Book Review: The Pursuit of Power
by Richard Evans
To such first-rate volumes in the Penguin History of Europe as The Birth of Classical Europe by Simon Price and Peter Thonemann and To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw the great historian of the Third Reich Richard Evans now adds The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, which has at its chronological center the dolorous year 1848, when revolutions swept across Europe and presaged the cataclysms of the modern era in ways just imprecise enough to throw intellectual theorizing – then and now – into overdrive.
As has been the way with this superb series, our author marshals a vast amount of information into a narrative that ripples smoothly from one memorable quote to the next, one picture-resetting insight after another. Readers familiar with Evans’ trilogy about the rise, dominance, and fall of Nazi Germany will know to expect a readable combination of learning and perfectly-chosen quotes in The Pursuit of Power, as in one of the book’s many swipes at the closest thing it has to a villain, the modernity-hating Pope Gregory XVI:
Railway construction was held up in part by opposition from Pope Gregory XVI (1765-1846), an inveterate enemy of modern technology who had also blocked the introduction of gas lighting on the streets of Rome. After his death, the city’s inhabitants joked that when he complained to St Peter on the way to the Pearly Gates that his legs were getting tired, and asked how far he had to go, St Peter told him: ‘If only you had built a railway, you would be in paradise by now!’
The turmoils of 1848 lie at the heart of the book, but naturally there’s a strong element of anticipation as Evans’ narrative picks up pace; the century he chronicles was furiously engaged in its own day-to-day struggles (including the struggle for power, which Evans somewhat improbably retroactively puts in the front of everybody’s mind), but the whole tangled furor of it all was, as we know in hindsight, moving inexorably toward the edge of a cliff. Evans writes so powerfully about the First World War and its causes and effects that I’m sure I’m not the only reader who read passages like this one wishing for a three-volume work on rise, dominance, and fall of the German Empire:
The outbreak of the First World War brought to an end a century of European hegemony over the rest of the world. Of course, this was not a sudden or unheralded development … but by inaugurating a vast global struggle lasting more than four years, the declaration of war issued in 1914 brought ruin upon Europe, destroying the sublime self-confidence that had sustained it for the better part of a century, hastening and strengthening the challenges issued to European dominance in other parts of the world.
Evans quotes Charlotte Brontë, of all people, gushing about the Great Exhibition in 1851: “It is a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Is grandeur does not consist in one thing but in the unique assemblage of all things.” As a breathless but basically accurate assessment of The Pursuit of Power, that fits fairly accurately.