Jürgen Osterhammel unearths the “prehistory of the present day”

I tend to like my nonfiction books compact in size and focused in argument–as an old hack I prefer prose that is tight–but two of my favorite reads this year have radically defied this rule. Robert Tombs’ The English and Their History, which I started last year but did not finish until January, is a thousand pages in length in the print edition, basically every one of which is delightfully written and filled with interesting information (the book has been widely praised already but continues to win fans, such as Dan Wang).

The latest tome that has engrossed me almost despite myself is Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Centurywhich I bought on a whim when it made a (rather surprising) appearance as Kindle daily deal. His approach is really the exact opposite of Tombs’: narrative is rejected more or less entirely in favor of a thematic and topical approach. This strategy in fact helps keep the book consistently interesting, despite its enormous length (I’m only about two-thirds through): the treatment of each topic and subtopic is quite focused, with well-chosen facts and balanced judgments delivered in snappy sentences.

One of the book’s themes is, as he says early on, that “the nineteenth century belongs to the prehistory of the present day.” This is far from the only theme, and indeed some of the my favorite parts of the book focus on aspects of the 19th century that are quite different from 20th- and 21st-century experience (the chapter on frontiers is a particular highlight). But it is one of the delights of the book to repeatedly come across little origin stories of various aspects of modern life. Here a few examples, starting with basic stuff like foreign policy:

In the nineteenth century it is possible to speak for the first time of an international politics that sets aside dynastic considerations and obeys an abstract concept of raison d’état. It presupposes that the normal unit of political and military action is not a princely ruler’s arbitrary patrimonium but a state that defines and defends its own borders, with an institutional existence not dependent on any particular leadership personnel.

And economic and social statistics:

The nineteenth century can be seen as the century of counting and measuring. The idea of an all-embracing taxonomy now grew into a belief that the power of number—of statistical processing or even “social mathematics,” as the Marquis de Condorcet, a bright star of the late Enlightenment, put it—could open up truth itself to human reason. It was in the nineteenth century that societies measured themselves for the first time and archived the results.

Also major social phenomena like mass migration:

No other epoch in history was an age of long-distance migration on such a massive scale. Between 1815 and 1914 at least 82 million people moved voluntarily from one country to another, at a yearly rate of 660 migrants per million of the world population. The comparable rate between 1945 and 1980, for example, was only 215 per million. …Diaspora formation as a result of mass migration was ubiquitous in the nineteenth century. Only the French stayed at home.

And branded consumer goods:

The 1880s saw the birth and marketing of the branded product, with strategies planned like military operations. Singer’s sewing machine and Underberg’s herb liqueur in its characteristic bottle were present at the dawn of brand-centered marketing. It could develop because the serial production of articles of mass consumption was now a technical possibility. … Branded goods rapidly spread around the world, so that by the early years of the new century the petroleum lamp burning oil from Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, along with Western artificial fertilizer and cigarettes, could be found in remote Chinese villages.


Suburbanization, understood as a process whereby outlying areas grew faster than the inner core and commuting became a normal part of life, began in Britain and the United States around 1815. It would eventually be taken to extremes in the United States and Australia, whereas Europeans would never develop such a fondness for living outside the city center. … The technically advanced suburb of 1910 still feels close to us today: we describe it without hesitation as “modern.” In comparison, the pedestrian city of the early nineteenth century was positively medieval.

Beach vacations:

By 1840 the bathing resort had taken shape in England and Wales, with most of the characteristic features that we still see today. The prototype was Blackpool on the West Coast, whose 47,000 permanent residents catered (in 1900) for more than 100,000 vacationers. …Subsequently the seaside resort owed its growth to increased leisure time, greater affordability, and good railway and highway connections. By the turn of the century there were coastal resorts of more or less the same kind all around the central Atlantic and the Mediterranean, on the shorelines and islands of the Pacific, on the Baltic Sea, in the Crimea, and in South Africa.

And a phenomenon that I did not even think of as particularly modern, the dominance of coastal cities:

The nineteenth century was the golden age of ports and port cities—or more precisely, of large ports, since only a few could handle the huge quantities involved in the expansion of world trade. In Britain, exports in 1914 were concentrated in twelve port cities, whereas at the beginning of the nineteenth century a large number of cities had been involved in shipping and overseas trade. … It is probably the case that in every historical era before the nineteenth century, most of the largest cities and main centers of power or cultural splendor were not situated on the coast: Kaifeng, Nanjing, and Beijing; Ayudhya and Kyoto; Baghdad, Agra, Isfahan, and Cairo; Rome, Paris, Madrid, Vienna, and Moscow; and not least, Mexico City.

But this barely begins to convey the huge scope and wonderful variety of the book. A Chinese translation will be published in November, allowing me to recommend it to more friends.



  1. How nice for you to have shared my review, thanks. I discussed wanting to pick up Osterhammel in that post, but I haven’t yet. The next history I want to read is The Iron Kingdom, a history of Prussia, which is slightly less intimidating at two-thirds of the length.

    Another good book I picked up recently: Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem. Am on the third now, but feel that neither of the sequels were as good as the first. Curious for your take if you have one.


  2. I did read the Three-Body Problem, and while definitely weird and interesting, it didn’t grab me enough to make me really want to read the sequels. That said, it was probably the best of the Hugo novel nominees, so the award was certainly not undeserved.


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