Volker R. Berghahn. Sarajevo, 28 Giugno 1914. Il Tramonto della Vecchia Europa. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1999. 245 pp. LIT 32.000 (cloth), ISBN 978-88-15-06812-5.
Reviewed by Elia Casali Vendemini (University of Pisa, Italy)
Published on H-Italy (December, 1999)
The Decline and Fall of the European Empire would be an appropriate subtitle to Berghahn's book, since it is a description of how Europe lost its economic and political supremacy in favour of the new emerging world power, the USA. The author provides considerable evidence facts, taking different sources (newspapers, literature, arts) into account to support his thesis. Berghahn's research is not only a political reconstruction of the period 1914-1929, but also a comprehensive analysis of European culture and society. The author considers the Great War to be the first clear evidence of Europe's decline. The various European nations that fought the war came out of in a desperate condition: economic turmoil was linked to material destruction and monetary instability. Even if the loss of political influence was less evident than Verdun's shell-holes, the wide-spread cultural pessimism was a clear signal of Europeans' uncertainty about the future. Doubts of Europe's twilight were dispelled in 1929, after the Wall Street crash.
Berghahn locates the foundations of the European crisis in the political and economic events of the last few decades of the nineteenth century. Until the 1870s, he affirms, the expansion of the European economy and trade were sustained by British economic liberalism, which was brought to an end by the crisis of 1873. Inter-European trade recommenced from 1896, but on a much weaker basis. Trade in goods was not supported by international financial investments. This made European economies interdependent, but without a well-established common economy. Competition was bitter, and made harsher by nationalism.
Alongside this political and economic anxiety, Berghahn also explores radical pessimism. Since the end of the nineteenth century, both the French and the British watched hopelessly as the world order changed to their detriment. Central to the change was one of the most popular social theories of the time--Darwinism. It was applied to compare nations and civilizations: nations, like living species, get old and wear out, and eventually, become extinct, while new young species take over. France and the United Kingdom were old nations compared to Germany and the United States. The latter pair experienced strong demographic growth and flourishing economies and Germany vigorously claimed its right to rule part of the colonial world.
Cultural pessimism, Berghahn affirms, led literature and the arts to completely new outcomes. The doubts and the uncertainty about the future of civilization, pushed writers and artists either to criticize contemporary society or to abandon it and become self reflective, refusing to understand the external world because they were incapable of it. Literature and arts also condemned modern science and its optimism about the future. Indeed, it was not only a large part of the elite cultural world that was suspicious of so called "progress" but a broad spectrum of the social classes as well.
An important element in the process of modernization was that of democracy; and many thought democracy a mistake. For the most conservative classes (landlords, peasants, and often even workers), the decline of both European morals and civilization was seen as related to the new role that the 'masses' were playing in society. Cultural pessimism was a direct consequence, as Berghahn states, of social unrest. The political atmosphere was very tense because of the huge social problems related to unemployment, wages, political rights. In Europe the local community had always been a source of help for the individual; in the modern industrial world it had been wiped out and nothing had replaced it.
While in the United States progress was generally seen as part of "American civilization," in Europe it was often regarded with hostility. Some were even willing to fight against it. One such person, as shown by Berghahn, Kaiser William II. He and his entourage were convinced that Germany had to expand its boundaries, both on and off the continent in order to survive the race with the other European nations. The only way to do so was through war. Germany was a new country that had experienced booming economic growth but little social and political reform. Kaiser William II was himself very hostile to any kind of democracy and harshly resisted attempts to introduce social welfare in Germany. Yet, in Berghahn's opinion, he was really obsessed by the political role of Germany. Kaiser William II wanted his country to have a leading role in the world, and so he embarked in his Weltpolitik project, supported by his personally-chosen government. Among its members, since 1897, there was Admiral von Tirpiz, who considered the Navy to be the most important element in a very-likely-to-be European war. The naval rearmament undertaken by Germany, despite its parliament's opposition, was to upset the otherwise phlegmatic British government.
The naval arms race which both Germany and the United Kingdom experienced put the two nations' economies under pressure and revealed their weaknesses. In Great Britain the modernization of the navy and the army was sustained by a large number of social and economic reforms. Berghahn gives accounts for fiscal reorganization, new economic protectionism (trade within the colonies), and extended social welfare. In Germany, on the other hand, there was no room for change: the clash between ultra-conservative government (supported by the military) and parliament, where socialists had a relative majority, only resulted in aggravating the political atmosphere, while the public debt and taxation vigorously increased.
But Germany and the United Kingdom were not the only competitors on the world scene. Berghahn reminds us that many other countries were acting in order to survive the nations' Darwinist evolution. France and Austria-Hungary were among these. The former was concerned with German expansionism while the latter had to face a double struggle: the internal turmoil due to its resident ethnic minorities' new nationalist consciousness and external Serb and Russian Pan Slavism. This entangled political situation came to one natural conclusion: the formation of formal alliances between countries. France and Great Britain united against the German menace, joined later by Russia, while Germany and Austria-Hungary were natural partners to defend themselves from that dangerous encirclement.
Berghahn tries to explain that such a dangerous escalation in aggressive/defensive policies could only lead the European countries to war. Though nothing in history can be considered inevitable and predetermined, the author comes quite close to that assertion--admitting that in war, in this instance, was only a matter of time. Since the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth the underlying causes of a European conflagration already existed. In the author's opinion the German government, led by Kaiser William II, was directly responsible for the war's outbreak. War was considered unavoidable and even desirable; it would put an end to internal social havoc and give Germany the chance to become a real world power. The German military command thought the sooner the conflict started, the better the possibility of victory.
But in Berghahn's opinion, the Great War was the beginning of the end. After that apocalyptic massacre Europe could not rise again to lead the world. The worst expectations of the result of the war were exceeded by far. Scientific and technological progress, which had been the sole hope for the future for many, supplied the conflict with new deadly means to civilization's retrogression. The shock was both cultural and material, and the social questions, put momentarily aside by the wartime national efforts, flooded back stronger than ever before in the aftermath of the Great War.
Violence became part of European societies and was now simply considered as a valid political instrument. Literature and the arts were pervaded by an even more radical pessimism than that experienced before the war. There was nothing left other than that which demonstrated the absurdity of the world. In the right-wing culture that emerged the social analysis was much different: the war was seen as a heroic and grandiose experience, and it served as a strong link among those who had fought in it. They had been neglected by the elites who ruled the country, and were left without aid. They were incapable of finding a place in the new society. Their hatred and discontent mounted more and more as time passed.
The material destruction of the Great War was huge. In the theatres of war, land was lost to agricultural production for many years. The industrial conversion from wartime to peacetime production meant high unemployment rates. Enormous amounts of financial and material resources had vanished in the mutual effort of destroying the enemy: and no real reparations were possible.
Berghahn concludes his analysis with the 1929 Wall Street stock exchange crash. Brief economic growth had begun in Europe in 1924, after the question of German reparations had come to some kind of settlement, but it was not based on very solid ground. The expansion of financial credit gave both Europeans and Americans a false sense of prosperity. Social issues were ameliorated by the momentarily prosperous states but fundamental problems remained untouched. When the financial crisis struck no one still believed in the Europe's capacity to recover in the short term. Europe's primacy in world politics and economics was now completely destroyed: even if the United States had been hit by roughly the same force of the crash, its system's structure was much more solid than the European's.
While not highly original in its general thesis, Berghahn's work offers a brilliant historical reconstruction of the first decades of the century that is about to close. His thorough analysis covers every aspect of that period of time. Much attention is given to international politics and historical facts, but the author does not forget to cast these elements in a lively and complete account of that time's social and cultural background, as happens too often in many political science essays. To properly treat a subject of this weight and breadth is never easy. The sources are numerous and of many different types. A reader of Berghahn's research might feel his references somewhat lacking at times, but the book itself represents a good overview of the topic.
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Elia Casali Vendemini. Review of Berghahn, Volker R., Sarajevo, 28 Giugno 1914. Il Tramonto della Vecchia Europa.
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