Ambitious new book captures the 19th century's lasting impact on our world

An ambitious new book has deftly captured the 19th century's lasting impact on our planet, from the social to the economic and political, writes Ben Richardson

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:21pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:26pm

The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century
by Jürgen Osterhammel (translated by Patrick Camiller)
Princeton University Press
4.5 stars

This is not a book for wimps. It's not just the historical significance of Jürgen Osterhammel's The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. Your reviewer nearly broke his nose after losing control of the brick-sized, 1,192-page tome.

It's weighty in every sense of the word. Indeed, every word carries the weight that comes with a wildly ambitious - Osterhammel calls it "impossible" - attempt to draw together the threads of that extraordinary "long century". The result - being published next month - is an epic, masterly and sprawling mosaic of the age that built on, if only as reaction, foundations laid down by the Enlightenment.

For China, the 19th century was a disaster - its ancient institutions buckled under pressure from Europe's hegemonistic ascendancy

Having torn the god of superstition from his pulpit, humanity exploded into action - not just shattering centuries-old political and social structures (starting from the American and French revolutions to the colonialism that engulfed Asia's dynasties and overran Africa, to the industrialisation and globalisation of war and revolt at the epoch's bloody finale), but technological and economic ones too.

We learnt to leverage the earth's store of carbon - using coal to turn steam engines that were harnessed to looms, to ships' pistons, to railway engines. The carbon age gave us unprecedented mobility and the industrial economy; but we needed an equal revolution in ideas - new ways to work, to finance, to trade, to govern - to reap the benefits of new technological efficiency.

Space - that great protector of individual experience and cultural identity - was diminished by steam and later vanquished by the telegraph. The first sub-sea cable connected Britain and continental Europe in 1851; 15 years later, the Atlantic was conquered; by 1885, nearly all large cities were linked to Europe. Although costly - telegrams ate up 15 per cent of The Times of London's budget in 1898 - the system transformed the way humanity experienced itself.

The way we think about time itself is a 19th-century construct - while sailors had long used Greenwich Mean Time, late in the century railways still had conflicting clocks: in 1870 the US had 75 different "railroad times"; France didn't toe the GMT line until 1911.

Innovations in printing, film and photography, and distribution - by sea and rail - accompanied new ideas about free speech, national identity and equality (or class-based consciousness, at least) to shape the mass media, realist novels and film. Statistics and censuses became state-directed social sciences. Libraries and museums sprang up as ways to store and reflect on human existence.

Osterhammel's compelling structuring brings home that the way we understand the world today is largely determined by institutions and innovations of the 19th century - and a peculiarly Eurocentric lens they provide. Alive to the potential for bias that this inevitably brings, the German historian has taken pains to create a genuinely world history of the age. This endeavour is aided by his background as a China scholar. For China, the 19th century was a disaster - its ancient institutions buckled under pressure from Europe's hegemonistic ascendancy. Still, the country avoided the dismemberment and extinction that befell weaker polities in Africa and elsewhere.

This was Europe's century in many ways - never before or since has the region had such an influence on the entire planet. And while Osterhammel maintains a global view of contemporaneous developments in other cultures, he concedes the experience was largely a one-way street. The balance sheet for Europe's golden age isn't exactly positive. Internal contradictions are rife: progress towards democracy and societies where status was determined more by markets than accident of birth wasn't even-handed - the era created a lopsided world in which benefits were doled out on racial grounds. The abolition of slavery in the US mid-century brought new forms of segregation and economic bondage. And no sooner had Europe's Jews been afforded equal legal status than they came under anti-Semitic attack.

The West's failure to deliver on its intellectual notions of citizenship and equality before the law stoked a distrust and suspicion of European cultural imperialism that resonates today. An opportunity to spread the universalism of those values was squandered in what Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace called "the unblushing selfishness of the greatest civilised nations".

And in the most damning assessment of the age, we can lay the disasters - environmental and labour abuses, war, genocide - at the feet of the 19th century.

At times, Patrick Camiller's first translation of the work out of its original German is hard going - it's a testament to readers in Osterhammel's native tongue that this book is a runaway bestseller. Take his musing on time: "Only when astronomical-mathematical reconstruction plus the linear succession of narratives provide the twin bases for a secure chronology can the perception of time contribute to internal differentiation within history and histories." There are a lot of passages like that.

Behind the jargon and occasional indigestible writing, the rendering of such a mind-boggling tapestry of human experience is deft and accessible. Osterhammel recognises the strains his ambitions place: "Once readers have entered the book, they should not worry: they will easily find an emergency exit." To cope with the daunting array of material, Osterhammel leans on an elastic definition. To view the 19th century in strictly calendar terms would make any study incoherent.

Different strands of history - economic, social, scientific - don't run neatly alongside each other; cultural influences are absorbed and rejected differently. Peru, undergoing a boom period at the time, jumped on the photography craze in the mid-1800s because "the new medium fit perfectly into the boisterous atmosphere".

So Osterhammel takes a relaxed view of his epoch, preferring to set it within the framework of global history. His decision allows him to bring the themes and currents of the age into more recent times. "History is not a theatre where the curtain suddenly falls," he writes.