The 19th century gave birth to the modern world, so can an epic new history revitalise interest in this period?by Samuel Moyn / June 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Stockport viaduct, 1845: faster transport connected the world in new ways.
In the imagination of historians, the 19th century once reigned supreme. The French Revolution of 1789, some said, had given birth to a “permanent revolution,” as the forces of progress and reaction struggled for supremacy. Karl Marx insisted in his essay, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” that the spirit of communism seemed to be burrowing through the 19th century like a mole that would eventually break ground definitively. Twentieth-century historians, who had the benefit of hindsight, knew he was right. Eric Hobsbawm gained fame largely for picking up Marx’s narrative of capitalism and its contradictions and showing how, through the ages of industry and empire, it still held good in the 20th century.
And there were further reasons to care about the 19th century. The origins of fascism and Nazism, not merely 20th-century communism, needed to be explained, and it was not unreasonable to suppose that their roots lay in the previous century. It seemed obvious to many that a pan-European phenomenon that began in Italy and Germany in different decades—before and after the Great Depression—did not merely spring from short-term origins and accidents. After the First World War, then in droves after the Second World War, historians of German lands zealously traced the German nation’s Sonderweg—the notorious “special path” that led it to bring so many calamities to the world. Scholars of German history, like the Marxist historians, became habitués of the 19th century.
Then something happened. The fall of communism made the seeds of revolution seem less interesting. By that time even the 19th-century roots of Nazism, once obsessed-over, had became unfashionable. (Wasn’t every nation’s path special?) A few months ago I heard a leading critic of the notion of a German Sonderweg, historian David Blackbourn, note regretfully that his attack 30 years ago on the old assumptions had inadvertently destroyed scholarly interest in the 19th century. Academic historians simply stopped studying it. Many departments of history now skip the era. Even historians of empire, a topic that has boomed over the last 30 years, have tended to prefer the 20th century, when anti-colonialism surged.