Europe’s century of peace and progress

The period between Waterloo and the First World War laid the foundations for the modern world, so why do we insist on overlooking it?

The London & North Western Railway locomotive Jeanie Deans picking up water at Bushey Troughs, 1899. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 


The 19th century has dropped off the radar. Nobody who actually lived in it survives, and it has become a rather remote period of history – unlike the 20th, which continues to obsess us with its wars, its crimes and its larger-than-life dictators. A lot of the history taught in schools about the 19th century is complicated and dull. Anyone who endured the tedium of trying to figure out the Eastern Question won’t forget the experience in a hurry. As for the Schleswig-Holstein Question (for those who weren’t listening in school, that was the argument between Austria, Germany and Denmark over the fate of two duchies in Jutland), the Victorian prime minister Lord Palmerston famously said: “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business – the Prince Consort, who is dead – a German professor, who has gone mad – and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

Historians used to enthuse about the unification of Italy and the creation of the German empire, but since the Second World War these achievements have been regarded more as ominous portents of 20th-century dictatorships than as triumphs of the national ideal. We now locate the origins of the horrors of 20th-century mass murder in earlier texts such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? The weapons that caused such devastation in the conflicts of 1914–18 and 1939–45, including barbed wire and machine guns, were all invented or presaged before the First World War. Aerial bombardment was first recorded in the Italian conquest of Libya in 1911, submarines were foreseen by Jules Verne, and tanks were prophetically described in HG Wells’s short story ‘The Land Ironclads’. Scientific racist theory was disseminated by the writings of the 19th-century thinker Arthur de Gobineau. Social Darwinism began, if not with Darwin himself, then with his disciples such as Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. The vicious Balkan wars of the 1990s had their precedents in the violent Balkan wars of 1912–13.

Yet the 19th century is surely worth studying in its own right, not just as the seedbed of the 20th. Taking the historical period as stretching from 1815 to 1914 – because, of course, the actual 19th century (1801–1900) has no real meaning as a period apart from the merely chronological – the first feature that becomes apparent is the absence of major European wars. The 18th century saw repeated and often prolonged conflicts: the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48), the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars that lasted from 1792 to 1815. Virtually every European state was involved at one time or another.

By contrast, in the century between Waterloo and the outbreak of the First World War, few wars were fought in Europe. Those that did occur were relatively limited in impact and duration, and did not involve more than a handful of European states: the Crimean War in 1853–56 between Britain, France, Turkey, Sardinia and Russia; the Wars of Italian Unification involving France, Austria and Piedmont-Sardinia; and the Wars of German Unification, which concluded with the conflict between the German states and France in 1870–71. There were brief wars between Russia and the Ottoman empire in 1828–29 and 1877–78 – but between 1700 and 1815 these two states had fought seven wars lasting nearly a quarter of a century between them.

The European wars of the 19th century were all fought over a limited time, for limited aims and between a limited number of participants. There was no attempt, as there was in the 20th century, to annihilate the enemy, destroy its state or exterminate its inhabitants.

In fact, the death rate of men in battle from 1815 to 1914 was seven times lower than that of the previous century, and lower by far than the death rates caused by the terrible and destructive wars of the years from 1914 to 1945. The explanation lies, in the first place, in the determination of European powers to avoid a repetition of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars by establishing a system of international arbitration and co-operation known as the Concert of Europe. This operated successfully up to the mid-1850s and again from 1871 to its breakdown on the eve of the First World War. International congresses and conferences repeatedly met to contain conflicts that threatened the peace of Europe, from the meetings that established the state of Belgium at the beginning of the 1830s, to the Congress of Berlin that brought the Russo-Turkish War to an end in 1878.

Peace was underpinned by British global hegemony achieved by the defeat of France and Spain at Trafalgar in 1805, and the consequent exclusion of extra-European rivalries between European states as a cause of conflicts within Europe itself.

When these threatened to disturb the peace, the inevitable congress met to iron out the differences. At the same time, Europe was bound in to global trends, starting with the eruption of Mount Tambora, in the Dutch East Indies, that caused such widespread famine and distress in 1816 – ‘the year without a summer’ – and going on to the massive impact of the loss of Spain and Portugal’s colonies in the America in the 1820s. From well before the ‘Scramble for Africa’, colonial possessions exported European ways of living across the globe, building on the forcible subjugation of people native to other continents. Europe’s boundaries became porous: between 1815 and 1914 some 60 million people emigrated from the Old World – the largest mass migration in history. Only slowly did European migrants acquire a new identity and culture overseas. American goods, American inventions and American ideas began to flood into Europe, particularly towards the end of the period. By 1900, America – rather than France or Britain – seemed to be the future.

Where, then, does this leave the idea of Europe? Geography is of some help, obviously, but Europe is not a continent in any meaningful geographical sense, and in any case its eastern borders have always been vague, shifting and ill defined. It makes more sense to define Europe as a concept – realised in the 19th century in political, cultural, social and economic terms – stretching from Britain in the west to Russia and the Balkans in the east, from Iceland in the north to Spain in the south. Of course, at one time or another historians have argued for the exceptionalism of Britain, or Russia, or Germany, or Spain. But the mere fact that the idea of a ‘special path’ to modernity, or indeed leading away from it, has been applied to so many different countries is evidence enough of its intellectual bankruptcy.

In some senses, the 19th century was the age of the nation state. In fact, though, many leading individuals transcended national boundaries and enjoyed careers that were ‘transnational’ in character. Greek independence in the 1820s was led by Ioannis Kapodistrias, a former Russian foreign minister. Many Romanian nationalists were educated in France. Polish aristocratic rebels took part in many, if not most, of the liberal causes of the age, including the Italian Risorgimento (unification). And of course there were trends and phenomena common to many different countries. Most obvious were the waves of revolution that swept Europe in 1830 and 1848. Another was the model of the radical-conservative statesman who used revolutionary measures to stem the revolutionary tide after 1848, the best examples being Bismarck, Cavour, Disraeli and Napoleon III. Also notable was the imperialism of the late 19th century, with its turn to racist violence in places such as Namibia, the Congo, and British and French West Africa.

In many ways, the 19th century and its inhabitants now appear strange and remote. Religious belief was pervasive, and it is difficult today – in Europe, at least – to comprehend the passion and fanaticism behind the crusades of Balkan Christians against the Ottoman empire, or the shock with which Darwin’s evolutionary theory was greeted in England. Even stranger was the dominance of masculine codes of conduct, with their duels, their full-length beards and top hats, and their sense of innate superiority over women, only gradually challenged by the emerging feminist movement.

An urban-industrial society such as our own has to make an effort of the imagination to realise that the vast majority of Europeans in the 19th century were peasants, who in some parts of the continent remained largely illiterate to the end of the period and who were, in many parts of Europe, only liberated from serfdom in the second half of the century.

In an era of doubt and anxiety about the future, it is important to recapture the pervasive sense of optimism that existed in the 19th century among the urban working and middle classes. Mass socialist movements looked forward to the creation of an egalitarian and non-exploitative society. Liberals anticipated a world without war. Science-fiction writers, a new breed in themselves, projected the rise of new technologies that would solve many of the most pressing problems of humankind. At the turn of the 20th century, feminists all over Europe expected the cause of women’s suffrage to triumph within a few years, just as there had been huge strides in the improvement of women’s legal rights and educational opportunities. A press magnate boasted on 31 December 1900, the last day of the chronological 19th century, that his paper was “optimistic enough to believe that the 20th century… will meet and overcome all perils and prove to be the best that this steadily improving planet has ever seen”.

At the same time, the 19th century was the period when many of the pressing issues confronting our own world first made their appearance. Most obvious is the conquest of the environment, with large-scale deforestations and the elevation of coal and steam to the driving power sources of the age. This began the rapid rise in carbon emissions that are having such a potentially calamitous effect on the climate of the 21st century. Wild animals that populated Europe at the beginning of the period – including the bear, the lynx and the wolf – were by the end driven back to the margins. The great species extermination through which we are now living had already begun before 1914, most notably with the killing of the last great auk, a flightless seabird, in 1844.

Problems were also created by the invention and rise in sales of the motor car, the impact of which we are now struggling to keep in check. Traffic controls in pre-First World War Europe were rudimentary. As depictions of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand suggest, vehicles in Austria-Hungary drove on the left, while in France they drove on the right – in theory, at least. Traffic chaos seen in contemporary photographs suggests that nobody paid much attention to rules.

The changes made to Europe’s penal system also bequeathed a mixed legacy. Up to mid-century and beyond, in most European countries criminal offenders were punished by public physical mutilation or execution in a way that became increasingly offensive to civilised sensibilities. Yet the building of massive prisons proved to be the source of social problems that remain unsolved today – imprisonment, it turned out, can be a more effective means of creating more criminals than of rehabilitating existing ones.

One of the key social policy developments of the period was the growing stigmatisation of people as ‘lunatics’. The nature of the medical treatments to which such people were subjected may have changed since the 19th century, but sometimes seem little more successful now than they were then.

The massive changes that took place between 1815 and 1914 were nowhere more obvious than in the economic and social spheres. The landed aristocracy increasingly had to share their power and wealth with the new industrial and professional middle classes, while the emergence of a vast new class of industrial wage labourers provided the foundation for the mass socialist movements of the latter decades of the century. And towards the end of the period, the new phenomenon of hydroelectric power launched rapid industrial development in northern Italy and Sweden, which bypassed the earlier, dirtier stages of the industrial revolution.

All of these massive changes were, of course, registered and recorded by contemporaries, who left us a wonderful legacy of memoirs, diaries, letters, newspaper reports, magazine articles and fictional descriptions of the times through which they lived. This was, after all, the great age of the realist novel, when writers ranging from Dickens to Dostoyevsky and Balzac to Bremer chronicled the institutions and conventions of the age through vivid depictions of individual characters.

Finally, we owe to the 19th century the creation of many of the words and concepts we use to analyse our own times: communism and conservatism, altruism and anarchism. Marxism may be dead, but many of the other ideologies developed through the century are still very much alive. As literacy spread, the railways brought books, magazines and newspapers to the smallest rural communities. Schools were built to teach the three Rs to the masses, and ordinary people began to mobilise politically as never before. The 19th century began talking to itself – and if we listen hard enough we can hear it talking to us, too.


Richard J Evans is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, provost of Gresham College, London, and former Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge.