The Reconstruction of Europe

FIFTY years ago, Emerson wrote, “ Our age is retrospective ; ” to-day we might write with equal truth, Our age is introspective. That habit of self-dissection, which so many persons indulge almost to the point of self-slaughter, has grown to be national in its scope. We speak of the spirit of the age, of the characteristics of this or that people, of the tendency of the human race as a whole; and just as each of us turns his eyes inward to discover the mysterious springs of his temperament, and to foresee what should be its development, so we apply our microscope and scalpel to the time in which we live, in order that we may foresee its products. Science has taught us that law is omnipresent, and that all things are perpetually changing — some for the better, some for the worse — in accordance with law. In history, we follow the growth and decay of nations: each link in the chain is so evident that we can affirm, with all the assurance of those who prophesy after the fact, that this result, or that, was inevitable. In many cases we are astonished that bygone events were not as clear to those who took part in them as they are to us who regard them through this retrospect of history. What could be more certain, for instance, than that the Roman Empire at the beginning of the third century was hastening to decay ? Yet the Romans of that time did not perceive this any more than the Venetians of the sixteenth century perceived that Venice was moribund. Napoleon deemed himself mightier in 1812 than in 1804. Metternich, np to the very eve of the Revolution of 1818, imagined that Europe, like a patient mule, would work on indefinitely in the treadmill of despotism where he had put her. Any intelligent school-boy could now correct the Venetians, or Napoleon, or Metternich in their mistaken security, because every schoolboy understands the significance of symptoms which they misunderstood.

But, we ask ourselves, cannot we interpret our present conditions correctly, and predict, with a great show of reason, the probable complexion of the age to come ? We believe we can, — although the failure of the wisest men in the past should warn us to be modest, — and so we examine all the more eagerly every sign, every symptom, in our national life to-day. And just as to-day is the child of yesterday, so to-morrow will be the child of to-day. It behooves us, therefore, to study most carefully the events of yesterday : in them we shall find the germs of our present disorders, and the preparations for our present achievements. From time long past we can get only general knowledge : the influence of Marathon, or Tours, or Hastings is too remote, and has already been estimated ; but the influence of the battles, and especially of the men who fought the battles and shaped the policy of the generation preceding our own, still affects us. To them we must turn for the key with which to unlock the present. Strange as it may seem, this is the hardest period of history about which to obtain accurate information. Some persons, indeed, deny that there can be any history of events so near : we must have traveled far enough, they say, to be able to look back over a long perspective ; and time, which lulls passions and puts prejudices to sleep, time, which winnows with impartial fingers the true from the false, must have been long at work before the historian should begin to write. In this view, an epoch must be stonedead, a corpse on which the historiansurgeon performs the autopsy. And yet our symptoms to-day are living symptoms, many of which have survived from the past, and to interpret them we must feel that the past was alive. Our chief concern is with what we now are, and with what we are presently becoming, not with phases of human development that are dead and gone forever ; nevertheless, owing to the huge mass of material, which makes it all the harder for the historian to sift and condense, and owing to the uncertainty of contemporary verdicts, this information which, we all desire cannot be obtained without much labor. Our academies and colleges send out every year students who can tell you all that, is known about Hannibal or Hildebrand, but who have only the vaguest knowledge about the recent actions of Gortschakoff or Bismarck.

A book which will aid many to understand the present conditions and tendency of European life is Mr. Murdock’s Reconstruction of Europe.1 To say that it is the best work of the kind would be to give it inadequate praise, because works of this kind are few and dry, whereas this is interesting, clear, rapid, and symmetrical. Mr. Murdock has not the philosophic depth nor the vivid imagination of historians of the first rank, and he lacks distinction of style ; but he has the power of perceiving the really important events, and of describing them consecutively, and these are rare and admirable qualities. Human development, like the flow of a river, is continuous, but for historical purposes we are justified in marking it off into periods ; and we should concentrate our attention upon those periods which have the most variety or significance, just as we visit that part of the Niagara River where it breaks into rapids and falls, and not the twenty miles where it flows placidly and monotonously. Mr. Murdock has been wise, therefore, to choose for his subject the period between 1850 and 1870, — the period of the Second French Empire; and although the limits set are arbitrary, it would be hard to point to any other twenty years so complete and self-comprised, so nearly forming a distinct epoch. Doubtless many of the seeds then sown are growing to-day, but, on the other hand, many questions of long growth were then uprooted and dispatched forever.

In looking back over this period, we are struck, first of all, by its distance from the present, — a distance not of time, for many men are still living who sent the despots of Europe into exile in the Revolution of 1848 and 1849, and most of us can remember the days when Solferino, or Sadowa, or Sedan were fresh, but a distance in methods and motives. The régime which prevailed in the fifties seems now almost as far away and ancient as that which prevailed before the French Revolution. We find it hard to realize that the Italians and Austrians and Germans of less than forty years ago had to stake their very lives upon questions which we now regard as political truisms, — upon national independence, freedom of speech, and representative government; yet so it was.

Two principles have dominated the development of Continental Europe during this century, — the principle of nationality and the principle of popular representation. To one or the other of these can be referred the chief episodes in European progress since Waterloo; and both of them are the direct outcome of the French Revolution. The movement begun in France in 1789 aimed at destroying absolute monarchy, and at substituting constitutional government ; but for a while this purpose was obscured, at first by the excesses of the revolutionists, and then by the ambition of Napoleon, who employed the mighty forces thus liberated in establishing an empire not less autocratic, but far more extensive, than the Bourbon monarchy which had been overthrown. The absolute monarehs and privileged classes of Europe combined against him, and after a ten years’ struggle they crushed him. In his fall, the principles of the Revolution seemed to have fallen too ; the old order was restored, and kings and courts were willing to believe that the Napoleonic episode had no more significance than an earthquake or a hurricane, which wreaks temporary havoc, but will not recur. In reality, however, Napoleon’s triumph had been but a magnificent digression ; his splendid exploits had blinded the world. The question proclaimed by the Revolution was not, Shall one Frenchman rule over Europe ? but, Shall each nation rule itself, and shall each citizen have a share in the government of his nation ? The very coalition of the European states against Napoleon intensified the feeling of nationality. When Germany roused herself to shake off his tyranny in 1813, she gave warning that she would submit to no foreign domination ; and from this patriotic national resolve in Germany and elsewhere issued the desire for freedom at home. Nevertheless, the old régime was restored, and during thirty years Europe seemed outwardly to have forgotten the principles of 1789.

But in 1848 the Revolution, which had been arrested by the wonderful power of Napoleon and diverted to his selfish ends, and had run underground for a generation, came once more flood-high to the surface, and everywhere swept despotisms before it. In their place, constitutional governments were everywhere established. The victory seemed won ; but erelong the partisans of privilege, who had a common interest, united, and one by one they overwhelmed the partisans of liberty, who were isolated. The Second European Revolution failed because it was local and not national. In the history of Europe which Mr. Murdock has written, we see the triumph of the Revolution between 1850 and 1870 through the development of the principle of nationality. Patriotism is the strongest bond which can unite a people ; but intelligent and lasting patriotism can flourish only among men who are joined by ties of blood, by a common ancestry, by the sympathies of race and tradition, by the same language and country, and by common interests. In the mediæval world, provinces and kingdoms were parceled out among the heads of a few families: the scheme was dynastic, having no respect for the preferences of the inhabitants of any region. So an Austrian might rule over the Netherlands, or a Spaniard over the Two Sicilies, without having his right to do so questioned. In 1850, this mediæval system still obtained in Italy, which was split up into several political fragments, in which the Austrians, or the Bourbons who were foreigners by descent, held sway; only in Piedmont were Italians governed by a native monarch, for the Pope, though Italian by birth, depended upon foreign support to preserve his temporal power. Germany was likewise made up of nearly twoscore states, some no larger than a single town. No foreign despot tyrannized over these, no foreign army wrung taxes from the unwilling people, but Austrian influence preponderated in all the states except Prussia. The history of these twenty years records the effort of Prussia to counteract this Austrian influence, and, having accomplished this, to secure for herself the leadership of Germany ; the unification of Germany into an empire was almost an afterthought. The rise of Prussia and the liberation and unification of Italy are the two great facts in the reconstruction of modern Europe. They were accomplished at the expense of Austria and France ; we may say, indeed, that Napoleon III. unwittingly helped both Italy and Prussia to bring about his own ruin. That he was Emperor at all was due to an after-wave of the first Napoleonic tide ; and no better evidence could be given of the tremendous force of the First Napoleon than that, nearly forty years after his downfall, the prestige of his name and the memory of his achievements sufficed to keep Louis Napoleon, who was neither a great soldier, nor a great statesman, nor magnetic in his personality, on the throne of France for twenty years.

Many points strike us as we review this period. First of all, we are startled at the number and persistence of mediæval conditions which still survived in 1850. Europe has been struggling for a century to shake herself free from feudalism, yet even now she is not wholly rid of it; even now the privileged classes enjoy an unwarranted social preeminence, although their political supremacy has been curtailed. We recognize, further, the unparalleled expansion of militarism. The profession of soldier has become the highest in the state. Millions of men are kept constantly under arms, all their training, all their thoughts, being devoted to war. So war, which should be the supreme emergency, the last resort, of civilized peoples, has come to be regarded almost as the natural condition, and peace is but a temporary armistice. Barracks and iron-clads consume wealth that should be applied to education. Even the warlike reign of Napoleon I. did not equal in the cost and magnitude of its campaigns the wars between 1850 and 1870, of which here is the list: 1854-55, Crimean War, England, France, Turkey, and Piedmont against Russia; 1859, Italian War, France and Sardinia against Austria; 1864, Schleswig-Holstein War, Prussia and Austria against Denmark; 1866, Seven Weeks’ War, Prussia and Italy against Austria ; 1870, Franco-Prussian War, France against Prussia. Besides these great conflicts in Europe, there was Garibaldi’s conquest of Sicily and Naples, in 1860; the Polish revolt, in 1863; the Spanish revolution, in 1868 ; and the long-smouldering Cretan insurrection. Outside of Europe, there was the Sepoy mutiny, in 1857; the American Civil War, the longest and bloodiest of all, 1861—65 ; the Mexican War, 1863-67; and perennial revolutions in Cuba and South America. An amazing list, for an epoch which calls itself civilized ! This readiness to resort to arms to settle disputes hears witness to the fact that deep in the heart of mankind there still nestles the conviction that neither reason nor justice, but brute force, is the arbiter of human affairs, — that might is right. And this shows us how far national morals fall below individual morals. If an individual is injured by his neighbor, he does not take the law into his own hand, and demand an eye for an eye, but he seeks satisfaction in a court of law ; but if a nation fancies itself insulted, or covets one of its neighbor’s provinces, it concocts a pretext for war, and dispatches its armies over the frontier to wreak vengeance on the insulter and to seize the desired territory. In modern Europe, the principles of Christianity have hardly had a perceptible influence in the conduct of international affairs. Selfish interests and dynastic ambitions have, for the most part, controlled diplomacy ; only after cabinets and kings declare war do they sing Te Deums and offer prayers to the Lord of Hosts, and discover that they are engaged in a most Christian enterprise.

A complete history of Europe during the Second Empire would chronicle many changes. In warfare, for instance, the introduction of long-range weapons almost put an end to the old-fashioned hand-to-hand combats. The employment of railroads made it possible to mobilize vast bodies of troops and to convey them to the front in a very short time, and enabled an army to advance rapidly without being in want of provisions or ammunition. The telegraph facilitated the quick transmission of orders and reports, and increased the knowledge of a commander-in-chief on the battle-field. The Germans, who were the first to adapt their military system to these larger possibilities, have revolutionized the art of war, until it has become, not an art, but a science, a great game of chess, with army corps for pawns and kingdoms for squares. The telegraph has also done away with the old system of diplomacy, lessening the importance of ambassadors and envoys, and enormously increasing that of the prime minister, who knows every day what is going on in every capital of Europe. More significant still is the gradual social reconstruction : the old régime was feudal, the new régime is commercial; the old privileged class held its title by birth, the new holds its title by wealth. And already we have premonitions that the next great revolution will be fought between wealth, on the one hand, and labor, on the other. The unexampled progress in mechanical inventions has brought material comforts down almost to the lowest social strata, with the effect, temporarily at least, of materializing all classes, so that the standard of public policy is set not by the best, but by the majority of average men. Quite as important, but more difficult to determine, is the change in religious beliefs, through the natural decay of superstition and the dissemination of scientific and critical theories.

These are some of the considerations awakened by a review of the period dealt with in Mr. Murdock’s history. Just at present, when it is the fashion among one school of historical students to disparage the influence of the individual and to exaggerate the influence of the masses, who, they assert, would arrive at a goal whether one man or another led them, it is interesting to observe how the strong personality of a very few men has shaped European affairs in recent times. Two of these men loom above all the others, whether we take for a measure the work they achieved, or the range and vigor of their genius. These two are Cavour and Bismarck. The former had the harder task, for there were opposed to him not only Austrian and Bourbon tyrants, but the far more subtle antagonism of the Pope ; he had not only to free his countrymen, but also to teach them the uses of freedom ; he had first of all to interest Europe in Italy’s behalf, and then to show Europe that Italy could govern herself according to constitutional methods. He was a liberal of the highest English type, but superior in native power to any British statesman of the century. Bismarck, on the other hand, has had no faith in popular government. His aim was first to place Prussia at the head of the states of Germany, and then to place Germany at the head of Europe. He has worked consistently for the aggrandizement of the House of Hohenzollern. Had his ambition been selfish, he might perhaps have played the part of a Cromwell or a Napoleon, whom he resembles in his autocratic nature. Undaunted, unscrupulous, and unsubdued, he has for nearly a quarter of a century held the balance of power in Europe: a huge, Brennus-like conqueror, who throws his sword into the scales, and cries out, Vœ victis ! He has the un-German quality of common sense ; he sees clear, and sums up a policy in a sentence. Ferro et igne ; Do ut des ; Beati possidentes ; La France fait une politique de pourboire: these phrases and many more like them have the true Bismarckian ring. More fortunate than Cavour, he has lived to see the fulfillment of all his plans ; but, we may well ask, will the despotism he has erected endure after his death ? The unification of Germany has been the product of that principle of nationality which we have before referred to as one of the chief forces of the century : how long will it be before Germany adopts that other principle of genuine constitutional government ? And when she shall have secured that, to what use will she devote it ?

Of the Second Empire, with its tinsel grandeur and shoddy Cæsar ; of that ridiculous anachronism, the temporal power of the Pope; of England’s sanctimonious support of the Sultan and blundering campaign in the Crimea ; of Austria’s bombastic pretensions and their complete collapse; of the injustice done to Denmark and the cruelty done to Poland, we have no room to speak. The reader will find a lucid account of them in Mr. Murdock’s volume, where the main currents of diplomacy are clearly mapped, and where a full description is given of the military campaigns of the period. This history, read intelligently, will interpret many of the political and social conditions amid which Europe now moves, and it may even whisper hints as to the nature of the changes towards which our own age is tending.

  1. The Reconstruction of Europe. A Sketch of the Diplomatic and Military History of Continental Europe, from the Rise to the Fall of the Second French Empire. By HAROLD MURDOCK. With an Introduction by JOHN FISKE. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1889.