Book review: The transformation of the world by Jurgen Osterhammel

The 19th century gave birth to the modern world, so can an epic new history revitalise interest in this period?
June 18, 2014

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.

Yet if it is too important and interesting to be sacrificed, we need new reasons to revive the 19th century. Jürgen Osterhammel attempts to find some in his massive tome, The Transformation of the World, celebrated on its appearance in Germany in 2009 and now in a fine English translation by Patrick Camiller. Where the 20th century sought its own origins in the 19th century, the 21st has followed suit. Osterhammel, who trained originally as a Chinese specialist, expounds the origins not of the collapse of liberalism and the birth of communism and fascism, but instead the emergence of “globalisation” in all its forms.

In many ways, his venture is staggeringly impressive. In the old narrative of the 19th century, the world beyond Europe figured largely as a place to be colonised and brought into the European sphere by force or fraud. In Osterhammel’s narrative, Europe is no longer the centre of world history, although he acknowledges that “never before had the western peninsula of Eurasia ruled and exploited larger areas of the globe.”

What stands out to him about the 19th century is the reorganisation of space, as parts of the world were brought together by powerful steamships and long-haul rail, and the standardisation of time. (Clocks were synchronised and, by international agreement, the Greenwich meridian became “prime,” though the French kept Paris alive as an alternative for a few decades.) Above all, Osterhammel highlights the movement of people, goods, ideas, and even art forms, thanks to speedier connections on the ground, across the seas, and in communications networks such as rapid postal circuits and nearly instantaneous telegraph lines. The world was flattened, argues Osterhammel, in this colossally important period. We are its heirs.

There is more to Osterhammel’s epic story than this. For every illustration of the intensification of global connections, he points to darker implications. Osterhammel notes, for example, the way in which nations began to send criminals to jails far away. The Russian empire received bad press for its Siberian penal colonies, but the British had paved the way in Australia from 1788 until 1868, deporting over 162,000 convicts to the ends of the earth. Each of Osterhammel’s extended chapters provides a bird’s eye view of a global phenomenon—alternative types of cities, say, or changing medical care—that amounts to an independent essay in its own right.

Yet The Transformation of the World is disappointing as a whole. Rather than a unified story, Osterhammel has offered up a series of thematic exercises. And despite the size of the book, there are few factual surprises. It is a tremendous feat of labour to gather so much information between two covers, but readers interested in particular subjects are best advised to read more specific books. The only justification for such a study could have been a whole that added up to more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In compensation for the absence of plot and fresh details, Osterhammel labours over conceptual approaches to his subject matter. Sometimes he borrows frameworks of analysis from others, but generally Osterhammel grinds his own theoretical lenses, which he tries out on different topics, like an optometrist seeking the right prescription for a series of customers. He hands us a new pair of glasses for each theme, but no 19th century comes into view in a single arresting image.

Take the amazing chapter on cities, for instance. Some cities, typically European ones like Paris, were admired by a global audience, and imitations sprung up everywhere. But not all urban settings were cast in this mould. There were pilgrimage towns old and new, such as Mecca, Lourdes, and Omdurman (host to Sudan’s Mahdi movement), while other cities grew around spas, mines, ports, railway junctions. That many of these were founded or expanded as part of the extractive or settling enterprises of empire leads Osterhammel to infer that the “colonial city” was one of the most distinctively 19th-century forms. But no sooner is the chapter on cities over than a new framework is required for a new topic.

Too abstract to be history, Osterhammel’s book is not abstract enough to be philosophy of history. The book starts out with chapters on how people during the 19th century themselves understood the changes in space and time they lived through, perhaps in a kind of historical version of Immanuel Kant’s epistemology. But what is really missing are those other Germans, GWF Hegel and Karl Marx, who thought big about world history, and better than we do today. Extending Kant, what Hegel and Marx envisaged was a 19th century of freedom triumphant, though they bitterly disagreed about how close the finale was and how it would come to pass.

Faced with such a majestic understanding of why the century might matter, Osterhammel draws back. (Nor does he do much better than his 19th-century predecessors in thinking big enough to include women.) Osterhammel acknowledges that “a certain weakness of explanatory power may rest at the heart of the project.” He is less glum about this than one might wish—as if it were enough merely to describe things, and to lard detail upon detail. In a sense, he knows too much to be bold. Osterhammel cites another German, the 19th-century founder of the historical profession, Leopold von Ranke. “A general history of the world is necessary but not possible in the present state of research.” Startingly, Osterhammel concurs—but then why did he write this book? We are left with a drastic mismatch between the immensity of scale and the modesty of argument.

It might be interesting not to tell the history of the 19th century from our fragmented perspective, but to imagine how that century’s bolder thinkers might come to the rescue of the 21st. Osterhammel’s book is only among the most notable of a tidal wave of recent publications loosely termed “the new global history.” This intellectual trend, which is sweeping through history faculties worldwide, aims to track the global movements of exemplary individuals or specific goods.

So intense is the pressure to “globalise” history that some leading historians have begun to sound a cautionary note. David Bell and Linda Colley of Princeton University have both recently argued that globalising history risks displacing the more constrained analyses that have, in the past, yielded useful books with lasting value. Simply put, global history risks overlooking the supremacy of local factors in explaining most events and trends. But there is a further reason to be wary of global history, at least in its current state. Despite its immense size, Osterhammel’s work suggests global history is not too ambitious, but not ambitious enough.

What is our reason to look beyond national borders? One answer is the one that every traveller knows: for the sake of comparison of different ways of life. Global history has expanded its horizons, in part, out of this vacationer’s imperative, insisting that all the different characters of a motley humanity have their turn on the stage.

Yet 19th-century globalisation often involved the destruction of cultural difference. The 19th century was the first one that prized the “new new thing,” and as empire spread, ancestral, inherited ways of life around the world often had to adapt to the new environment or die. (It was perhaps no coincidence that Charles Darwin saw in nature what often occurred in culture thanks to 19th-century globalisation.) For his part, Hegel famously referred to history as a “slaughter bench,” yet he found it uplifting that old forms like feudalism were destroyed for the sake of the rise of the universal freedom he saw just around the bend. Like Hegel, visionaries of that era tried to understand the globalisation they witnessed as a unified process, where nowadays we notice only its disparate features.

While hierarchies based on race and related imperial assumptions remained alive and well, the 19th century also saw the reshaping of social distinction on economic grounds. Osterhammel describes how old social elites, from European aristocrats to Japanese shoguns, were losing power, as new elites emerged to reap the financial rewards of capitalism. Both locally and globally, the gulf between rich and poor grew more pronounced than ever before in world history—a syndrome that has returned today both within and among nation states. We are heirs of the 19th century not only because it made the world flat, but jagged in a new way.

As feudal arrangements gave way to capitalist structures, the disagreement between Hegel and Marx was about whether the birth of modern society presaged freedom for all men or whether there was still a need for the kind of equalising revolution for which Marx pined. Osterhammel does not take a stand, which would require some unifying vision about the meaning of the world’s transformation. If he had done so, he might have found a better reason why the new global history should matter for the future.