would argue that this process could be seen as the search for a “secular soul” as the response to a movement bent on fighting the dogma of religion.  Eksteins calls this the collective “journey inwards” (298), and Coen displays that this inward journey does not equate to a wholesale departure from the public sphere of politics.  Finally, while both Eksteins and Mosse suggest that World War One was the cause of these new uncertainties, the other authors show that the forces of modernity were in effect before the Great War (and, in fact, contributed to its outbreak) even while the War accelerated and exasperated their effects.

[1] Nikolas Rose, Inventing Ourselves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Books Under Review:

  1. Schorske, Carl E. Fin-de-SieÌcle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Knopf, 1979.
  2. Coen, Deborah R. Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  3. Schwartz, Vanessa R. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  4. Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
  5. Mosse, George L. Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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European Modernity & Mass Culture by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

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European Science & Society in the 19th Century


Science & Society in the 19th Century

  Science, since its inception, has been a noble enterprise, spearheaded by a handful of men in each age, to gently unlock – or in some cases pry open with force – the secrets of nature so that they may be used to improve mankind.  While philosophers and politicians dealt with muddled theories and social (thus subjective) forces, scientists handled “facts,” objective truths that could be held, measured, and thus did not give in to the whims of man.  Or at least this is the idea of science held by most of the Western world since forever, it would seem.  The three books we read for this session not only challenge, but are successful in debunking, this Whiggish history of science’s unimpeded progress.  Moreover, Alison Winter’s Mesmerized reveals that until the mid nineteenth century, “science” as a unified enterprise comprised of experts in specific fields did not even exist.  Gerald Geison’s Private Science of Louis Pasteur calls into question the notion of private versus public spheres, and prompts us to ask what exactly the role of a scientist in society is. The Culture of Time and Space, a very problematic book by Stephen Kern, forces us to completely rethink how we as historians have been viewing the turn of the twentieth century.  Traditional periodization markers fall to the wayside as he emphasizes new themes: conceptions of time and space, the influence of technology, and the interplay of the different aspects of European culture.  All of these books present a much more complicated – and therefore accurate – picture of science’s place in European society.

In Mesmerized:  Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain, Alison Winter explores a Victorian movement that has hitherto been regarded as a fringe fad or margin pseudo-science:  mesmerism.  When “animal magnetism” (as it was sometimes called) arrived in England in the 1830s, it was just one of many practices that questioned the nature of life (40).  In this way, it was similar to other practices, like those that we today would label as “science.”  In fact, Winter convincingly argues that “Rather than occupying a different world from orthodox or legitimate intellectual work, animal magnetism called into question the very definition of legitimacy itself” (5).  Mesmerism, then, helped define science, rather than being a fundamental opposition to it (though, scientists later set themselves in opposition to it).  By highlighting this, Winter is calling into question the allegedly ascending, inherently progressive nature of the scientific discipline.  It was not until this point in time in Victorian England that such a discipline emerged.  It was through discussions of what constituted legitimate knowledge (the mysterious practices of the mesmerizer, or the quantifiable results of lab work?) that science emerged.  More specifically, it was an atomization – or specialization – of knowledge that occurred, thus giving rise to specialists who thought of themselves collectively as “scientists.”

This specialization affected, as well as being affected by, the ascendancy of experts.  In other words, there was a competition between the emerging scientists, mesmerizers, as well as other philosophers who were trying to explain the nature of reality.  This competition was over who had the authority of the knowledge of reality.  The result was a split between trained “experts” and the untrained ‘lay’ masses.  Winter shows that this was not just a metaphorical, abstract debate carried out in journals.  By the 1840s, there were movements for education reform, and even laws that would put the power of medicine in the hands of only those with certified credentials.  “Lay attitudes [also] had to be brought into line with doctors’ own definitions of expertise and legitimacy.  But doctors did not agree on these definitions themselves” (165).  Again, this reveals the haphazard process by which scientists asserted their authority in the nineteenth century (indeed, had to first define authority and then wrest it out of mesmerizers’ hands).

A rather exciting aspect of Winter’s book was the way in which she showed how mesmerism was a nexus of a number of issues for Victorian culture.  Moreover, it does not simply represent a nexus through which we can study that time period; the Britons themselves realized that when they were doing an experiment in mesmerism, for example, they were actually doing an experiment on their society at large.  Mesmerizing revealed attitudes towards gender, class, and race relations.  Most mesmerizers were white, upper-class men, while most subjects were women, either from the same class, or from a lower one.  Because mesmerism was understood as one individual exerting force and control over another’s body, the practice was interpreted as a physical manifestation (and therefore justification) of social stratification.  Moreover, power over one’s body (whether manifested as the ability to control another’s body, or through the ability to halt the powers of the mesmerizer) came to exonerate moral superiority.  Mesmerism also interested priests and pastors because they saw first, a threat to their influence and authority, but also insight into how to increase their own influence, power, and authority over their flocks (247).  Moreover, the “question of whether the effects [of mesmerism] were natural or supernatural made experiments a testing ground for faith and doctrine” (4).  Ultimately, Winter convinces us that these questions, far from being seen as marginal, were very serious for Victorian Britons, because they “understood natural laws as underpinning, or having implications for, social laws” (31).

The implications for mesmerism on notions of race and empire were profound mainly because it caused people to directly think about the relationship between themselves and the empire’s subjects.  It “became the occasion for self conscious reflections about the basis of race, inequalities, and the natural laws that helped one people to bend another to its will” (7).  Winter’s story of James Esdaile and his interactions with a local Indian healer deftly illustrates her larger points.  Esdaile, and those who read his stories, relied on the assumption that the “magician” (as the healer was called by the Enlgish) was but superstitious and gullible.  By projecting superstition onto the Indian/magician/subject, Esdaile portrayed the events as occurring in a way that reinforced the preconceived notions of gullibility and superstition (187).  Moreover, performances such as these reiterated the hierarchies of race and power.  “Although individuals like the “magicians” might be able to produce the same phenomenon, European science alone could discern their cause” (188).  In a final display of dominance, Esdaile obliges the “magician” by performing mesmerism on him, thus stripping him of authority (at least in the eyes of British readers).

A final point on Winter’s book:  As professional science emerged “victorious” (as a Whiggish interpretation would attest), and was able to perform the same tasks as mesmerists (the use of chemical anesthesia to suspend pain, for instance), it dictated the definition of legitimate evidence.  “The emerging scientific disciplines left no place for testimony on new scientific truths, unless it was subservient to laboratory apparatus” (305).  Testimony of events that had already occurred, or were known to occur were acceptable, but “testimony to new, startling truths [mesmerism] were not admissible on its own” (305).  Seen in this light, science emerged not as a progressive movement open to new methodologies, but rather a conservative one bent on defining and keeping authority.

In  The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, Gerald Geison uses a new supply of sources that have only recently become available to reevaluate the practices of famed French scientist Louis Pasteur.  By using Pasteur’s own private laboratory notebooks, Geison reveals a new, more complex, and somewhat ethically ambiguous Pasteur, one that varies greatly from the Pasteur myth that took hold even before Pasteur’s death.  In essence, Geison reveals the “private science” of Pasteur that was confined to his notebooks.  These notebooks revealed that Pasteur played fast and loose with the rules of the Scientific Method, completely disregarding it when it came into conflict with his preconceived notions.  This “new” and private Pasteur downplayed the role of his assistants and collaborators, and even administered his famous rabies vaccine without first testing it on animals.

It seems that Geison is not as shocked by these actual revelations themselves as he is by the fact that Pasteur seemed to have two separate lives. While Geison admits in the introduction that there is no real distinction between “private” and “public” science, he does not seem quite able or willing to forgive Pasteur for fashioning a particular public image of himself while practicing something else in the privacy of his own lab.  This raises questions of what we think about science in general – and moreover, its relationship with “the public.”  It also calls into question the private/public dichotomy that has so pervaded modern Western thinking.  By page 5, Geison admits that science is shaped by the anticipation of how the results will be accepted by an audience (other scientists, the government, or the public at large).  Pasteur chose problems and experiments that he knew would go over well with the public, and that would fit in the expectation of what a public scientist should be doing.  This already calls into question the distinction of private/public.  Also, knowledge cannot be divided up neatly – or at all, however neatly or messily – into private/public.  The work of one individual or generation is built on the knowledge and work of others and past generations, showing that no idea is ever completely our own, or “private.”

But, even while Geison admits all of this, he still seems upset that Pasteur quite consciously performed while in public (he was a “shrewd sociologist of knowledge” Geison states, 132); Pasteur fashioned a public image for himself that Geison deems today is inappropriate for a scientist.  But I wonder if these expectations were the same in the second half of the nineteenth century.  What was expected of a scientist?  It seems like Pasteur (especially towards the end of his life) was somewhat of a rock star, embodying far more than just the quest for knowledge about nature:  a symbol of nationalistic French pride, of the triumph of Western knowledge over nature, and perhaps of racial & intellectual superiority.  Perhaps a scientist (especially one getting paid so much) was meant to have this sort of public prestige.

But this book – and the revelation of Pasteur’s private notebooks – also reveals the discrepancies we have about scientific knowledge.  As science became more specialized and professionalized, the idea grew that science was (and should be) completely objective, removed from the influences of everyday life (even as it strove to explain everyday life).  So, what Geison’s work reveals is that scientists are just like people in other fields who are influenced by a multitude of factors, including (as in Pasteur’s case) religion.  Geison quotes Steven Shapin as stating, “Science, no less than any other form of culture, depends upon rhetoric.”  Geison continues, “And the superficially anti-rhetorical language of most modern scientific discourse is itself but another rhetorical resource or strategy” (269).  I think what Geison is trying to get at is that science, as a mode of thought, a way of understanding, is itself a particular type of rhetoric (or “socially constructed narrative” to use postmodern terminology), rather than being an expedition to discover the real facts that other narratives use to explain the world.  So, Geison complicates the story of science, especially the idea that it exists outside of culture; it is influenced by culture, and is a culture.

Finally, there is The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918, Stephen Kern’s provocative – and, I believe, problematic – work on how the ways in which technological innovations changed the way Europeans and Americans perceive both time and space. He pulls from a number of sources – philosophy, psychoanalysis, history, literature, and politics, though is eerily quiet on economics – to show how these changes affected all aspects of culture.  In his final chapters, he then shows what consequences these revolutions in thought and perception had on the “July Crisis” and World War One.  Kern’s basic assertion that technology impacted conceptions of time and space is accurate, and the specifics that he provides are for the most part convincing, not to mention interesting and thought provoking.  But, because I am already running too long, I would rather save my discussion of the ‘specifics’ for our meeting, and use this space, instead to raise some objections I have to Kern’s premises.

First and foremost, I take issue with his talk of “essential” or “basic” aspects of humanity, of “universal” traits.  It represents little more, I think, than an attempt to nail down a singular “human nature.”  He compares the conception of time (and its passing) to hunger: it is an essential expression of being human that we have hunger, and we all conceive of time and its passing. “The structure of history, the uninterrupted forward movement of the clocks, the procession of days, seasons, and years, and simple common sense tell us that time is irreversible and moves forward at a steady rate,” he claims (29).  But what of peoples that experience time so differently, that it is difficult – if not impossible – to compare their conception with our own, or to explain their conception in the terms of our own?  He seems to pay lip service to the acknowledgement (by Benjamin Whorf) that some people “actually experience time differently than we do” (xxii).  But the rest of his book is based on the assumption that we, as humans, experience time and space fundamentally the same around the world, and that we can trace large, sweeping changes and revolutions in these conceptions across large spaces.

I challenge this basic assumption, and view it as forcing our own understandings on others.  Moreover, I think his book misunderstands the processes of causality on many occasions.  For example, when discussing World War One he states, “The drive to expand and control space was universal” (241).  But what is that supposed to mean exactly?  This drive was somehow basically human, perhaps even genetic?  Instead of looking for how a human nature affected/caused political action, perhaps it is more helpful to ask if particular aspects of culture (products of historical processes) produce the government’s desire to expand.  Similarly, he claims that Great Britain and France, as dominant empires, were more confident going in to the Great War; they were less worried about a future, because the past showed that they were “always” there.  Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, had just become modern states, so they “knew” that they were fragile and could disappear in tomorrow’s war.  But did the leaders of these countries think of themselves as new and fragile?  What about all of the attempts to construct histories for themselves (not to mention the very real history that their cultures had, predating national boundaries)?  For example, what about the Heimat movement in Germany that attempted to give the German national history roots in the local, provincial pasts?

I think that Kern’s misunderstanding of this situation (and others throughout the book) stem from his belief in the dialectical nature of knowledge and reality: every thesis must have an antithesis.  Therefore, the opponents in World War One must have been opponents due to diametrically opposed conception of both time and space.  I do not wish to completely dismiss Kern’s book.  But, I do think it is more helpful, instead of setting up dichotomies, to explore how changes in the ideas of time (the anxiety that time had sped up, for example) affected all European leaders and pushed them to act quickly.

The greatest contribution of Kern’s book is that it reveals that a powerful revolution in the way Europeans understood time and space did in fact occur during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It can be understood as fundamental in so far as the change in conceptions of time and space affected a number of facets of European culture: literature, art, science, warfare.  But I am not convinced that we are talking about fundamental shifts in human nature.

In conclusion, all of these books make us reevaluate the way we understand science and its place in European history.  All of them reveal that European society expressed deeply rooted anxieties about the pace of life, about how the march of time had sped up.  Many saw themselves as shooting into a progressive utopia, while others felt as if technology had them hurtling towards an apocalyptic end.  Second, these books show (if nothing else) that truths and knowledge were not solidified or agreed on; only hindsight makes them appear that way. In reality, definitions and knowledge were up for negotiation, much as they are today.  Third, Geison’s work in particular (and Kern’s in a less direct way) warns us to be careful of applying our own knowledge or standards onto the past.  It seemed that Geison’s understanding of what a scientist should be hindered him from understanding Pasteur’s crossing of a public/private boundary that may not have existed at the time.  And lastly, all three of these authors reveal that Western science is only one way of understanding reality, one method of acquiring and analyzing knowledge.  In short, it is but one genre in the larger literature of human knowledge.

Books under review: 

  1. Winter, Alison.  Mesmerized:  Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998
  2. Geison, Gerald L. The Private Science of Louis Pasteur.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  3. Kern, Stephen.  The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918.  With a new preface by Stephen Kern.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

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European Science & Society in the 19th Century by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

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Forging Nationalism in Modern Europe

Natlsm in Europe

One cannot discuss modern European history without devoting much of the discussion to the topic of nationalism.  In fact, it the story of modern European history could be seen as the invention and subsequent ebb and flow of nationalism as nation states began to replace monarchies across the continent.  The four works that we read for this session offer insight into the processes involved in nation building, and each shows that these processes neither run smoothly, nor can one find a “standard” path of nationalism’s development.  David Waldstreicher and Celia Applegate offer fresh ways of thinking about how nationalism works and its relation with the people and the state.  Mark Mazower’s short history reveals nationalism’s violent side, yet somewhat problematically talks about nationalism as if it is something quantifiable that can be exported to distant areas of the globe.  Lastly, Maria Tadorova explores the ways in which nationalities, though constructed in recent history, appear to be timeless and can thus be used to construct powerful discourses about the state of the world.

At first, Applegate’s book, Bach in Berlin, seemed to be an unusual choice for discussing nationalism, for Applegate is a music historian.  But this work explores how by the 19th century, Germans came to see themselves as a musical nation (if not the musical nation).  By framing it in this way, she deftly shows how music indeed had a central role in defining a German nationalism, even before a German nation state was formed. The book circulates around an 1829 performance of J.S. Bach’s the St. Matthew Passion that was composed by Felix Mendelssohn and led by Carl Friedrich Zelter.  It is important to note that Applegate does not believe that this single event created German nationalism, but she does argue that “appreciation of Bach reinforced the integration of the many strands of German cultural experience into a coherent, unified national culture” (9).  In that sense, the performance can be seen as one of those rare historical moments in which events come together into a powerful culmination to make something new and remarkable.

In discussing the emergence of a German nationalism, Applegate grants central importance to the power of print and print culture.  She demonstrates that literature already held the high position of being the “essential expression of German identity” (52).  So, as cultural shifts in the late eighteenth century forced musicians to leave their traditional spheres of the church and the court, they had to find a way to make their profession important – if not essential – to the cultured elite of the German people. The emergence of music periodicals coincided with the spread of the German Enlightenment.  The work of Johann Gottfried Herder concentrated on a philosophy of history that focused on particularities.  This had implications for Germans who could now see German culture as having an essence all its own (52).  Music journalists could then employ this train of thought and argue that not only was German music important, but that music was an essential and vital expression of a deeper, true German culture, a German national soul.

Such discussion laid the groundwork for a movement for musicians and all cultured Germans alike to rediscover German music.  This set the stage for the success of Mendelssohn’s revival of Bach’s Passion.  Another aim of the music periodicals was to cultivate taste, that is define what good and German music was.  Moreover, this was a task for all cultured Germans, not something restricted to a small elite.  So, there was a push to get amateur musicians involved (thus the success of the Berlin Singakademie). “Music journalists wanted to influence how people judged music, and they did so in ways that tied musical judgments to German culture as a whole” (82).  While many music periodicals joined in this effort, she points to Adolf Bernhard Marx’s Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in particular.  Marx’s project, Applegate states, was to insist that by knowing Bach (and German music in general), “one would come to know oneself as a German, because knowing Bach entailed understanding not only the Christian, Protestant heritage of Germany, not only the intellectual, inward turn in German character, but also the musical complexity that was as much a part of being German as was the German language itself” (119).    That is why, in 1829 at the time of the famous performance, the conditions were ripe for the culmination of many processes into a lived experience of the power of German culture and German nationalism.  The German Enlightenment had shown that German culture could be separate and essential; music periodicals cultivated the understanding of German music as an art form, and moreover, it taught Germans how to receive, appreciate, and judge the 1829 performance as an expression of their national culture.   In this way, “music journals were a part of the process of building a cultural homogeneity, not a late, specialized product of homogeneous culture” (83).

In In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, David Waldstreicher presents nationalism not as an abstract ideology that was the object of philosophers’ discussions.  Instead, nationalism is presented as a political strategy, something that must be played out or enacted by “perpetual fetes.”  This is an important twist on the understanding of nationalism, because this conceptualizes nationalism as something that is created, not as the creating force.  Nationalism is created through rituals such as parades, celebrations, toasts, and printed commentary of these events.  In this light, events such as the celebration of the Fourth of July, are not because of nationalism, but are instead creating a feeling of consensus, a sense of nationalism.  These celebrations are spaces in which national politics are taken outdoors, out of the hands of a few, and taken to the streets where “ordinary” people could participate.  However, Waldstreicher avoids setting up an “elite vs. street” dichotomy of politics by showing that both the political elite and the normal people were equally active in constructing narratives during these celebrations.

While national celebrations appear to be about consensus building, Waldstreicher argues that to miss the politics (the divisive and partisan nature) of the celebrations is to miss the point of the event itself.  This exposes the paradoxical nature of these celebrations, for they unified while simultaneously divided the populace.  While all parties involved promoted loyalty to the nation (unifying power), the factions promoted their idea of the nation (divisive nature).  Thus, nationalism – far from being some ultra-conservative, unifying power that stamps out all difference – could foster deep divides among the people, and Waldstreicher understands political factions as results of nationalism, not hindrances to it.

Part of the paradox of nationalism was the way that while it increased participation in politics (by drawing all of the white men into participation, instead of just a select few), it also firmly excluded women and blacks.[1]  For example, the American Colonization Society was a nationalistic organization to send all free blacks out of America, and its existence highlighted the problem of a “free nation” in which the equality of a number of its free citizens was denied (302-304).  But, Waldstreicher argues that free black Americans put the whites to shame by using the same tools of nationalism to create a new, African nationalism of their own (347).

Taken together, Applegate and Waldstreicher’s books provide interesting insight into nationalism.  Most importantly, both authors present nationalism as something tangible, not simply something thought about by philosophers and enacted by elites.  On the contrary, nationalism was created by many people.  Moreover, this tangible experience had to be felt by those participating in order to create the feeling of nationalism, of a common history and a common purpose for the future.  That is why Applegate endows the 1829 Passion performance with so much importance: it was a moment in which the thousands who saw the performance experienced themselves as a deeply historical, cultural nation.  For Waldstreicher, it was the act of participating in these celebrations that created nationalism (even while it created separate ideas of what the nation was).  For example, getting to see George Washington on one of his tours created a sense of unity that crossed partisan lines, and it encouraged political participation across lines of class and gender (119). Print culture is also important to Waldstreicher’s understanding of nationalism.  Newspaper commentary should not be viewed simply as primary documents that record and discuss the political rituals, he argues, but instead should be seen as part of these rituals, shaping how people should interpret them, and setting the stage for how future celebrations “should” be enacted.

The Atlantic sphere appears more prominently in Waldstreicher’s book than in Applegate’s.  In fact, in can be argued that American nationalism was only possible in the realm of the Atlantic world.  The British Empire was the reason for American opposition, but also acted as the point around which a unified American nationalism was galvanized.  We can also see an Atlantic connection in the ways in which the French Revolution was utilized by different American political factions to achieve their own nationalism (the ways in which the Republicans of the 1790s used the French Revolution to criticize what they saw as a growing aristocracy in America, for example, 115).  While the Atlantic does not play a prominent role in Applegate’s book, we can see how German nationalism is often formed in by what it is not (a theme that is central to Todorova’s book).  For instance, Italian music was portrayed as superficial and associated with “transient pleasures” while German music represented the seriousness of the German nature (115).

Mark Mazower’s The Balkans: a Short History, represents a narrative of the rise of nationalism in the region known today as the Balkans.  It seems to me that Mazower’s work presents a more traditional view of nationalism, one in which nationalism is an ideology with a specific point of origin (Western Europe) and which then spreads to different parts of the world with varying speeds.  Though Mazower’s book is short, he succeeds in explaining the ways in which a variety of ethnicities emerged in the Balkan region.  While all of the details that he provides are interesting and important in their own right, what is most important for our discussion is the fact that he questions the causal link between nationalism and ethnicity.  In other words, did ethnicities create nationalism in a fight for a state, or was it the other way around?  “Ethnicity,” he concludes, “was as much the consequence as the cause of…unrest; revolutionary violence produced national affiliations as well as being produced by them” (99).  The first one hundred pages of the book are meant to justify this claim, for he argues that religion, not ethnicity, was the deciding basis of identity for the peoples of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, which ruled the Balkan region before nation-states emerged in the 19th century.

Mazower’s book is different from Applegate’s and Waldstreicher’s in particular, because he argues that nationalism had to be violently forged by a small number of educated elites, forcing ethnic homogeneity, rather than emerging from it (109 & 70-72). Interesting for our discussion is the violent nature of nationalism.  The ideology of nationalism drew lines and created divides where there were none, Mazower argues.  Markers of nationality (language, schools, armies) had to be taught to pre-national peoples that consisted mainly of peasants whose loyalties were to a church or empire, not to any “innate nationality” (89).  These divisions were not drawn peacefully, and the resulting violence “represented the extreme force required by nationalists to break apart a society that was otherwise capable of ignoring the mundane fractures of class and ethnicity” (148).  This violence is central to Mazower’s understanding of nationalism, for a nation (an ethnic people) needs a state, or more specifically, a nation-state: a territory defined and governed by an ethnic/national majority.  An important aspect of this nation-state, according to Mazower, is its monopoly on violence as a tool to secure the interests of the nation (epilogue).

Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans also focuses on the tendency of nationalism to divide and exclude.  Interestingly, while the Balkans are the center of her study, she ultimately sheds light on how other “Western” societies define themselves by defining what the Balkans are (or are not).  Central to her arguments is the concept of othering, an essential process of identity building that allocates the negations of one’s own identity into the identity of “the other.”  Todorova utilizes this concept in an attempt to discover the roots of the West’s unfairly negative view of the Balkan region.  Todorova’s book is very theoretical, but she can help us answer questions that we brought up last session (namely, What is Europe?) by forcing us to reframe the question into How did “the Europeans” define themselves?  Through her discussion of the Balkans, she shows that Western Europe has a long history of “othering” the Balkans.  This helped Western Europeans define themselves, and the Balkans became a “dumping ground” for Western Europeans to place everything that they felt they were not.  Beginning in the twentieth century, with the violence of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, the Balkans went from simply being viewed as an exotic other to being discussed as a hotbed of violence, backwardness, and ethnic hatred.  Moreover, Torodova stresses that, unlike the West – which enjoys a place of political superiority in the world, and therefore does not need to take into account how other societies define the West – the peoples of the Balkans internalized the West’s discourse, thus dramatically affecting their self-understanding.

Even as the Balkans began taking on very “European” characteristics (nationalist movements, independence movements based on liberal self-determination, and even capitalistic reform) – and indeed even as some from the Balkan region began referring to themselves as Southeast European, “real” Europe continued to construct differences between the Balkans and the West by characterizing the violent nature of the region.  Todorova lambasts the West for being hypocritical and forgetting its own violent past and exporting all of its own racist and imperialistic problems onto the Balkans (because of the fact that most of the Balkans’ inhabitants are white and predominantly Christian, Europe can deny any allegations of racial or religious bias in defining itself, Torodova claims, 188).

Torodova’s book is important because it calls attention to what she calls symbolic geography, the assigning of meaning to geographic locations, giving the appearance that the particular geography produces particular character traits.  Granted, Mazower’s “long history” approach shows that geography (the incredibly mountainous character of the region, for example) does indeed impact the way societies develop, but Torodova’s contribution is to urge us to question which of these attributes are “real” and which have been created by the needs of politics.  “After all, it is not symbolic geography that creates politics,” she writes, “but rather the reverse” (160).

In conclusion, each of these books makes us question our understanding of nationalism and the process of nation building.  Applegate and Waldstreicher demonstrate that nationalism is created by peoples, and is something that peoples participate in.  The importance of Torodova’s book is that it calls attention to how we speak about nationalism, and particular nationalities in particular.  Mazower’s book reveals what the rest also discuss:  the nation and the state are two separate (though interrelated) entities. Just like the state itself (territory and government), the nation must also be created, and a number of tools are necessary for this creation (or at least have been proven to be the most efficient):  maps, flags, common languages, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of a common past.  These all coalesce the best, as Applegate and Waldstreicher have shown, in cases in which the people can feel and experience tangible expressions of their commonality.

[1] However, I want to question Waldstreicher’s conclusion here, based on his own definition of nationalism.  While whites were drawn into a particular expression/type of national politics, women and blacks never stopped hosting festivities and celebrations, thus they never stopped practicing nationalism and national politics, according to his own definition.

Books under Review: 

David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Celia Applegate, Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn’s Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Maria Todorova: Imagining the Balkans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Mark Mazower, The Balkans: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

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Forging Nationalism in Modern Europe by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

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We’re All World Historians Now?

Birth of Modern World

We’re All World Historians Now?

Upon first receiving these books to read as our first assignment, I wondered how they would illuminate aspects of modern European history since their material was explicitly global in nature.  However, after reading them, I see that both of these books represent a particular way of approaching history, one that ‘zooms out’ and seeks to paint larger picture.  It is a method that traces broader trends, global patterns, and large, complex interactions.  Though it is not a method without faults, I find that this approach grants a fuller perspective on historical issues that studies with more specifically focused subjects may miss.  In this sense, by taking a global approach, we may be better suited to productively discuss certain questions about European history:  What are Europe’s boundaries?  Is there a “European” culture?  If so, when and where did it begin?  On a more fundamental level:  What is Europe?  A place?  A culture? A shared history?  The two works that we have read can help us shine a light on these issues, and aid us in ascertaining where and how exactly “Modern European History” fits into a larger global history.

Jürgen Osterhammel and Niels Petersson’s Globalization: a Short History is a brief book that may ultimately raise more questions that it does answer, but it is useful nonetheless. In a world of global markets, mass media, cultural exportation, it seems that globalization can be singled out as the culprit, the driving factor of change and integration.  The authors assert that, despite the feeling that globalization is a phenomenon that began in the twentieth century, its roots can be traced back centuries into the past.  In order to substantiate this claim, they have to first reevaluate the definition of globalization itself.  Instead of viewing globalization as a process, Osterhammel and Petersson urge us to conceptualize globalization as way of understanding multiple processes of interaction.  In other words, globalization is not a process in and of itself, but instead a way of conceptualizing and measuring levels of contact among peoples.  “The question is no longer whether the term “globalization” is an adequate description for the present state of the world,” the authors write.  “Instead, it directs attention to the history of worldwide integration, its development and erosion, its intensity and effects” (26-27).

One of the key factors in this new understanding of globalization then becomes ‘networks,’ which the authors define as systems of ‘sustained interactions.’  Measuring the level of interaction in these networks allows us to ascertain what degree ‘globalization’ was taking place, if at all.  For, the network can only be considered a part of globalization if it is a worldwide network, or perhaps more accurately stated:  globalization can only have existed once networks of sustained interaction became truly global.  With this definition, the authors are able to pinpoint when they feel globalization (“worldwide integration”) began: 1500 CE.  They then detail four epochs in which globalization took on unique aspects.

The first of the four epochs encapsulates the years between 1500 and 1750.  This is the period when European exploration and expansion results in their discovery of the Americas, as well as increased interactions with eastern lands via land and waterways.  These two hundred and fifty years are the foundations of not only European, but also Asian empire building. The second epoch, which spans the years 1750 to 1880, is the age of colonization and imperialism.  More importantly, this epoch includes industrialization in many places in the northern hemisphere, which resulted in new networks of traffic, communication, migration, and commerce.  These new networks are the mechanisms of a new surge of increased worldwide integration, or globalization.  The third epoch begins with the turn of the twentieth century and ends with the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945.  It is a period marred with crisis, and despite the isolationist tendencies of some political powers (like the United States) and the intensely nationalistic (as opposed to global) goals of most nations during this period, the authors argue that this epoch cannot be said to be one of de-globalization.  Indeed, the fact that crises in one area of the world (the crash of the NY Stock Exchange in 1929 for example) were able to so quickly and devastatingly spread to other spheres reveals just how integrated the worldwide networks actually were.  The fourth and last epoch that the authors describe consists of the years between 1945 and 1970; it is an epoch in which globalization proceeded in a world divided under a bi-polar system of geopolitical power, but it is also a time period characterized by the increasing importance of multi-national groups like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As stated above, I feel that taking an overview of such a global topic can provide a chance to situate historical developments into a larger context.  But Globalization: a Short History makes me question the usefulness of such thin books.  Because, by ‘zooming out,’ one also runs the very real risk of missing too much of the particularities that make histories unique and important.  This book is not useful in answering questions like: did everyone experience these increasingly intense networks of interaction the same?  How did people of different economic classes, races, or genders react to and interact with these networks?  In fact, speaking in terms of “networks” may tend to “flatten out” hierarchies of power and difference that are a daily reality to most people.  And though Osterhammel and Petersson encourage thinking about the multiplicity of globalization, I cannot help but question if their book itself is not too Eurocentric.  Their story of globalization begins with the European discovery of the Americas, but what about prior trade between African and Asian societies (and trade between these societies and European ones)?  Historians have shown that intense and sustained networks of trade existed for centuries before the Atlantic World came into existence.  Is it, then, the American continents’ inclusion that makes the story truly global?

C. A. Bayly’s the Birth of the Modern World is a much larger work of history, and as such grants more attention to its subject, utilizing nuanced arguments and evidence.  Bayly’s title (the Modern World, in the singular) may be deceiving upon first glance, because one quickly realizes that his main argument is that the world witnessed multiple modernities during this period (1780-1914).  Moreover, modernity was experienced differently by different peoples in different places and at different times.  Bayly describes “the modern” as constituting a number of processes that made the world’s societies more uniform:  systems of rapid communication were developed, larger political entities emerged and replaced smaller, traditional forms of rule, more ambitious philosophies and ideologies of “civilization” (Western and non-Western) were formed, and across the board, societies became internally more complex and stratified (12).

How does Bayly handle this seemingly contradictory claim that ‘modern societies’ were simultaneously more uniform and complex?  He claims that the world’s different societies were not becoming uniform in the sense that they were beginning to resemble each other specifically, but instead that their methods of ruling, of living, of dividing social strata all began to resemble each other.  Take the world’s major religions as an example.  During this period, Christianity and Islam (and Confucianism to a certain extent, if it can be defined as a religion at all) both underwent processes of self-evaluation, restructuring, and consolidation in order to define themselves and their boundaries.  In this way, they resembled each other (they became more ‘uniform’) even if what they taught remained different.  Similarly, the ruling classes of different societies began resembling each other in how they ruled, even if the specific expressions of their cultures were just as different as before.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Bayly’s book (besides the wealth of examples that he provides, made possible by his mastery of the literature that he used to write the book) is the way in which he complicates our understanding of the past, and of the making of the modern world in particular.  He calls into question any hint of a teleological process of history in which Europe lead the way to modernity simply because it was exceptional.  In fact, his book takes a truly global approach and quite firmly decenters Europe in the history of modernity, which has traditionally been understood as a European story.  For example, he argues that many of the innovations and surpluses that supposedly came from the Industrial Revolution (again, a singular event) that occurred in Europe and was fueled by new methods of increasing supply, can actually be better understood as a series of industrious revolutions, which were actually transformations in expressions of demand around the world.[1]

Throughout the book, Bayly also tackles the notion of European exceptionalism, and shows that Europe did not become the dominant political and economic power during this period because they were essentially “better” or “more modern” than the rest of the world.  He also warns against an understanding in which the “decline of the rest” gave the misconception of the “rise of the West.”  A number of very real, historical factors gave European nations an advantage in the processes of modernization:  1) more unused resources, 2) a “boundless” labor supply (slaves), and 3) the chance to solve population problems by exporting people to their colonies, mainly in the Americas (58).  Bayly then concludes that the fifty years prior to the First World War constituted a period of accelerated change.  In this sense, Bayly’s conception of modernization resembles Osterhammel and Peterson’s definition of globalization in that it refers to a degree of change or integration.

This leads us to the questions we want to discuss for our exams:  What is Europe?  Many scholars have acknowledged that “Europe” may simply be a useful construct, a tool created to aid in analysis.  It may be true that “Europe” exists more in our imagination and in discourses than it does “out there” in the real world, but is there more to the notion of “Europe” than its analytical usefulness?  Is it a people, a culture, a place, an economic network, or all of the above?  Osterhammel and Petersson attempt to dismantle the importance of territoriality in their observations (8).  This is an important contribution, because while there may be a spot on maps labeled “Europe,” “European” includes more than just territory.  It can be helpful to continue to “dismantle territoriality,” because then we may get away from asking questions like, Where does Europe stop?  Is Russia a part of Europe, and if so, how much of Russia is “European”?  Osterhammel and Petersson’s line of thought suggests that “European” refers more to a network of trade and economies that gave rise to political and economic power for peoples living in a particular geographic location.  However, they argue that the colonies did not constitute “Europe” (42), which I find strange considering not only the central role that the colonies played in European economic networks, but also the central role that they grant to economic networks in globalization.  Moreover, interaction in the colonies (the “peripheries”) played a vital role in shaping European identities in the metropoles (the “centers”).

Recently, it seems that there is a fear among historians of being considered “Eurocentric,” and I even leveled this accusation against Osterhammel and Petersson.  This is a legitimate and justified concern, and the critique has produced better research.  But, Bayly’s work shows that in order to tell the history of the world beginning in 1750, one cannot miss or explain away the dominance (in many spheres) of European powers. Once exploration and extended trade routes revealed the existence of other peoples that were conceived to be dramatically different than themselves, the peoples on the European continent became aware of their own similarities in a way that they had not been before.  This reveals the role of consciousness in what it means to be “modern,” “European,” or “globalized.”  According to Bayly, an important step in becoming modern is thinking you are modern.  He states that by the 19th century, peoples began to “believe passionately that they had made that once-and-for-all step upward to the modern age” (169).  Similarly, Osterhammel and Petersson posit that the reason that people today believe that globalization is such a recent phenomenon is that developments in travel and communication have made it possible for more people to become aware of the networks of global interaction.  This revelation is important when discussing what Europe is:  notions of Europe and European come into existence, and are sustained by peoples who identify as European and promote ideas of what it means to be European.  Others (non Europeans) then use these discourses when they discuss Europe, and also when they forge their own notions of self.

Bayly concludes by stating, “All historians are world historians now, though many have not yet realized it” (469).  Here, Bayly is referring to the fact that, in a globalized world in which networks of interaction constitute a large (if not altogether defining) role, historians cannot fully understand a place (like Europe) or a theme (like modernization) without studying it in a larger – in this case global – context.  This is a helpful reminder to keep our eyes open as historians to broader trends.

Books Under Review:

Bayly, C.A. The Birth of the Modern World: 1780-1914.  Blackwell, 2004.

Osterhammel, Jürgen and Niels P. Petersson, Globalization: A Short History. Princeton University Press, 2005.

[1] It should be noted, though, that Bayly borrows the idea of “industrious revolutions” from Jan De Vries.

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“We’re All World Historians Now?” by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


For more books on aspects of global history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, Modern European History | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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