Review: The Transformation of the World

Jurgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century is an overview of the developments worldwide, mainly in the realm of the state.  It shares certain characteristics of the Holy Roman Empire in that – by analogy with the famous dictum – it is neither quite global, nor exactly a history, and least of all does Osterhammel confine himself to the nineteenth century as strictly defined.

Osterhammel deals with events around the entire world, and puts serious effort into placing the causes of various movements (whether literal movements such as immigration, or intellectual developments) specifically in their native context, rather than strictly viewing them as reactions or contrasts to European thought.  However, this effort is strictly limited to developments within what might today be called “power centers”: Japan, China, India, and Asian Russia receive careful treatment, but other societies – whether in central Africa, the Indonesian archipelago, or the Balkans – are dealt with in much less detail, being referenced mainly as “peripheries” of major players.

A little more detail about those areas is found when he deals with conflicts; however, this is mainly limited to a section of the book in which he writes at length about the various changes in the extent and nature of political territories and authority over the period he refers to as the nineteenth century.  Much of his approach is guided by his thoughts on how the period should be divided up; he is in favor – for the most part – of considering the “nineteenth century” as a longer period, roughly from 1760 to 1914 or even 1937, with ramifications down to today: the ideas productively brought forth in the revolutions of the late eighteenth century are common worldwide today but, as he puts it, “not fully worked out” in, for example, China.

As partly revealed by this major question of framing the book in time, Osterhammel has a good deal to say about political power structures, much of it useful.  Two examples would be his contention that the United States, roughly by the Louisiana Purchase but certainly in dealing with various Native American tribes, took on early much of the same imperial agenda as the European powers; and his comparison of “warlordism” in South America and the disintegrating Chinese empire of the early twentieth century.  Either one of these is a subject which would deserve a book of its own; however, neither is actually explored in detail.  The ideas are suggestive but any attempt at proof or explanation is somewhat lacking.

Overall, in fact, detail is lacking: the book seems to be written mainly for those who already have at least a general idea of world history in the nineteenth century, and are looking for a way to bring it all together.  Fortunately or unfortunately, Osterhammel doesn’t really manage that: his determination not to force a “Western” narrative on events seems at war with his interest in political change and his obvious conviction that the modern liberal administrative state is in fact progress over any previous institution of governance (with perhaps some small caveats, for example the societal restrictions imposed by the modern concepts of citizen versus “alien”).

The result is a somewhat disjointed structure – at no point does Osterhammel really indulge in any kind of “narrative” – filled with much valuable information, analysis, and conjecture.  However, it does have glaring weaknesses: his evaluation of religious life in the nineteenth century seems incomplete at best, and any discussion of other culture – literature, music, even the “exhibitions” that characterized the era – is completely lacking.  The writing is good on the whole; I did not figure out if the English version were original or a translation, and if so by whom.  Each individual section – calling them “chapters” would be unhelpful – holds up fairly well on its own apart from the lack of detail.  However, considered as a whole is it somewhat weaker.  The book would be most useful for a historian with a detailed knowledge of his own smaller field looking for additional political reference points either for comparison or framework: to call the book a general history of the nineteenth century would be inaccurate.