28. dec, 2016

Richard J. Evans - The Pursuit of Power


The author, Richard J. Evans (1947) is known as a professor of modern history at Cambridge University. He is specialized in German history, more specifically WW-II.

It might seem a bit queer that historians get more and more productive right after their retirement. The explanation is simple. From then on, they don't have management tasks anymore, they don't need to look after funds, they don't need to justify their time and money. The period that is covered by 'The Pursuit of Power' (812 pages) is not a familiar ground for Evans. Yet it has been received by fellow historians with great enthousiasm. I do not fully sustain that applause.

The books starts with the aftermath of the Napoleontic era. Basically the starting point is the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The geographical and political map of Europe was drawn again and proved to be stable for another 33 years. It ends with the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand, archduke of Habsburg in 1914 in Sarajevo. There is some logic in this time frame. The asset of his writing is certainly in the geographical coverage. The first focus is inevitable on the UK, a major player in the 19th century world scene. The second focus is on Europe, from Portugal to Russia, from Italy till Finland. The upcoming nations outside Europe enter the theatre where this book ends. There is hardly any European country that hasn't fought a war in this era. Though weapons of mass destruction hadn't been invented, even minor wars consumed more than 100.000 military victims. Colonialism was deployed in a untamed manner. European civilisation was assumed to be superior. Natives could be shot without remorse. And that is what they did: the Spaniard, Portugese, French, British, the Dutch, the Belgians and the Germans. I fear that Evans' refections are closer to reality than what I learned at the primary school in the late sixties.

Reading history again brings the reader a lot of better understanding, interlinks between events in different countries and in different times. In this respect I didn't was my time on this book. Sometimes a got annoyed and disturbed by the apparent need of the author to show that he knows more than you. From time to time facts and figures are overwhelming. And this is where the readers loses track. The layout of the text doesn't help much; it old fashioned, typically for elder historians. Many chapters hint on further reading. The reader feels that Evans concentrates too much on facts and too less on interpretation. Yes, historians may add interpretation to texts. That is added value. As for myself, I came to conclusions that I never have drawn before. The book not only shows that democracy emerged in the 19th century, but also how and why. Illiteracy disappeared slowly, papers could be printed and distributed much faster than in the past, capital was rather concentrated than spread. There are many similarities between Europe in the 19th century and in the 21st. The question is, do politicians see these and are they willing to learn lessons from it? When it comes to the ultra-right wing nationalist wave that hits our coasts today I'm pretty pessimistic. Apart from the fact that these people hardly read books, and don't know about history and certainly about 800 page history books, lessons to be learned are so obvious that the mistakes of the past should definitely not be repeated at the cost of millions of lives. The pursuit of power is the well chosen title of a magnum opus. Autocrats who pursue uncontested dominion require countervailing power every day. We call that: democracy, the passion of optimism combined with the power of the reason.

We must take more care of our democracy.

That was the major lesson I learned from this book.

Thank you, Renée, for giving this nice birthday present.