A World Connecting

A World Connecting 1870-1945
Emily Rosenberg
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press  1140pp  £29.95

The nexus of global history and the history of globalisation is usually hovered over unawares by any book with ‘global’ in the title. A minority of books consciously plant themselves at that very nexus and occupy it fully, for better or worse. In A World Connecting Emily Rosenberg and her authors narrate the world from 1870 to 1945 as the history of widening and deepening networks of global exchange, whether cultural or material. The chronology is boldly crafted, as the book proposes to examine transnational dynamics in an age conventionally seen as dominated by nationalism. It achieves its purposes convincingly.

The construction of the book is strikingly original. It is actually a compendium of five smaller (but not particularly small) thematically-interlocking books (by Charles S. Maier, Tony Ballentine and Antoinette Burton, Dirk Hoerder, Stephen Topik and Allen Wells and Rosenberg herself), each of which is itself divided into chapters and provides a thorough examination of some aspect of global integration.    

Slightly under a third of the book is occupied by Maier’s sweeping, but more than sufficiently detailed, essay on the rise of the industrial states of the United States, Europe and parts of Asia. This process marginalised the traditionally organised societies at the frontiers and interfaces of these states, leaving their remnants objectified as exotic entertainments or transformed into rootless labourers in newly hierarchical economies. Maier’s chapter is a narrative model of the approach of the book as a whole, demonstrating that each nationalising, local narrative actually fits into a global trend of hardened, industrialised state presences plowing under the softer, looser traditional societies and economies.
Maier’s essay anticipates the themes of those that follow. Most of the expanding states became empires and in their contribution Ballentine and Burton examine the conceptual and theoretical studies of empire in the past 20 years or so. The authors present the world-spanning empires of the very late 19th and early 20th centuries less as encumbrances thrown over native peoples and more as fields of contest. In this context the dynamic interaction between empires, between imperial administrations and the peoples whom they administered, between the classes and genders of the colonised and between modernising national movements and increasingly ossified imperial regimes shaped a globalised political and technological network.

Hoerder amplifies themes introduced in the first two segments of the book, with his searching study of global migratory patterns in the period roughly between 1840 and 1940. He not only lays the foundation for examining the origins of migration – labour needs due to the decline and disappearance of Atlantic slavery, agricultural expansion, industrialisation, widening networks of transport and commercial exchange, as well as increasing military conscription and displacement by war – but also specifically links it to the changes in patterns, processes, identification and commodification produced by the global patterns of nationalisation.

Topik and Wells provide a specific, accessible overview of the role of trade and commodities in integrating the world, linking (sometimes by implication) the emergence of nationalising centres and the peripheries of empire with the development of communications and transportation, finance and currency systems and resource exploitation. The authors demonstrate how integration into the global production and market system actually encouraged difference. Regions that had been self-reliant began to specialise in agricultural product export, making them dependent upon the system itself to supply staples and to sell them manufactured wares. Whether or not they were formally colonised, such regions drifted into dependency upon the system itself, compromising their own ability to enter the process of national integration that would have bestowed the gifts of wealth, military strength and the rise of a democratising middle class that already benefitted Europe, North America and a very few other parts of the world.

Rosenberg provides a summary of the ways in which media technology in the 20th century was a product of, and in turn accelerated, such transnational ideologies as women’s suffrage, spiritualism, an enthusiasm for sports and attempts at formalising global discourse, such as the United Nations.
The scope and balance of the book is better than is normally found in works with a similarly ‘global’ aspiration. Coverage of Africa is particularly thoughtful, sharply raising the value of this book over some others. The Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey are also expertly handled, though the bulk of the book’s detail floats, despite the authors’ efforts, toward Europe and North America. Asian coverage, particularly China, rests on surprisingly narrow and in some ways over-credulous reading. The thematic composition certainly provides something for everyone, but the paucity of sustained, substantial coverage of environmental exploitation is surprising. Some readers will find coverage of women’s history and gender issues less visible than they could be and some will find recurrent and prolonged disclaimers against Eurocentrism – and in some cases against Anglo-centrism – superfluous.

An admirer of the book is left to speculate awkwardly regarding its likely audience and usefulness. As a whole the book is too unwieldy to feature in many university courses and the loose connections among the essays mean that little is lost by selecting one or two of the segments without reference to the others.

Undergraduates in a global history course, or even a modern history course focused on Europe or North America, could benefit distinctly from reading the essays by Hoerder and by Topik and Wells. Graduate history students would be engaged by the issues raised by Ballentine and Burton. General readers would enjoy and probably be informed by the Maier essay. Any reader interested in the large patterns that produced the world of the late 20th century – still in important ways our world – will find rich reading here and Harvard is to be complimented for producing this innovative work. 

Pamela Kyle Crossley is Robert 1932 and Barbara Black Professor of History at Dartmouth College. She is currently editing The Oxford Handbook of Modern China.

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