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The Age of Empire: 1875-1914
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on June 28, 2017
This concluding volume is Hobsbawm's brilliant trilogy meets the standard of the earlier volumes: the seismic changes of the 19C - setting the basic parameters for almost all that has followed in the 20C and even the 21C - are explained and evoked. It is a supreme masterpiece of historical exposition that will fascinate even those who have read many histories on the period. Once again, I found myself underlining passages like an undergraduate and re-reading this more than once. This is not a narrative history but a cooly precise analytical one.

The period begins with one of the greatest depressions that mankind had yet known. It marked the end of the liberal-bourgeois ascendancy, which was replacing the traditional aristocratic one with the democratic revolutions that followed the French (and to a lesser degree, the American) Revolution. As the regimes of Western Europe were growing ever more inclusive and even statesmen as powerful as Bismarck realized there was no turning back, this opened the political scene to an astonishing array of new ideas and possibilities. From the business-dominated conservatism and complacency of the previous 30 years, socialism, colonialism, the welfare state and a plethora of other notions emerged and were taken seriously by leaders who wanted to gain or maintain their power. Not only did this create new socio-political arrangements, but in the effort to "control the masses", it also spawned a new kind of political cynicism. If there is a marxist bias to this, it is here.

A big part of this was the ascendency of the notion of nationalism. With the old certainties - religion, permanent rural "stations" in life as opposed to proletariat work in cities, fealty to traditional elites - the emerging "masses" required means of control. Loyatly to the "nation", defined by lauguage, ethnicity, history and place, become a kind of new God. It required consolidation, even the creation of a language (often by wiping out regional dialects) and schools that proffered ideology as well as a ladder for advancement into bureaucracy and other new jobs. It was a new kind of allegiance, which became very powerful in the coming decades, easily eclipsing the supra-national ideologies such as communism that were emerging yet still poorly organized.

As the economic depression lifted, optimism returned with great, ultimately naive, force: many of the elite and even the common people thought that progress would be endless, an attitude that in many quarters survives to this day. However, in contrast to the liberal regime of openness and laissez faire, the handful of developed nations adopted a more mercantilist policy, combining protectionism and an industrial policy. Part and parcel of this was the colonial carve-up of the world by the industrial powers. This created a subordinate relationship, whereby the colonies represented protected markets for industrial goods and provided raw materials to enable their production in the empire's imperial seat. There was a rhetorical "civilizing mission" to all of it, but it only affected extremely limited elites.

A major theme of the book is the lead up to WWI. While mentioning the bourgeois ennui with the long period of peace (the Belle Epoque), Hobsbawm settles on the attitude of Great Britain as a principal cause. The continent had had a number of alliances, a kind of balance of forces that ensured an equilibrium of relatively minor wars that never became too destructive. However, as the German Navy began to encroach on British prerogative, the basis of its far flung Empire, they began to compete directly for mastery of the seas. So, Britain uncharacteristically allied itself with France and Russia, upsetting the old balance. Add to that a technological arms race, and a major conflict became inevitable, though its form was hard to predict and certainly would have taken a less horrific course.

There are many other interesting details, such as the evolution of science, which because less rigidly deterministic - relying on statistics rather than direct causation - and also more abstract, i.e. less commonsensical, less intuitive, more theoretical, particularly with new branches of mathematics and the new physics. In the arts, there was also a decline of realism, emphasizing the subjective and individual perceptions. In the meantime, the electorate continued to expand to the poor and even to the suffragettes. This is all covered too quickly, but it would represent a book in itself for a less superficial treatment.

This is a really great trilogy. Though there is a volume that follows, I suspect it is a commercial add-on as the concepts in this are perfectly rounded out. The reader really can learn an enormous amount about how we have come to this place of capitalism and dislocation. I kept my enthusiasm for it until the end. Recommended with enthusiasm.
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on October 1, 2017
This is a good book to read and understand how the European nations deployed their armies around the world to extract natural resources from other nations. Now, we have developing and underdeveloped nations.
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on December 5, 2000
This is the third book in Hobsbawm's economic history of the "long" 19th Century (1789-1914). The other two books are "The Age of Revolution" and "The Age of Capitalism."
Like the other two books, this is an economic history, so it presumes the reader already has some knowledge of the major historical events of the period. For a more conventional European history, I'd refer the reader to "Europe: 1815-1914" by Gordon Craig.
One hears so much about "Imperialism" -- always in a negative sense -- that's it's interesting to read about a period in which Europeans were unabashedly imperialistic. I had read elsewhere that the main reason imperialism failed was that it was uneconomical, but this is the only serious treatment of it I've read.
One big surprise for me was that the European Imperial period was so short. The Imperial posessions were relatively few and unimportant before this period, and were essentially snuffed out by World War I (taking until World War II to entirely disappear).
Although I have enjoyed Hobsbawm's books, there are two warnings for the would-be reader. First, Hobsbawm is an unapologetic Marxist, so his economics all come from a Marxist angle. That's actually not as much of a problem as it might seem, and it helps shed a lot of light on what the earlier followers of communism were thinking. Second, this is not an easy read. The material is difficult to begin with, and Hobsbawm's writing style makes it more so.
Still, I found it worthwhile, I learned a lot, and I'm glad I read it. If the combination of history and economics interests you, just take it slowly and it will reward your efforts.
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on June 9, 2017
This book is fantastic! He lays out the exact reasons and situations that led the European continent to the brink of war, while explaining all sides.
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on February 19, 2015
As expected, Hobsbawm examines the history and historiography from the angle of the common people. His immense intellect pulls together the trends and forms a coherent and fascinating narration of the physical and economic circumstances and philosophical consequences of daily life in Europe during the 19th Century.
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on July 11, 2016
I gave this book four stars however it is undoubtedly a five star book. However, this edition's print is impossibly small. I had to return the book.
Take care.
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on March 9, 2016
This series of books by Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, The Age of Extremes, is incredibly informative and wonderfully written. But it is not an easy read.
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on March 8, 2016
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on December 3, 2004
Eric Hobsbawm concludes his series on the nineteenth century with The Age of Empire. This sequel to The Age of Capital and The Age of Revolution covers the period from the mid 1870s until the outbreak of the First World War.

This series is not a general survey of the period or a textbook. Instead, it is intended by the author to be "an argument" for his basic premise. This thesis is the unifying theme of the trilogy and, as stated in the book, it is: "The triumph of and transformation of capitalism in the historically specific forms of bourgeoisie society in its liberal version." In this final volume the theme is the contradiction and instability of the bourgeois class when they were at their most successful.

The paradoxes and conflicts were increasingly evident in the economy, society, natural sciences, politics and international relations. Eventually they would crack the fabric of the comfortable bourgeois world with the start of the First World War. This conflict was the end of "the age of empire," and the upheavals caused by the war (and subsequent peace settlement) shaped the world of the twentieth century.

The very title of the work, "The Age of Empire," shows that internationalism and colonialism are a central theme of the period. The elite nations of the world were able, it seemed at first glance, to spread their flags and their trade across the globe with impunity. In a short span of time the Great Powers were able to conquer much of the less developed world. To many, this seemed to prove the inherent justice of the imperialist cause. The confidence of the major powers increased with each new colony and triumph.

Problematically, imperial powers found it easier to get an empire than to get a profit from it. Even more unsettling was the fact that not all nations would be willing to give up their sovereignty. The defeat of Italy by the Ethiopians, of Russia by Japan, and the long drawn-out Boer War all challenged the status quo. The late nineteenth century was a time of mass politics. Most of the industrialized nations of Europe had granted the franchise to a large portion of the male population. This necessitated a change in tactics for governments even as their strategic goals remained much the same.

A central paradox here was the use of mass politics to protect the rights and privileges of the elite few. Marxist theorists had expected that wider participation in the election processes would prove to energize the masses and serve as a precursor to the eventual revolution of the proletariat. In this hope, the social revolutionaries would be disappointed. Enlargement of the electorate proved to be a way to control the outbursts of the working classes that had previously lead to revolution or riots. On the whole, the electorate proved to be more conservative and interested in slow, steady enhancement of rights and benefits than desirous of revolutionary change.

In addition to economic and political change during the period, there were many social changes as well. Women entered the workforce in large numbers in the newly developed jobs of office workers and nurses. For the first time, primary education was available to almost all of a nation's citizens. Education was not only a means to increase the productivity of the future workforce, it also was able to inculcate a sense of nationalism and national pride in the population.

Hobsbawm ends the main body of the work with a review of the causes behind the First World War. He quickly dismisses the notion of war guilt or concerns over the immediate causes of the conflict. Instead, the author looks at the whole of the period and the pressures which led to the outbreak of war when it did as opposed to any of the other numerous crises which had occurred in the preceding years. The author places much blame for those pressures on the capitalist system which had powered most of the nineteenth century: "The development of capitalism inevitably pushed the world in the direction of state rivalry."

Hobsbawm is not able to be optimistic in his conclusions, but he does at least manage to be sanguine. The plan so clearly and precisely mapped by Marx and his theories has not occurred according to schedule. The author seems now unwilling to predict when or if it will. As Hobsbawm himself writes, "The only certain thing about the future is that it will surprise even those who have seen furthest into it."

Hobsbawm's work is never without its supporters and detractors. Reviewers of The Age of Empire reflect this pattern: in general, reviewers of the book were impressed with the scholarship and breadth of this ambitious book. Some reviewers were less concerned with the political beliefs of the author while others found them to be central to the work.

The Age of Empire has many strong parts. Hobsbawm is able to draw together events from around the world and relate them to his core thesis. The argument that Hobsbawm tries to make is less enjoyable than the delightful breadth of the work. One can sense the disappointment that the author has time and time again when the classes fail to revolt (as they should) or when capitalists fail to place profit above all else (as they must). The failure of history to proceed according to the wishes of the author is too intrusive to the reader and seriously detracts from the work.

The Age of Empire is best enjoyed by a niche readership rather than a general one. A reader with a strong interest in the social history of the nineteenth century will find this book an invaluable look into the period. Others readers who simply hope to find out who shot whom in June 1914 are apt to be very disappointed.
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on April 9, 2015
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