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 to see history on a world scale.

Osterhammel’s first major work, entitled The Disenchantment of Asia: Europe and the Asiatic Realms in the 18th Century (1998), dealt with the ways in which Enlightenment writers—he calls them “heroes”—constructed historical accounts of faraway places from the reports of intrepid travelers. The title evokes Weber’s work and in fact Osterhammel’s oeuvre is Weberian in breadth and insight. As he shows, the Enlightenment philosophes he discusses had no use for the earlier writers who referred to the world outside Europe as “the other.” The latter approach, he writes, combined arrogance and ignorance, reducing the knowledge of Asia to tales of “oriental despots” and their harems.* The book anticipates Osterhammel’s later work in its precise style and persuasive originality. Osterhammel took as special inspirations the work of Edmund Gibbon and Alexis de Tocqueville, masters of lucidity.

During the last few decades, as we have become more and more conscious of living in a globalized world, historians have tried to explore and explain how it came about, and Osterhammel is well aware of their works, including Eric Hobsbawm’s three volumes about the development of modern society during his “long nineteenth century,” from 1789 to 1914. Osterhammel also pays particular attention to the work of Sir Christopher Bayly. He is well aware of the dream of composing a universal history. The Nestor of modern historiography, Leopold von Ranke, having written some sixty tomes on various aspects of European history, turned in his mid-eighties to writing universal histories.

Osterhammel lists the qualities that a global historian must have: “A feel for proportions, contradictions, and connections as well as a sense of what may be typical and representative; and second, to maintain a humble attitude of deference toward professional research.” He himself has these qualities and he devised his own original strategy for tackling the global history of the nineteenth century. He brings to this effort remarkable synthetic power and a prodigious mastery of the huge literature. He offers not a great narrative, but instead a carefully constructed mosaic, or what he calls “successive orbital paths” through a vast collection of materials.


He begins with “Approaches,” three chapters devoted to the self-reflections of the nineteenth century: how it documented itself in its works of literary realism, its archives, its museums, and its use of new inventions, like photography. He considers the effect of new standardized ways to tell and keep time, and the effect of the discovery of little- or hardly known regions, for example in parts of Africa and Asia, that had to be named and often settled. He notes in passing that the people who had lived in the nineteenth century are now all dead, even Harriet, the giant tortoise that in 1835 may have made the acquaintance of young Charles Darwin in the Galápagos Islands; she died in 2006 at the age of about 175. Osterhammel loves telling sometimes obscure facts, and the book is full of them; he refers at one point to what he calls “controlled play with associations.”

In these early chapters he defines the nineteenth century, as he conceives it, as beginning with the great political revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the American and the French revolutions, as well as the revolution of Haitian slaves in Santo Domingo, which for the slaveholders in the American South and the Caribbean was a terrifying event. He acknowledges his own fascination with the history of the American republic, and his reflections on slavery and on the fate of the emancipated blacks in America are strikingly nuanced. For example, he describes how after the Civil War “racist ostracism built on white supremacy appeared in place of the repressive racism of slave society,” as new racial theories developed in both the United States and Europe: “Slavery was replaced by white supremacy, and state or nonstate violence enforced privileges for groups defined by nothing other than their skin color.”

The next part of the book, entitled “Panoramas,” contains eight chapters on how peoples in Europe, Asia, and Africa lived, prospered, and suffered, what they accomplished and at what price, how the great empires were governed, and how European models prevailed or were transformed in different cultures. (The titles “Approaches” and “Panoramas” suggest mountaineering, and in a way the book is a long climb with changing and unexpected vistas.) During this period, the mobility of populations was unprecedented, as in the migrations to North America and to penal colonies in Australia and elsewhere. People had to adjust to vastly increased urbanization, though around the world agriculture remained the principal activity.

They clashed at frontiers, for example in South Africa, where British settlers defeated the Zulu people in 1879, after a conflict that Osterhammel carefully analyzes. He shows that the principal polity remained the empire, whether Chinese, British, French, or other, and not yet the nation-state. Imperial expansion posed questions about the relations between imperial centers and their peripheries (mostly settler lands).

One landmark, formerly much noted and now often forgotten, was Lord Durham’s report to Parliament in 1839 about British North America and what he saw as the proper relations between the imperial center and colonies demanding some measure of autonomy. The report was “a milestone in the constitutional history of the empire [and] one of the most important documents of global constitutional history.” In conceding that colonies such as Canada would form their own political identities, it argued that the “distributions of powers and responsibilities between the Whitehall-appointed governor and local representative bodies should be continually renegotiated.”

Osterhammel makes some unexpected comparisons, as when he discusses the unsuccessful revolutions in Europe of 1848–1849 and describes the dangers that were made evident in the Taiping uprising in China during the same years: “The brutality that the Taiping showed toward their enemies, and the exterminatory impulses with which these responded, were without parallel in the history of the nineteenth century.”

Osterhammel wants to make it clear that although after Napoleon Europe enjoyed a century without large and catastrophic wars, brutality marked much of the period. Between 1750 and 1913, about 300,000 European and North American soldiers died in battle; they were but a tiny fraction of indigenous populations that were killed, notably native Americans who encountered the brutal onslaught of the white man with his superior arms. Genocide was committed in Germany’s suppression in 1907 of the Herero tribes in South-West Africa, today called Namibia. “It was not,” he writes, “in ‘the logic of colonialism’ to murder the colonial subjects. They could be and were used for labor.” But murder raged in many frontier regions, conspicuously in the American West, and Osterhammel gives powerful accounts of what occurred. He also gives critical attention to Frederick Jackson Turner and his theories about the frontier’s effect on American democracy, which in Osterhammel’s view tried to explain too much.


For Turner, “the efforts of the pioneers had formed a special national character; the peculiar egalitarianism of American democracy had its roots in the common experience of life in the forests and prairies of the West.” Yet Osterhammel points to the limits of this thesis. The West, he writes, “cannot be reduced to a simple opposition of ranchers and Indians.” If Turner’s ideas persisted, Osterhammel argues, it is partly because historians have clung to his belief in American exceptionalism. “If the frontier evaporates, then at least that claim to a special American way goes by the board.”

But the greatest horror of that century was the fate of slaves who had been transported mostly in European ships under the vile conditions of the “middle passage.” From the early seventeenth century onward 12.5 million slaves embarked from Africa, of whom only 80 to 90 percent survived the trip. Those who did then had to endure the ordeal of slavery in Europe’s Caribbean colonies and on the plantations in the American South.

In 1807, Britain, under pressure from parts of its own population, outlawed the slave trade, “that monumental crime,” and the all-powerful British navy enforced this decision. In Britain’s own periods of repression, as in its response to the Indian mutiny of 1857, it resorted to the most appalling violations of decency.

Osterhammel’s long account of the Pax Britannica is remarkably balanced but his characterization of British self-regard hits hard on the delusionary British self-image:

The (male) Briton thought his superiority to lie in the art of conquest, in commercial success, and in the benefits that British rule brought to all who came into contact with it. He was superior not only to colored peoples, who were in need of disciplined and civilizing leadership, but also to European peoples, none of which acted overseas with anything like the felicitous touch displayed by the British…. The idea that the British were a tool of Providence for the betterment of the world became a kind of ground bass among sections of the population whose gaze was directed beyond their own local sphere.

In the last part of his book, “Themes,” Osterhammel examines at still greater depth and length issues such as the new networks of trade, for example the international rice trade in Southeast Asia that emerged after 1800, the spread of knowledge, the emergence of English as a world language, the rise of universities, the fate of religion, and the flawed assumptions, particularly in Europe, of a civilized world from which large numbers of people, partly by the rise of racism, are excluded. The nineteenth century “was an age of asymmetrical efficiency growth,” he argues, calling attention to the relative efficiency of armed forces when compared to cultural institutions. This led to “greater control of state apparatuses over their own population.”

As the functions of the state grew, it “began to develop into a new Leviathan, but one that did not necessarily have to be a monster.” In his chapter “Energy and Industry: Who Unbound Prometheus, When, and Where?” Osterhammel examines how, when, and where the industrial revolution took place. He emphasizes the vast increase of fossil-fuel energy (with industrial uses of coal and the invention of the steam engine) and he describes the costs of the “satanic mills,” the inhuman conditions of early industrial life. “No economic system,” he writes, “has ever reshaped nature more drastically than the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century.” Among the revolutionary changes in transportation, none was more important than the railroad and the construction of bigger and better ships. Then the world was brought closer together by the transatlantic cable and by telegraphy. Domestic life became better and longer, i.e., with the “‘democratization’ of a long life” brought about by preventing disease and by providing better nutrition and hygiene.

Liberalism is a central concern of Osterhammel. It was, he writes, “the most influential political theory of the time,” seeking to control the growing powers of the state, and in many parts of the world systems of accountability gradually replaced the arbitrary imposition of individual power. But nineteenth-century liberalism, he writes, neglected “the social question,” how people actually fared in everyday life. The rise of socialist ideas brought some improvements in the lot of the working class. These changes came about partly as a result of convictions, partly out of fear of working-class rage. Osterhammel rightly observes that the character of a society is revealed in how it “treats its weaker members: children, old people, the disabled, and the chronically sick.”

Osterhammel gives some substance to the elusive term “modernity.” For him, it involves a worldview including science, technology, and reforms of political organization. We are told how the Japanese under the Meiji Restoration became “the star pupils of Western modernity.” Some countries drove themselves into modernity and became great powers, while others, especially China, sank into stagnation. The Latin American nations, once having achieved independence, adapted some European institutions: Bolivia went through twelve constitutions.

How does this European cosmopolite, so aware of the violent truths of the nineteenth century, come to judge what for many decades we came to see as the rise of Western civilization? Osterhammel quotes Gandhi’s oft-cited but not authenticated quip: when asked about Western civilization, he replied, “It would be a good idea.” Indeed it would be! But the West has betrayed so many of its promises that “a deep mistrust of Europe” holds sway today and its deficiencies, Osterhammel writes, are widely known everywhere, not least among them that “every sixth person on the earth is persistently undernourished.”

The nineteenth century left unresolved some of the deep issues regarding life within and among nations in the swiftly changing forms of what is called “modern.” In separate chapters Osterhammel asks how religion, disbelief, and tolerance each fared. He shows that racism, including anti-Semitism, continued to inject its fatal poison into the body politic of the United States and many European countries. Conflict between classes was met by contradictory answers ranging from democratic socialism and its nemesis, Leninism, to right-wing nationalistic programs. It was left to the twentieth century to see how utterly brutal and dehumanizing the world could become. The tendencies formed in the nineteenth century ended in larger genocides, in state-driven murder and gulags. After World War II, some humane solutions were institutionalized, such as the welfare state in parts of Europe. It was, Osterhammel observes, replaced in many nations by mind-boggling versions of Social Darwinism, in which the ultra-rich swimming on top of a sea of corruption were hailed as the truly virtuous and creative citizens.

Osterhammel conveys extraordinary amounts of new knowledge and summarizes the revolutionary changes of that globalizing century in dazzling small fragments. He aims at presenting the “portrait of an age” through a variety of developments in government, technology, and much else. We soon see that these fragments can be fitted into a jigsaw puzzle that readers need to construct for themselves. Osterhammel allows that individual chapters can be read independently. In any case, the reader’s task is lightened by his simple, direct style and by the many signposts to relevant work he plants along the way. For scholars or for the inquisitive layman Osterhammel offers a bibliography of a hundred pages of relevant material in English, German, French, and Dutch.

In spirit, Osterhammel is a son of the Enlightenment. Not only does he admire the great writers, among them Montesquieu and Gibbon, but he shares their characteristic audacity. Like his forebears, Osterhammel is an unobtrusive stylist, whose telling phrases and witticisms anchor his points in one’s memory. How rare and refreshing to have historic complexity mixed with a bemused sense of la comédie humaine. Rare too is the quiet self-questioning that marks his work. It reminds me of the work of Albert Hirschman and of Hirschman’s claim that in considering one aspect of social causation after another he was sometimes subverting his own ideas. In fact Osterhammel and Hirschman shared common intellectual ancestors and passions—and the absence of any reference to Hirschman in Osterhammel’s work is puzzling.

Osterhammel prospered in a characteristically modern setting of global scholarship: he began his book in 2002 at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study. And for the sake of full disclosure let me add that I met him at that idyllic refuge and was instantly impressed by his all-pervasive curiosity, erudition, and fair-mindedness. I met as well his wife, Sabine Dabringhaus, a distinguished Sinologist, and their truly remarkable son Philipp.

In sum, this classic book should be indispensable reading for historians and for politically curious world citizens everywhere. It could make us better, more capacious citizens, more aware of the world we live in. One finishes it with awe and gratitude—as well as a touch of fatigue and, in my case, with a question that haunts me: Who but the author is truly qualified to review this work?

But Osterhammel leaves us with a different message: “This book has attempted a piece of impossible…global history. In the end, both reader and author should return to particular concerns, not soar upward into even more ambitious generalizations.” Correct, but his universal view will illuminate our particular concerns.