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The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century

The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century

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The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century

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2,320 pages
40 hours
Apr 13, 2014


A panoramic global history of the nineteenth century

A monumental history of the nineteenth century, The Transformation of the World offers a panoramic and multifaceted portrait of a world in transition. Jürgen Osterhammel, an eminent scholar who has been called the Braudel of the nineteenth century, moves beyond conventional Eurocentric and chronological accounts of the era, presenting instead a truly global history of breathtaking scope and towering erudition. He examines the powerful and complex forces that drove global change during the "long nineteenth century," taking readers from New York to New Delhi, from the Latin American revolutions to the Taiping Rebellion, from the perils and promise of Europe's transatlantic labor markets to the hardships endured by nomadic, tribal peoples across the planet. Osterhammel describes a world increasingly networked by the telegraph, the steamship, and the railways. He explores the changing relationship between human beings and nature, looks at the importance of cities, explains the role slavery and its abolition played in the emergence of new nations, challenges the widely held belief that the nineteenth century witnessed the triumph of the nation-state, and much more.

This is the highly anticipated English edition of the spectacularly successful and critically acclaimed German book, which is also being translated into Chinese, Polish, Russian, and French. Indispensable for any historian, The Transformation of the World sheds important new light on this momentous epoch, showing how the nineteenth century paved the way for the global catastrophes of the twentieth century, yet how it also gave rise to pacifism, liberalism, the trade union, and a host of other crucial developments.

Apr 13, 2014

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Top quotes

  • How could these great stores of knowledge have such universal reach in what is often called the age of nationalism? The nineteenth century can be thought of today as global because that is how it thought of itself.

  • In China, then, libraries and catalogs were not a cultural import. What was of Western ori- gin was the idea of a public library; the first opened in Chang- sha, the capital of the province of Hunan, in May 1905.

  • The archive was more important in the nineteenth century than in any previous one. In Europe it was the time when the state everywhere took possession of memory.

  • As always with historical memory, we are dealing not simply with a quasi-natural formation of identity but also with an instrumentalization advantageous to identi- fiable interests.

  • No previous age had developed such uniformity in its measurement of time.

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The Transformation of the World - Jürgen Osterhammel

The Transformation of the World

The Transformation of the World

A Global History of the Nineteenth Century

Jürgen Osterhammel

Translated by Patrick Camiller


Princeton and Oxford

First published in Germany by C. H. Beck under the title Die Verwandlung der Welt

© Verlag C. H. Beck oHG, München 2009

English translation copyright © 2014 by Princeton University Press

Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street,

Princeton, New Jersey 08540

In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 6 Oxford Street,

Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1TW

Jacket illustration: Harbor at Shanghai, China, 1875, © Getty Images. Cover design by Faceout Studio, Charles Brock.

All Rights Reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Osterhammel, Jürgen.

[Verwandlung der Welt. English]

The transformation of the world : a global history of the nineteenth century / Jürgen Osterhammel.

pages cm. — (America in the world)

First published in Germany by C.H. Beck under the title Die Verwandlung der Welt, Verlag C.H. Beck oHG, Munchen 2009.

Includes bibliographical references and indexes.

ISBN 978-0-691-14745-1 (hardback : acid-free paper) 1. History, Modern—19th century.

I. Title.

D358.O8813 2014



British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available

The translation of this work was funded by Geisteswissenschaften International-Translation Funding for Humanities and Social Sciences from Germany, a joint initiative of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the German Federal Foreign Office, the collecting society VG WORT and the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels (German Publishers & Booksellers Association)

This book has been composed in Garamond Premier Pro

Printed on acid-free paper. ∞

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Sabine and Philipp Dabringhaus







This book was first published as Die Verwandlung der Welt. Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts by C. H. Beck publishers in Munich in January 2009. It rapidly went through five editions and two unnumbered special editions and is now being translated into Chinese, French, Polish, and Russian. For the American edition the manuscript was revised and brought up to date as far as that could be done without adding to the book’s considerable length.

For a single author to tackle a one-volume global history of a very long nineteenth century borders on the foolhardy and may require if not an apology, then at least some explanation. Several of my previous books have been crisp and concise, and I fully appreciate the value of collaborative work, having the privilege of being, with Akira Iriye, one of the editors-in-chief of a multivolume New History of the World that is written by a distinguished group of scholars from several countries. Thus, The Transformation of the World should not be seen as a product of solipsism and conceit.

My own research experience has focused on two different fields: the final phase of British informal imperialism in China, and the role of Asia in the thinking of the European Enlightenment. I never wrote a source-based monograph on any aspect of the nineteenth century, but I have long been involved in teaching its history, and the present book draws on a lifetime of reading about the period. Two other ingredients went into the making of this book: One of them is a deep respect for historical sociology, especially the tradition going back to Max Weber, with whose works I was made familiar by two of my teachers: Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Wilhelm Hennis. Later, I had the chance to discuss issues of historical sociology with S. N. Eisenstadt on the occasion of his visits to the University of Konstanz, and today I enjoy the regular exchange of ideas with Wolfgang Knöbl at Göttingen, a sociologist with a deep understanding of how historians think. The second formative influence has been an interest in the history and theory of world history writing kindled by yet another of my teachers: Ernst Schulin at the University of Freiburg. A collection of my articles on historiographical topics was published in 2001. However, theorizing about world history can never be more than a preparation for historical analysis. In this sense, the present book is an attempt to put my own recipes into practice.

The book is an experiment in writing a rich and detailed but structured, nontrivial, and nonschematic account of a crucial period in the history of humanity. It was not commissioned by a publisher and has therefore been written oblivious to marketing constraints. Though easily accessible to students, it was never intended as a textbook. It does not disguise personal idiosyncrasies such as a special interest in animals, the opera, and the old-fashioned—though, as I hope to show, highly important—field of international relations. Uneven coverage would be an inexcusable sin in a textbook, whereas this work does not deny the fact that its author is more familiar with some parts of the world than with others. General and summary statements, frequent as they have to be in this particular kind of synthesis, derive from the logic of analysis and not from a pedagogical urge to simplify complex things for the benefit of the reader.

Work on the manuscript began in 2002 when I was a fellow of the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study (NIAS) at Wassenaar, an excellent institution whose rector at the time, H. L. Wesseling, counts as one of the godfathers of the project. A first sketch of some of my emerging ideas was presented in November 2002 as the Sixteenth Annual Lecture at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC (and later published in the institute’s bulletin), given at the invitation of its then director, Christof Mauch. During the following years, regular teaching duties, relatively substantial as they are at German universities, slowed down work on the manuscript. Unsurprisingly, the publication of C. A. Bayly’s magisterial The Birth of the Modern World early in 2004 caused me to reassess the project and threw its continuation into doubt. Ultimately, I wrote a review essay on Bayly and decided to carry on. There are already several world histories of the age of extremes (Eric Hobsbawm)—why not two of its predecessor, the nineteenth century? I was able to complete the manuscript when Heinrich Meier invited me to come to Munich for a year as a fellow of the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation, whose far-sighted director he is.

The German edition owes its existence to the confidence and courage of the great publisher Wolfgang Beck and his editor-in-chief, Detlef Felken, both of whom learned about the unwieldy manuscript—any publisher’s nightmare—at an advanced stage of writing. Contact with Princeton University Press had already been established on the occasion of a previous book with the help of Sven Beckert, and I am most grateful to him and Jeremi Suri for including The Transformation of the World in their prestigious series America and the World. At Princeton University Press, Brigitta van Rheinberg, Molan Goldstein, and Mark Bellis did everything in their power to turn the revised manuscript into an attractive volume. Patrick Camiller’s translation was funded by the program Geisteswissenschaften International–Translation Funding for Humanities and Social Sciences from Germany.

As this book is based on secondary literature, my main debt is to the marvelous historians and social scientists in many countries who have, almost within one generation, hugely increased our knowledge, deepened our understanding, and thus radically transformed our view of the global nineteenth century. I only managed to sample a tiny fraction of their work, and in this I had to limit myself to the small number of languages that I am able to read. Among numerous reviews of the German edition, those by Steven Beller, Norbert Finzsch, Jonathan Sperber, Enzo Traverso, Peer Vries, and Tobias Werron were particularly useful in pointing out errors of fact and problems with the overall conception. Etienne François, Christian Jansen, and H. Glenn Penny provided critical comments that describe my methods and literary stratagems much better than I could have done it myself. Folker Reichert and Hans Schneider gave detailed advice on how to improve the accuracy of the book.

Not every suggestion could be heeded. A pervasive disregard of gender issues remains a serious drawback that will, hopefully, be remedied in a forthcoming attempt to expand chapter 15 of this book into a global social history of the period from the 1760s to the 1880s. A certain weakness of explanatory power may rest at the heart of the project, although in principle I disagree with a postmodernist aversion to causality. Readers who were—and are—vainly looking for insights into literature, music, the visual arts, and philosophical thinking may like to know that I am now doing some work on the social and cultural history of music. A more general response would be that world history should avoid the mirage of encyclopedic completeness and that the danger of superficiality never looms larger than when the historian is confronted with works of art and philosophy that require careful and elaborate interpretation.

At the University of Konstanz, the revision of the manuscript benefited enormously from the atmosphere of intellectual excitement created by the members of the Research Unit Global Processes (18th to 20th Centuries) that I was able to establish with generous funding from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation). I mention only Boris Barth, Franz L. Fillafer, Stefanie Gänger, Jan C. Jansen, and Martin Rempe. New work by these young scholars, by several PhD students, and also by myself, is emerging out of this stimulating context.

My family has been living with the book ever since our year at NIAS. It is a great joy to renew the original dedication to my son Philipp Dabringhaus and to add the dedicatee of a previous book, my wife Sabine Dabringhaus, an accomplished historian of China.


All history inclines toward being world history. Sociological theories tell us that the world is the environment of all environments, the ultimate possible context for what happens in history and the account we give of it. The tendency to transcend the local becomes stronger in the longue durée of historical development. A history of the Neolithic age does not report intensive contacts over long distances, but a history of the twentieth century confronts the basic fact of a densely knit web of global connections—a human web, as John R. and William H. McNeill have called it, or better still, a multiplicity of such webs.¹

For historians, the writing of world history has particular legitimacy when it can link up with human consciousness in the past. Even today, in the age of the Internet and boundless telecommunications, billions of people live in narrowly local conditions from which they can escape neither in reality nor in their imagination. Only privileged minorities think and act globally. But contemporary historians on the lookout for early traces of globalization are not the first to have discovered transnational, transcontinental, or transcultural elements in the nineteenth century, often described as the century of nationalism and the nation-state. Many people living at the time already saw expanded horizons of thought and action as a distinguishing feature of their epoch, and dissatisfied members of the middle and lower strata of society in Europe and Asia turned their eyes and hopes toward distant lands. Many millions did not shrink from undertaking an actual journey into the unknown. Statesmen and military leaders learned to think in categories of world politics. The British Empire became the first in history to span the entire globe, while other empires ambitiously measured themselves by its model. More than in the early modern period, trade and finance condensed into integrated and interconnected worldwide webs, so that by 1910, economic vibrations in Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, or Tokyo were immediately registered in Hamburg, London, or New York, and vice versa. Scholars collected information and objects from all over the world; they studied the languages, customs, and religions of the remotest peoples. Critics of the prevailing order—workers, women, peace activists, anti-racists, opponents of colonialism—began to organize internationally, often far beyond the confines of Europe. The nineteenth century reflected its own emergent globality.

As far as the nineteenth century is concerned, anything but a world-history approach is something of a makeshift solution. However, it is with the help of such makeshifts that history has developed into a science, gauged in terms of the methodological rationality of its procedures. This process of becoming a science, through the intensive and possibly exhaustive examination of sources, took place in the nineteenth century, so it is not surprising that the writing of world history receded into the background at that time. It appeared to be incompatible with the new professionalism that historians embraced. If this is beginning to change today, it certainly does not mean that all historians wish to, or should, take up the writing of world history.² Historical scholarship requires deep and careful study of clearly definable cases, the results of which form the material for broad syntheses that are indispensable for teaching and general orientation. The usual framework for such syntheses, at least in the modern age, is the history of one nation or nation-state, or perhaps of an individual continent such as Europe. World history remains a minority perspective, but no longer one that can be dismissed as esoteric or unserious. The fundamental questions are, of course, the same at every level of spatial scope or logical abstraction: How does the historian, in interpreting a historical phenomenon, combine the individuality given by his sources with the general, abstract knowledge that makes it possible to interpret the individual in the first place? And how does the historian arrive at empirically secure statements about larger units and processes of history?³

The professionalization of history, from which there is no going back, has entailed that history on a larger scale is now often left to the social sciences. Sociologists and political theorists who retain an interest in the depths of time and the vastness of space have assumed responsibility for engaging with major historical trends. Historians have an acquired predisposition to shy away from rash generalizations, monocausal explanations, and snappy all-embracing formulas. Under the influence of postmodern thinking, some consider it impossible and illegitimate to draw up grand narratives or interpretations of long-range processes. Nevertheless, the writing of world history involves an attempt to retrieve some interpretative competence and authority, visible in the public eye, from minutely detailed work in specialist fields. World history is one possible form of historiography—a register that should be tried out once in a while. The risk falls on the author’s shoulders, not on that of the reading public, which is protected from spuriousness and charlatanry through the alertness of professional criticism. But the question remains of why it should be the work of a single hand. Why should we not be content with multivolume collective products from the academic factory (Ernst Troeltsch)? The answer is simple. Only a centralized organization of issues and viewpoints, of material and interpretations, can hope to meet the constructive requirements of the writing of world history.

To know all there is to know is not the key qualification of the world historian or global historian. No one has sufficient knowledge to verify the correctness of every detail, to do equal justice to every region of the world, or to draw fully adequate conclusions from the existing body of research in countless different areas. Two other qualities are the truly important ones: first, to have a feel for proportions, contradictions, and connections as well as a sense of what may be typical and representative; and second, to maintain a humble attitude of deference toward professional research. The historian who temporarily slips into the role of global historian—she or he must remain an expert in one or more special areas—cannot do other than encapsulate in a few sentences the arduous, time-consuming work of others. At the same time, the labors of global historians will be worthless if they do not try to keep abreast of the best research, which is not always necessarily the most recent. A world history that unwittingly and uncritically reproduces long-refuted legends with a pontifical sweep of the hand is nothing short of ridiculous. As a synthesis of syntheses, as the story of everything,⁴ it would be crude and tiresome.

This book is the portrait of an epoch. Its modes of presentation may in principle be applied in the case of other historical periods. Without presuming to treat a century of world history in a complete and encyclopedic manner, it offers itself as an interpretative account rich in material. It shares this stance with Sir Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, a work published in English in 2004 and in German two years later, which has rightly been praised as one of the few successful syntheses of world history in the late modern period.⁵ The present volume is not an anti-Bayly but an alternative from a kindred spirit. Both books forgo a regional breakdown into nations, civilizations, or continents. Both regard colonialism and imperialism as a dimension so important that instead of dealing with it in a separate chapter, they keep it in view throughout. Both assume that there is no sharp distinction between what Bayly, in the subtitle of his book, calls global connections and global comparisons;⁶ these can and must be combined with each other, and not all comparisons need the protective backup of strict historical methodology. Controlled play with associations and analogies sometimes, though by no means always, yields more than comparisons overloaded with pedantry can do.

Our two books often place the emphasis differently: Professor Bayly’s background is India, mine China, and this shows. Bayly is especially interested in nationalism, religion, and bodily practices, which are the themes of superb sections of his work. In my book, migration, economics, the environment, international politics, and science are considered more broadly. I am perhaps a little more Eurocentrically inclined than Bayly: I see the nineteenth century even more sharply than he does as the European century, and I also cannot conceal a fascination for the history of the United States, a topic I discovered in the course of writing. As regards our theoretical references, my closeness to historical sociology will become apparent.

But the two most important differences between Christopher Bayly and myself lie elsewhere. First, my book is even more open than Bayly’s to the chronological margins of the period. It is not a compartmentalized history of a certain number of years sealed off from what went before and what came after. This is why there are no framing dates in the title, and why a special chapter is devoted to issues of periodization and temporal structure. The book anchors the nineteenth century variously in history, allowing itself to look back far beyond 1800 or even 1780 as well as ahead to today’s world. In this way, the significance of the nineteenth century is triangulated in longer periods of time. Sometimes the century is remote from us, sometimes it is very close; often as the prehistory of the present, but on occasion as deeply buried as Atlantis. The determination must be made on a case-by-case basis. The nineteenth century is viewed in terms not so much of sharply defined hiatuses as of an inner focal point, stretching roughly from the 1860s to the 1880s, when innovations with a worldwide impact came thick and fast, and many processes running independently of one another seemed to converge. The First World War does not therefore appear as a sudden, unexpected falling of the curtain, as it does in Bayly’s historical staging.

Second, the narrative strategy I have chosen is different from Bayly’s. There is a kind of historiography that might be described as time-convergent; and it has allowed some historians—operating with fine judgment, huge experience, and a lot of common sense—to present whole eras of world history in the main and secondary lines of their dynamic momentum. John M. Roberts’s global history of the twentieth century, which he offers as an account of what is general, what pulls the story together,⁷ is a perfect example of this. It is world history that seeks to identify what is important and characteristic in each age, shaping it into a continuous narrative without any preconceived schema or big guiding idea in the background. Eric Hobsbawm, with a pinch of Marxist rigor and therefore a compass that I cannot claim to possess, achieved something similar in his three-volume history of the nineteenth century, working his way back from each digression to the major trends of the age.⁸ Bayly takes a different road, which may be described as space-divergent; it is a decentering approach, not so uninhibited in allowing the current of time to carry it forward. It does not make such nimble headway as a Roberts type, drifting along with the flows of history, but goes into the detail of simultaneity and cross section, searches for parallels and analogies, draws comparisons, and ferrets out hidden interdependences. This means that its chronology is deliberately left open and vague: it manages with few framing dates and keeps the narrative on course without too much explicit organization into subperiods. Whereas someone like Roberts—and in this sense he may represent the mainstream of older world-history writing—thinks within a dialectic of major and minor and constantly asks what of significance, whether good or bad, each period produced, Bayly concentrates on individual phenomena and examines them within a global perspective.

One case in point is nationalism. Again and again, we read that it was a European invention that the rest of the world took on in a cruder form and with many misunderstandings. Bayly takes a closer look at this rest of the world and arrives at the plausible idea of a polygenesis of forms of nationalist solidarity: that is, before nationalist doctrines were imported from Europe, patriotic identities had already taken shape in many parts of the world, which could then be reinterpreted in a nationalist sense in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.⁹ Bayly’s historiography is primarily horizontal—or lateral, as he aptly calls it¹⁰—and spatially determined, whereas that of John Roberts or Eric Hobsbawm is more vertical and temporal in its emphasis. All three authors would insist that they combine the horizontal and vertical dimensions, and that is certainly correct. But the relationship between the two approaches seems to display a kind of unavoidable fuzziness, rather like that which is found in the well-known tension between narrative and structural accounts: no attempt to marry the two achieves complete harmony.

The design of the present volume leans more in Bayly’s direction, but it goes further than he does and may therefore be said to take a third road. I doubt that it is possible, with the historian’s cognitive tools, to fix the dynamic of an epoch in a single schema. World system theory, historical materialism, or evolutionary sociology may contradict. But since it is the business of history to describe change before it ventures explanations, it soon runs up against remnants that stubbornly resist integration. Bayly is well aware of this, of course, yet he overcomes such scruples when he tries to define the distinguishing feature of an age. His main thesis is that between 1780 and 1914 the world became more uniform but also more internally differentiated;¹¹ the birth of the modern world was a slow process that only came to completion with the great acceleration after 1890, a process that one hopes Bayly will analyze more comprehensively in future work.¹² Since Bayly eschews any more-or-less clear dividing line between areas of historical reality, he cannot be really interested in the independent logic governing each of them. Only industrialization, state building, and religious revival feature in his account as discrete processes. A general master narrative for the world of the nineteenth century rises out of a cosmos of particular observations and interpretations, which are always stimulating and mostly convincing.

I experiment with a solution in which grand narratives are even more resolutely defended. Postmodern critiques have not rendered such overarching constructions obsolete but made us more conscious of the narrative strategies their authors deploy. To be sure, a grand narrative may establish itself at various levels: even a history of worldwide industrialization or urbanization in the nineteenth century would be passably grand. This high level of generality, at which we are nevertheless still talking of subsystems of a scarcely discernible totality of communal life, gives the book its basic structure. It appears encyclopedic only at first sight but is actually made up of successive orbital paths. Fernand Braudel once described a similar procedure: The historian first opens the door with which he is most familiar. But if he seeks to see as far as possible, he must necessarily find himself knocking at another door, and then another. Each time a new or slightly different landscape will be under examination.… But history gathers them all together; it is the sum total of all these neighbors, of these joint ownerships, of this endless interaction.¹³ In each subarea, therefore, I look for the distinctive dynamics or logics and the relationship between general developments and regional variants. Each subarea has its own temporal structure: a particular beginning, a particular end, specific tempos, rhythms, and subperiods.

World history aims to surmount Eurocentrism and all other forms of naive cultural self-reference. It shuns the illusory neutrality of an omniscient narrator or a global observation point, and it plays consciously on the relativity of ways of seeing. This means that it must not be forgotten who is writing for whom. The fact that a European (German) author originally addressed European (German) readers cannot fail to have left its mark on the text, whatever the cosmopolitan intentions behind it; expectations, prior knowledge, and cultural assumptions are never location neutral. This relativity also leads to the conclusion that the centering of perception cannot be detached from core/periphery structures in historical reality. This has a methodological and an empirical side. Methodologically, a lack of adequate sources, and of historiography based on them, hampers many a well-intentioned effort to do historical justice to the voiceless, the marginal, and the victimized. Empirically, proportions between the various parts of the world shift with the long waves of historical development. Power, economic performance and cultural creativity are distributed differently from epoch to epoch. It would therefore be capricious to sketch a history of the nineteenth century, of all periods, that disregarded the centrality of Europe. No other century was even nearly as much Europe’s century. It was an age of overwhelming, and overwhelmingly European, initiatives, as the philosopher and sociologist Karl Acham aptly put it.¹⁴ Never before had the western peninsula of Eurasia ruled and exploited larger areas of the globe. Never had changes originating in Europe achieved such impact on the rest of the world. And never had European culture been so eagerly soaked up by others, far beyond the sphere of colonial rule. The nineteenth century was a European one also in the sense that other continents took Europe as their yardstick. Europe’s hold over them was threefold: it had power, which it often deployed with ruthlessness and violence; it had influence, which it knew how to spread through the countless channels of capitalist expansion; and it had the force of example, against which even many of its victims did not balk. This multiple superiority had not existed in the early modern phase of European expansion. Neither Portugal nor Spain nor the Netherlands nor England (before approximately 1760) had projected their power to the farthest corner of the earth and had such a powerful cultural impact on the Others as Britain and France did in the nineteenth century. The history of the nineteenth century was made in and by Europe, to an extent that cannot be said of either the eighteenth or twentieth century, not to speak of earlier periods. Never has Europe released a comparable burst of innovativeness and initiative—or of conquering might and arrogance.

Nevertheless, Why Europe? is not the big question posed in this book, as it has been for so many authors, from the Enlightenment to Max Weber down to David S. Landes, Michael Mitterauer, and Kenneth Pomeranz. Two or three decades ago, a history of the modern world could still blithely proceed on the assumption of Europe’s special path. Today, historians are trying to break with European (or Western) smugness and to remove the sting of special path notions by means of generalization and relativization. The nineteenth century deserves to be looked at again in the context of this debate, because a strong current among comparative historians now considers that socioeconomic differences between Europe and other parts of the world in the early modern period were less dramatic than previous generations used to think. The problem of the great divergence between rich and poor regions has thus been shifted forward to the nineteenth century.¹⁵ Yet this is not the central issue of the book, and no novel interpretation will be added to the many that already try to account for Europe’s ephemeral primacy. To approach the historical material through the lenses of exceptionalism would be to focus from the start more on what distinguishes Europe from other civilizations than on what civilizations and societies have in common with each other. There are dangers in both possible kinds of a priori assumption: namely, an a priori contrastive option that privileges difference in all possible ways but also, at the opposite extreme, an equally one-sided a priori ecumenism that rarely lowers its sight below the human condition in general. It makes more sense to find a way out from the well-worn West against the rest dichotomy and to measure again, on a case-by-case basis, the gap between Europe (whatever that may have been at the time) and other parts of the world. This can best be done in relation to particular areas of historical reality.

The book is divided into three parts. The three chapters of Part One (Approaches) outline the presuppositions or general parameters for all that follows: self-reflection, time, and space. The equal treatment of time and space will counter the impression that the writing of world history is necessarily bound up with temporal dedifferentiation and a spatial turn. The eight chapters of Part Two then unfurl a panorama of eight spheres of reality. The term panorama refers to the fact that although no pedantic claim is made to represent all parts of the world equally, an attempt is made to avoid major gaps in the field of vision. In the seven chapters of Part Three (Themes), this panoramic survey gives way to a more narrowly focused, essay-style discussion of discrete aspects, which deliberately refrains from trying to include everything and uses examples mainly to illustrate general arguments. If these themes had been developed in a panoramic scope, the requisite scale of the book would have made excessive demands on the reader’s patience as much as on the author’s stamina. Moving on from panoramas to themes, the book shifts the weight from synthesis to analysis—two modes of investigation and presentation that do not stand in sharp opposition to each other. The chapters of the book are meant to hang together as a coherent whole, but they may also be read separately. Once readers have entered the book, they should not worry: they will easily find an emergency exit.




Memory and Self-Observation

The Perpetuation of the Nineteenth Century

What does the nineteenth century mean today? How does it present itself to those who are not professionally involved with it as historians? Our approach to this age begins with the face it turns to posterity. This is not simply a question of our image of it, of how we would like to see it, of how we construct it. Such constructs are not entirely random, not unmediated products of contemporary preferences and interests. Today’s perceptions of the nineteenth century are still strongly marked by its own self-perception. The reflexivity of the age, especially the new media world that it created, continues to shape how we see it.

It was only a short time ago that the nineteenth century, separated from the present by more than a full calendar saeculum, sank beneath the horizon of personal recollection. In June 2006 even Harriet, the giant tortoise that in 1835 may have made the acquaintance of the young Charles Darwin in the Galapagos Islands, finally departed this life in an Australian zoo.¹ No one remains to reminisce about the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900–1901 or the solemn obsequies of Giuseppe Verdi and Queen Victoria, both of whom died in late January 1901. Neither the funeral procession for Japan’s Meiji emperor in September 1912 nor the mood when the First World War broke out in August 1914 remains within the memory of anyone alive today. In 2009 the ultimate survivor of the Titanic shipwreck passed away; the last German veteran of the Great War died in May 2008.² Remembrance of the nineteenth century is no longer a matter of individual recall but rather of media information and book reading. The traces are to be found in academic and popular history, in the collections of historical museums, in novels and paintings, old photographs and musical sounds, cityscapes and landscapes. The nineteenth century is no longer actively remembered, only depicted. It has this in common with earlier ages. In the history of the representation of cultural life, however, it occupies a distinctive place that already sets it apart from the eighteenth century. Indeed, many of the forms and institutions of current cultural life are inventions of the nineteenth century: the museum, the national archive, the national library, statistical science, photography, the cinema, recorded sound. It was an era of organized memory, and also of increased self-observation.

The role of the nineteenth century in today’s consciousness is by no means a matter of course, either for the aesthetic canon or for the formation of political traditions. China may serve as an example of this. The nineteenth century was disastrous for China politically and economically, and has remained so in the minds of most Chinese. They think back reluctantly to that painful age of weakness and humiliation, and official propagandistic history does nothing to raise their appreciation of it. At the same time, indictments of the West’s imperialism have become more muted, since the newly rising nation does not recognize itself in that earlier role of victim. Culturally, too, the century counts for them as decadent and sterile: none of China’s artworks or philosophical texts from that period can stand alongside the classical works of a more remote past. For today’s Chinese, the nineteenth century is much more distant than the splendors of many a dynasty down to the great emperors of the eighteenth century, who are constantly evoked in popular histories and television serials.

The contrast between China and Japan could not be greater. In Japan the nineteenth century enjoys incomparably higher prestige. The Meiji Renewal (often known as the Meiji Restoration) that began in 1868 is conventionally seen there as the founding process not only of the Japanese nation-state but of a distinctive modernity. Its role in the consciousness of today’s Japanese is comparable in many respects to that of the Revolution of 1789 for the French.³ The aesthetic evaluation of the century is also different. Whereas in China a modern literature cannot be said to have begun before the 1920s, Japan’s 1868 generation was already producing modern works in the 1880s.

The historical memory of the nineteenth century casts a similar spell in the United States, where the Civil War of 1861–65 stands alongside the formation of the Union in the late 1700s as the constitutive event of the nation. The descendants of victorious white Northern settlers, defeated white Southerners, and newly emancipated slaves have each ascribed quite different meanings to the conflict and composed their own useful past. But there is agreement that the Civil War represents a common felt history, as the poet and literary critic Robert Penn Warren put it.⁴ For a long time it operated as a collective trauma, which still has not been overcome everywhere in the South. As always with historical memory, we are dealing not simply with a quasi-natural formation of identity but also with an instrumentalization advantageous to identifiable interests. Southern propagandists, foregrounding states’ rights, made every effort to gloss over the fact that the war was centrally about slavery and emancipation, while the other side grouped around a mythologization of Abraham Lincoln, the president murdered in 1865. Not a single German, British, or French statesman—not even Bismarck, more respected than cherished, or the ever-controversial Napoleon I—enjoyed such veneration after his death. In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt could still publicly ask, What would Lincoln do?—the national hero as helper to posterity in its hour of need.⁵

1 Visibility and Audibility

The Nineteenth Century as Art Form: The Opera

A bygone age lives on in revivals, archives, and myth. Today the nineteenth century has vitality where its culture is staged and consumed. Its characteristic aesthetic form in Europe, the opera, is a good example of such revival. The European opera came into being around 1600 in Italy, only decades after the rise of the urban music theater in southern China, which marked the beginning of a development wholly independent of European influence that would reach its peak after 1790 in what we know today as Beijing opera (jingxi).⁶ Despite the existence of a number of outstanding masterpieces, it was a long time before the cultural status of European opera became unassailable outside Italy. Only with the contributions of Christoph Willibald Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did it become the paramount genre in the theater. By the 1830s it was generally considered to be at the top of the artistic hierarchy.⁷ This progression was paralleled in the Beijing opera, which at mid-century entered its period of artistic and organizational maturity. Since then European opera has triumphantly maintained its position, whereas its distant sister in Beijing, following radical breaks with tradition and the penetration of a Western-tinged media culture, has persisted only in folklore niches.

The opera houses that sprang up between Lisbon and Moscow in the nineteenth century are still in full swing, with a repertory that largely goes back to a long nineteenth century beginning with Mozart’s masterpieces. Opera underwent globalization early on. In the mid-1800s it had a clear radial point: Paris. Around 1830, Parisian musical history was global musical history.⁸ The Paris Opera was not only France’s foremost stage. Paris paid composers the highest fees and outdid all rivals for the rank of music’s leading magnet city.⁹ Fame in Paris meant world fame; failure there—as happened in 1861 to Richard Wagner, already an established master, with his Tannhäuser—was a deeply wounding disgrace.

By the 1830s European operas were already being performed in the Ottoman Empire. In 1828 Giuseppe Donizetti, the brother of the celebrated composer Gaetano Donizetti, became the musical director of the sultan’s court in Istanbul and built up a European-style orchestra there. In the independent empire of Brazil, especially after 1840 under Pedro II, opera became the official art form of the monarchy. Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma was performed many times, and the major operas of Rossini and Verdi were staged. When Brazil became a republic, hugely wealthy rubber barons built a lavish opera house (inaugurated in 1896 and closed again after eleven years) in Manaus, then in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, combining local precious woods with marble from Carrara in Tuscany, steel from Glasgow, and cast iron from Paris and featuring candlesticks from Murano.¹⁰ Under colonial rule, too, opera spread far outside Europe, its sumptuous houses intended to display the superiority of French civilization. The theater inaugurated in 1911 in Hanoi, the capital of French Indochina, was especially massive, dwarfing many in the mother country with its 750 seats for the fewer than three thousand French in the city.¹¹ Like many others, it was modeled on the Opéra Garnier in Paris, whose 2,200 seats made it the world’s largest theatrical space when it was completed in 1875.

Opera took root earlier in North America. The French Opera House that opened in New Orleans in 1859 was long considered one of the best in the world. In San Francisco, then a city of sixty thousand inhabitants, the passion for opera was so great that 217,000 tickets were sold in the year 1860. The Metropolitan Opera in New York, which opened its doors in 1883, went on to become one of the world’s leading houses, a place at which American high society showed itself off in ways scarcely different from its counterparts in Europe. Architecturally and in terms of stage technology, the creators of the Met brought together elements from Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, and of course the Opéra in Paris.¹² Almost its entire repertory came from the other side of the Atlantic. In the 1830s Chile was in the grip of Rossini fever.¹³ In Japan, where the government had been encouraging the spread of European music since the 1870s, the first performance of European opera, a scene from Gounod’s Faust, took place in 1894. Whereas in 1875, when an Italian prima donna had given an early guest performance in Tokyo, the event had been so poorly attended that the audience could hear the mice squeak, a steady interest in opera developed after the turn of the century and acquired a focus in 1911 with the opening of the first large Western-style theater.¹⁴

The figure of the itinerant stage celebrity active in various parts of the world also originated in the nineteenth century.¹⁵ In 1850 Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale, sang to an audience of seven thousand in New York, at the start of a tour comprising ninety-three performances. The soprano Helen Porter Mitchell, who called herself Nellie Melba after her native Melbourne, first appeared in Europe in 1887 and went on to become one of the first truly intercontinental divas, her voice reproduced after 1904 on gramophone discs; she was the icon of a new cultural self-confidence in her reputedly uncouth homeland. Nineteenth-century European opera was a global phenomenon, and so it has remained. The repertory of that age is still dominant today: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Bizet, and above all Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. But they are only some of the composers highly appreciated in the nineteenth century. Gaspare Spontini or Giacomo Meyerbeer, once celebrated masters, are rarely played nowadays, while others have entirely vanished into the archives. Who still knows any of the countless operas on Germanic or medieval subjects that saw the light of day alongside and after Wagner?

Similar points might be made about dramatic theater or another typical genre of the time—the novel—and a separation of the living from the dead in nineteenth-century high culture is possible for many countries. Nineteenth-century high culture is intensely present in the contemporary world, albeit with a strict selection that obeys the laws of taste and the culture industry.


The nineteenth century is visibly present to us in a quite different way in the cityscapes that often form the backdrop and arena of everyday life. London, Paris, Vienna, Budapest, and Munich are cities whose physiognomy is marked by nineteenth-century planners and architects, partly in neoclassical, neo-Romanesque, and neo-Gothic idioms that refer back to older models. From Washington, DC, to Calcutta, grand official buildings drew on and imitated this past, with the result that the architectural historicism of the nineteenth century offers us a global overview of European traditions. In many Asian metropolises, on the other hand, scarcely any old buildings have survived. In Tokyo, for instance, which for several centuries (at first under the name Edo) was the capital of Japan, earthquakes, fires, American bombs, and constant reconstruction have erased nearly all architectural traces older than a few decades and even cleared away many Meiji relics. The world’s great cities range along a scale between the extremes of well-preserved urban ensembles (e.g., Vienna’s Ringstrasse) and physical obliteration of the nineteenth century. The teeth of time gnaw selectively: the industrial architecture of the nineteenth century has worn away more quickly than many monuments from the Middle Ages. Scarcely anywhere is it still possible to gain a sensory impression of what the Industrial Revolution meant—of the sudden appearance of a huge factory in a narrow valley, or of tall smokestacks in a world where nothing had risen higher than the church tower.

2 Treasuries of Memory and Knowledge

Archives, libraries, museums, and other collections might be called treasuries of memory. Alongside the places of remembrance that crystallize the collective imagination of the past, these treasuries deserve our special attention. The boundaries between their various subcategories developed only gradually. Libraries were for a long time not clearly distinguishable from archives, especially if they held large numbers of manuscripts. In the eighteenth century, the term museum (especially in German) encompassed spaces for any kind of antiquarian study or exchange of ideas among private individuals, even journals whose declared aim was to present historical and aesthetic sources. The principle of universal accessibility to the public first appeared only in the nineteenth century. Treasuries of memory preserve the past as a virtual present. Yet the cultural past remains dead if it is nothing but treasured. Only in the act of appropriation, comprehension, and sometimes reenactment does it come alive.


The archive was more important in the nineteenth century than in any previous one. In Europe it was the time when the state everywhere took possession of memory. State archives were established as central depositories for the records governments left behind; and with them arose the professions and social types of the archivist and the public records historian. The latter could now have access to the collections of earlier princes and republics in Venice or Vienna or Simancas, Spain. In countries with constitutional rule, the government took over the archival task as one of the attributes of sovereignty. In September 1790 the French National Assembly renamed its still-modest collection the Archives Nationales; revolutionary confiscations, especially of church property, soon increased its holdings. Napoleon conducted his archival policy in grand style: he wanted the Archives Nationales to become a central depository—la mémoire de l’Europe—and had large quantities of documents brought to Paris from Italy and Germany. In 1838 Britain created the legal basis for the Public Record Office, and in 1883 the legendary archives of the Vatican were made accessible for the first time.

The new history that took shape from the 1820s in the work of Leopold Ranke and his disciples, first in Germany, then in many other countries, saw closeness to the text as its guiding principle. The past was to be reconstructed out of (mostly unpublished) written sources; history was to become more scientific, more verifiable, and more critical in its attitude to received myths. At the same time, historians made themselves rather more independent of the archival policy of governments that controlled access to the sources in which they were interested. The systematic organization of record keeping also helped to shape a new kind of scholar. Learning was uncoupled from the individual capacity to memorize facts and figures, the polyhistor became a mocked curiosity, and humanities scholars followed the natural scientists in seeing the investigation of causes as their main imperative.¹⁷

Archives were not, to be sure, a European invention, but nowhere else in the nineteenth century was there comparable interest in the preservation of documentary material. In China, the state had from early on monopolized the collection of handwritten material. There were few archives of nonstate institutions such as temples, monasteries, guilds, or clans. It was customary for a dynasty to destroy the records of its predecessor once the official history of it was complete. In 1921 the State Historical Museum in Beijing sold 60,000 kilograms of archive material to wastepaper dealers—only the intervention of the learned bibliophile Luo Zhenyu managed to save the collection, which is today kept at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan. Until the 1930s, official printed and handwritten material of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) was disposed of as trash. Despite a venerable tradition of historiography, there was still no archival awareness in nineteenth-century China. The documentation department of the Palace Museum, founded in 1925, was the first institution that brought the rule-driven conservation ethos of a modern archive to bear upon the relics of the imperial era.¹⁸

In the Ottoman Empire, where written records similarly contributed from an early date to the cohesion of a sprawling state, documents were produced and preserved on such a scale that research today can scarcely be imagined except as archive studies. Apart from the records of the sultan’s court and the central government, tax registers and judicial proceedings (Kadi registers) are available from many parts of the empire.¹⁹ Records, we conclude, were kept before the nineteenth century in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and other parts of the world. Only during that period, however, did they begin to be systematically archived, safeguarded, and evaluated.


Libraries, understood as managed collections of the printed cultural heritage, are also treasuries of memory. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made the first great advances in this respect in Europe. Between 1690 and 1716, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, in his capacity as librarian, helped to place Duke August’s magnificent collection in the small German town of Wolfenbüttel at the service of scholarship. Shortly afterward, the university in nearby Göttingen went a step further and for a time was reputed to possess the best-organized library in the world. The British Museum collection, initiated in 1753, was conceived from the outset as a national library; it incorporated the Royal Library in 1757 and was entitled to receive a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom. Antonio (later Sir Anthony) Panizzi, an Italian exile who joined the British Museum in 1831 and served as its chief librarian between 1856 and 1866, created the foundations of scientific librarianship: a systematic and comprehensive catalog, and a reading room organized to meet the needs of scholars, with a domed shape that made it the envy of the world.²⁰

As the century wore on, national libraries in keeping with the British model were built on every continent. In the United States, Canada, and Australia, they arose out of parliamentary libraries.²¹ Some were linked to academic institutions. They tended the nation’s memory for the respectable public and all serious students, but they also collected knowledge in general. The most prestigious became known for their universal reach, as they gathered knowledge from all countries and all ages. Important prerequisites for this mission were a book trade with worldwide business links and the selling of private libraries on the antiques market. Newly founded Oriental departments collected books in rare languages, sometimes sending out special emissaries to acquire them. Libraries symbolized a country’s pretension to equal or superior cultural status. In 1800 the young American republic staked its claim with the founding of the Library of Congress, and by the early 1930s its vast holdings, the largest anywhere in the world, completed the cultural emancipation of the New World from the Old. Countries that achieved unification late in the day had a harder time. The Prussian State Library did not gain national status before 1919, and Italy has never established a single, all-embracing national library.

Municipal libraries served a public eager for education and were a mark of civic pride. But not until after mid-century did it become both legally possible and politically acceptable that taxpayers should foot the bill. Private sponsors were more important in the United States than elsewhere. The New York Public Library, built up after 1895 with funds from a private foundation, became the most famous of the numerous municipal libraries that set their sights high. The libraries of the West turned into temples of knowledge; Panizzi’s British Museum, which housed the national library, made this architecturally palpable in its monumental neoclassical facade. In the 1890s the rebuilt Library of Congress took over this symbolic language and accentuated it by means of wall paintings, mosaics, and statues. The gigantic stores of knowledge were both national and cosmopolitan. Exiles conspired inside them: the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, who in 1896–97 was in London forging plans to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, worked at the same British Museum where Karl Marx had developed a scientific basis for his struggle against the capitalist system.

The library is not a monopoly product of the West, as a look far back into history reveals. The first imperial library was founded in the palace of the Han emperor Wudi (r. 141–87 BC), and it was there that scholars developed a classification system that remained in use for a long time. Chinese libraries had a precarious existence, however: the imperial collections of books and manuscripts were destroyed and built up again at least fourteen times between the second century BC and the nineteenth century. With the spread of xylography in the eleventh century, private academies (shuyuan), groups of scholars, and even individuals also developed large libraries. Details are known about more than five hundred collectors and their collections for the Qing period (1644–1911). The quantity of printed literature in private use was so great that the compilation of bibliographies became one of the scholar’s principal tasks.²² In China, then, libraries and catalogs were not a cultural import. What was of Western origin was the idea of a public library; the first opened in Changsha, the capital of the province of Hunan, in May 1905. The largest Chinese library today, the Beijing Library (Beitu), was founded in 1909, opened its doors to the public in 1912 and

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    This is a book that must be read, as it refreshes our memories, goes into / explains the major events, trends , thoughts , reasons, etc., that affected and impacted into the 20th century and continuing affecting today's world issues.

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