Becoming Modern: Europe from 1760 to 1914

Open, Lecture—Year

What are the distinctive features of our “modern” civilization? A partial list would include representative democracy, political parties, nationalism, religious pluralism and secularization, mass production, rapid technological change, consumerism, free markets, a global economy, and unceasing artistic experimentation. All these characteristically modern things became established in the 19th century, and most of them were pioneered by Europeans. Yet in Europe, with its ancient institutions and deeply-rooted traditions, this new form of civilization encountered greater resistance than it did in that other center of innovation, the United States. The resulting tensions between old and new in Europe set the stage for the devastating world wars and revolutions of the 20th century. In this course, we will examine various aspects of the epochal transformation in ways of making, thinking, and living that occurred in Europe during what historians call the “long 19th century” (1789–1914). We will also survey the political history of the period and consider how the development of modern civilization in Europe was shaped by the resistance it encountered from the defenders of older ways. The course reading will focus primarily on the most innovative regions of 19th-century Europe: Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy; but we will also give some attention to the Habsburg Empire and Russia, which gave birth to some of the most influential ideas and artistic trends of the 20th century during the three decades that preceded World War I. In our group conferences, we will discuss a broad range of contemporary evidence testifying to the changes, tensions, and conflicts of this era—from government documents, revolutionary proclamations, and political tracts to philosophical and scientific essays, fiction, plays, poetry, and works of visual art.