European History and European Lives: 1715 to 1914

Course No. 8270
Professor Jonathan Steinberg, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
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Course No. 8270
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Course Overview

Thirty-five of the most influential people who lived during the 200 most difficult years in the history of the West form the subject of this dramatically different course. Who were these artists, writers, scientists, and leaders in the context of history? How and why did their lives shape our times and reflect their own?

They lived during the years 1715 to 1914, and they include:

  • Augustus the Strong—his gargantuan appetites nearly exhausted his royal treasury
  • Charles Darwin—a disinterested theology student whose real obsession was to explain things
  • Sir Robert Walpole—an extraordinary politician with an even greater mastery of corruption
  • David Lloyd George—his incomparable political strengths were put to a radically different purpose
  • Mary Wollstonecraft—her groundbreaking manifestos launched feminism but offered little protection from the irony of her own biological destiny
  • Captain Alfred Dreyfus—he was condemned to Devil's Island in a notorious miscarriage of justice that foreshadowed the Holocaust
  • Napoleon Bonaparte—his conquests and administrative genius turned the French Revolution from chaos and disorder to stability and permanence.

What do these people have in common? And what links them to such similarly disparate figures as Marx and Engels, Marie Antoinette, Edmund Burke, C.P.E. Bach, Metternich, Pope Pius IX, Nathan Rothschild, or Louis Pasteur?

They are all major players in the grand drama of history, whether ruler or statesman, artist or philosopher, general, scientist, or leader of a faith. And each plays a role in this course—a deft mix of history and biography—as a way to understand this history.

A Dramatic Classroom Approach

Professor Jonathan Steinberg makes clear at the outset that this approach is different from anything he has seen in almost 40 years in the classroom.

This course:

  • Focuses on 35 people whose lives represent the crucial forces that shaped European history during two decisive centuries
  • Examines the transformation of Europe from a world of "lord and serf, horse and carriage, superstition and disease" into today's modern state of "boss and worker, steam and steel, science and medicine."

A March through Living European History

In this innovative course you hear Professor Steinberg's extensive use of carefully chosen quotes from the people themselves and from several biographical sources. This attention to detail also includes musical excerpts when he discusses composers Bach and Wagner.

As you grow to understand the living context of European history, you appreciate the great transforming themes embodied by the people who populate this fascinating march.

The two most important themes are the movement toward democracy—culminating in the French Revolution—that dominated the first of the two centuries covered, and the Industrial Revolution with the explosion of science and technology that dominated the second.

Democracy and Science, Beetles and Battlefields

In choosing the characters whose lives most reflect these themes, Professor Steinberg has not confined himself to those who are most often studied—monarchs, politicians, military leaders—but has included scientists, artists, philosophers, and industrialists, and even an entire population threatened with starvation—the Irish.

Professor Steinberg ably explores how the nature of absolute rule evolves from the unquestioned autocracy of a ruler like Augustus the Strong to the many styles of enlightened absolutism exemplified by rulers such as Maria Theresa of Austria, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II.

You see how the success of even enlightened rulers was ultimately betrayed by limitations, whether imposed by human nature, the backwardness of a realm, or the nature of reason itself.

You follow the emergence of the public sphere, the shattering of artistic boundaries, and the creation of new marketplaces as bold new visionaries including Samuel Johnson, Goya, C.P.E. Bach, Goethe, and Wagner take the public stage.

You watch as science achieves a profound new importance—often at the expense of religion—as theories and discoveries of people such as Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur are framed by historical context.

Professor Steinberg draws pictures with words, from the image of Darwin excitedly stuffing a newly captured and squirming beetle into his mouth because he has nowhere else to put it, or a description of Napoleon's profound battlefield influence on his troops—an ability to inspire loyalty that helped make his life, in Professor Steinberg's words, "the single most important" encountered in this lecture series.

It is, considering the company kept during these 36 lectures, a bold statement.

Why History through Biography?

After an introductory lecture on history as a "soft" science, Professor Steinberg describes his course as a road map to the period in which the world of Europe becomes like our own and a new "self," set in a new social reality, becomes the dominant actor.

Each of the remaining 35 lectures is named for, and devoted to, a personality or group of people. The lectures unfold chronologically over 200 years.

"To lecture on lives raises a serious problem of method," says Professor Steinberg. "Much of what happened in the years 1715 to 1914 depends on the lives and activities of ordinary people whose struggle for existence and happiness makes up the great story of modern history.

"Changes in population, disease, famine, immigration and emigration, factory labor, strikes and trade unionism, literacy, emancipation of women, armies, and empires are mass phenomena, not individual ones. No single life can remotely express these huge forces," he points out.

"What justifies the biographical approach?" asks Professor Steinberg. He gives three reasons:

"First of all, it is fun. It is in our nature to be interested in one another. The people whom we shall study are among the most interesting people who have ever lived.

"Second, it is way to look at the great changes. If we see the times in which our figures lived as a kind of lens or magnifying glass, we can look for the background, as well as the foreground. We know what they could not: What happens next.

"Third, it is a way to educate ourselves. It draws out our awareness of ourselves and our world."

By looking at what even the greatest of the actors of the past could not see or understand, we get a glimpse of what we may be missing in our own thinking. When we observe the way people in the past seemed unaware of great changes now obvious to us, we have a useful moment of self-doubt. What are we missing in our world? We become one degree less self-confident that we know what is going on.

"That touch of humility, that creative moment of hesitation, that openness to the possibility that we might be wrong, those are the signs of a real historical education," states Professor Steinberg.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    History as a "Soft" Science
    This lecture is a road map to the period in which the world of Europe becomes like our own and a new "self," set in a new social reality, becomes the dominant actor. x
  • 2
    Augustus the Strong—Princely Consumption
    The life of the Duke of Saxony and King of Poland is far from unique among the rulers of his time and is a way to understand the lost world of "old regime" Europe. x
  • 3
    Robert Walpole—Politics of Corruption
    England's first modern prime minister belongs to an aristocratic, premodern social order. Yet his shrewd, corrupt, and comfortable administration clearly offers a look at our own world beginning to take shape. x
  • 4
    Frederick the Great—Absolute Absolutist
    This monarch's 46 years of rule embody the principle of rational autocracy and reveal its limitations, for no ruler, no matter how brilliant, can avoid the paradoxes built into mortality and human nature. x
  • 5
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau—A Modern Self
    Novelist, philosopher, and political theorist, this major figure of the Enlightenment is the first representative of what becomes our modern sense of self. x
  • 6
    Samuel Johnson—The "Harmless Drudge"
    The most famous literary figure of 18th-century England is himself the subject of the greatest biography in the English language, and represents a new stage in the evolution of modern communications: the emergence of mass media and the public sphere. x
  • 7
    Maria Theresa—Mother of the Empire
    Ruler over a complex of states and territories, but forbidden by gender to claim her title as Holy Roman Empress, this remarkable woman raises for the first time in this course the "Austrian problem" that would dominate European politics from 1740 to 1914. x
  • 8
    David Hume—The Cheerful Skeptic
    Now widely regarded as the greatest philosopher of knowledge, Hume's publication of A Treatise of Human Nature in 1739 applies the experimental method to ideas and demolishes all the existing rules of thought. x
  • 9
    C.P.E. Bach—Selling the Arts
    The most distinguished son of J.S. Bach develops an expressive style far different from that of his father and spearheads the emergence of art as a commodity, suddenly available to a new middle-class public. x
  • 10
    Catherine the Great—Russian Reformer
    Seeking to Westernize Russia, Catherine's astonishing successes and equally clamorous failures illustrate the dilemma of striving for her nation's modernity while preserving its soul. x
  • 11
    Joseph II—The Rational Emperor
    Maria Theresa's son is the champion of rule by pure reason, but his attempt to impose rationality unleashes history's law of unintended consequences and spotlights the inherent dilemma of enlightened despotism. x
  • 12
    Goethe—The Artist as Work of Art
    The first bourgeois artist to become a megastar, Goethe is to Germany what Shakespeare is to England; his unleashing of romanticism causes an entire generation to reframe its values. x
  • 13
    Adam Smith—The Wealth of Nations
    A Scottish moral philosopher discovers the nature of modern capitalist markets and the division of labor but sets limits that his champions overlook to this day. x
  • 14
    Marie Antoinette—Queen Beheaded
    A young queen's notorious reputation for pleasure and extravagance comes to symbolize the blindness of the old regime in the face of the need for change. x
  • 15
    Edmund Burke—The New Conservatism
    Rising to high office on the strength of intellect alone, this "extraordinary man" pens Reflections on the Revolution in France and invents modern conservative thought. x
  • 16
    Robespierre—The Democrat as Terrorist
    Terror becomes a modern political concept as this provincial French lawyer's attempt to force people to be free, virtuous, and happy leads to the execution of 40,000 "enemies of the people" and, ultimately, himself. x
  • 17
    Mary Wollstonecraft—The Rights of Women
    Her eventual death after childbirth makes biology her destiny in the most terrible way, but not until the career of this "first feminist" launches a debate whose impact is still felt. x
  • 18
    Napoleon—The Revolutionary Emperor
    The most important life covered in this course represents the implementation throughout Europe—by force—of the principles of the French Revolution, but reduced and contained in the interests of political order. x
  • 19
    Metternich—The Spider and the Web
    A genius at persuasion makes Metternich Napoleon's greatest adversary—not on the battlefield but over the lacquered tables of diplomacy—as he attempts to restore the balance of power in Europe after 1815. x
  • 20
    N.M. Rothschild—Financier to the World
    The "English" Rothschild provides the financial foundation for Britain's victory over France, but the problem of emancipated Jews as symbols of capitalism and change also helps create modern anti-Semitism. x
  • 21
    Goya—The Painter as Social Critic
    Goya's uncompromising portrait of his times represents a starting point for 19th-century culture, exploiting the new romantic cult of genius to exert influence beyond art's conventional boundaries. x
  • 22
    Giuseppe Mazzini—Idealist of the Nation
    Combining Romanticism with a largely "imagined" nationalism, Mazzini creates an explosive mixture that fails to create the mass movement he envisions, even though his ideal of an "Italian people" ultimately becomes reality. x
  • 23
    George Eliot—A Scandalous Woman
    The "greatest English novelist" scandalizes her own generation as both a "professional woman" and as a person "living in sin," reflecting in her great work, Middlemarch, the changes through which she is living. x
  • 24
    The Irish Starve—The Great Famine
    This "collective biography" of a starving people reflects both the limits of 19th-century liberalism and the problems of population growth, disease, and subsistence. x
  • 25
    Napoleon III—The Empire of the Boulevards
    Obsessed with his uncle's legacy, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte tries to end the instability of French politics by restoring the first Napoleon's system in the "land of revolutions." x
  • 26
    Pius IX—The Infallible Pope
    The most important pope of the 19th century declares war on the modern secular state and enunciates the doctrine of papal infallibility, setting the terms of the Church's struggle to adapt to the modern world. x
  • 27
    Richard Wagner—Revolution in Music
    The first prophet of the new irrationality and the cult of art seeks to redefine art as an alternative to conventional religion. x
  • 28
    Marx and Engels—The Perfect Collaboration
    Two dramatically different men nevertheless form a perfect working relationship, and their lifelong collaboration alters the course of history. x
  • 29
    Otto von Bismarck—Blood and Iron
    Germany is reunified, without destroying the old absolutist state, by a diplomatic realist whose character is very different from the image handed down by history. x
  • 30
    Charles Darwin—Origin of Species
    Though arriving at Cambridge to study for the ministry, Darwin creates still another crisis in faith, creating the new theory of evolution and almost single-handedly destroying the old account of creation. x
  • 31
    Queen Victoria—"We are not amused"
    Giving her name to an entire era, this remarkable queen makes the British monarchy the popular symbol of the middle classes while becoming the catalyst by which the British political system transforms itself. x
  • 32
    Friedrich Krupp—The New Plutocracy
    Monarchy, feudalism, technology, capitalism, the new sexuality, and the mass press all combine in this family story of a huge industrial concern torn by contradictory forces of modernity and autocracy. x
  • 33
    Louis Pasteur—Modern Laboratory Science
    A French chemist and pioneer microbiologist changes the way we live in this examination of scientific creativity and the structures developed by 19th-century society to make scientific work possible. x
  • 34
    Count Leo Tolstoy—Lord and Serf
    The struggle of Russia to retain its soul while modernizing resurfaces in the story of a privileged aristocrat whose inner journey brings him to a real-life ending far different from its beginnings. x
  • 35
    Alfred Dreyfus—First Act in the Holocaust
    The false accusation of a Jewish French officer is both the last act of the French Revolution of 1789 and the first act of the tragedy that will lead to the Holocaust. x
  • 36
    David Lloyd George—Champion of the Poor
    The youngest character in our series is also one of the most extraordinary, breaking the power of the House of Lords, introducing social security, and creating the modern welfare state. x

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Your professor

Jonathan Steinberg

About Your Professor

Jonathan Steinberg, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Jonathan Steinberg is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania. He completed his undergraduate work at Harvard University. He earned his Ph.D. from Cambridge University and served for 30 years as University Lecturer in European History, Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and Vice-Master. Professor Steinberg served as an expert witness in the Commonwealth of Australia...
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European History and European Lives: 1715 to 1914 is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 85.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from european history and european lives:1715-1914 Professor Steinberg is a learned historian and well versed in his subject. However: He is lacking in enthusiasm He simply reads his lecture He constantly does quotes-these support his point-but they detract from his lecture
Date published: 2020-09-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from European History and European Lives: 1715 to 1914 I learned a lot from this course, but cannot say that I enjoyed it. It was delivered at a fast pace, with a lot of quotations, which read out - I feel that if he wants to do this, he should be taught how to read passages out loud. It took a lot of energy to keep focused, and many times, I had to replay the DVD to catch his meaning. The individual lectures were about individuals, but the professor spent so much time introducing context, that the end result was a somewhat sketchy account of the subject of the lecture. Although I admire his courage in trying to deliver a vast subject, I feel he failed somewhat, because it was too vast. After hearing the whole course I could not define liberalism if I were asked. Professor Steinberg also introduced a lot of personal opinion - he often stated "this is the best ......... ever written". This was a little irritating because I didn't always agree with him! Despite this, I would still recommend the course, because, if nothing else, it gives a jump-off point for further study.
Date published: 2020-06-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Pulls it all together! I think that history is the story of ideas and their power. This course gives great detail on lives of ideas and power. It is magnificent!
Date published: 2020-02-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Initially downloaded in March of 2013, I have finally been able to listen and pay attention to Professor Steinberg's course. Now, I am very saddened to have finished it, but my goodness what a delight it has been to travel these years with him. So much has been put into context for me, thank you.
Date published: 2019-08-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Bold Experiment that Almost Works Professor Steinberg addresses this rather unusual approach upfront in his very first lecture. As advertised, the history of Western Europe as it moves from the Ancien Régime to the beginnings of the modern world is told through biographies. He says that this is something that he has not done before and hopes that it will work. He uses the 35 following lectures selecting an individual to bring an era, or a country, or a region, or religion, or science, or a government or art, literature or music into focus. And therein lies the problem: keeping up with the patchwork approach of music here, art there and politics everywhere is not easy, either for the lecturer or for the listener. While the approach certainly has its merits, I think that in order to really get much (from an historical perspective) requires a fairly sound background on the era. Those with little background may like to take Professor Weiner's "Long 19th Century" or Dr. Nobel's "Western Civ II" first. Both can be recommended. As with any list, it is easy to wonder why one item (in this case a person) was selected instead of another, I was overall pleased, with a few welcome surprises at those who were selected to illustrate a particular point. For example when I looked at the course table of contents, I questioned the inclusion of C.P.E. Bach instead of some more well-known and prominent (at least today) musician of the era. After having listened to lecture nine, my skepticism was assuaged, as using him, and to a degree his father J.S. Bach, to show how the transition from an artist needing support from the Nobility to being able to make a living from his own works being sold and performed. For me the overall selection of individuals worked well. However, the attempt to give some brief biographical information about the person selected in each lecture, combined with describing how he or she fit into it and was responsible for the changing times was not always convincing. For example I found lecture 35 on Dreyfus to be first rate in both describing the man and to a large degree the times, but it was a bridge too far to attribute this to the holocaust. While it may be that a reasonable thesis could be developed (and may well have been already), there was not enough time in 30 minutes to really make the connection. Just as lecture 16’s assertion that Robspierre’s reign of terror leads to Osama Bin Laden. Assertions like this need more time and detail for a reasonable argument to be developed. This is a problem with the course structure, not necessarily with the presentation. But the presentation should be faulted in other places. Dr. Steinberg makes too many sweeping generalizations. For example, “War and Peace” may be the greatest novel ever written. Now I place my love of this work second to no one, but really? This comment and others are not attributable to the course structure. Professor Stienberg is a fine presenter. And like the course itself, he is a bit disjointed. He interjects personal items that are germane to the course (such as his time teaching in Cambridge) and at the same time bogs a lecture down in useless detail. For example he never mentions a person, no matter how insignificant without giving their birth and death dates. Otherwise full marks for delivery. I took the course in audio and that probably would suffice for anyone. There is a lot to like in the course’s approach. Often the links made by Professor Steinberg among chosen individuals and their times and places made me think—and continues to do so. This is a major positive for any course. I found this course both enjoyable and frustrating. In the end, it is neither fish nor fowl. But enjoyable all the same.
Date published: 2019-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from one of the best! I have listened to dozens of the Great Courses series and this is one of the very best. The format works really well; you have all the imaginitive pleasure of learning about individuals and at the same time the themes emerge clearly. This was a really stimulating course too. I loved the comparison of Robespierre and Osama bin Laden, and I loved the Professor's enthusiasm for his own particular favourites. But Bismarck as one of the favourites? Even after the great lecture I can't warm to him. Many thanks to Professor Steinberg.
Date published: 2019-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative Professor Steinberg makes his lectures on European History very interesting. He lectures about a great variety of European prominent figures. They span from Politicians, Musicians, Kings, Queens, Rulers, Poets...
Date published: 2019-07-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just brilliant I love this course more than I can explain. Dr Steinberg is so amazingly knowledgeable and I like his presentation too. I wished he could talk a bit slower. I am in love with this course. Thank you dearest Dr. Steinbeck, please continue....
Date published: 2019-06-09
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