Saturday, March 4, 2017

Nineteenth Century Europe. The Revolution of Life. By Leo A. Loubere.

The stated goal of Leo Loubere’s Nineteenth Century Europe, is to “to provide the reader with a general descriptive and analytical text for the period of 1814-1914” (Loubere, p. xi). In the Introduction, he writes “the theme of this book is modernization” (Loubere, p. 1). These statements set the stage for explicating his liberal-progressive view of history. Employing modernization, or what some historians call progress, Professor Loubere depicts advancement in democratic representation, rights for minorities & women, and secular challenges to institutionalized Christian clergy. He also presents the opposition to modernization/progress: autocratic governments and their supporters (aristocracy, wealth and clergy).

Politically, the author shows how “governments became increasingly liberal, that is, they both granted and safeguarded individual freedoms…managed to curtail the once absolute power of rulership” with “parliamentary bodies” and “broadened” voting rights which included women after 1914 (Loubere, pp. 1-2). Despite this cheery picture of progress, Loubere does not lose sight of oppressed industrial workers or agricultural peasants. In a passage, typical of his sympathy for the poor, he states “peasants lived off the land, and the nobles and clergy lived off the peasants” (Loubere, p. 72). Sympathy for workers and peasants results in a significant focus on the rise of Socialism, culminating in Chapter 18, “The Second Coming of Socialism.” Loubere’s emplotment, regarding the evolution of democracy, is romantic. Discussing the failed revolts of 1848, which attempted to replace monarchies with republics, he writes “Austrian generals could win battles, but they could not win the war because the real war…consisted of changing social structures and the growing power of new ideas” (Loubere, p. 131).

Loubere spends considerable time on women’s issues. Because of industrialization, “family structure, human relations, the position of women and everyday life, became transformed beyond recognition” (Loubere, pp. 2-3). However, women are not presented as simply passive leaves being blown in the wind of 19th Century forces. Throughout his narrative, the professor describes active female participation in transforming their societies and themselves. He interjects women’s issues into conversations about work, education and role expectation. He provides sections entitled “Women: Bondage and Liberation” and “Condition of Women” within his chapters.

Throughout the book, the Christian religion is presented as a regressive, harmful force in European society. While discussing science and medicine, Loubere adds the following gloss: “The immaterial, the soul or spirit, was a fiction perpetrated on society by advocates of traditional beliefs stemming from ages of gross ignorance about the world” (Loubere, p. 214).  His argument against religion is not confined to the problem of spreading superstition and ignorance. He also catalogs actions by the “alliance between altar and throne” which logistically attempts to restrain democratic progress (Loubere, p. 55). He describes how the “rural population” was “kept in check by religion” (Loubere, p. 76). He examines how in Prussia (Loubere, p. 221), France (Loubere, p. 222), and Russia (Loubere, p. 263), when reform or revolt were beaten back by absolutist force, the clergy was given the task of purging schools and universities of innovative faculty and ideas; replacing them with dogma counseling passivity. This backward thinking and action was not limited to the public sphere. Loubere characterizes “the middle class wife after about the 1870s” as “a remarkable, enlightened person” who no longer “accepted infant mortality as the will of God” (Loubere, p. 246). But he goes on to describe how churchmen attempted to counter this growth by preaching that “an educated woman was a dangerous creature” (Loubere, p. 247). Later in the century, during the land grab in Africa by European powers, clergy were right there with the soldiers “Christianizing all the heathens” (Loubere, p. 337).

Throughout his narrative, Loubere bears witness to the destructive power of violence. He sardonically describes the pattern of leftist “political revolutions, whose violent phases lasted only a few days followed by months of debate, and ending in a violent reckoning of accounts” with military reaction (Loubere, p. 70). Of course he is equally critical of establishment violence to repress society’s advance. Also, his chapter on imperialism stands as in indictment of greed-driven war against native African and Asian populations. Finally, the coda of the book, the unnecessary destruction that was World War I, concludes his criticism of “nation states…ruled by men whose minds had not yet evolved to…recognize war as a menace” (Loubere, p. 333).

Loubere is not a historian with ingenious theoretical insight. Even his emphasis on the people from a liberal-progressive perspective is nothing new; Howard Zinn beat him to it by about a decade. What Loubere offers is breadth. He presents both the activities of the rulers and those of the people, thereby offering a more whole picture than most historians. Loubere is a dissenter from those who write only about traditional power politics, the lives of the wealthy, or the dominant institutions. A reader will come away from Nineteenth Century Europe with a broader perspective.

Loubere, Leo A. Nineteenth Century Europe. The Revolution of Life. Engelwood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1994.