How We Got to Where We Are

Granger Collection
‘Twelfth-Night Cake for Kings and Emperors’; French lithograph, 1898

In 1903, in his Maxims for Revolutionists, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” In his stunning book on the history of the nineteenth century, the German historian Jürgen Osterhammel suggests a different approach: the unreasonable Osterhammel set himself a seemingly impossible agenda, the reasonable historian executed it, and the combination yields a great work.

It may well have seemed unreasonable for Osterhammel, at the beginning of his career, to turn to Asia as his principal field at a time when German (even European) historians had no great interest in Asian history. Germans were still overwhelmingly concerned with their own history and in fact had huge trouble fitting German experience into European history. As he writes, moreover, he indulges in his book in “personal idiosyncrasies such as a special interest in animals, the opera, and the old-fashioned…field of international relations.” In fact, reasonable or not, he pursued one of the most ambitious subjects a historian could undertake: an account of the entire history of the globe during the nineteenth century.

As it turned out, he received Germany’s most prestigious and well-endowed prizes for a work of some 1,500 pages that, against all odds, became a literary and popular success, with some 25,000 copies of the German text sold in the first year. We now have an excellent English translation with translations underway into Chinese, Polish, French, and Russian. Osterhammel has written one of the most important, consequential works of history to appear in the post–cold war era. It, has, rightly, been called an instant classic.

Osterhammel was born in 1952 and his conventional early education was deepened by private reading of such writers as Nietzsche and Bertolt Brecht. As a university student he chose to learn Chinese; for two years he studied at the London School of Economics, and from 1982 to 1986 he was deputy director of the German Historical Institute in London, deputy to Wolfgang Mommsen, a wide-ranging and original scholar and one of Osterhammel’s early mentors. Altogether he spent six years in London, seeing it as still the heart of the British Empire, a truly global entity, which holds a special fascination for Osterhammel. For two years he taught at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

His earliest works dealt with British imperialism and Chinese history, but his special gift appeared early in two extraordinary essays on Alexander von Humboldt and on Joseph Schumpeter and Max Weber. In the latter, he quoted Schumpeter’s praise of Weber and “his mastery of immense armies of concrete facts”—a description that can also apply to Osterhammel himself. These portraits show his affinity with earlier great historians who were willing…

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