The Age of Empire
It is one of the great ironies of history that the very period which witnessed the triumph of the European imperial nations (the “Great Powers”) was precisely the same period which saw the growth of those forces that would result in the cataclysm of World War I and its aftermath, with which we yet live. How it was that one society, Europe, came to dominate the world, but could not resolve its own internal contradictions, is the theme of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, the culminating volume of a trilogy begun with The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (1962) and continued with The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 (1975).
That it was an imperial age can scarcely be doubted. During this period at least one-quarter of the globe was parceled out to a very few nations, all of them European except for the United States, Japan, and the transcontinental colossus of the Russian Empire. At no other time in world history have there been so many rulers who could legitimately claim the title of “Emperor.” On the surface, there seemed little reason that this situation could not endure indefinitely: The imperial nations appeared to be so strong militarily, economically, and even culturally, that nothing could prevent or upset their continued dominance of the earth. To some it seemed that the Western nations had assumed their rightful role in history: “manifest destiny,” as it was termed in the United States; “the white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling phrased it. The Age of Empire, then, was an age of both promise and achievement. Yet as Hobsbawm reminds the reader, the very same Kipling (“the greatest—perhaps the only—poet of imperialism”) used the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 to compose a poem warning of the instability and impermanence of empires. They were fragile things, all too soon “one with Nineveh and Tyre.” Kipling’s brooding pessimism was shared by many during this period. Indeed, as Hobsbawm points out, there was widespread belief that certain disaster lurked ahead; most simply did not foresee it so soon.
Why should this be? Why should there be, linked almost inextricably, the sense of nearly unlimited power and inevitable decline? To answer those questions, Hobsbawm asks some of his own: What sort of world was this during the Age of Empire? How did its people live? What did they do, how did they live and dress, how did they amuse themselves, and what did they believe? These may seem to be simple, almost naïve questions, but they are the most difficult for the historian to answer, for they require the patient reconstruction of strata and substrata of past lives often lost during the course of time. Fortunately, the records for so recent a period are relatively untouched, and just as fortunately, Hobsbawm shows both imagination and sympathy in reconstructing the past. While many of his answers may not be new, his approaches are often novel and his insights revealing.
It is clear that the Age of Empire might equally be termed the Age of Uncertainty, for beneath the glittering trappings of imperial splendor there was the gnawing suspicion that Europe was heading toward some inevitable catastrophe and was dragging the rest of the world with it. This uncertainty was displayed in a thousand facets, from economics to politics, from science to the arts. Some embraced, even rejoiced in, novelty and uncertainty. It was the great period for the avant-garde in the arts, the time of Pablo Picasso, the Vienna Secession, and the Futurists. It was the era of transformation in the written arts—in English alone, one merely need think of Ezra Pound, James Joyce, or T. S. Eliot. And then, there were the movies.
Motion pictures were truly a new art form (at least in technology, if not in content), one which transformed popular culture. The fledgling cinema spread with extraordinary rapidity, helped in large part by a technological limitation: Unable to reproduce sound, early films developed a universal grammar of image, a purely pictorial presentation that made the product easily accessible throughout the world. The cinema was the true beginning of modern popular culture. To many, particularly in Europe, the advent of motion pictures signaled the end of real culture—that is, culture that could be appreciated and enjoyed only by the privileged few, or the serious, hardworking, and therefore deserving bourgeoisie. Regardless of whether these fears were justified, the development of the cinema was a sign of profound change.
There were other indications of changes in the world and how people perceived it, and Hobsbawm elucidates them clearly and concisely. He traces the wrenching shifts which took place in religion and philosophy, the social changes brought about by the emergence of the “New Woman,” and the...
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