19th century


by Alexander Maser

When was the 19th century in Europe?

The 19th century brought incredible changes for the people of Europe. Many of them still influence our lives today, while in retrospect some of them seem very antiquated. Perhaps that is why this period is often strange and familiar to us? If one understands the 19th century as a coherent epoch, it raises various questions: What events shaped this period in Europe? Why does it not have its own name? And why should the 19th century have been longer than other centuries?

Centuries vs. Epochs?

When historians* speak of the 19th century, they seldom mean the years between 1801 and 1900, and in very few cases do historical turning points adhere strictly to calendar boundaries. Even the last turn of the millennium did not change the world nearly as much as the collapse of the Warsaw Pact around 1989/90, for example.

“The desire for a meaningful order of time has led historians and their audiences to prefer a valid periodization to the purely formal one.

– Jürgen Osterhammel,
From: Osterhammel, Suche 2007, S. 113.

Most of the time it is not useful to equate epochs with centuries or millennia. 1 But how do you draw so-called epochal boundaries independent of this? This question has occupied the science of history for years and days. Even today, old and new boundaries are being discussed for various historical periods. The best known are certainly the (admittedly rough and Euro-centred) transitions from antiquity to the Middle Ages and finally to modern times.

This classic triumvirate of European history can in turn be divided into various smaller epochs, which, depending on the point of view and thematic justification, can be differently dated and in turn subdivided. (Example: Some historians* let the early modern era begin with the – supposed – discovery of America in 1492. Others start here already with the invention of Gutenberg’s book press around 1450, while the epoch, according to a further argumentation, only begins with Martin Luther’s 95 theses of 1517).

It is a sometimes practical, but above all westernized idea that history can be classified into different epochs, i.e. periodized. The following also applies: the larger the space of observation, the more difficult it is to periodize! While the history of a place, a city or even national history can be structured comparatively easily, it is hardly possible to periodize a European or even world history and at the same time do justice to all historical perspectives. It should also be remembered that every idea of an epoch is a backward-looking, ascriptive and therefore controversial idea.

The “long” 19th century

In the historical sciences people like to talk about the so-called “long” 19th century, which – at least for Europe – is mostly dated from 1789 (beginning of the French Revolution) to 1914 (beginning of the First World War). Various events, currents and developments took place during this period, which were so closely interwoven that they can be assigned to an epoch even beyond calendar boundaries.

This approach to the 19th century can be traced back to the British historian Eric Hobsbawm (*1917; †2012), whose three-part work (German: “Europäische Revolutionen, 1789-1848” (1962); “Die Blütezeit des Kapitals, 1848-1875” (1975) and “Das imperiale Zeitalter, 1875-1914” (1987)) has, however, only been entitled “Das lange 19. Jahrhundert”. This now common term has been widely discussed, taken up and in some cases even used literally in the titles of works, including works by Jürgen Kocka 2, Franz J. Bauer 3 and Wolfram Siemann 4.

From the French Revolution …

Revolutions and wars are drastic experiences for people, societies and states, which often have an impact on future generations and are therefore ideally suited for retrospective periodizations. The French Revolution is one of these epoch-shaping events, whose full impact unfolded at the latest with Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Europe. 5 In many respects, the values of the French Revolution (above all the declaration of human and civil rights) represented a break with the absolutist past – a break that lends itself well to the beginning of a new epoch in Europe.

 … until the First World War

The First World War was also a deep break with the past – a break of hitherto unimagined dimensions.

“In 1914/18, Old Europe perished.”

– Wolfram Siemann,
From: Siemann, Jahrhundert 2007, S. 18.

It is certainly worth discussing whether a new epoch can be linked to the beginning of the 1914 war, the disintegration of various European civil societies from 1916 onwards, or the end of the 1918 war and the subsequent reorganisation of Europe (and to a certain extent the world), as each of these approaches has its own justification. 6 The devastating effect and far-reaching consequences of the First World War as a whole certainly make it an event of epochal dimensions.

But can what happened in this long period between 1789 and 1914/18 really be summarized in one epoch? The answer must be a little more differentiated!

The “long” 19th century is often seen as a transitional period from the social and political conditions of the early modern period (mid/end of the 15th century to mid/end of the 18th century) to the world of (Western) modernity of today’s understanding (after 1919, but at the latest after 1945). From such a perspective, the 19th century may well be a coherent epoch.

Nevertheless, worlds lie between the lives of people in (mainly Western and Central) Europe around 1789 and 1914/18. During this period, the world changed with unprecedented speed and intensity. A “long” 19th century thus presents itself as an epoch of contradictions, as a unique field of tension between yesterday and today – between backward-looking and progressive thinking – between regression and departure. 7 This gives rise to numerous starting points for identifying smaller and clearer epochs by means of various caesuras.

An Epoch and its Caesuras 8

1789-1815: The French Revolution and Napoleon go around!

Between 1792 and 1815, large parts of Europe were in a quasi-permanent state of war, which in percentage terms claimed a comparable number of war victims as World War I 9 – a direct and far-reaching consequence of the French Revolution and the subsequent expansion of Napoleonic France. 10 However, Napoleon not only changed Europe lastingly through his military presence and the subsequent rule over large parts of the continent, but also ideologically through the Code civil 1804 and geographically through the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss of 1806. The historian Wolfram Siemann sees the wars of liberation (1813 to 1815) as “the final clash between the French Revolution and the Ancien Régime” 11.

Digression: 1770s-1830s: “The Saddle Age” or also “Age of Revolutions” (1775 – 1789 – 1830 – 1848/49)

There are numerous alternative approaches for a more extended epoch, such as the “Sattelzeit” (after Koselleck, Reinhart: Introduction, in: Brunner, Otto et al. (eds.): Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, Vol. 1, Stuttgart 1972, p. XV). For, of course, the French Revolution did not suddenly fall out of the wall and could be interpreted as a “particularly outstanding event within a chain reaction of political destabilization” (Osterhammel, Übergänge 2009, p. 25.), which lasted until the early 1830s – possibly even extended to the revolution(s) of 1848/49. Particularly from a more global perspective, there is a strong case for a kind of transitional period from the 1770s onwards, which also includes events such as the American War of Independence (1775-1783), whose influence on Europe should not be underestimate

1815-1850: Between restoration and revolution?

Der Wiener Kongress 1814-15 war der Versuch, die monarchischen Herrschaftsformen und den Frieden in Europa nach dem napoleonischen Trubel wiederherzustellen und zu festigen. Aber er war auch der Beginn einer mehrere Jahrzehnte anhaltenden Phase des Friedens in Europa.

Den Zeitraum zwischen 1815 und 1850 aus dem europäischen Blickwinkel nur als Zeit der streng rückwärtsgewandten monarchischen Restauration zu verstehen, die 1848/49 in mehreren Revolutionen mündete, ist unzureichend: Einerseits treffen die Begriffe Restauration und Revolution nicht auf den gesamten Kontinent zu – andererseits waren die Bemühungen des Wiener Kongresses kein reiner Versuch, den Zustand vor der Französischen Revolution und Napoleons Herrschaft wieder zurück zu erlangen. Vielmehr zielte die Politik der Herrschaftselite Europas nach 1815 darauf ab, die monarchischen Verhältnisse „unter veränderten Bedingungen“ wiederherzustellen, „zu denen nicht zuletzt die Beibehaltung neuer Grenzziehungen gehörte“.12

Dieses Vorhaben war trotz der besonders im Königreich Preußen omnipräsenten Repression und Unterdrückung jeglicher konstitutioneller (und vieler anderer) Strömungen letztlich zum Scheitern verurteilt. Auch wenn sich die innenpolitischen Spannungen vieler europäischer Staaten, Reiche oder Föderationen zwischen 1848 und 1849 in (größtenteils gescheiterten) Revolutionen und milderen Konflikten entluden und eine noch härtere Reaktion und Repression hervorriefen, sollten die mannigfaltigen revolutionären Ideen überleben.

1850-1880s: Europe picks up speed

At the political level, the period of constitutionalization, parliamentarization and (to a lesser extent) democratization had begun.

The constitutional monarchy gained ground by the mid-1850s at the latest – in many places dynastic rulers were no longer the sole organ of the state and “owners” of the state. 13

“The wandering craftsman as he populated the Romantic poetry of the time was even more typical than the industrial worker around 1830, the rattling mill by the rushing brook a more important energy generator than the steam engine, Wilhelm Müller’s and Franz Schubert’s freezing Leiermann a figure from real life.”

– Jürgen Osterhammel
From: Osterhammel, Übergänge 2009, S. 28.

But even more than these political changes, industrialisation had an impact on people’s everyday lives, and from the 1850s onwards it slowly advanced in continental Europe. While Great Britain began to develop noticeably in the direction of an industrial society as early as the 1830s, “most of the inhabitants of Europe […] had not yet come into contact with factory industry around 1850. 15 The development of railway networks in particular had a major influence on the acceleration of life in Europe. Until the 1840s, the tractive and carrying capacity of animals was unrivalled and could not be overtaken.16 The 1850s and the following decades meant a departure into unknown territory for many areas of life.

Digression: 1830s to 1870s: Nationalism on the rise

As early as in the pre-March period (1815/1830 to 1848) there was a longing, especially in the fragmented German or Italian regions, for a nation state with, among other things, a common culture, language, and government. Even the failed revolutions did not put an end to these national aspirations – on the contrary: “Nationalism became the strongest mobilising idea in Europe after the middle of the century. (Osterhammel, Jahrhundert 2012, p. 43.) Even if only a few nation states emerged during this period, the spread of national and nationalist tendencies during this time certainly leaves room for an own epoch in the history of ideas.

1880s-1914/18: Imperialism on a course of confrontation

Even if the 19th century was not primarily the age of nation states and was rather dominated by multinational empires 17, “nationalism of varying degrees of sharpness […] was a unifying element among the various political currents” 18 For the old multi-ethnic states, such as the Habsburg Empire, the increasing nationalism at the turn of the century increasingly presented itself as a socio-political challenge.

But many intra-European tensions were shifted to the outside world at the expense of third parties 19: Although colonialism was not an invention of the last third of the 19th century, from 1880 onwards the occupation and (competitive) dispute over non-European territories took on completely new dimensions. The historian Jürgen Osterhammel speaks of an “omnipresent discriminatory mood” 20 which increasingly took the form of (a pre-existing, of course) racism, nationalistic nationalism and anti-Semitism (and in any case the general rejection of minorities) during this period. The so-called Age of Imperialism brought with it, of course, but by far not only social, technical and scientific progress. The drive for progress and the enormous economic growth in Europe were ultimately severely set back when the military conflicts of the empires in 1914 shook Europe and the world in an unprecedented way.

A small conclusion: an inexhaustible source of yesterday and today

The 19th century has had a decisive influence on our life in Europe today. Many innovations and events from that time still have an effect today, often more than we are aware of. Due to its versatility, however, the 19th century was and is often difficult to grasp – it has “surprisingly […] remained a nameless century. 21 For this reason, the preceding epochal dating is a crude attempt. The alternatives are countless!

“In material civilization as well as in the organization of society and state, in the structures of economic life as well as in the categories and determinants of culture and science, in world view and attitude to life, we stand everywhere on the foundations of the 19th century.”

– Lothar Gall
From: Gall, Europa 1989, S. 3.

General subject areas such as political and event history, society, science, technology, art, culture, communication, migration and many more harbour countless interesting clues that may even sometimes hold up the mirror to us – but are in any case worth a deeper look in further articles.

Used and further literature
  • Bauer, Franz J.: The “long 19th century (1789-1917). Profile of an Epoch, Stuttgart 2004.
  • Fahrmeir, Andreas: Europe between Restoration, Reform and Revolution 1815-1850, Munich 2012.
  • Gall, Lothar: Europe on the way to modernity 1850-1890, Frankfurt a. M. 1989 (1983).
  • Kocka, Jürgen: The long 19th century. Work, Nation and Civil Society, Stuttgart 2001.
  • Koselleck, Reinhart: Introduction, in: Brunner, Otto et al. (Hgg.): Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, vol. 1, Stuttgart 1972, pp. XIII-XXVII.
  • Osterhammel, Jürgen: Das 19. Jahrhundert, in: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung/bpb (Hg.): Informationen zur politischen Bildung No. 315/2012, Darmstadt 2012.
  • : The transformation of the world. A history of the 19th century, Munich 2009.
  • : Transitions to the 19th century – Notes of a historian, in: Hartinger, Anselm (Ed.): From Bach to Mendelssohn and Schumann: Performance practice and musical landscape between continuity and change. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Bach-Rezeption, vol. 4, Wiesbaden 2009, pp. 21-40.
[1] Cf. Osterhammel, Jürgen: Die Verwandlung der Welt. A history of the 19th century, Munich 2009, pp. 84-88.

[2] Kocka, Jürgen: The long 19th century. Work, Nation and Civil Society, Stuttgart 2001.

[3] Bauer, Franz J.: The “long 19th century (1789-1917). Profile of an Epoch, Stuttgart 2004.

[4] Siemann, Wolfram: The “long” 19th century. Old questions and new perspectives, In: Freytag, Nils und Dominik Petzold (eds.): Das “lange” 19. Jahrhundert. Old questions and new perspectives. Munich Contact Studies History, Vol. 10, Munich 2007, pp. 9-26.

[5] Cf. Osterhammel, Jürgen: In Search of a 19th Century, in: Conrad, Sebastian et al. Theories, approaches, topics. Frankfurt am Main/New York 2007, pp. 113 and 116.

[6] Cf. Osterhammel, Suche 2007, p. 113.

[7] Cf. Gall, Lothar: Europa auf dem Weg in die Moderne 1850-1890, Frankfurt am Main 1989 (1983), p. 1.

[8] This is only a small selection, which is mainly oriented towards Western and Central European events.

[9] Cf. Osterhammel, Jürgen: Das 19. Jahrhundert, in: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung/bpb (Ed.): Informationen zur politischen Bildung No. 315/2012, Darmstadt 2012, p. 16.

[10] Cf. ibid., p. 15.

[11] Siemann, Jahrhundert 2007, p. 18.

[12] Fahrmeir, Andreas: Europa zwischen Restauration, Reform und Revolution 1815-1850, Munich 2012, p. 1.

[13] See Osterhammel, Jahrhundert 2012, p. 19; Fahrmeir, Europa 2012, p. 1.

[14] Cf. Osterhammel, Jürgen: Übergänge ins 19. Jahrhundert – Anmerkungen eines Historikers, in: Hartinger, Anselm (Ed.): Von Bach zu Mendelssohn und Schumann: Aufführungspraxis und Musiklandschaft zwischen Kontinuität und Wandel. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Bach-Rezeption, vol. 4, Wiesbaden 2009, p. 34.

[15] Vgl. Osterhammel, Suche 2007, S. 118.

[16] Osterhammel, Jahrhundert 2012, S. 21.

[17] Vgl. Osterhammel, Suche 2007, S. 126.

[18] Osterhammel, Jahrhundert 2012, S. 68.

[19] Vgl. Gall, Europa 1989, S. 19-20.

[20] Osterhammel, Jahrhundert 2012, S. 69.

[21] Vgl. Osterhammel, Suche 2007, S. 110.

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