The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914

The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914
Richard J. Evans
Allen Lane 848pp £35

The 19th is the most Janus-faced of centuries. The 100 years that separated the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars from the industrialised killing of the First World War can appear as a halcyon period of linear progress that brought extraordinary technological advance, increasing material prosperity and political and social emancipation. Yet European societies were also riven with bitter conflict. Nations fought empires, serfs fought their masters, workers fought capitalists and women fought their oppression. The same industrial and technological advances that brought improvements at home tipped the scales of global competition decisively in Europe’s favour. Convinced of their own superiority, Europeans extended their subjugation and exploitation of vast swathes of the globe.

In this monumental new study of Europe from 1815 to 1914, Richard J. Evans succeeds in capturing both sides of the continent’s transformation. 

The Pursuit of Power offers an excellent survey of the tectonic shifts in society and politics across the 19th century, but never loses sight of the short-term contingencies that came to play a decisive role in the success and failure of revolutions, the winning and losing of wars and the making and breaking of states. Evans ranges across the continent with exceptional erudition, discussing states and societies as diverse as the British and the Greek with deftness and fluency. His prose fizzes and crackles with humour, wit and insight and the formidable range of examples he marshals fills his narrative with colour and energy.

Eric Hobsbawm (to whom Evans dedicates his book) structured his own canonical three-part history of the long 19th century (The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire) around the rise and determining influence of capitalism. Evans notes that, in the early 21st century, such ‘grand master-narratives have fallen into disrepute’ and that historians of the 100 years that divide the Battle of Waterloo from the outbreak of the First World War ‘have given up on the attempt to find any kind of conceptual unity’. Opting for a more flexible analytical framework, Evans’ account foregrounds ‘the pursuit of power’ that galvanised states, armies, bankers, revolutionaries, political parties and the working poor. Yet he also embraces more recent and innovative areas of focus, such as environmental history: the increasing power of Europeans over their own natural world and their ability to combat hunger, meet the challenges of natural disasters, lay railways and channel rivers. He also explores new areas of cultural history: the struggle of Europeans to achieve mastery over themselves through the study of race, gender, sexuality and even the unconscious.

It is one of the strengths of The Pursuit of Power that, amid these great transformative forces, the experiences of individual men and women are vividly brought to life. Each chapter begins with a brief sketch of a sometimes obscure individual, whose own biographical arc delineates profound changes in Europe. The life of the Russian peasant Saava Purlevsky illuminates the abuses and humiliations of serfdom; that of the French writer and revolutionary Flora Tristan focuses on the conditions of the European industrial working classes; the career of Giovanni Battista Belzoni, the Italian circus strongman turned archaeological explorer and plunderer, reflects Europeans’ growing hegemony and fascination with the lost civilisations of the lands they conquered. 

Evans’ most intriguing chapters chart the impact of technological innovation on the social and political order. The steamship revolutionised global travel and imperial power projection; the invention of the elevator transformed the architectural hierarchies of European cities, as the rich gravitated upwards and the poor downwards. At the start of the 19th century, the railway, the photograph and the telegraph ‘were barely visible over the historical horizon’. Yet, by 1914, Europe was entering the age of the motor car and the telephone, the radio and the cinema. Technological progress, radical political ideas and new social and cultural forces all made waves across Europe. Adapted and depl-
oyed according to context, they nevertheless confronted the continent with common challenges, opportunities and dangers. This is transnational history at its best.

The Pursuit of Power ends on an elegiac note against the darkening skies of 1914. Indeed, it is hard not to find echoes of Europe’s current predicament in Evans’ portrayal of waves of political instability and social conflict unleashed by rapid economic and technological change. Another century might separate us now from the Europe of Evans’ book but the publication of The Pursuit of Power could not be more timely.

Daniel Beer is Senior Lecturer in History at Royal Holloway, University of London. His latest book is House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars (Allen Lane, 2016).

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