M. M. Abbenhuis u.a.: The First Age of Industrial Globalization

The First Age of Industrial Globalization. An International History 1815-1918

Abbenhuis, Maartje M.; Morell, Gordon W.
New Approaches to International History
London 2020: Bloomsbury
264 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Yaman Kouli, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf

It is hard to overstate how the nineteenth century changed the economy and society of Europe, and there is a good argument to be made that the changes then were more profound than those of the twentieth century. When a monograph tries to wrap up those years between 1815 and 1918, the first question the author(s) must answer is what they will use as a topical foundation to structure the book. To put it simply, the authors attempt to explain the entire nineteenth century via industrialization. Though only implicitly, they oppose the axiom of Douglass North that the “marriage” of knowledge and economy deserves to be called the “second economic revolution”. Or in the authors’ words: “Industrialization is the most important development to affect global humanity since the invention of agriculture” (p. 40). Much of what happened can be derived from that, for industrialization “was the process by which manual labour was replaced by mechanical labour”, thus increasing product quantity while at the same time reducing costs (p. 43). The rest follows Karl Marx as the world was formed in a way that allowed industrialized countries to sell their products and to acquire resources and reach markets to maintain the system.

The narrative of the book follows the following format, consisting of 10 chapters of about 20 pages each. The first two chapters (“Introduction” and “The International Diplomatic System”) lay the foundations of what is to come – historically and in the book. By 1815, Europe developed a modus vivendi that allowed them to maintain peace at home, with home referring to Europe. As a consequence, it became possible to start conquering the world without having to worry too much about what happened on the mainland. Chapter 2 explains how the Congress of Vienna (1815) helped create a peace order in which the five main European powers agreed to preserve peace by always putting diplomacy first and by maintaining an equilibrium of power. Chapter 3 is dedicated to free trade and how the entire world became drawn into it: “For industrial capitalism thrived on exploitation, acquisition and expansionism” (p. 48). Even world expansion only worked for the Europeans as their mechanism to solve conflicts via diplomacy – the so-called Concert of Europe – functioned worldwide. That is why China was “neutralised”, which means that no other country had exclusive access to China, therefore maintaining the equilibrium on the European continent (p. 53). Chapter 4 investigates the infrastructure that was necessary for international trade – and in fact globalization – to exist.

Chapter 5 focuses on migration and the link between migration and imperialism, including forced migration, meaning slavery. In fact, the theme of this section is how migration served the purpose of increasing industrial production. The subject of chapter 6 deals with an issue that often only plays a minor role in industrialization history: the environmental costs of industrialization. This includes the bison in the USA (p. 115), the proliferation of plants and animals, the death of forests, and the effects on the ecosystem. Yet it also covers protection measures like the creation of the Yellowstone National Park in 1872 (p. 120). Chapter 7 explains how the world drifted towards a “world of war after 1850”. While Europe itself was relatively peaceful, the rest of the world suffered from interstate wars, civil wars, and imperial wars. All of them were affected by the growing industrial capabilities. The war between Russia and Japan for instance (1904/05) made Japan enter the “club of civilised countries” (p. 131). Chapter 8 is more classical: “Ideas and politics on a global scale” explain how the distribution of ideas fuelled revolutions and created inter- and transnational communities and international exchange (including not only nationalism and liberalism but also feminism, new sciences, and – ironically – internationalism, as well as world fairs). The last two chapters are dedicated to the war itself. Chapter 9 examines the path of the world towards the Great War, and the final chapter explains why the Great War truly deserves to be called the First World War.

By design, the book is for students. That is why every chapter ends with a short list of “recommended readings”. This also may be why the authors are eager to make the book tell an entire story that is concisely written, which is always a different strategy for a historian. And yet, the author of this review must admit that he did learn a lot, mostly because the book successfully puts together a history that is not entirely focused on Europe. In so doing, Maartje Abbenhuis and Gordon Morrell show how industrialization affected not only industrializing countries, meaning those in Europe and the USA, but also the entire world. The “rise of the western world” (Douglass North) was – to name only two examples – accompanied by misfortune (as in China) and failed attempts at industrialization- (for instance, in Egypt). All of this is the result of the assumption that industrialization pushed the European world towards globalization. Consequently, when the book looks at migration, it also looks at Chinese and Asian Indians (p. 92).

Due to its audience, little of what the authors write is explicitly groundbreaking. Theoretically, there are plenty of books that cover the twentieth century. The works of Jürgen Osterhammel and Christopher Bayly might be the most popular ones. What makes this book unique is its perspective and the concise explanation of world economic history during the century before the Great War. Moreover, it offers students at the start of their studies the opportunity to understand just how profoundly the world – and not just Europe or specific regions – was transformed by industrialization. Every beginner – economic historian or not – would be well advised to read this 200-page book.

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