How the 19th century brought us progress
by Alexander Maser
How the 19th century brought us progress
by Alexander Maser
The “long” 19th century (roughly 1789 to 1914/18) turned Europe and the world upside down in many respects. Scientific, social, political, social, technical, economic, ideological and many other innovations changed the lives of people in Europe, sometimes radically. Of course, many such processes had already been in the offing in the centuries before. But the “long” 19th century was in many respects the epoch that paved the way for our present-day life and some of the things we take for granted. And three of these self-evident facts will be examined in this short series.
After the apocalypse is before the apocalypse
Whether you followed the media coverage in 2012 or not, you couldn’t get past this topic because it affected us all: The end of the world – prophesied long ago by the Maya and almost unstoppable!
– Honoré de Balzac
From: de Balzac, Louis Lambert 1832 (1889), p. 75.
Even though it was explained early on that only one cycle in the Mayan calendar would end on December 21, 2012, but not the entire world, the end of the world enjoyed great popularity. Of course, only very few people really believed that the end of the world was imminent – such a superstition was at best suitable as material for end-time movies. Probably one of the most fundamental differences that distinguishes many contemporary people from those of the European Middle Ages is the fact that we are optimistic believers in the future. In high medieval Western Europe, apocalyptic predictions would probably have caused little stir, since the “Last Judgment” was always imminent. But even facing the apocalyptic scenarios of climate change, today we still live to some extent in the belief that we can avert even this possibly irreversible and only rudimentarily mitigable disaster. In short: We believe in doubt that everything will somehow get better. We believe in progress!
But when did we start doing so? Where does this optimism about the future come from? And why is thinking in terms of progress one of the most fundamental innovations in the history of European ideas?
What is this “progress” anyway? And where does it come from?
In order to be able to answer these questions at least to some extent, it would be advisable to outline the term “progress” a little more precisely. The German dictionary Duden speaks of a “positively evaluated further development” or the “achievement of a higher stage of development. These two meanings of the term “progress” already contain a basic assumption that we Europeans of today have internalized to such an extent that we do not even question it: history is thus a progressive process. Monotheistic religions in particular tend toward such a linear view of time and history. According to early Christian teachings, everything began with creation and ended with the Apocalypse. This assumption was widespread in Christian Europe until the early modern period. Even if the end of history was already anticipated here, it was a linear process 3. But if one were to simply reject this end – for whatever reason – wouldn’t everything then be possible?
Both “progress” and “development” are ideas that were central in the 18th century in the context of the Enlightenment. As is well known, a change of perspective took place among some scholars (such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau or David Hume) of that time. While up to then God as the thinker and director of all being had been in the focus of events, increasingly his crown of creation was moved into the center: man 4. In impotent expectation of a savior it had always been assumed that “against the fundamental problems of life […] nothing could be done with human knowledge” 5.
“Both the concept of progress and that of development are of enormous historical scope and efficacy. Both have been guiding concepts of 18th-century enlightened European thought, and both concepts found their way from the scholar’s room into global political and economic communication in the 19th and 20th centuries.”
– Daniel Speich Chassé,
From: Speich-Chassé, Progress 2012.
But now man was in control of his own destiny, at least to a certain extent. As Immanuel Kant wrote in 1784 in his much-quoted text on “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?”: “Enlightenment is the exit of man from his self-inflicted immaturity. 6 From this fundamental turning away from previous (and above all religious) worldviews it was – to put it exaggeratedly – only a stone’s throw to also question the decay and the end of the world. There was now basically no limit to man as the protagonist of a story without a script and with an open end. So why should everything continue to take a turn for the worse? The door was opened to progress, at least ideally.
In the 18th century, the concept of “progress” created a suitable term for what became ubiquitous in parts of Europe and North America in the course of the 19th century. Whereas the concept of progress had previously spread more in philosophical circles, in the course of the 19th century it found its way into many areas of “Western” everyday life 7. Four of these areas will be examined more closely here.
Good to know: The extent to which contemporaries already spoke of “progress” as a generally conceived phenomenon in the collective singular, as Reinhart Koselleck stated, is questionable, however. It is more likely that they spoke of the various “advances” in the plural, as Johannes Rohbeck attests (Rohbeck, Koselleck 2019, pp. 86-92.). In retrospect, of course, these widely ramified currents and innovations can easily be perceived and described as “the progress.”
Progress from the perspective of intellectual history
The Enlightenment’s idea of progress was extremely adaptable. In the 19th century, it was the basis for many theories, most of which were not limited to Europe, but claimed “worldwide and universal validity. The processuality of things found its way into various social ideas, such as those of the communists around Karl Marx in the form of a “sequence of primitive society, slave-owning society, feudal society, and bourgeois or capitalist society. This progressive thinking reached its temporary climax in 1859, when Charles Darwin established the theory of evolution in his work “On the Origin of Species. The fact that these findings represented a break with many religious world views is still today often perceived as one of the greatest advances in human history. However, this is primarily related to the popularization of science in the course of the 19th century, which now increasingly provided “a comprehensive explanation of the world [that] contradicted the teachings of the Christian churches on many points” and thus established “scientifically based alternatives to Christianity” for the first time 11. Knowledge and science became increasingly central at the time, able not only to challenge religious worldviews (-which was by no means universally popular!) but, more importantly, to solve profound problems: “Poverty, disease, war, hunger, old age, and death were not fate, but merely the product of ignorance.” 12
The progress in the scientific and technological field
Nowadays, terms such as “progress”, “science” and “technology” are often mentioned in the same breath. This was not always the case! For centuries, schools and universities were less concerned with gaining new and forward-looking knowledge than with “passing on time-honored knowledge and confirming the existing social order. “13 In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, science and technology came closer and closer together.14In the beginning of the “long” 19th century, knowledge increasingly became an expedient resource “that was intended to serve the solution of problems and the management of life situations in the real world. In this respect, the technological sector in particular has been able to stand out as a symbol of progress to this day. 16 This sector underwent its very own professionalization in the course of the 19th century: Whereas technical progress had previously tended to be achieved by “uneducated” craftsmen or laymen,17 such efforts increasingly became the focus of application-oriented sciences in research universities or laboratories.18 Medicine, which developed “in the second half […] from craft and art teaching” to science, is a prime example of this.19 Our current understanding of science and also the subject systematics at universities can in many cases be traced back to the era of the “long” 19th century.20
The progress of economy and trade
The period from around 1500 to the end of the 18th century is often referred to as the “age of protoindustrialization”.21 Various branches of industry, primarily in Great Britain but also in France and the German territories, experienced an upswing as a result of technical innovations. Work that had always been done by hand and tools could increasingly be done with the help of machines.22 This first happened on a large scale in the British textile industry, which received an enormous boost from 1771 with the invention of the waterwheel-driven spinning machine.23 Various other sectors followed this example and turned the “long” 19th century into an industrial age, largely driven by the invention of the steam engine. But it was not only production that was seized by progress; trade also had to keep up with the times. Europe’s economic and customs systems were still severely restricted well into the 19th century. Import duties, customs barriers and trade restrictions had been the norm in many places for centuries and were now being lifted in many cases. When it came to “free trade,” Great Britain again did particularly well: This was decided here as early as the late 1840s, which led to a chain reaction in Europe and a far-reaching dismantling of interstate tariffs by the mid-1860s. Elsewhere, these efforts even went so far that Great Britain forced unwilling countries militarily “to their own happiness” – to free trade.24
Progress in the political and social sphere
Politics and society did not remain unaffected by progress either. Certainly, the French Revolution, more than almost any other event, contributed to a lasting change in the political landscape in parts of Europe – only after a certain time lag, of course. But the tangible changes for ordinary people were of a different nature: improvements in public hygiene (such as sewage systems and fresh water supplies), advances in medicine and disease control, but also the lifting of old marriage restrictions, the so-called “peasant liberation,” the introduction of freedom of trade, the lifting of mobility restrictions and the literacy of broader sections of society are just a few examples of the changes that characterized the 19th century in parts of Europe.25 However, the first attempts at industrialization did not also lead to greater prosperity for the increasingly rapidly growing population. On the contrary, innovations such as the introduction of freedom of trade in the German territories resulted in an overcrowding of various trades (such as tailors or wainwrights) that had previously been able to secure the livelihood of many people. Impoverishment, rural exodus, and increasing mass emigration (especially to the United States) paint a picture of a lack of perspective that gripped more people than progress.26 A far smaller number actually benefited from the changes that enabled the emergence of a broader intellectual, economic middle class.27 It was not until the decades after 1850 that progress was also felt politically by broader segments of the population, as historian Jürgen Osterhammel aptly puts it: “Economic growth and political stabilization accompanied by gradual democratization and the slow dismantling of old hierarchies in favor of greater equality among citizens suggested such a worldview.” 28
But why was it Europe, of all places, that seemed to have progress all to itself? First of all, these developments by no means covered all of Europe, but primarily Great Britain, France and the German territories. Especially economically, Southern and Eastern Europe lagged far behind the Northwest. Until 1850, Europe per se had “no discernible technical, political, military, or economic advantage” over other parts of the world, such as Asia.29 But after 1850, the emerging fields of science, technology, and industry moved closer together, a union not only for the good of society or the world but also for the benefit of shamelessly enriching entrepreneurs or warfare and the resulting subjugation of other countries and their people.30 The new superiority of European powers over other continents was based primarily on the “military-industrial-scientific complex and its technological marvels. “31 But where did this fateful advantage come from? Historian Yuval Noah Harari explains this circumstance with the interplay of modern science and capitalism: “Europeans learned to think and act scientifically and capitalistically long before they gained a tangible technological advantage from it. When their technology bore fruit, Europeans were better able to use it than anyone else, and therefore they conquered the world.” 32
Capitalism, growth, trust – a promising mix?
Capitalism in particular is a child of progress thinking, because without the belief in a better future, it could not have spread in its current form. Compared to the emerging economy of the 19th century, the previous millennia were characterized by stagnation.
– Yuval Noah Harari
From: Harari, History 2013, p. 374.
While the population increased, per capita production always remained relatively balanced.33 But what did the people of the 19th century have that their predecessors lacked for a steadily growing economy and increasing prosperity? The simplest answer is: confidence in the future. This circumstance long prevented people from lending large sums of money. “Credit is based on the idea that we will have more resources available in the future than we have in the present. “34 Without this confidence, larger and longer-term loans represented too much risk. And without such credit, few people were able to start new businesses, invest in them, let alone make a greater profit – the result was stagnation.35 It was only when, in the course of the early modern period, the realization and confidence slowly grew that tomorrow could be better than today, and the day, the month, the year after that could be even more promising, that this knot burst. Not least through Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” the theoretical basis for the capitalist pursuit of profit and the European economic boom had also been laid.36
The dark side of progress
“The 19th century stands out from the chain of epochs in that never before, nor with such impartiality since World War I, were Europe’s ruling and educated elites so confidently convinced of being at the forefront of progress and embodying a civilization of global scale.”
– Jürgen Osterhammel
From: Osterhammel, Transformation 2009, p. 1186.
With the idea of progress and the belief in the omnipresent processuality of things – including, for example, cultures – a self-image solidified in Europe that elevated European culture above all others. In the course of the 19th century, this supposed superiority seemed to be confirmed beyond doubt by scientific and technological advances and the “militarily and economically supported expansion of domination and influence over the world. “37 History visibly presented itself as a race – and one that the Europeans gloriously won by a large margin over other, supposedly history-less cultures.
This Eurocentric self-image of Europe as the highest of all civilizations was – also supported by the transfer of evolutionary ideas to the understanding of cultures – a fertile breeding ground for racism and colonialism.
Equally present to us in the present day is certainly the realization that all the sensational innovations since the 19th century that have brought prosperity to more and more people over time are largely based on natural raw materials as energy sources. One example of this is iron production, which has always required vast amounts of energy: While about 1kg of iron was produced per capita in Europe in the 1500s and about 2kg in the early 18th century, by 2007 the figure was a staggering 500kg! 38
“The present humanity lives in a transitional period of limited duration, the end of which is foreseeable: the generation of grandchildren, at the latest probably of great-grandchildren, will be confronted with this finiteness in all its consequences.”
– Wolfram Siemann
From: Siemann, Century 2007, p. 17.
The demand for energy has increased many times over in the past 500 years. Not to mention the consequences of this unbridled exploitation of the planet, however, it is above all the finite nature of energy resources that will impose its limits on constant growth and progress without sustainable alternatives. 39
Progressive thinking and many of its described aspects and consequences still influence our lives today. Some were and are, in retrospect, seen as positive; others have turned out to be negative. In many cases, the 19th century has left us some legacies that will occupy us and even generations to come. Of course, little did people at the time suspect that they were living at the beginning of a period of progress of such magnitude that continues into the present day. Which groundbreaking invention moved the masses will be the subject of the second of the “Three Things That Changed the 19th Century Forever.”
de Balzac, Honoré: Louis Lambert, Paris1832.
- Wormeley, Katharine Prescott, 1889. https://books.google.de/books?id=rXBIAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=honore+de+balzac+louis+lambert&hl=de&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjhr7TQ0tLtAhWZH-wKHZqEAecQ6AEwAHoECAEQAg#v=onepage&q=antedil&f=false (abgerufen am 16.12.20)
- Hirschberg, Emmi 2017. https://books.google.de/books?id=Yru8AwAAQBAJ&dq=honore+de+balzac+louis+lambert+apokalypse&hl=de&source=gbs_navlinks_s (abgerufen am 16.12.20).
Kant, Immanuel: Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? In: Berlinische Monatsschrift, Berlin 1784, H. 12, S. 481-494.
https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/Fortschritt (zuletzt abgerufen am 01.12.20).
Harari, Yuval Noah: Eine kurze Geschichte der Menschheit. München 2013.
Hanke, Gerolf: Regionalisierung als Abkehr vom Fortschrittsdenken? Magisterarbeit. Salem-Beuren 2012.
Jeismann, Karl-Ernst: Geschichtsbilder: Zeitdeutung und Zukunftsperspektive, in: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung/bpb (Hg.): Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte (Beilage zur Wochenzeitung DasParlament), B 51-52, Bonn 2002, S. 13-22.
Kleinschmidt, Christian: Technik und Wirtschaft im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, in: Gall, Lothar (Hg.): Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte, Bd. 79, München 2007.
Koselleck, Reinhart: Futures past: on the semantics of historical time, Frankfurt am Main/Cambridge 1985 (1979).
Osterhammel, Jürgen: Das 19. Jahrhundert, in: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung/bpb (Hg.): Informationen zur politischen Bildung Nr. 315/2012, Darmstadt 2012.
Ders.: Die Verwandlung der Welt. Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts, München 2009.
Rohbeck, Johannes: Koselleck und die Geschichtsphilosophie des 18. Jahrhunderts, in: Müller, Ernst, Leibnitz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL): Form Interdisziplinäre Begriffsgeschichte (FIB), 8. Jahrgang/1, Berlin 2019, S. 86-92.
Siemann, Wolfram: Das „lange“ 19. Jahrhundert. Alte Fragen und neue Perspektiven, In: Freytag, Nils und Dominik Petzold (Hgg.): Das „lange“ 19. Jahrhundert. Alte Fragen und neue Perspektiven. Münchner Kontaktstudium Geschichte, Bd. 10, München 2007, S. 9-26.
Speich Chassé, Daniel: Fortschritt und Entwicklung, Version: 1.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 21.9.2012, URL: http://docupedia.de/zg/Fortschritt_und_Entwicklung, Versionen: 1.0 (abgerufen am 24.11.2020).
2 … Aus: https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/Fortschritt (zuletzt abgerufen am 01.12.20).
3 … Vgl. Koselleck, Reinhart: Futures past: on the semantics of historical time, Frankfurt am Main/Cambridge 1985 (1979), S. 11.
4 … Vgl. Jeismann, Karl-Ernst: Geschichtsbilder: Zeitdeutung und Zukunftsperspektive, in: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung/bpb (Hg.): Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte (Beilage zur Wochenzeitung DasParlament), B 51-52, Bonn 2002, S. 16.
5 … Harari, Yuval Noah: Eine kurze Geschichte der Menschheit. München 2013, S. 323.
6 … Kant, Immanuel: Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?, in: Berlinische Monatsschrift, Berlin 1784, H. 12, S. 481.
7 … Vgl. Speich Chassé, Daniel: Fortschritt und Entwicklung, Version: 1.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 21.9.2012, URL: http://docupedia.de/zg/Fortschritt_und_Entwicklung, Versionen: 1.0 (abgerufen am 24.11.2020).
8 … Osterhammel, Jürgen.: Die Verwandlung der Welt. Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts, München 2009, S. 1059.
9 … Ebd., S. 1059.
10 … Vgl. Osterhammel, Jürgen: Das 19. Jahrhundert, in: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung/bpb (Hg.): Informationen zur politischen Bildung Nr. 315/2012, Darmstadt 2012, S. 46.
11 … Ebd., S. 46. Dies war aber natürlich nicht gleichbedeutend mit einer Säkularisierung!
12 … Harari, Geschichte 2013, S. 323.
13 … Ebd., S. 318.
14 … Vgl. Ebd.
15 … Osterhammel, Verwandlung 2009, S. 1105.
16 … Vgl. Ebd., S. 1105-1106. Und: Speich Chassé, Fortschritt 2012.
17 … Vgl. Harari, Geschichte 2013, S. 318.
18 … Vgl. Osterhammel, Verwandlung 2009, S. 1106.
19 … Osterhammel, Jahrhundert 2012, S. 46.
20 … Vgl. Osterhammel, Verwandlung 2009, S. 1106.
21 … Kleinschmidt, Christian: Technik und Wirtschaft im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, in: Gall, Lothar (Hg.): Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte, Bd. 79, München 2007, S. 1.
22 … Vgl. Ebd., S. 1-2.
23 … Vgl. Ebd., S. 3.
24 … Osterhammel, Verwandlung 2009, S. 654.
25 … Vgl. Osterhammel, Jahrhundert 2012, S. 8-9 und 45.
26 … Vgl. Ebd., S. 9-11.
27 … Vgl. Ebd., S. 12.
28 … Ebd., S. 45.
29 … Harari, Geschichte 2013, S. 343.
30 … Vgl. Ebd., S. 319 und 322.
31 … Ebd., S. 342.
32 … Ebd., S. 345. Natürlich ist diese Aussage Hararis sehr absolut und überspitzt formuliert. Losgelöst von ihrem eigentlichen Kontext kann der Eindruck entstehen, dass der Historiker die Europäer als etwas Besseres darstellt. Tatsächlich aber versucht Harari eine Erklärung dafür zu liefern, wie es den europäischen Kolonialmächten gelang, sich einen beträchtlichen Teil der (– nicht die ganze) Welt Untertan zu machen. Vor allem der technische Vorsprung war es, begünstigt durch ein komplexes und vielschichtiges Netz an Faktoren, der zu einer militärisch-technisch-industriellen Überlegenheit führte, die von den europäischen Mächten scham- und zügellos ausgenutzt wurde.
33 … Vgl. Ebd., S. 374.
34 … Ebd., S. 377-378.
35 … Vgl. Ebd., S. 378.
36 … Vgl. Ebd., S. 381-382.
37 … Osterhammel, Verwandlung 2009, S. 1186.
38 … Siemann, Wolfram: Das „lange“ 19. Jahrhundert. Alte Fragen und neue Perspektiven, In: Freytag, Nils und Dominik Petzold (Hgg.): Das „lange“ 19. Jahrhundert. Alte Fragen und neue Perspektiven. Münchner Kontaktstudium Geschichte, Bd. 10, München 2007, S. 17.
39 … Vgl. Ebd., S. 17.