Home » OL Weekly

Book Review: The Transformation of the World

By (May 1, 2014) No Comment

The Transformation of the World:the transformation of the world cover
A Global History of the Nineteenth Century
By Jurgen Osterhammel
Translated by Patrick Camiller
Princeton University Press, 2014

Jurgen Osterhammel’s gigantic Die Verwandlug der Welt, now given an Englsh-language translation – a terrifying amount of work – by Patrick Camiller as The Transformation of the World, intends no hyperbole in its title; by extensively studying a “long” 19th century – primarily from the late 18th to the early 20th, although even that is mostly a generalization. “I shall therefore with a deliberate lack of discipline repeatedly look far into the twentieth century or even to the present day,” Osterhammel writes. “What I wish to conjure up and comment on is not only a sealed-off, self-sufficient history of the nineteenth century but the insertion of an age within long timelines: the nineteenth century in history.” He tells us that the many chapters of his long book are meant to both hang together and stand separately, and he wryly quips, “Once readers have entered the book, they should not worry: they will easily find an emergency exit.”

They won’t want one. Osterhammel, writing in the global-perspective tradition of Palmer & Colton, Andrew Marr, Christopher Bayly’s 2004 The Birth of the Modern World, and of course John M. Roberts, knows perfectly well that in a book of this size, the strength of his narrative is even more important than the depth of his research. He delivers completely on both counts. His book is not a demonstration of how dumbed-down popular history and serious scholarship can co-exist; it’s a demonstration of how thoroughly serious scholarship can beat popular history at its own game.

Since he has pretensions to a global history of the uproarious century that gave shape to modern times, his scope is necessarily broad. He takes in encyclopedias, libraries, museums, the press, the fields of literature, and even, delightfully, opera houses – anywhere the long century’s memories might accumulate. For the first really extent in post-classical times, one key such accumulation-point was governments themselves, which were accelerating toward the heights of interrelationship – and the centralization of power:

In the nineteenth century, empires and nation-states were the largest political units in which human beings led a common existence. By 1900 they were also the only ones with real weight in the world: nearly everybody lived under the rule of one or the other. There was no sign yet of world government or of supranational regulatory institutions. Only deep in rainforests, steppes, or polar regions did small ethnic groups live without paying tribute to a higher authority.

Our author has a great deal to say about the evils of those centralized systems, but he’s careful to balance them as much as possible with the advances of his target century – advances in medicine, food distribution, even demographic enfranchisement that are too often drowned out in books like this. And he’s surprisingly often ready with an impeccably-worded po-faced aside, as when he’s commenting on the influx into domestic service of young women from the countryside:

Justified as complaints of exploitation often were, the position of maid offered young women from the country a chance to gain a foothold in the urban labor market under relative secure conditions. A life of cooking and washing was not necessarily an unacceptable alternative to factory work or prostitution.

Almost every aspect of the long 19th century, East and West, is illuminated in these pages with considerable eloquence and thrilling insight, and there’s a strong element of humanism binding it all together. Osterhammel is a sternly clear-eyed judge of the many foibles and tragedies he reports, but he also has a keen ear for the quiet intervals in his sprawling story – and what they mean:

Like the apocalyptic horsemen that bring pestilence and famine, war attacks a society as a whole. Peace – the inconspicuous absence of war – is the basic prerequisite for civil life and material existence. Hence international politics is never an isolated sphere: it has a close interrelationship with all other aspects of reality.

The Transformation of the World is lavishly reinforced with critical apparatus (that, too, must have been a labor of Hercules to translate – I honestly never expected to see this book in English), but by far its greatest attraction is the intelligence and more important the wisdom of its author. It’s a towering achievement no serious reader should miss.