History at its most interesting is complex, a fascinating whirl of events, personalities, and forces, and few periods of history offer us such captivating complexity as Europe's 19th "century"—the often-broadly defined period from the French Revolution to World War I that formed the foundation of the modern world.
How was that foundation built? And what did that transition to modernity mean for peasants, workers, the middle class, aristocrats, women, and minorities?
Why did an era that began with the idealism of the French Revolution and the power of the Industrial Revolution culminate in the chaos of World War I, considered by most historians to be the greatest tragedy of modern European history? Did nationalism and imperialism inevitably lead in such a direction, or were there other factors involved?
Even these questions, as important as they are, can only hint at the complexity of this period, just as this course can really only put us on a path toward the answers.
Understand a Turbulent Era
Dr. Robert I. Weiner assumes no prior knowledge of this era and no professional vocabulary, "just interest, curiosity, and hopefully, passion."
Disclaimers notwithstanding, these lectures indeed offer the opportunity for anyone with an interest in history to take an enormous stride toward understanding the whys of this turbulent and important era, and not just the whats.
Professor Weiner, a five-time recipient of Lafayette's Student Government Superior Teaching Award during his 35 years of teaching history at Lafayette College, leads you on a spirited journey across an ever-changing European landscape, examining the forces and personalities that reshaped the continent's physical borders, diplomatic relationships, and balance of power.
He moves from the impact of both the French and Industrial Revolutions in the period from 1789–1848, into the so-called "unifications" of Italy and Germany in the 1850s and 1860s, followed by the spread of industrialism and nationalism into the furthest reaches of Europe toward the end of the century.
By that time, the world had undergone profound changes:
- In Europe, the dominance of Great Britain and France had been eclipsed by a rapidly modernizing Germany.
- Austria-Hungary was struggling to survive as a multinational empire.
- Russia was facing stresses of inadequate modernization as other nations moved ahead.
- The United States and Japan were beginning to enter into an emerging balance of world power.
- Almost all of Africa and much of Asia had been gobbled up in a final spasm of imperialist expansions.
Moreover, the European great powers, organized in alliances and enmeshed in an arms race, were confronting increasingly dangerous international crises.
While more people in Europe were living better than ever before, Europe had become a very dangerous place—soon to erupt in a war more brutal than any the world had ever seen.
Enjoy an Ambitious Look at a Much-Pondered Subject
In exploring the evolution of the environment that ultimately made World War I possible, Professor Weiner has crafted a very ambitious course, covering a vast range of material. He repeatedly steps back from "on-the-ground" events to clarify historical trends or patterns.
For example, he concentrates on political and diplomatic moves of the great powers—Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy—while always discussing them in the context of the deeper economic, social, and cultural forces at work. He doesn't merely offer you a chess position from which the next move is made; he lets you know how and why the various pieces have come to be arrayed the way they are, and how they reflect the impact of some of history's most significant names:
- Napoleon Bonaparte, whose massive legacy, though uneven, includes spreading the ideas of the French Revolution, such as freedom of religion and equality before the law, everywhere his soldiers marched
- Napoleon III, whose mixed reviews include one historian's recognition that he was "unique among dictators in ending his career with a government that provided his country with more freedom than the government he started with"
- Klemens von Metternich, the shrewd Austrian foreign minister who spoke for conservative, monarchical Europe during the last three decades of the Age of Revolution
- Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor who was architect of both Germany's unification and a system of alliances that ultimately led to her downfall
- Kaiser Wilhelm II, the brash young kaiser with a "special knack" for political and diplomatic gaffes
- Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French Army captain unjustly accused of espionage and whose ordeal inspired modern Zionism
- Karl Marx, the German intellectual whose ideas about a radical new philosophy found fertile ground on a continent where industrial modernization was creating new disruptions and resentments
- Count Camillo di Cavour, the brilliant Prime Minister of Piedmont-Sardinia whose tragic early death left imperfect the unified Italy he helped to create
- William Gladstone, the moralist humanitarian and Prime Minister who helped democratize Great Britain.
An Unflinching Look at Some of History's Major Players
These historical figures join with many others in a presentation that is unfailingly interesting and provocative, with Professor Weiner often quite frank, although fair, in his assessment of individuals and their decisions. This course can easily be divided into four major teaching segments.
After a short orientation to the Ancien Regime which offers a basis of comparison to the dramatically different world that was to come, Dr. Weiner's organizational plan begins with the period from 1789 to 1848 that has come to be known as the Age of Revolution.
Professor Weiner's second major section covers the period from the repression of the 1848 Revolutions until the unification of Germany in 1870–71.
Professor Weiner begins the third section with a look at the time European power was at its zenith, from 1870–1914. This power was felt on economic, military, political, and diplomatic levels throughout the world.
The final segment of the course covers the developments in European diplomacy that led to World War I, as well as the war's dramatic impact.
As the course—and Europe—move closer to the catastrophe of World War I, Professor Weiner narrows the focus again. He presents several case studies of the great powers in the decades leading up to the conflict, including Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and, as he describes it, "the cauldron that was Russia, Turkey, and the Balkans."
The Devastating Impact
World War I was punctuated by a series of battles of industrial slaughter, such as Verdun, the Somme, the Nivelle Offensive, and the final German thrusts in the West in the spring of 1918. More than nine million combatants perished, including more than half of the French men who were between the ages of 20 and 32 when the war began in 1914.
Concluding lectures examine not only the major events of the war but also the its impact on contemporaries and the following generation, and how it set the stage for World War II.
Although Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler were neither inevitable nor likely candidates for national leadership in prewar Europe, they were rooted in their national cultures, children of their age, and Dr. Weiner attempts to answer the question: What had gone wrong?