The nineteenth century is, among many other things, a study in contrasts. On the one hand, it witnessed spectacular political, economic, and social changes that saw the birth of new nations and the demise of old kingdoms. On the other, even its newborn nations often looked back to the most traditional form of political sovereignty: dynastic identity. One of the great historians of the period, Eric Hobsbawm, noted in his The Age of Empire that Europe had never seen so many states ruled by “emperors” as it did at the turn of the twentieth century: the Empress of the British Empire, the Kaiser of the German Reich, the Kaiser of the Austrian Reich, and the Tsar of the Russian Empire were not just contemporaries, they were all related by dynastic marriages. And yet, each emperor ruled over a profoundly different “empire” than had his or her predecessors, ones in which (even in Russia by 1905) at least some men voted to elect representatives with real political power.
At its simplest, nineteenth-century European politics can be seen as a series of struggles and compromises between different political ideologies and their corresponding movements. From 1815 until 1848, those struggles normally pitted conservatives against liberals and nationalists. A series of revolutions shook much of Europe in 1848, but in their aftermath conservative monarchs regained control almost everywhere. After 1848, conservatism itself slowly adopted liberal and nationalistic traits, culminating in the conservative-led national unifications of Italy and Germany. Of the new political movements considered in the last chapter, only socialism failed to achieve its stated goals at least somewhere in Europe, instead becoming an increasingly militant movement opposed not just to conservatives, but its occasional former allies: liberals and nationalists.
The backdrop of these struggles was a wholly uncharacteristic state of peace that held for most of the nineteenth century. After the Napoleonic wars, the great powers of Europe deliberately crafted a new political arrangement whose purpose was, in part, to maintain peace between them. That peace was broken occasionally starting in 1853, but the subsequent wars were shorter, less bloody, and less frequent than those of any previous century. Historians have often noted that the nineteenth century technically ended in 1900, but in terms of its prevailing political, social, and cultural patterns, it really ended in 1914, with the advent of the horrendous bloodshed and destruction of World War I.
Thumbnail: Tsar Nicholas I, architect of nineteenth-century Russian autocracy.