This review was first published in Overland.
I’ve been reading Jürgen Osterhammel’s history of the nineteenth century, The Transformation of the World. What can you say about this breath-taking kaleidoscope of narrative (and meta-narrative) history? It’s almost as impressive and various as the century it dissects.
The Transformation of the World attempts at once a synthesis and a critique – you might even say an exegesis – of contemporary historical scholarship on this most vital and arresting of periods. ‘The histories that interest me,’ Osterhammel writes, ‘do not involve a linear, “and then came such and such” narrative spread over a hundred or more years; rather they consist of transitions and transformations.’
By training, Osterhammel is a specialist in Chinese history, but he clearly knows a thing or too about the burgeoning field of ‘macro-history’. His command of the historical literature is staggering. Each chapter reads like a self-contained essay, often of startling originality, on topics such as ‘energy and industry’ and ‘imperial systems and nation-states’. His turn of thought is inquisitive but also rigorous, and his approach to various topics is by turns surprising and provocative. Beginning his chapter on economic history, for instance, Osterhammel is confident enough to approach the industrial revolution by writing, in a teasing tone, that ‘it may be appropriate to place an essay on industry and energy at the beginning of the third part of this book’ (p. 637). The chapter is a crystalline masterpiece of historical writing. ‘It is time to decenter the Industrial Revolution,’ he quips. My response: hey, why not?
Osterhammel’s method is syncretic and panoramic. His chapter on cities, for instance, harks back to the classic work of Asa Briggs, while his chapter on the frontier wars that everywhere pressured and subjugated Indigenous peoples in the period is a masterpiece of historical scholarship and mordant style. While one reviewer has criticised ’a drastic mismatch between the immensity of scale and the modesty of argument’, for mine it is precisely his humility and polyglot historical philosophy that makes this such an enjoyable book.
Osterhammel concludes with another surprise: a rather optimistic perspective of the century’s achievements. Ideas, resources and people became more mobile than perhaps any time in world history since the break-up of the western Roman Empire – not always for the good, certainly, but dynamic and transformative nonetheless. Despite the century’s atrocities, it was also an epoch in which liberal tenets of equality and liberation made great strides, culminating in the miraculous year of 1863 when serfdom was abolished in Russia, and slavery emancipated in the Union-controlled United States. The century produced a global capitalist system and vast empires that spanned the globe. But it also incubated new ideologies of dissident ideas: socialism and anarchism, Jacksonian democracy and liberal constitutionalism. In the case of socialism, this ideological movement created an entirely new sort of state.
Finally, Osterhammel decides, the nineteenth century was a time of emancipation, which survived an era of rapacious colonialism and imperialism to flourish in unexpected places, particularly in Africa and Asia. Gazed at across the smoking ruins of Europe in 1918, ‘the world of yesterday’ described by Zweig seemed to have vanished forever. But the seeds of the social flora of the later twentieth century – Osterhammel names liberalism, pacifism, trade unionism and democratic socialism – had demonstrably been sown in the nineteenth.