The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm (1975)

The astonishing world-wide expansion of capitalism in the third quarter of the [nineteenth] century…
(The Age of Capital, page 147)

Eric Hobsbawn (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading historians. A lifelong Marxist, his most famous books are the trilogy covering what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

To which he later appended his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 to 1991 (1994).

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 does what it says on the tin and provides a dazzlingly panoramic overview of the full economic, political and social events right across Europe and indeed around the world, from the famous year of revolutions (1848) through to his cutoff point 27 years later.

In his preface Hobsbawm says that the end of the era can be taken as 1873, which marked the start of what contemporaries came to call the Great Depression, a decades-long slump in trade and industry which is usually taken to have lasted from 1873 to 1896. Maybe he and the publishers chose the slightly later date of 1875 so as to end it precisely 100 years before the book’s publication date. Certainly nothing specifically important happened in 1875, it’s just a convenient marker.

General response

When I was a student in the 1980s I much preferred Hobsbawm’s rip-roaring and colourful trilogy to his dry economic volume, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day (1968). Now the situation is reversed. I like the earlier book because it is more factual, which makes the central proposition of its first part – that the vital spur to the industrial revolution was Britain’s position at the centre of a complex global network of colonies which allowed it to import raw materials from some and export finished products to others at great profit – all the more powerful and persuasive.

By contrast, The Age of Capital is much more overtly a) Marxist and b) rhetorical and, after a while, both these aspects began to seriously detract from my enjoyment.

1. Very dated Marxism

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to bang on about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These are both foreign words, French and German, respectively, and, for me, they began to really stick out from the text. I began to circle them in pencil, along with his other buzzwords, ‘capitalism’ and ‘revolution’, and this helped to visually confirm my sense that some passages of the book are entirely constructed from this dusty Marxist rhetoric. ‘The demands of the bourgeoisie…’, ‘The bourgeois market…’, ‘The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie…’, literally hundreds of times.

Back in the 1980s it didn’t stick out so much because a) as a humanities student I moved in an atmosphere permanently coloured with excitable student rhetoric about ‘the revolution’ and the overthrow of ‘capitalism’ and so on, and b) this reflected the rhetoric’s widespread use in the public domain, where you heard a lot more of this sort of terminology coming out of the 1980s Labour Party in the era of the Miners Strike and the Militant Tendency and so on.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all the steam went out of international socialism. Up till then the rhetoric of revolution had a genuine sense of threat or menace – not that there was necessarily going to be a revolution tomorrow, but there had been, and there could be again, and so it felt like some kind of communist revolution was, at the very least, a real, conceptual possibility. And this sense of possibility and threat was reinforced by the number of genuinely communist governments around the world, all 15 Soviet states, all of China, half of Europe, much of south-east Asia, as well as the various Marxist guerrilla groups across Africa and Latin America. It was a rhetoric, a set of ideas and a mindset you couldn’t help engaging with every day if you watched the news or read newspapers.

File:Communist countries 1979-1983.png

Communist countries 1979 to 1983. Source: Wikipedia

These terms had real-world presence and possibilities because they were the official rhetoric of half the governments of the world. The Soviet Union, Chinese or Cuban governments routinely made pronouncements condemning the ‘capitalist countries’, attacking ‘bourgeois liberalism’, criticising ‘western imperialists’ and so on.

Now, decades later, all this has disappeared. Gross injustice there still is, and sporadic outbreaks of left-wing-sounding movements for fairness. But they lack the intellectual cohesion and above all the sense of confidence (and funding) and threat which ‘revolutionary’ movements were given in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by the vast presence and threat of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. John Le Carré’s thrillers had such an impact because behind the small number of spies battling it out there was the real sense that a war might break out, that espionage might play a role in the actual undermining of the West.

What I’m driving at is that Hobsbawm’s relentless focus on the political movements of the workers of his era, of the proletariat and radicals and socialists and so on of the 1860s and 1870s, now looks quaint and dated. Of course 1848 to 1875 was the era of the triumph of capitalism and the response of workers and workers parties and liberals and intellectuals all across Europe was often couched in terms of socialism and even communism, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were alive and organising and writing, yes, of course.

But this book’s relentless focus on the plight of ‘the workers’ and the formation of ‘the proletariat’ is not only obviously biased and parti pris but now, in our post-communist era, comes over as dated and contrived. He was writing in the mid-1970s to a widespread acceptance of very left-wing politics which was common not only among academics but in trade unions and major political parties all across Europe and which has now… vanished.

And comes over as boring. I got bored of the way Hobsbawm casually labels the working classes or the populations of non-western countries as ‘victims’, as if absolutely everyone in 1860s China or Persia or Egypt or Africa were helpless children.

I’m just reading a passage where he lambasts the Victorian bourgeoisie for its ‘prejudices’ but his own worldview is just as riddled with prejudice, clichés and stereotypes – the ‘bourgeoisie’ is always 100% powerful exploiters; everyone else is always 100% helpless ‘victims’; only Karl Marx understood what was going on; the holy quest for ‘revolution’ went into abeyance during these years but was to revive and flourish in the 1880s, hurrah!

He repeats certain phrases, such as ‘bourgeois liberalism’, so many times that they eventually become empty of meaning, little more than slogans and boo words.

‘Here is the hypocrite bourgeois in the bosom of his smug family while the workers slave away in his factory’, BOO!

‘Here are the socialist intellectuals and more educated workers seeking to organise labour and planning for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society and the seizure of the means of production by the workers’, HOORAY!

‘Here are the Great Thinkers of the period, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, whose writings supported raw capitalism, racism and eugenics’, BOO!

‘Here are Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels, noble humanitarians who were the only ones to grasp the scale of the socio-economic changes the industrialised world was undergoing’, HOORAY!

2. Hobsbawm’s superficial treatment prevents understanding

This brings me to the other major flaw in the book which is that it reads to me, now, as so superficial on almost all the specific events it covers, as to be actively misleading.

As a starry-eyed and fairly uneducated student it came as a dazzling revelation to learn just how many huge and momentous events took place during this packed 25-year period. It was my first introduction to the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, to the Taiping Rebellion and the American Civil War and so on, all of which stretched my historical understanding and broadened my perspectives on world history.

However, rereading it now, 30 years later, I think Hobsbawm’s presentation of many of these subjects is so brief and is so skewed by the way he forces everything into his Marxist worldview – everything is shoehorned into the same framework of capitalism and proletariat and bourgeoisie – as to be actively misleading.

Because every event he covers is described in terms of the triumph of the liberal-capitalist bourgeoisie over either their own proletariat or entire foreign nations (for example, China or India) everything ends up sounding very samey. He doesn’t distinguish between the enormous cultural, economic, legal and historical differences between nations – between, for example the ‘bourgeoisie’ of America, Britain and Germany, all very different things – he doesn’t pay attention to the complexities and unexpected turns and ironies which defy Marxism’s neat patterns and limited repertoire of concepts.

This generalising tendency makes a lot of the events of the era sound the same and this actively prevents a proper understanding of history’s complexities and strangeness. It was only when I read specific books on some of the events he describes that I came to really understand the complexity and specificity of events which Hobsbawm, for all his verve and rhetoric, often leaves badly unexplained.

For example, I’ve just read Hobsbawm’s description of the Paris Commune (pages 200 to 202) and am profoundly unimpressed. He skimps on the historical detail or the actual events of the Commune, preferring to give a shallow, teenage account of how much it scared the European bourgeoisie and how they took fright at the sight of workers running their own government etc.

Its [the Commune’s] actual history is overlaid by the enormously powerful myth it generated, both in France itself and (through Karl Marx) in the international socialist movement; a myth which reverberates to this day, notably in the Chinese People’s Republic… If it did not threaten the bourgeois order seriously, it frightened the wits out of it by its mere existence. Its life and death were surrounded by panic and hysteria, especially in the international press, which accused it of instituting communism, expropriating the rich and sharing their wives, terror, wholesale massacre, chaos, anarchy and whatever else haunted the nightmares of the respectable classes – all, needless to say, deliberately plotted by the International. (p.201)

See what I mean by rhetoric? Heavy on rhetoric and references to Marx, the International, communist China, revolution, bourgeois order and so on. But where are the facts in that passage? There aren’t any.

Hobsbawm fails to explain the context of the Franco-Prussian War or the complex sequence of events which led to the declaration of the Commune. He glosses over the way the workers’ government came into being, the disagreements among various factions, the executions of hostages which introduced a note of terror and violence into the situation, which was then amply repaid by the French government forces when they retook Paris arrondissement by arrondissement and the mass executions of communards which followed. I only came to properly appreciate the Commune’s grim complexity when, many decades later, I read The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

Same with the Crimean War, which Hobsbawm dismisses as a notorious fiasco and more or less leaves at that (p.96). It wasn’t until I read The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010) a few years ago that I for the first time understood the long-term geopolitical forces at work (namely the Ottoman Empire’s decay and the fierce ambition of Russia to seize the Straits and extend their territory all the way to Constantinople), the complicated sequence of events which led up to the outbreak of war, and the multiple ways in which it was, indeed, a mismanaged disaster.

Same with the American Civil War (pages 170 to 173). Hobsbawn gives a breath-takingly superficial sketch (‘For four years the civil war raged’) and, surprisingly for such a left-wing writer, doesn’t really give slavery its due weight. He is more interested in the way victory for the North was victory for American capitalism, which was the view of Marx himself.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I read James McPherson’s epic history of the American Civil War, decades later, that I really understood the long-term causes of the war, the huge conceptual frameworks within which it took place (I’m still awed at the ambition of some of the southern slavers to create a new and completely separate nation which would include all the Caribbean and most of Central America), the terrible, appalling, mind-searing horrors of slavery, the strong case made by the southern states for secession, and the technological reasons (development of better guns) why it went on so long and caused such immense casualties (620,000 dead).

Here are books on specific events or figures from the period, which I would strongly in preference to Hobsbawm if you really want to fully understand key events from the period:

Same on the domestic front. By limiting his description of British society to concepts of capital, capitalists, bourgeoisie and proletariat, Hobsbawm, in his concern with identifying the structural and economic parallels between all the capitalist nations of the West, loses most of the details which make history, and life, interesting.

I came to this book immediately after reading Richard Shannon’s book, The Crisis of Imperialism, 1865 to 1915 which is a long, sometimes rather turgid, but nonetheless fascinating and detailed analysis of the high politics of Britain during the period, which views them almost entirely in terms of the complicated challenges faced by successive British leaders in trying to keep the various factions in their parties onside while they negotiated the minefields of domestic and international politics. Among other things, Shannon’s book brilliantly conveys the matrix of intellectual and political traditions which politicians like Gladstone and Disraeli sought to harness, and how they both were trying to preserve visions of a past equilibrium or social balance which probably never existed, while the world hurried them relentlessly onwards.

By contrast, Hobsbawm’s account gives you no idea at all of the characters and worldviews of the leading politicians of the day; they are all just representatives of the ‘bourgeoisie’, taken as, for all intents and purposes, identical, whether in America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and so on. (The one possible exception is Bismarck, who emerges with a very clear political agenda, all of which he achieved, and so impresses Hobsbawm.)

The book’s strengths

Where the book does score, what made its reputation when it was published and has maintained it ever since, is the bravura confidence with which Hobsbawm leaps from one continent to another, mimicking in the structure of his text the phenomenal spread of the industrial revolution and the new capitalist ways of managing production, new social relations, a new economy, and new trading relations, new and unprecedented ways of doing things which spread like wildfire around the world. The first half of the book is crammed with raw facts and statistics about the West’s astonishing feats of industrialisation and engineering. Here are some highlights:

1848, the ‘springtime of peoples’

1848 saw political revolution across Europe. I have summarised these in a review of 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008). The revolutions of 1848 generated a huge amount of rhetoric, primarily by middle class nationalists and liberals, but also from ideologists for the new ideas of socialism and communism.

But the key thing about the 1848 revolutions and the so-called ‘springtime of peoples’ is that they failed. Within a year, year and a half at most, they had all been crushed. Some political gains were made, serfdom was abolished in Hungary, but broadly speaking, within two years the kings and emperors were back in control.

All except in the most politically unstable country of Europe, France, which overthrew its king, endured three years of unstable democracy and then elected a buffoon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to become their emperor, Napoleon III (Napoleon counted his father as Napoleon II, hence the way he named himself the third Napoleon). The French replaced an inept king with a populist buffoon. The left was decisively crushed for nearly 40 years, only reviving in the harsher environment of the 1880s.

The labour movement [across Europe] had not so much been destroyed as decapitated by the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the subsequent decades of economic expansion. (p.133)

Boom years of the 1850s

The 1848 revolutions were bitterly fought, there was a lot of bloodshed which amounted to civil war in some parts of Europe, but apart from the fact that they all failed in their aims of establishing liberal republics, the other key thing about them that Hobsbawm brings out is they were the end of a process, not the beginning.

The 1840s are often referred to as the Hungry Forties because of the malign impact of industrialisation on many populations, combined with a run of bad harvests. BUT 1850 saw all this change, with a sudden industrial boom which lasted most of the rest of the 1850s and a run of good harvests.

With the result that the ‘working class militancy’ so beloved of a Marxist like Hobsbawm fizzled out. Chartism, which had at one point threatened the state in Britain, disappeared and the same with the other movements across Europe. All except for the nationalist movements in Germany and Italy, which were by no means socialist or for the workers. The unification of Germany was brought about by Bismarck, the opposite of a socialist.

1848 gold rush

Much more important for the global economy was the discovery, in the same year, 1848, of gold in California. This is the kind of thing Hobsbawm is good at, because he has the figures at his fingertips to show how dramatically the gold rush drew the Pacific world closer together. An unprecedented number of Chinese crossed the sea to find their fortunes in California, part of the huge influx of migrants who boosted San Francisco’s population from 812 in 1848 to 35,000 just 4 years later (p.79).

Crews of ships docking in San Francisco regularly absconded in their entirety, leaving the wooden ships to rot, many of them eventually being torn up and used as building materials. Such was the pull of gold and the mushroom wealth it created, that fleets and food were attracted up the coast from faraway Chile.

The gold rush also acted as a financial incentive for the completion of the transcontinental railways being built at the time (the line right across America was completed in 1869). Previously California had been cut off by the huge Rocky mountains. Now there was the incentive of gold to complete a transport link to it, allowing the traffic of food from the mid-West.

Globalisation

The gold rush in California (shortly followed by one in Australia) is a good example of one of the overall themes of the book, which is that this era saw the advent of Globalisation.

The interdependence of the world economy could hardly be better demonstrated. (p.79)

Due to the railway, the steamer and the telegraph…the geographical size of the capitalist economy could suddenly multiply as the intensity of its business transactions increased. The entire globe became part of this economy. This creation of a single expanded world is probably the most significant development of our period…for practical purposes an entirely new economic world was added to the old and integrated into it. (p.48)

In this industrial capitalism became a genuine world economy and the globe was therefore transformed from a geographical expression into a constant operational reality. History from now on became world history. (p.63)

No wonder that observers saw the economic world not merely as a single interlocking complex, but as one where each part was sensitive to what happened elsewhere, and through which money, goods and men moved smoothly and with increasing rapidity, according to the irresistible stimuli of supply and demand, gain and loss and with the help of modern technology. (p.82)

…the ever-tightening network of global communications, whose most tangible result was a vast increase in the flow of international exchanges of goods and men… (p.85)

For the historian the great boom of the 1850s marks the foundation of a global industrial economy and a single world history. (p.88)

… the extraordinary widening and deepening  of the world economy which forms the basic theme of world history at this period. (p.207)

Second industrial revolution

There are varying opinions about how many industrial revolutions there were. From Hobsbawm’s accounts here and in Industry and Empire it seems clear the first industrial revolution centred on cotton production, took place in Lancashire, and relied on British dominance of international trade, since 100% of the raw material was imported (from the American South) and a huge percentage was then exported (to Africa and India).

There was a slump in the textile economy in the 1830s and Hobsbawm briefly entertains the counter-factual possibility that the process of industrialisation, which had, after all, only touched a relatively tiny part of the world’s surface, might have sputtered out and died altogether.

But it was saved by a second wave of renewed industrial activity leading to phenomenal growth in production of coal and iron, with accompanying technical innovations, which were catalysed by the new technology connected with the railway (which Hobsbawm tells us Karl Marx thought of as capitalism’s ‘crowning achievement’, p.48).

Railway mania

Hobsbawm explains how the railway mania, at first in Britain, then in other industrialising nations, was driven by financial factors, namely the need for capitalists who had acquired large amounts of capital for something to invest in.

Hobsbawm has some lyrical passages, the kind of thing most readers of this book long remember, describing the astonishing feats of finance and engineering and labour which flung huge lengths of iron railroad across the continents of the world between the 1840s and the 1870s, connecting coasts with hinterlands, linking the world together as never before. Many readers remember Hobsbawm’s awed descriptions of the astonishing achievements of individual railway entrepreneurs such as Thomas Brassey, who at one point was employing 80,000 men on five continents (pages 70 to 73).

Such men thought in continents and oceans. For them the world was a single unit, bound together with rails of iron and steam engines, because the horizons of business were like their dreams, world-wide. (p.74)

He points out that Jules Verne’s famous novel of 1873, Around the World in Eighty Days, was fantastically topical to its time. In effect its protagonist, Phileas Fogg, was testing and showcasing the spread of the new railway technology which had girdled the earth (p.69).

Map of the trip

Map of Philea Fogg’s route in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (Map created by Roke. Source: Wikipedia)

The electric telegraph

Even more dramatic than railways was the development of the electric telegraph which Hobsbawm describes in detail on pages 75 to 78. It was the telegraph which created the first and definitive communications revolution. In 1848 you had to wait months for letters to arrive from another continent. By 1875 news could be telegraphed from England to America in minutes. It was a transformation in human relations, perception and psychology.

Hobsbawm goes on to make the interesting point that this globalisation was still very limited and focused on high profit areas and routes. Only a hundred miles from the railway and telegraph, billions of people still lived with more or less feudal technology, the fastest vehicle being the ox-cart.

Right from the beginning the process of globalisation created an even bigger zone of unglobalisation, what is now often called the ‘left behind’. So Phileas Fogg’s famous journey has this additional interpretation, that it was a journey along the frontier between the newly globalised and the still untouched. In the novel Phileas travels a kind of borderline between the deep past and the ever-accelerating future.

Production figures

Britain produced 2.5 million tons of iron in 1850, in 1870 6 million tons, or about half the world’s total. Over the same period world production of coal increased by two and a half times, world output of iron four times. Global steam power increased from an estimated 4 million horsepower in 1850 to 18.5 million HP by 1870. In 1859 2,000 million barrels of oil were produced in the USA, in 1874, 11 million barrels. The book ends with a dozen pages of tables conveying these and many other examples of the explosion in productivity and output, and maps showing the spread of trade routes and emigration movements around the world.

The industrialisation of the German Federation between 1850 and 1870 had major geopolitical implications, creating the industrial might which helped Bismarck win three wars in succession and create a united Germany, which has been a decisive force in Europe ever since (p.56).

World fairs

As their economic system, businesses and military might spread around the world, what Hobsbawm calls the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ celebrated in a series of world’s fairs, starting with the famous Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London at which no fewer than 14,000 firms exhibited (1851), followed by Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, Vienna 1873 and Philadelphia 1875 (p.47).

Mass migration

The third quarter of the nineteenth century saw the largest migrations in human history to that point. Between 1846 and 1875 more than 9 million people left Europe, mostly for America (p.228). Between 1851 and 1880 about 5.3 million people left the British Isles (3.5 million to the USA, 1 million to Australia, half a million to Canada).

More subtly, maybe, there was large scale inner migration from the countryside to the new mushroom towns and cities of the industrial revolution, creating vast acreages of appallingly squalid, over-crowded slums without any sanitation, water etc. These were to be the settings for the poverty literature and government reports of the 1880s and 1890s which brought about sweeping changes in town planning at the end of the century and into the 1900s.

The challenge to the developing world

The corollary of the notion that industrial ‘liberal capitalism’ spread its tentacles right around the world during this period, drawing all nations and peoples and places into its ravenous quest for profit, was the challenge this represented to all the non-Western nations and other cultures. Hobsbawn has sections describing the responses of the Ottoman Empire, the world of Islam, the Chinese Empire, the Persian Empire and the Japanese to the growing challenge from what he glibly calls ‘the West’.

His passages on these nations suffer from the same shortcomings I’ve listed above, namely that they are brief and superficial. To really understand what happened in China during this period, I would recommend The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2013). For an overview of why the non-Western empires and cultures proved incapable of matching the West’s dynamism, I recommend the outstanding After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 to 2000 by John Darwin. For descriptions of the internal crises the transformation sparked, generally leading to the overthrow of the old regimes, in the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan in a controlled way, I would recommend you to find books specifically about those countries.

Wars

It was an era of wars. Which era hasn’t been?

  • The Second Carlist War (1846 to 1849) was a minor Catalan uprising
  • The Taiping Rebellion aka the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, 1850 to 1864
  • The Crimean War, October 1853 to February 1856
  • American Civil War, 12 April 1861 to 9 April 1865
  • The Unification of Germany involved:
    • The Second Schleswig War aka Prusso-Danish War Feb to October 1864
    • The Austro-Prussian War or Seven Weeks’ War, June to July 1866
    • The Franco-Prussian War War, 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871
  • The Unification of Italy involved:
    • The Second Italian War of Independence aka the Austro-Sardinian War, April to 12 July 1859
      (2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
    • The Third Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire, June and August 1866
  • The Paraguayan War aka the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864 to 1870
  • The Third Carlist War, in Spain, 1872 to 1876

Famines

Less newsworthy than wars, less painted, less celebrated, producing fewer statues and medals, but many times more people died in famines than conflicts. As Hobsbawm points out, one of the fundamental differences between the ‘civilised world’ and the rest is that the industrial world can (by and large) feed its populations, whereas the undeveloped world is susceptible to failures of harvest and distribution.

  • 1848: Java ravaged by famine
  • 1849: maybe 14 million died in the Chinese famine
  • 1854 to 1864 as many as 20 million died in prolonged famine in China
  • 1856: one in ten of the population of Orissa died in the famine
  • 1861 to 1872: a fifth the population of Algeria died of starvation
  • 1868 to 1870: up to a third the population of Rajputana
  • 3 and a half million perished in Madras
  • 1871 to 1873: up to 2 million, a third the population of Persia, died of starvation
  • 1876 to 1878: 1 million in Mysore

Hobsbawm tries to reclaim human dignity i.e. give these catastrophes some semblance of meaning, by blaming some of this on the colonial powers (especially the British in India; as a British Marxist he is duty bound to reserve most of his scorn and contempt for the British authorities). But the effect of this list is not to make me ‘blame’ anyone, it just overwhelms me with the misery and suffering most of humanity have experienced throughout most of human history.

American states

In the post-civil war era, America continued to grow, adding states to its roster, having now settled the central issue of the war, which was whether they would be slave states of free states. The North’s victory in 1865 meant they would all be ‘free’ states.

  • Wisconsin became a state in 1848
  • California 1850
  • Minnesota 1858
  • Oregon 1859
  • Kansas 1861
  • West Virginia 1863
  • Nevada 1864
  • Nebraska 1867
  • Russia sold America Alaska 1867
  • Colorado 1876

Colonies

The original European colonial powers were Portugal and Spain. Spain lost control of its colonies in Central and South America in the early 1800s. Portugal hung on longer to a handful of territories in Latin America, a few coastal strips in Africa and Goa in India (p.145). The Dutch created a sizeable foreign empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French had ambitions to control North America and India but lost out during the 18th century to the British. So that the nineteenth century belonged to Britain, which ruled the world’s oceans and developed an unprecedented web of international, ocean-carried trade and this, Hobsbawm argues, was the bedrock reason for Britain pioneering the industrial revolution.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a fully developed capitalist system must be continually looking for new markets in order to maintain its growth. Where markets don’t exist in its native country, the system creates needs and markets through advertising. Or it conquers new parts of the world and new populations which it can drag into its mesh of trade and sales, extracting its raw materials at the cheapest cost, and turning them into manufactured items which it sells back to colonial peoples at the maximum profit.

Although there continued to be expeditions and territorial claims during this period, it was really a prelude to the frenzy of imperial conquest which characterised the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and which is the subject of the third book in the trilogy, the sequel to this one, Age of Empire.

In a word

Hobsbawm’s book impressed when it was published, and still does now, with its sheer range and scope, with its blizzard of facts and data, with its rhetorical conjuring of a world for the first time embraced and joined together by new technologies (railway, steamship, telegraph).

But its strength is its weakness, for its breadth means it sacrifices subtlety and insight for dogma, and becomes increasingly bogged down in sweeping generalisations about the wicked bourgeoisie and hypocritical capitalists (‘In general capitalists of the first generation were philistines…’, p.334).

By the end of the book I was sick to death of the sight of the word ‘bourgeois’. Hobsbawm sounds like a fairground toy: put a penny in the slot and watch it jerk to life and start spouting endless slogans about the vicious, hypocritical, exploitative ‘bourgeoisie’, especially in the long and profoundly dim final  sections of the book in which, God forgive us, an ageing Marxist historian shares with us his banal and  predictable views about the intellectual and artistic achievements of the period. For example:

  • The novel can be considered the one genre which found it possible to adapt itself to that bourgeois society….p.326
  • When one considers the orgy of building into which a prosperous bourgeois society threw itself…326
  • Few societies have cherished the works of creative genius… more than that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. p.327
  • The demands of the bourgeoisie were individually more modest, collectively far greater. (p.330)
  • The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie made the fortunes of plenty of architects… (p.330)
  • The bourgeois market was new only insofar as it was now unusually large and increasingly prosperous. (p.330)
  • We can certainly discover those who, for various reasons, resisted or tried to shock a bourgeois public… (p.332)
  • For bourgeois society [the artist] represented ‘genius’…
  • Bourgeois tourists could now hardly avoid that endless and footsore pilgrimage to the shrines of the arts which is still in progress along the hard floors of the Louvre, Uffizi and San Marco. (p.335)
  • [Artists] did not have to conform to the mores of the normal bourgeois… (p.335)
  • Here again Richard Wagner showed a faultless appreciation of the bourgeois artist. (p.335)
  • Did the bourgeois actually enjoy the arts? (p.335)
  • Aestheticism did not become a bourgeois fashion until the late 1870s and 1880s. (p.336)
  • The bourgeoisie of the mid-nineteenth century was torn by a dilemma which its triumph made even more acute. (p.340)
  • At best the bourgeois version of ‘realism’ was a socially suitable selection… (p.340)
  • [Naturalism] normally implied a conscious political critique of bourgeois society… (p.340)
  • The insatiable demands of the bourgeoisie, and especially the petty-bourgeoisie, for cheap portraits provided the basis of [photography]’s success. (p.341)
  • Torn between the idealism and the realism of the bourgeois world, the realists also rejected photography… (p.342)
  • The Impressionists are important not for their popular subject matter – Sunday outings, popular dances, the townscapes and city scenes of cities, the theatres, race-courses and brothels of the bourgeois society’s half world – but for their innovation of method. (p.344)
  • If science was one basic value of bourgeois society, individualism and competition were others. (p.345)
  • [The birth of the avant-garde] represents the collapse of the attempt to produce an art intellectually consistent with (though often critical of) bourgeois society… (p.346)
  • This breakdown affected the marginal strata of the bourgeois world more than its central core: students and young intellectuals, aspiring writers and artists, the general boheme of those who refused to accept (however temporarily) to adopt the ways of bourgeois respectability… (p.347)
  • [French artists] were united, like the Romantics before 1848, only by a common dislike of the bourgeoisie… (p.348)
  • Until 1848 these spiritual Latin Quarters of bourgeois society had hope of a republic and social revolution…. (p.348)
  • Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) is that story of the hope in the hearts of the world-storming young men of the 1840s and its double disappointment, by the 1848 revolution itself and by the subsequent era in which the bourgeoisie triumphed… (p.348)
  • With the collapse of the dream of 1848 and the victory of the reality of Second Empire France, Bismarckian Germany, Palmerstonian and Gladstonian Britain and the Italy of Victor Emmanuel, the western bourgeois arts starting with painting and poetry therefore bifurcated into those appealing to the mass public and those appealing to a self-defined minority. They were not quite as outlawed by bourgeois society as the mythological history of the avant-garde arts has it… (p.349)
  • [Music] could oppose the bourgeois world only from within, an easy task, since the bourgeois himself was unlikely to recognise when he was being criticised. (p.350)
  • Richard Wagner succeeded…in convincing the most financially solvent cultural authorities and members of the bourgeois public that they themselves belonged to the spiritual elite… (p.350)
  • Prose literature, and especially that characteristic art form of the bourgeois era, the novel, flourished for exactly the opposite reason. (p.350)
  • It would be unfair to confine the discussion of the arts in the age of bourgeois triumph to masters and masterpieces… (p.351)

Eventually, by dint of endless relentless repetition, the word ‘bourgeois’ becomes almost entirely emptied of meaning, and the endless conflating of everything bad, vicious, exploitative, hypocritical and philistine under this one mindless label eventually obliterates all Hobsbawm’s attempts to analyse and shed light. It does the opposite.

He nowhere makes clear that, since it is a French word implies, this venomous hatred of the ‘bourgeoisie’ had special French origins and significances in a politically unstable country which had a revolution more or less every generation throughout the century, which just weren’t the same and couldn’t be applied in the same way in Germany, Britain let alone America. Tennyson didn’t hate the English ‘bourgeoisie’, Dickens didn’t despise the English ‘bourgeoisie’, as much as their French counterparts, Baudelaire and Flaubert hated the French ‘bourgeoisie’. The hatred, the concept and the cultural context are all French and have never made nearly as much sense in Britain, let alone in America, as Marx learned to his bitter disappointment.

The passages describing the astonishing achievements of entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers and industrial innovators during this period remain thrilling and eye-opening, but they make up a minority of the text. Struggling through the long, doctrinaire Marxist and tediously banal second half is like being trapped in a corner of a party by a slobbering bore who asks you to hang on while he just tells you 20 more reasons why the Victorian bourgeoisie were so despicable. ‘Yes, grandad. I get it.’

The Age of Capital is arguably, in its overall tendency and rigidly doctrinaire interpretations, more a relic of its own time, the right-on, Marxisant 1970s, than a reliable guide to the era it claims to describe.

Ad hominem

On one occasion only have I been in a traditional London gentleman’s club, when a TV producer invited me to lunch at his club, the Garrick. He pointed out a few famous members in the packed dining room, including the distinctive features of the agèd and lanky Hobsbawm over at one of the tables.

It struck me how very English it was that this fire-breathing, ‘radical’, ‘Marxist’ historian enjoyed all the benefits of the English Establishment, membership of top clubs, numerous honours (Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the British Academy and so on), enjoying a tasty lunch at the Garrick before strolling back to the library to pen another excoriating attack on the hypocrisy, philistinism, greed, ruthlessness and cruelty of the ancestors of the jolly chaps he’d just been sitting among, confident that his ‘bourgeois’ publishers would do a good job producing and promoting his next book, that the ‘bourgeois’ bookshops would display and sell it, that the ‘bourgeois’ press would give it glowing reviews, and he would be awarded another chestful of honours by a grateful monarch.

It’s not really even hypocrisy, it’s something odder: that academic communities across the Western world happily employed, paid and promoted humanities academics and writers who systematically castigated their employers, their nations and their histories, and cheerfully proclaimed their allegiance to foreign powers (the USSR, China) who made no secret of their intention to overthrow the West in violent revolution.

Well, history has had its revenge on the Marxist historians. As I slotted Age of Capital back onto my shelf I thought I heard the sound of distant laughter.


Credit

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

Related reviews

1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008)

1848 became known as ‘the year of revolutions’ and ‘the springtime of nations’ because there was political turmoil, fighting and unrest right across Europe, resulting in ministries and monarchies being toppled and new nation states proclaimed.

Causes

The underlying causes were agricultural, economic and demographic.

1. Agricultural failure

From 1845 onwards grain harvests across Europe were poor, and this was exacerbated when the fallback crop, potatoes, were hit by a destructive blight or fungal infection which turned them to mush in the soil. The result of the potato blight in Ireland is estimated to have been one and a half million deaths, but right across Europe peasants and small farmers starved, often to death. Hence the grim nickname for the decade as a whole, ‘the Hungry Forties’.

2. Economic downturn

This all coincided with an economic downturn resulting from industrial overproduction, particularly in the textile industry. Textile workers and artisans were thrown out of work in all Europe’s industrialised areas – the north of England, the industrial regions of Belgium, Paris and south-east France, the Rhineland of Germany, around Vienna and in western Bohemia.

3. Population boom

Hunger and unemployment impacted a population which had undergone a significant increase since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Countryside and cities alike had seen a population explosion.

The surplus of population was across all classes: it’s easy to see how an excess of many mouths to feed in a countryside hit by bad harvests, or in towns hit by economic depression, would result in misery and unrest. A bit more subtle was the impact of rising population on the middle classes: there just weren’t enough nice professional jobs to go round. Everyone wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or to secure a comfortable sinecure in the labyrinthine bureaucracies of the autocracies – but there just weren’t enough vacant positions. And so this created a surplus of disaffected, well-educated, middle-class young men who found roles to play in the new liberal and radical political movements.

If the surplus poor provided the cannon fodder in the streets, the surplus professional men provided the disaffected theoreticians and politicians of liberal reform and nationalism.

Inadequate response

As usual, the politicians in charge across Europe didn’t fully understand the scale of the poverty and distress they were dealing with and chose the time-honoured method of trying to repress all and any expressions of protest by main force.

Rapport’s book describes massacres in cities all across Europe as the garrisons were called out and soldiers shot on marching protesters in capital cities from Paris to Prague. This had an inevitable radicalising effect on the protesting masses who set up barricades and called on more of their fellow workers-urban poor to join them, and so on in a vicious circle.

However, these three underlying problems (population, hunger, slump) and the repressive response by all the authorities to almost any kind of protest, did not lead to one unified political movement of reform in each country. Instead the most important fact to grasp is that the opposition was split into different camps which, at the moments of severe crisis formed uneasy coalitions, but as events developed, tended to fall apart and even come to oppose each other.

There were at least three quite distinct strands of political opposition in 1848.

1. Liberalism

Of the big five states in 1840s Europe – Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia – only France and Britain had anything remotely like a ‘democracy’, and even in these countries the number of people allowed to vote was pitifully small – 170,000 of the richest men in France, representing just 0.5% of the population, compared to the 800,000 who were enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act in Britain (allowing about one in five adult British men the vote).

Despite the small electorates, both Britain and France at least had well-established traditions of ‘civil society’, meaning newspapers, magazines, universities, debating clubs and societies, the theatre, opera and a variety of other spaces where views could be aired and debated.

This was drastically untrue of the three other big powers – Prussia, Austria and Russia had no parliaments and no democracies. They were reactionary autocracies, ruled by hereditary rulers who chose ministers merely to advise them and to carry out their wishes, these moustachioed old reactionaries being Czar Nicholas I of Russia, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Frederick William IV of Prussia.

Therefore, while liberals in Britain merely wanted to expand the franchise a bit, and even the radicals were only calling for complete manhood suffrage (encapsulated in ‘the Great Charter’ which gave the movement of ‘Chartism’ its name and whose collection and presentation to Parliament amounted to the main political event of the year in Britain) and whereas in France liberals wanted to see expansion of the suffrage and the removal of repressive elements of the regime (censorship) – in the three autocracies, liberals were fighting to create even a basic public space for discussion, and a basic level of democracy, in highly censored and repressive societies.

In other words, the situation and potential for reform in these two types of nation were profoundly different.

But to summarise, what marked out liberals across the continent is that they wanted constitutional and legal change, effected through what the Italians called the lotta legale, a legal battle (p.43).

2. Nationalism

Sometimes overlapping with liberal demands, but basically different in ambition, were the continent’s nationalists. Italy and Germany are the obvious examples: both were geographical areas within which the population mostly spoke the same language, but they were, in 1848, divided into complex patchworks of individual states.

In 1806 Napoleon had abolished the 1,000 year-old Holy Roman Empire, creating a host of new statelets, kingdoms, duchies and so on. Some thirty-nine of these were formed into the German Confederation. The German states were a peculiar mix of sovereign empires, kingdoms, electorates, grand duchies, duchies, principalities and free cities. The German Confederation was dominated by the largest two states, Prussia in the North and the Austrian Empire in the south.

Italy was arguably even more divided, with the two northern states of Lombardy and Piedmont under Austrian rule, the central Papal States under control of the Pope, while the south (the kingdom of Sicily and Naples) was ruled by a bourbon king, with other petty monarchies ruling states like Tuscany and Savoy.

1848 was a big year for the famous Italian nationalists, Garibaldi and Mazzini, who attempted to stir up their countrymen to throw off foreign rule and establish a unified Italian state. It is an indication of how dire Italy’s fragmentation was, that the nationalists initially looked to a new and apparently more liberal pope to help them – Pope Pius IX – the papacy usually being seen as the seat of reaction and anti-nationalism (although the story of 1848 in Italy is partly the story of how Pope Pius ended up rejecting the liberal revolution and calling for foreign powers to invade and overthrow the liberal government which had been set up in Rome.)

So 1848 was a big year for nationalists in Italy and the German states who hoped to unite all their separate states into one unified nation. Far less familiar to me were the nationalist struggles further east:

  • the struggle of Polish nationalists to assert their nationhood – after 1815 Poland had been partitioned into three, with the parts ruled by Prussia, Russia and Austria
  • as well as a host of more obscure nationalist struggles east of Vienna – for example:
    • the struggle of Magyar nationalists – the Hungarians – to throw off the yoke of German-speaking Vienna
    • the Czechs also, attempted to throw off Austrian rule
    • or the struggle of Ukrainian nationalists to throw off the domination of their land by rich Polish landowners

Many of these movements adopted a title with the word ‘young’ in it, hence Young Italy, Young Germany, Young Hungary, Young Ireland, and so on.

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire in blue, but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire (Source: Age of the Sage)

Rapport shows how nationalists in almost all the countries of Europe wanted their lands and peoples to be unified under new, autochthonous rulers.

N.B. It is important to emphasise the limits of the 1848 revolutions and violence. There were no revolutions in Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden-Norway, in Spain or Portugal or in Russia. The Springtime of Nations most affected France, Germany, Italy and the Austrian Empire.

3. Socialism

After liberalism and nationalism, the third great issue was the ‘social question’. While the rich and the upper-middle class seemed to be reaping the benefits from the early phases of the industrial revolution – from the spread of factory techniques for manufacturing textiles, the construction of a network of railways which helped transport raw materials and finished goods and so on – a huge number of rural peasants, small traders, and the urban working class were living in barely imaginable squalor and starving.

The paradox of starvation in the midst of plenty had prompted a variety of theoretical and economic analyses as well as utopian visions of how to reform society to ensure no-one would starve. These had become more prominent during the 1830s. It was in 1832 that the word ‘socialism’ was first coined as an umbrella term for radical proposals to overhaul society to ensure fairness and to abolish the shocking poverty and squalor which so many bourgeois writers noted as they travelled across the continent.

So ‘socialist’ ways of thinking had had decades to evolve and gain traction. Rapport makes the interesting point that by 1848 Europe had its first generation of professional revolutionaries.

The great French Revolution of 1789 had propelled men of often middling ability and provincial origin into high profile positions which they were completely unprepared for. By contrast, 1848 was a golden opportunity for men who had devoted their lives to revolutionary writing and agitating, such as Louis-August Blanqui and Armand Barbès.

(As Gareth Stedman Jones makes clear in his marvellous biography of Karl Marx, Marx himself was notorious to the authorities as a professional subversive, and his newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung became the bestselling radical journal in Germany, but he had little impact on the actual course of events.)

The various flavours of socialists were united in not just wanting to tinker with constitutions, not wanting to add a few hundred thousand more middle-class men to the franchise (as the liberals wanted) – nor were they distracted by complex negotiations among the rulers of all the petty states of Italy or Germany (like the nationalists were).

Instead the socialists were united in a desire to effect a comprehensive and sweeping reform of all elements of society and the economy in order to create a classless utopia. For example, by nationalising all land and factories, by abolishing all titles and ranks and – at their most extreme – abolishing private property itself, in order to create a society of complete equality.

A crisis of modernisation

Rapport sums up thus: The revolution and collapse of the conservative order in 1848 was a crisis of modernization, in that European economies and societies were changing fast, in size and economic and social requirements, but doing so in states and political cultures which had failed to keep pace and which, given the reactionary mindsets of their rulers and aristocracy, were dead set against any kind of reform or change. Something had to give.

1848

Rapport tells the story of the tumultuous events which swept the continent with great enthusiasm and clarity. He gives us pen portraits of key reformer such as the nationalists Mazzini and Garibaldi and the socialist Blanqui, and of arch conservatives like Klemens Metternich, Chancellor of Austria, the young Bismarck of Prussia, and the sneering Guizot, unpopular premiere of France.

This is a great cast to start with but quite quickly the reader is overwhelmed with hundreds more names of radicals, republicans, liberals, reactionaries, conservatives and monarchists, ordinary workers and emperors – Rapport clearly and effectively presenting a cast of hundreds of named individuals who played parts large and small during this tumultuous year.

The first and decisive event of the year was the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in France and his replacement by a hastily cobbled-together Second Republic, in February 1848. This was a genuine revolution, and in what many took to be Europe’s most important nation, so news of it spread like wildfire across the continent, emboldening radicals in Italy, Austria, Prussia and further east.

Rapport describes events with a keen eye for telling details and the key, often accidental incidents, which could transform angry hunger marchers into an revolutionary mob. For example, the outraged citizen of Milan who knocked a cigar out of the mouth of a preening Austrian officer, sparking a street fight which escalated into a ‘tobacco riot’, prompting the city’s Austrian governor to call out the troops who then proceeded to fire on the mob, killing six and wounding fifty Italian ‘patriot and martyrs’. That is how revolutions start.

There is a vast amount to tell, as Rapport describes not only the turmoil on the streets, but the complex constitutional and political manoeuvrings of regimes from Denmark in the north to Sicily in the south, from Ireland in the west to Hungary, Ukraine and Poland in the east. I didn’t know so much happened in this one year. I didn’t know, for example, that in the Berlin revolution, in March, one day of epic street fighting between liberal reformers, backed by the population against the king’s army, resulted in 800 dead!

Fierce streetfighting around Alexanderplatz in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

Fierce fighting at the Alexanderplatz barricade in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

It was eye-opening to be told in such detail about the scale of the violence across the continent.

I knew that the ‘June Days’ in Paris, when General Cavaignac was tasked with using the army to regain control of all the parts of the city where revolutionary barricades had been set up, resulted in vast bloodshed, with some 10,000 killed or injured. But I didn’t know that when Austrian Imperial troops retook Vienna from the liberal-radical National Guard in the last week of October 1848, the use of cannon in urban streets contributed to the death toll of 2,000 (p.287).

There were not only soldiers-versus-workers battles, but plenty of more traditional fighting between actual armies, such as the battle between the forces of the king of Piedmont and Austrian forces in north Italy leading to the decisive Austrian victory at Custozza on 25 July 1848.

But it was the scale of the urban fighting which surprised and shocked me.

In another example, for a few months from April 1848 the island of Sicily declared its independence from the bourbon king of Naples who had previously ruled it. However, the king sent an army by ship which landed at Messina, subjecting the city to a sustained bombardment and then street by street fighting, which eventually left over two thirds of the city in smouldering ruins (p.260).

The social, political but also ethnic tensions between native Czech republicans and their overlord Austrian masters, erupted into six days of violent street fighting in Prague, June 12-17, during which Austrian General Windischgrätz first of all cleared the barricades before withdrawing his troops to the city walls and pounding Prague with a sustained artillery bombardment. Inevitably, scores of innocent lives were lost in the wreckage and destruction (p.235).

So much fighting, So much destruction. So many deaths.

New ideas

Well, new to me:

1. The problem of nationalism The new ideology of nationalism turned out to contain an insoluble paradox at its core: large ethnically homogenous populations were encouraged to agitate for their own nation, but what about the minorities who lived within their borders? Could they be allowed their national freedom without undermining the geographical and cultural ‘integrity’ of the larger entity?

Thus the Hungarian nationalists had barely broken with their Austrian rulers before they found themselves having to deal with minority populations like Romanians, Serbs, Croats and others who lived within the borders the Hungarians claimed for their new state. Should they be granted their own independence? No. The Hungarians not only rejected these pleas for independence, but went to war with their minorities to quell them. And in doing so, split and distracted their armies, arguably contributing to their eventual defeat by Austria.

Meanwhile, Polish nationalists were dead set on asserting Polish independence, but in Galicia quickly found themselves the subject of attacks from the Ruthenian minority, long subjugated by Polish landowners, and who claimed allegiance to a state which they wanted to call Ukraine. Like the Hungarians, the Poles were having none of it.

Thus nationalism spawned mini-nationalisms, sub-nationalisms, and ethnic and cultural conflicts which began to look more like civil wars than struggles for ‘independence’.

As a result, two broad trends emerged:

1. The chauvinism of big nations Nationalists from the larger nations developed an angry rhetoric castigating these troublesome little minorities as culturally less advanced. Rapport quotes German nationalists who criticised the Slavic minorities for their alleged racial and cultural inferiority – a rhetoric which was to have a long career in Germany, leading eventually to the Nazis and their Hunger Plan to starve and enslave the Slavic peoples.

2. Austro-Slavism In response to the breakaway aspirations of Hungary, the Hapsburg (Austrian) monarchy developed a strategy of Austro-Slavism. This was to appeal directly to the many minorities within the empire, and within Hungarian territory in particular, and guarantee them more protection within the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire than they would receive in one of the new, ethnically pure, nationalist states. ‘Stay within our multicultural empire and you will be better off than under repressive monoglot Hungarian rule.’

Thus when representatives of the Slovaks asked the new Hungarian Parliament (which had been created in March 1848 as a concession from Vienna) to allow the teaching of the Slovak language and the flying of the Slovak flag in Slovak regions within the new Hungary, the Hungarians vehemently refused. They accused the nationalists of ‘Pan-Slavic nationalism’ and of wanting to undermine the integrity of the new Magyar (i.e. Hungarian) state. Not surprisingly when, later in the year, open war broke out between Austria and Hungary, many Slovak nationalists sided with Austria, having made the simple calculation that they were likely to have more religious, racial and linguistic freedom under the Austrian Empire than under the repressively nationalistic Hungarians.

3. The threshold principle of nationalism The threshold principle is an attempt to solve the Nationalism Paradox. It states that a people only ‘deserves’ or ‘qualifies’ to have a state of its own if it has the size and strength to maintain and protect it. Surprisingly, Friederich Engels, the extreme radical and patron of Karl Marx, espoused the threshold principle when it came to the smaller nationalities in and around Germany. Being German himself he, naturally enough, thought that Germany ought to be unified into a nation. But the Czechs, Slovaks and other ‘lesser’ peoples who lived within the borders of this new Germany, Engels thought they didn’t deserve to be nations because they didn’t come up to ‘German’ standards of culture and political maturity. (Explained on page 181).

This was just one of the problems, paradoxes and contradictions which the supposedly simple notion of ‘nationalism’ contained within itself and which made it so difficult to apply on the ground.

Nonetheless, 1848 marks the moment when nationalism clearly emerges as a major force in European history – and at the same time reveals the contradictions, and the dark undercurrents latent within it, which have dominated European politics right down to this day.

4. Grossdeutsch or Kleindeutsch? Uniting the 39 states of Germany sounds like a straightforward enough ambition, but at its core was a Big Dilemma: should the new state include or exclude Austria? The problem was that while the Austrian component of the Austrian Empire spoke German and considered themselves culturally linked to the rest of Germany, the Hapsburg monarchy which ruled Austria had also inherited a patchwork of territories all across Europe (not least all of Hungary with its minorities, and the northern states of Italy): should those obviously non-Germanic part of the Austrian empire be incorporated into Germany? Or would Austria have to abandon its empire in order to be incorporated into the new Germany?

Exponents of a Grossdeutsch (Big Germany) option thought it ridiculous to exclude Austria with its millions of German-speakers; of course Austria should be included. But that would mean tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire in half because obviously you couldn’t include millions of Hungarians, Romanians and so on inside a ‘German’ state (the Kleindeutsch, or Little Germany, position).

Or could you? This latter thought gave rise to a third position, the Mitteleuropäisch solution, under which all of the German states would be incorporated into a super-Austria, to create a German-speaking empire which would stretch from the Baltic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, a bulwark against Latins in the west and south, and the Slavic peoples to the east and south-east, promoting German culture, language and way of life across the continent, by force if necessary. (pp.298-300)

Comical and hypothetical though this may all sound, it would prove to be at the centre of world history for the next century. It was the ‘German Problem’ which lay behind the seismic Franco-Prussian War, the catastrophic First World War, and the global disaster of the Second World War.

The European Economic Community, established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, at bottom was an attempt to settle the ‘German Problem’ i.e. to tie the German and French economies so intricately together that there could never again be war between the two of them.

Some people think the ‘German Problem’ was only really settled with the reunification of the two Germanies in 1990, but others think it still lives on in the disparity between the rich industrial West and the mostly agricultural and impoverished East.

And the question of German identity, of who is or isn’t Germany, has been revived by Angel Merkel’s over-enthusiastic acceptance of a million refugees in 2017, which has led to the widespread popularity of far right political parties in Germany for the first time since the Second World War.

All of which tends to suggest that the virus of nationalism, unleashed in 1848, can never really be cured.

Results

It takes four hundred pages dense with fact and anecdote to convey the confused turmoil of the year 1848, but Rapport had already spelled out the overall results in the opening pages.

Although all the protesters hated the reactionary regimes, they couldn’t agree what to replace them with. More specifically, the liberals and socialists who initially found themselves on the same barricades calling for the overthrow of this or that ‘tyrant’ – once the overthrow had been achieved or, more usually, a liberal constitution conceded by this or that petty monarch – at this point these temporarily allied forces realised that they held almost diametrically opposed intentions.

The liberals wanted to hold onto all their property and rights and merely to gain a little more power, a little more say for themselves in the way things were run; whereas the socialists wanted to sweep the bourgeois liberals out of the way, along with the monarchy, the aristocracy, the church and all the other tools of oppression.

It was this fundamentally divided nature of the forces of ‘change’ which meant that, as events worked their course, the forces of Reaction found it possible to divide and reconquer their opponents. Almost everywhere, when push came to shove, middle-class liberals ended up throwing in their lot with the chastened autocracies, thus tipping the balance of power against the genuine revolutionaries.

The high hopes of 1848 almost everywhere gave way to the resurgence of the autocracies and the restoration of reactionary regimes or the imposition of old repression in new clothes. Nowhere more ironically than in France where the overthrown monarchy of Louis Philippe gave way to the deeply divided Second Republic which staggered on for three chaotic years before being put out of its misery when the canny Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – who had gotten himself elected president right at the end of 1848 – carried out the coup which brought him to power as a new Emperor, Napoleon III, in 1851.

Rapport’s account also makes clear that the violence and turmoil wasn’t limited to 1848 – it continued well into 1849:

  • in Germany where the newly established ‘national’ parliament was forced to flee to Frankfurt and, when the Prussian king felt strong enough to surround and close it, its suppression sparked a second wave of uprisings, barricades, vicious street fighting and harsh reprisals in cities all across Germany e.g. Dresden where Richard Wagner took part in the insurrection, whose violent suppression left over 250 dead and 400 wounded.
  • and in Italy where the republics of Rome and Venice were besieged and only conquered after prolonged bombardment and bloodshed. (It is a real quirk of history that the Roman republic was besieged and conquered by French troops, ordered there by ‘President’ Napoleon. Why? Because the French didn’t want the approaching Austrians to take control of Rome and, therefore, of the Papacy. Ancient national and dynastic rivalries everywhere trumped high-minded but weak liberal or republican ideals.)

More than anywhere else it was in Hungary that the struggle for independence escalated into full-scale war  (with Austria) which dragged on for several years. By the end, some 50,000 soldiers on both sides had lost their lives. When the Austrians finally reconquered Hungary, they quashed its independent parliament, repealed its declaration of rights, reimposed Austrian law and language and Hungary remained under martial law until 1854.

The Hungarian revolt led to the establishment of an independent parliament in 1849 which seceded from the Austrian Empire. Unfortunately, this was crushed later in the year by a combination of the Austrian army which invaded from the west, allied with Russian forces which invaded from the East. The parliament was overthrown, Hungary’s leaders were arrested, tried and executed, and the country sank into sullen acquiescence in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted until 1918, when it finally achieved independence.

None of the ‘nations’ whose nationalists were lobbying for them to be created ended up coming into existence: both Italy and Germany remained patchwork quilts of petty states, albeit some of them reorganised and with new constitutions. Italy had to wait till 1860, Germany until 1871, to achieve full unification.

Polish nationalism completely failed; Poland didn’t become an independent nation state until 1918.

Same with the Czechs. They only gained nationhood, as Czechoslovakia, in 1918 (only to be invaded by the Nazis 20 years later).

Only in France was the old order decisively overthrown with the abolition of the monarchy. But this, ironically, was only to give rise to a new, more modern form of autocracy, in the shape of Napoleon III’s ’empire’.

It is one among many virtues of Rapport’s book that he explains more clearly than any other account I’ve read the nature of Napoleon’s widespread appeal to the broad French population, and the succession of lucky chances which brought him to the throne. Karl Marx dismissed Napoleon III as an empty puppet who made himself all things to all men, not quite grasping that this is precisely what democracy amounts to – persuading a wide variety of people and constituencies that you are the solution to their problems.

Everywhere else the European Revolution of 1848 failed. It would be decades, in some cases a century or more, before all the ideas proclaimed by liberals came into force, ideas such as freedom of expression and assembly, the abolition of the death penalty (1965 in Britain), of corporal punishment and censorship (Britain’s theatre censorship was only abolished in 1968), the emancipation of minorities and the extension of the franchise to all men and women (in the UK it was only in 1928 that all men and women over the age of 21 were allowed a vote – 80 years after 1848).

Order over anarchy

The political and economic situation had certainly got bad enough for a constellation of forces – and for hundreds of thousands of alienated urban poor – to mobilise and threaten their rulers. But none of the reformers who inherited these situations could command the majority needed to rule effectively or implement their plans before the Counter-Revolution began to fight back.

The failure of the French Second Republic, in particular, made clear a fundamental principle of advanced societies. that the general population prefers an able dictatorship to the uncertainty and chaos of ‘revolution’.

(This is also the great lesson of the wave of anarchy which swept across Europe after the Great War, described in by Robert Gerwarth’s powerful book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923.)

Again and again, in different countries, Rapport repeats the lesson that people prefer order and security, albeit with restricted political rights, to the ‘promise’ of a greater ‘freedom’, which in practice seems to result in anarchy and fighting in the streets.

People prefer Order and Security to Uncertainty and Fear.

When faced with a choice between holding onto their new political liberties or conserving their lives, their property and their communities against ‘anarchy’ or ‘communism’, most people chose to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of security. (p.191)

A simple lesson which professional revolutionaries from Blanqui to our own time seem unable to understand. It is not that people are against equality. If asked most people of course say they are in favour of ‘equality’. It’s that most people, in countries across Europe for the past 170 years, have time and time again shown themselves to be against the anarchy which violent movements claiming to fight for equality so often actually bring in their train.

P.S.

I get a little irritated by readers and commentators who say things like, ‘the issues in the book turn out to be surprisingly modern, issues like freedom of speech, constitutional and legal reform, the identity of nations and their populations’.

Rapport himself does it, commenting that many German states expressed ‘startlingly modern-sounding anxieties’ (p.337) in response to the Frankfurt Parliament’s publication of its Grundrechte or Bill of Basic Rights, in December 1848.

This is looking down the telescope the wrong way. All these themes and issues aren’t ‘surprisingly relevant to today’. What phrases like that really express is that, we are still struggling with the same issues, problems and challenges – economic, social and cultural – which have dogged Europe for over 200 years.

The past isn’t surprisingly ‘relevant’. It is the world we live in that is – despite all the superficial changes of clothes and cars and techno-gadgets – surprisingly unchanged. We are still struggling with the problems our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their parents and grandparents, failed to solve.

If you’re of the tendency who think that handfuls of people living a hundred or two hundred years ago – early socialists or feminists or freethinkers – were ‘prophets’ and ‘surprisingly relevant’ it’s because this way of thinking tends to suggest that we standing tip-toe on the brink of solving them.

I, on the contrary, take a much more pessimistic view, which is that this or that thinker wasn’t a startlingly far-sighted visionary, simply that they could see and express problems and issues which over the past two hundred years we have completely failed to solve.

When so many better people than us, in more propitious circumstances, have failed, over decades, sometimes centuries, to solve deep structural issues such as protecting the environment, or how to organise states so as to satisfy everyone’s racial and ethnic wishes, or how to establish absolute and complete equality between the sexes – what gives anyone the confidence that we can solve them today?

All the evidence, in front of the faces of anyone who reads deeply and widely in history, is that these are problems intrinsic to the human condition which can never be solved, only ameliorated, or fudged, or tinkered with, in different ways by different generations.


Related links

Related blog posts

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by JRR Tolkien

Since the death of JRR Tolkien in 1973, his son Christopher has been working through his father’s papers, publishing a steady stream of posthumous editions of the Great Man’s writings. Largest has been the twelve volume set The Histories of Middle Earth in which Christopher compiled all the unfinished, abandoned and alternative versions Tolkien drafted for the epic mythology of which ‘Lord of the Rings’ is only an episode.

Tolkien earned his living, of course, as a Professor of English at Oxford, specialising in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse poetry. He routinely delivered lectures about both subjects and marked students’ translations of verse from both traditions.

Still, it came as a surprise to both fans and experts in the field when Christopher Tolkien announced he was publishing two long poems by Tolkien, written in English but obeying the rules of the eight-line fornyrðislag metre found in Icelandic Eddaic poetry. Not only is the form Icelandic but the subject matter is an ambitious attempt to retell the entire tale of Sigurd and Gudrún – a central legend of the north European Dark Ages, the subject of a third of the poems in the Poetic Edda, the entire subject of the Icelandic Völsunga saga, of the German epic poem the Nibelungenlied, of the long poem The Story of Sigurd the Volsung by William Morris and, most famously, the basis of Richard Wagner’s vast four-opera cycle, the Ring of the Nibelung.

Contents

The challenge Tolkien set himself to overcome is that the three main sources for the story – the Elder Edda, the prose Edda and the Völsunga saga – contradict each other in the outline of the story, in many details, even in the names. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún aims to cut through the scholarly pernicketiness and hesitancy about manuscript variants and textual ambiguities etc, in order to tell one clear consistent story. It succeeds brilliantly!

The New Lay of the Völsungs is the first and longest of the two poems, nearly 130 pages long and divided into 10 sections. It starts with the creation of the world, a short retelling of the famous Völuspá poem from the Poetic Edda:

Of old was an age
when Odin walked
by wide waters
in the world’s beginning;
lightfooted Loki
at his left was running,
at his right Hœnir
roamed beside him.

That’s the fornyrðislag metre: four lines divided in two halves (or eight short lines, as here), two syllables emphasised in each half line, each emphasised syllable in the first half line alliterating with the first emphasised syllable in the second half line.

Birds sang blithely (two alliterating beat words)
o’er board and hearth, (one alliterating beat word, one not)
bold men and brave (two alliterating beat words)
on benches sitting.  (one alliterating beat word, one not)
Mailclad, mighty  (two alliterating beat words)
his message spake there  (one alliterating beat word, one not)
a Gautish lord (one alliterating beat word, one not – irregular)
gleaming-harnessed.  (one alliterating beat word, one not)

The tale moves briskly on through the successful career of king Völsung, his son Sigmund, and his son, Sigurd, through Sigurd’s famous killing of the dragon Fafnir, his betrothal to the Valkyrie Brynhild, his drugging by king Gjúki’s wicked wife Grimhild, so that he forgets Brynhild and marries Gudrún; in this state of amnesia he swaps bodily shape with his brother-in-law Gunnar to help Gunnar woo and wed Brynhild – but the day after the marriage Brynhild realises Gunnar is not the hero she thought and the oblivion potion wears off a distraught Sigurd, and both lovers are left married to other partners. The infuriated Brynhild tells Gunnar Sigurd has seduced her and Gunnar gets his idiot brother, Gotthorm, to murder Sigurd in his bed. They build a funeral pyre for Sigurd and the deranged Brynhild kills herself and is burned along with the hero whose death she caused.

Commentary on The New Lay of the Völsungs Christopher Tolkien gives a detailed account of the manuscripts JRR left behind along with useful clarifications of where JRR departed from, or chose between, the various sources.

The New Lay of Gudrún is shorter at 56 pages and follows the career of the widow Gudrún as she is married off to Atli, the infamous Attila, king of the Huns (!), who invites her brothers, Gunnar and Högni  to visit and promptly tortures them to extract the gold treasure Sigurd brought with him from killing the dragon Fafnir.  Högni  has his heart cut out and Gunnar refuses to talk so Atli throws him into a snakepit where Gudrún sends him a harp which he plays and magically prevents the snakes biting him. Until one does. At her brother’s funeral Gudrún serves Atli the bodies of his own sons, cooked, and then burns Atli’s stronghold to the ground. She summarises the long tragic events, all the dead princes the curse of Andvari’s gold has killed, before drowning herself in the sea.

Commentary on The New Lay of Gudrún shorter set of notes on the poem and the story of Gudrún.

Appendix A – A short account of the origins of the Legend Christopher seeks to  establish, via Tolkien’s lectures, notes, remarks and scattered pieces of paper, where his father stood on the various theories about the origin of the Sigurd and Fafnir legend (dragon, gold, hero) and how it came to be combined with the obviously different legend about the Niflungs. Complex stuff.

Appendix B – The Prophecy of the Sibyl Tolkien essayed a translation of part of the famous Völuspá poem from the Poetic Edda into 12 6-line stanzas of traditional English rhyming verse. It is interesting how bad this is:

Then darkened shall the sunlight be
and Earth shall founder under sea,
and from the cloven heavens all
the gleaming stars shall flee and fall;
the steam shall rise in roaring spires
and heaven’s roof be licked with fires.

It doesn’t have the compression and power of the long fornyrðislag poems, showing that the eddaic poems live or die by their concision and power. Also shows what a very traditional poet Tolkien is, using outdated poeticisms to fill in the metre of the longer English line.

Appendix C – Two fragments of a heroic poem of Attila in Old English one is 40 lines long, the second 28 lines long, two translations of sections of the Norse eddaic poem Atlakviða into Old English (Anglo-Saxon). One for the specialists.

Changes

The two commentaries detail the changes Tolkien made to his source material in order to create one unified coherent story. Along with the introduction and appendices they dwell at length on the confused state of the old texts, how they appear to be trying to reconcile different traditions, different stories, about different sets of heroes. Christopher Tolkien admirably recounts his father’s theories as expressed in lectures, notes and random scraps of paper. If you have the mental capacity, Christopher supplies the evidence you need to assess Tolkien’s theories about the origins and authorship of all the various Dark Age sources.

But there is one MASSIVE change Tolkien makes in his version of the poems, which is entirely gratuitous, entirely his own addition to this ancient tangle of narratives. He makes Sigurd not just any old warrior, but THE warrior, the Chosen One of Odin who, it is explained in the opening section, will be the last best hope of the gods when the time comes for their Last Battle with the giants, at the Ragnarök.

This is hugely unlike the Norse originals, a complete and surprising transformation. One reason the Völsunga saga is so confusing is because, as so many of the other sagas, one damn thing happens after another. There is no sense of foregrounding individuals or important scenes. Plenty of other lives and stories occur before we get to Sigurd in either the Völsungasaga or the Poetic Edda, and the story carries right on after his death without a blip.

One of the challenges of reading the sagas is this complete lack of all the devices we know from novels and plays and films and TV which make crystal clear who the hero and heroine are, prepare the ground for them, and then focus in on dramatic moments in their story. In the sagas one person with a complex family tree follows another in puzzling profusion – leaving the reader struggling to figure out who among the scores of Helgis and Hognis is the actual “hero”.

In sharp contrast Tolkien makes Sigurd a hero of world-shattering importance, not just another Helgi but THE man who will come to Valhalla to help the gods fight against the giants.

Thy womb shall wax
with the World’s Chosen,
serpent-slayer,
seed of Odin.
Till ages end
all shall name him
chief of chieftains,
changeless glory.

It transplants the entire story into a different worldview. Very tempting to remember Tolkien was a Roman Catholic and has here imposed a Christian-shaped importance to the hero. If not that personal a shift, it at the least gives the narrative a priority and importance which the Norse original lacks.

This big shift is just one way in which Tolkien makes his poems much more modern, comprehensible and meaningful than the original Norse. The story is smoothed out into a comprehensible linear narrative. Characters get lots of dialogue to explain their motives. Scenes are properly set and the way prepared for the protagonists to say what’s on their minds. You understand what’s happening and why.

This couldn’t be more unlike the clipped, laconic, obscure and often impenetrable poems of the Poetic Edda. The obscurity and garbled brokenness of the originals is of a piece with the compressed power of the originals. Tolkien can’t match or replace that. But this paperback might make a good transition for readers who like modern fantasy and want to tentatively explore the sources of Tolkien’s imagination before diving  straight in to the challenging Poetic or Prose Eddas.

Photo of the woodcarving of Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hylestad stave church in Norway

Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hylestad stave church in Norway

Sagas

%d bloggers like this: