Top positive review
87 people found this helpful
on August 2, 2014
This impressive book is a highly ambitious and very successful attempt to explore the major features and complexities of 19th century global history. Readers should have clear expectations and understanding of Osterhammel's aims before starting to read it. This is not a conventional narrative survey. To get the most out of this rich text, a decent prior knowledge of 19th century history, including both Western and non-Western regions, is necessary. Similar knowledge of 18th and 20th century events is useful as well. If you don't know, for example, something about the Taiping Rebellion or Meiji Restoration at the level of reading surveys of Chinese and Japanese history, you're likely to be at sea for parts of the book. Osterhammel's goal is to move past the basic narratives to explore major similarities and differences in the increasingly interdigitated world that emerged in the course of the 19th century. While some will find this off-putting (see some of the other Amazon reviews), this feature and Osterhammel's remarkable depth of knowledge provide an unprecedented view of the 19th century. Osterhammel is also a fine writer (and appears to be translated very well by Patrick Cammiler) with a talent for telling language.
My recommendation is that readers start with the first 3 chapters, and then read the final, short, interpretative concluding chapter, followed by the rest of the book. The book opens with 3 chapters called Approaches that deal partly with theoretical-historiographic questions and also with how residents, so to speak, conceptualized many aspects of the world they inhabited. This is, to a considerable extent, a exploration of the "mentalites" of the 19th century but also a discussion of our present strengths and limitations in analyzing the 19th century past. I suspect many readers will find parts of these sections excessively theoretical but they are actually quite important and very thoughtful. Grasping Osterhammel's points in these sections really enhances reading of the following chapters. The short concluding chapter returns concisely to some of the issues raised in the first 3 chapters and contains an explicit identification of some important and distinctive themes that Osterhammel sees as emerging from his remarkably broad discussions of many regions and societies. Reading this concluding section may help to navigate some of the data-rich discussions in the great majority of chapters in the book. Osterhammel identifies 5 major themes of 19th century history - asymmetric efficiency growth, increased mobility, asymmetric reference density, tension between equality and hierarchy, and emancipation. Its beyond the scope of a short review to discuss what Osterhammel means by these themes, but asymmetric efficiency growth, for example, encompasses such phenomena as industrialization, increasing state power, and the institutionalization of scientific research. Understanding what Osterhammel means by these themes and how he explores them is one of the chief delights of this book.
The great body of the book is divided into 2 sections; Panoramas and Themes. The chapters in the Panoramas section are broad and deep discussions of important phenomena across the globe and including analyses of how these things changed during the 19 century. Osterhammel discusses demographic changes, international migration, living standards and material culture, the dynamic nature of cities, the importance of frontiers and frontier-settler states, the fate of traditional and nomadic socities, the role of imperial states, international politics, political revolutions across the globe, and the changing nature of the state. The Themes chapters isolate a few key areas for discussion. These include industrialization per se, the growth of scientific knowledge, changes in social structures, religion, and racism and related concepts.
All chapters are impressive in terms of many comparisons and analyses across the globe. Osterhammel's erudition is remarkable and each chapter is considerably more than an interesting accounting of similarities and differences. Osterhammel has many, many shrewd analyses of general phenomena driven by his impressive knowledge. His discussions, for example, of the nature of empires and its relationship to emerging nationalism, what constitutes a political revolutioni, and the importance of the modern university are strong cases in point. As a really nice bonus, the bibliography is outstanding.
There are a few minor defects. As is usually the case, the publisher has scrimped by using endnotes, rather than footnotes. Maps and well chosen illustrations would have enhanced the book. Like most historians, Osterhammel relies primarily on verbal descriptions. He uses some tables but more use of appropriate charts and tables would allow concise presentation of important data. These are, however, very minor complaints about a really first-rate book.