May 2, 2014 6:17 pm

‘The Transformation of the World’, by Jürgen Osterhammel

A monumental study of the 19th century that takes the widest possible perspective on a globalising age
William Daniell’s ‘European Factories at Canton’ (1806)©Sotheby’s/AKG Images

William Daniell’s ‘European Factories at Canton’ (1806)

The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, by Jürgen Osterhammel, translated by Patrick Camiller, Princeton, RRP£27.95/$39.95, 1,192 pages

From one perspective, attempts to write panoramic, all-encompassing accounts of humanity are nothing new. On the contrary, they have been around for a very long time. One early example was Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World, published exactly 400 years ago while its author was languishing as a prisoner in the Tower of London. Yet despite its million words, Raleigh took his story only from the creation down to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and since he died in 1618, he never even got to the birth of Jesus Christ.


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More recent practitioners of the genre include HG Wells, whose The Outline of History (1920) provided a single narrative extending from the origins of the earth to the first world war. Professional historians did not like it, but Wells’s book was a popular success, and it was remark­ably free of the Eurocentric and racist attitudes much in evidence at the time. On a very different scale was Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, which appeared in 12 vast volumes between 1934 and 1961, and which chronicled the rise and fall of the many separate civilis­ations that Toynbee believed divided the past. Once again, the scholarly fraternity disapproved, and it is only recently that such broad-based approaches to the long, varied, dispersed and yet also joined-up story of humanity have acquired serious academic credibility.

Indeed, since the beginning of the new millennium, global history has become as fashionable in universities as economic and social history were during the 1960s and 1970s, and as cultural and feminist history were in the 1980s and 1990s. On both sides of the Atlantic, and increasingly in Asia and the southern hemisphere, lecture courses, textbooks, journals and conferences devoted to it multiply and proliferate, and a new generation of scholars proclaim that in today’s unprecedentedly interconnected world, global history is the only true and timely way to engage with the past.

There is certainly something to be said for this view. In the aftermath of the fall of communism, the shock of 9/11 and the economic meltdown of 2008, we are all more than ever aware that we live in a globalised world, and these events have focused the attention of historians on finding out how and when humanity became thus joined-up and wired-up. This awareness has been accompanied by an increased recognition that many of today’s pressing problems – among them poverty, Aids and global warming – are worldwide in their causes and consequences, which means they can be neither addressed nor resolved within the parochial structures and weakening authorities that now constitute the nation state. In the present but also therefore in the past, so this argument goes, we need to raise our sights and expand our horizons.


In history’s many-mansioned Valhalla, the shades of Raleigh, Wells and Toynbee are surely cheering at what must seem like long-overdue vindication. Yet the titular deities of this new brand of global history are not these early pioneers but rather a trio of innovative and ambitious scholars whose wide-ranging work is admiringly (but not uncritically) cited by today’s panoramic practitioners.

The first was Fernand Braudel, whose 1949 book on the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II, while confined to only one region, told many different histories, including climate and environment, commerce and culture, pioneered the notion that they operate on different timescales, and dismissed political history as being largely ephemeral, no more than “l’histoire événementielle”. The second was Eric Hobsbawm, whose classic trilogy covering the “long” 19th century, extending from 1789 to 1914, explored the themes of revolution (political in France and industrial in Britain), capital formation (the key to the triumph of the bourgeoisie) and imperialism (which, following Lenin, he saw as the prime cause of the first world war). And the third is Sir Christopher Bayly, whose The Birth of the Modern World 1780 to 1914 (2004), was deliberately written as a work of global history, and was structured around uncovering long-distance comparisons and making transnational connections.

All three authors are appreciatively yet sceptically referred to by Jürgen Osterhammel in his vast, weighty, original, enthralling, exhausting and intimidating book The Transformation of the World. Osterhammel, a professor of history at the University of Konstanz in Germany, gives greater weight than Braudel to political events, is unpersuaded by Hobsbawm’s Marxism and is more open-minded (or uncertain?) than Bayly about when the 19th century began and ended. His first section, “Approaches”, outlines “the presuppositions or general parameters for all that follows”. The 19th century, he insists, was above all a time when unprecedented amounts of knowledge were accumulated and displayed in archives, libraries, museums, exhibitions and encyclopedias, when the world was measured and mapped with a new precision, when its inhabitants were counted and classified and depicted in novel ways, and when information could be globally transmitted more rapidly than ever.

He also rightly contends that for all these unifying characteristics, the very idea that there was such a thing as one single global 19th century is hard to sustain. Many non-Christian parts of the world did not use the Gregorian calendar, and so did not know or notice that 1800 or 1900 were special years bookending a particular period. Even in the Christian west, the 1880s were such a watershed decade that what had gone before and what came after belonged to two very different epochs. Nonetheless, the author urges that the 19th century was a period when the world was ordered and governed, conquered and colonised as never before, and when borders and boundaries were drawn and policed more precisely and purposefully than had previously been possible.

The second part of the book is concerned with what Osterhammel calls “Panoramas”, in which he explores “eight spheres of reality”: mobilities, living standards, cities, frontiers, empires and nations, international organisations, revolutions and the state. Uniquely compared with any time before or since, the 19th century (which from this perspective extended well into the interwar years) was the era of diasporas and migrations on a massive scale. It was a time when expanding cities and closing frontiers, in different but complementary ways, presented unprecedented challenges and opportunities, and when white men hunted and slaughtered wildlife across the globe on a scale – and with a determined relish – that seem incomprehensible today. It was a period when nationalism, and the cult of the nation, reached new levels; but for most of the world, the default mode of organisation was in fact empire. It was an age of revolutions the like of which had never been seen before; but while those at the beginning were interconnected (the American, the French and the Haitian), those that took place in mid-century (among them the Indian “Mutiny”, the Taiping rebellion and the American civil war), and those that occurred in the 1890s (including Russia, China and Iran) were largely separate and separated upheavals. And it was a time when many monarchies reinvented themselves (though not all: vide China), while progress towards democracy was geographically confined for men and even more circumscribed for women.

Osterhammel’s final section is entitled “Themes”, in which he offers (relatively) brief discussions of big topics that are more sketchily treated than “Panoramas”. As befits an expert on China, he constantly reminds us that throughout the 19th century, and across the whole world, agriculture was far more important than industry as an employer of labour; but he is also well aware that it witnessed the unprecedented development and diversification of “global capitalism”, in part made possible by the extraordinary revolution in communications thanks to railways, steamships and the telegraph. He has fascinating things to say about schooling and universities, and about the rise of “world languages” and “big” science; and he devotes a late chapter to exploring the ambiguities and contradictions of the west’s “civilizing mission”, the emancipation of slaves and serfs, and the rise of racial thinking and of race-based regimes (such as the American south in the aftermath of Reconstruction).

Only in his final chapter does he get to religion – which is not easily reconciled with the claim he makes there that it occupies “center stage in a global history of the nineteenth century”; but he has valuable observations about the belated growth of religious tolerance in Europe (in the early modern period non-western societies had more readily accepted diversity), and the almost total failure of British and American missionaries to convert the “heathen” in India and China to Christianity (and why, indeed, did they ever think they could?).

Since this book runs to almost 1,000 pages of text, and includes more than 3,000 endnotes and a bibliography listing well over 3,000 items, it is impossible to do it full and adequate justice, even in a lengthy review such as this. Part monster-piece, part masterpiece, its limitations are inescapably those of the global history genre: from one perspective, the book is too long and too detailed; from another its coverage is very uneven, and subjects such as gender and culture receive inadequate attention; there is no treatment of the first world war, although the author insists that his 19th century did not end until the 1920s; readers expecting a clear chronology will be sorely disappointed; and there is a sense in which the whole never quite becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Yet the book’s merits also compel acclaim and admiration: it is a work of prodigious scholarship and astonishing authorial stamina; within the confines of the subject, it raises the study of global history to a new level of academic sophistication and geographical comprehensiveness; it abounds with memorable phrases and aphorisms, which betoken a lively and playful mind; and it offers wise and original insights about the many ways in which the 19th century made the world that we still, today, inhabit. If you only read one work of history this summer (and, believe me, it will take you all of a very long summer), then The Transformation of the World should definitely be it.

Sir David Cannadine is professor of history at Princeton. His most recent book is ‘The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences’ (Allen Lane)

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