Although it’s been over ten years, I remember reading Norman Davies’s masterpiece Europe: A History and being surprised by his claim that the nineteenth century was probably the most dynamic and vibrant century when compared to anything that preceded it. At first anyway, I was quite skeptical of Davies’s claim. Surely, shouldn’t such pivotal eras such as the Reformation and the Renaissance be considered as having a greater impact in shaping our historical trajectory ? But the more I thought about it, and more importantly the more I read Davies’s insightful and comprehensive account of that period, the more I came to understand that the nineteenth century shaped our world unlike any previous period in human history. Besides giving birth of the modern era’s grandest and most seminal “big ideas” such as nationalism, Marxism, evolution and modern psychology, powerful and centralized nation-states, fortified by the fruits of the industrial revolution, corporate capitalism and efficient bureaucracies, began to project their power and influence across the globe and in the end reshaped the much of the world in their image. After the nineteenth century things would never be the same.
So with that in mind, I tried not to have too high of expectations when I grabbed Events that Changed the World in the Nineteenth Century during one of my frequent library visits. Published in 1995 and edited by Frank Thackeray and John Findling, Events that Changed the World in the Nineteenth Century was produced primarily as an “entry-level” volume for college students. Thackeray and Findling’s book could be seen as being two books in one. Each chapter is devoted to one significant aspect of that century with both a straight-up “just the facts” descriptive introduction followed by an interpretive essay that discusses things in greater detail and most importantly that particular event or series of events’ lasting influence.
Keeping in mind the book’s target audience of lower division college students, I had no major gripes with the opinions and analyses contained within the covers of this book. With a chapter apiece devoted to the Latin American Wars of Independence and Japan’s Meiji Restoration, it would be tough to call Events that Changed the World in the Nineteenth Century Eurocentric. I guess the only complaint I might make is while there’s a chapter discussing German unification and one devoted to Russia’s freeing of the Serfs, there isn’t a chapter discussing the United States’ westward expansion and its consolidation as a nation. But overall the writing, while a tad dry isn’t half bad. But most of all, pretty much all the interpretive essays do an admirable job not just showing why certain aspects of that century are worth noting but what lasting contribution they’ve made to history. It’s a no-frills kinda book and after reading it I can see why it never won any awards. But in the end, it delivers the goods.