EUROPE: A GLOBAL POWER
The 19th century was a revolutionary period for European history and a time of great transformation in all spheres of life. Human and civil rights, democracy and nationalism, industrialisation and free market systems, all ushered in a period of change and chance.
By the end of the century Europe had reached the peak of its global power. Social and national tensions as well as international rivalries festered however - all exploding in conflict at the beginning of the 20th century.
The 19th century – an age of revolutions! Taking inspiration from the French Revolution of 1789, people across Europe challenged aristocratic ruling classes and fought for the development of civil and human rights, democracy and national independence.
Nationalism emerged as a revolutionary claim promising citizens more involvement in democracy, but it was exclusive, imagining a world of national territories inhabited by ethnically similar people. Some visionary Europeans, however, hoped for the unity of the continent beyond national allegiances.
The revolutionaries across Europe challenged aristocratic privileges and traditional orders. In particular, the revolutions of 1848-1849 were a milestone in the fight for equality, self-determination and human rights, goals which have strong echoes for our own times.
The French Revolution of 1789 was a turning point in European history. Existing political systems were undermined as the ideals of ‘freedom, equality and fraternity’ swept across the continent. The French revolutionaries’ attack on the Bastille prison in Paris on 14 July 1789 has become a famous symbol of resistance to corrupt rule and aristocratic privilege.
Legends, myths and a glorious past all became important elements for national movements trying to forge a national identity – an identity that was imagined as separate and unique from others. Flags, anthems and symbols were just some of the devices used by national movements to achieve these goals and enhance their self-image.
MARKETS AND PEOPLE
Steam, smoke, factories, noise – all announced the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. To different degrees manufacturing then spread across Europe turning the continent into the world centre of industrialisation, finance and commerce. New technical innovations initiated industrial progress with steam power driving the development of heavy industry. Methods of production were totally transformed and large factories with thousands of workers mass produced industrial and consumer goods.
Workers in the 19th century were wage labourers who did not have legal protection or social security. They often had to work and live in appalling conditions. Only at the end of the century did their situation improve with the gradual attainment of voting rights.
Originating from the French language, the word bourgeoisie describes a new social category of people who emerged out of the changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Economically independent, educated and gaining political rights, they were the driving force behind economic and political changes.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Speed, dynamism and a belief in progress defined Europe at the end of the 19th century. Railways, electricity, cinema, photography and new theories in science and medicine affirmed Europe’s leading role in this technological coming of age. A time of optimism beckoned.
The arrival of the age of railways demonstrated Europe’s advance as an assured technological world leader. Industrialisation expanded and long-distance travel became possible across all social classes.
Railways altered European landscapes with the introduction of tunnels, viaducts and bridges over previously impassable obstacles. What was then the longest tunnel in the world opened in 1882 with the completion of the 15-kilometre Gotthard rail tunnel connecting northern and southern Europe. Railways brought mass transit and tourism.
The telegraph allowed almost instant communication between distant places. A crime committed in one city could be rapidly reported in another, as could world commodity prices. Undersea cables made communication global.
Late 19th century national rivalries and international tensions were obvious within the Universal Exhibition of 1900, with galleries displaying weapons of war and colonial villages. Such rivalry would dramatically shape the following century.
The 19th century witnessed a globally dominant Europe. Empires expanded, colonies amassed – all pushed energetically forward by the Industrial Revolution. Colonies provided the raw materials and luxury commodities to meet rising consumer demand, in return promising vast markets for European products. Abuse and inequality were excused as a necessary part of ‘civilising’ savage peoples. The gradual ending of slavery was followed by new forms of intolerance and racism.
By 1914 European countries ruled about 30 % of the world’s population. Europe had been involved in overseas exploration and trade for centuries, but the benefits of the Industrial Revolution enabled Europe to tighten its grip on other continents.
The participants at the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) established the ground rules for partitioning the continent of Africa among European powers, without any input from Africans themselves. By the end of 1900 only three states remained independent. European powers would also divide up the map of Asia.
New European technology created tools, such as machine guns, that were decisive in advancing colonialism. Even with superior numbers, indigenous resistance was futile against a weapon that could fire 50 times faster than a standard rifle.
Within Europe itself, certain peoples were regarded as being racially ‘less evolved’ than others. According to such racist concepts, these societies were usually described as being on the geographical and social margins of Europe and were often seen as the living ancestors of 19th‑century Europe’s more highly developed races.