Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Long Nineteenth Century

So the Chaosium Cthlhu Mythos project I embarked on late last year has clearly fallen by the wayside. I haven't posted anything on it in months and I haven't been able to make any headway in the next book, Cthulhu's Heirs, for weeks. Every time I tried to get going again I found myself distracted by anything else. I just couldn't stay focused on the stories, no matter how good. So, I'm calling it quits for now. Maybe I'll go back in the future.

What I AM interested in right now are the various wars and colonial actions between 1789 and 1918, a period the repellent Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawn, crafted.  The French Revolution represents a shattering of the feudal, social, and relgious order in most of Europe. At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the Great Powers attempted to re-establish the old order at the Congress of Vienna and it never really took. Between that span, nationalism sparked numerous revolutions and wars. France, England, and many other powers continued their imperial expansion bringing millions of people under their rule.

The slow-motion race toward the Great War and the vileness of the colonial undertakings are fascinating. At a time of rapid cultural and social growth, of scientific advancement at a speed never before experienced, the developed nations of the world seemed bent on proving themselves by force of arms and with bloodshed. From my cossetted early-21st century place it makes little sense. But of course it did to millions upon millions of educated people at the time.

When I read history, when I encounter the past, I try hard not to simply dismiss it because people and societies aren't as liberally minded as we like to think of ourselves today. People weren't evil (okay, some of them clearly were), but instead, had the same sort of complex thinking and understanding of human actions we have but with completely different underlying assumptions. My hope is to come to a greater understanding of how people came to such different conclusions than we do (most of the time) today.

Between 1815 and 1914, Europe saw numerous wars. Among them were the First and Second Italian Wars of Independence, and the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars. Even poor little Denmark gets ravaged by the Prussians.

The decaying state of the Ottoman Empire led to three wars between the Turks and the Russians. In 1882, Britain sort of, kind of, took control of Egypt from the Ottomans and in 1911, Italy helped itself to Libya. The British supplantation of the Ottomans in Egypt led directly to various excursions into the Sudan.

The Japanese make their entrance onto the world stage by defeating first China in 1894, then Russia in 1905.

None of these had the scope or duration of the Napoleonic Wars, but they were brutal and showed the way to the industrial slaughterhouse of the Great War.

Then, most egregiously, there are the numerous colonial conquests and exploitation. Germany, France, Belgium, England, and Italy into Africa. England, France, Russian, Japan, and more into China. Sometimes the colonized had the temerity to rise up, hence the Great Mutiny and the Boxer Rebellion. The Boer Wars, if not perfectly, fit into the catergory of uprisings as well.

The greatest proof of the failure of the Congress of Vienna is the Great War. All the nationalism, all the competition between the Great Powers for colonial possessions, martial and economic power, exploded in the summer of 1914. Though sparked by the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it had been building for a long time before that.

At present, inspired by the centenary of the Great War, I'm reading
The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne and The Marne:1914 by Holger Herwig. Both are excellent studies of the respective battles, providing excellent studies of the commanders, strategies, and tactics involved. Both books go a long way to showing the disastrous conduct of the battles were more the result of failures by the generals to understand the changes wrought by technology. Rare were the commanders who really were able to take these things into account and incorporate them into tactics and strategies.

So, that's what I'm doing here, for the next few months at least. Oh, at I'm leaving the US out of this. Sure, we were doing the sames things as Europe (and Japan). We had a bloody expansionist period, a bloody war of consolidation, and a nice quick war with Spain and colonialism. But, as an American, I'm already familiar with it, so I'm not looking to read much about it now (but maybe next time. I've got two good looking books about the Spanish American War that straring at me from the shelf).

Oh, and I'm too bored/tired right now, but I will be updating the banner.


  1. "Oh, and I'm too bored/tired right now, but I will be updating the banner. "

    OK, that answers my first question.

    As far as your history reading goes, it sounds like great minds think alike. I've been tending in that direction lately as well, although I probably won't really start reading history until the end of summer. Have you looked at QUEEN VICTORIA'S LITTLE WARS by Byron Farwell or A PEACE TO END ALL PEACE by David Fromkin? I've not read either all the way through, but both have some good stuff in them.

    1. I've read and enjoyed the Farwell. There's a real Boy's Own Adventure quality to his work. His book about the Great War in Africa andvon Lettow- Vorbeck is terrific. I haven't read the Fromkinbut but I think my dad had a copy I should go look for.

  2. I always have a soft spot for history or historical fiction. Just in general I've been trying to expand my reading genres out of s-&-s/fantasy. Been reading more horror than I have in a long time. Also picking up on mystery/crime stuff. Though, mostly I am sticking with short stories so I don't get to caught up in a single long read for now.

  3. I was really starting to feel overwhelmed by life and trying to read a S&S novel every week. I haven't read this much straight history in a long time and it's been a kick.
    Funny thing is, I'm alway griping about the length of today's fantasy and here I am plowing into big, thick slabs of non-fiction.