The Pursuit of Glory

The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe: 1648 – 1815

The world as it was at the end of the Thirty Years’ War is vastly different from that at the end of Napoleon’s wars across the continent. The roughly one-and-a-half century in between saw Europe undergo a number of thoroughly vast transformations across all aspects of life – be it political, economic, cultural, or religious. The book The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions That Made Modern Europe: 1648-1815, by Timothy Blanning, examines “five of the modern world’s great revolutions – scientific, industrial, American, French, and romantic”. The book shows how all these five events come together to redefine Europe, in a period that serves as a bridge from the Medieval to (Early) Modern times.

It is, however, a daunting read, much more because the thematic approach causes some jumps and leaps in the chronological narrative. The first part is an overview of life in Europe during the period, including the state of peasantry and serfdom, plus the Industrial Revolution. This part is still pretty light on the names and dates, but nonetheless a slow read if one isn’t too invested in the details.

A second part tackles the sovereign entities of Europe, of who ruled what empires or territories, and also includes overview of the American and French Revolutions. The third part discusses culture, religion, the Scientific and Romantic Revolutions, and the state of monarchies and monarchs throughout the period. This is where things get really confusing, as all the nitty-gritty details start to come together, and things already discussed previously are brought back to be blended into the relevant themes.

Now, this can be discouraging to all but the most passionate readers. I personally struggled through much of the book too, as I didn’t have enough prior relevant knowledge of European history covered by this book. The morass of names, dates, events, and everything else can get difficult to follow really quickly. And it doesn’t help that the Scientific and the Romantic Revolutions aren’t sharply distinguished, and are situated within an overarching overview of European culture as a whole.

But once the reader has gotten through the third part, things start to all become clearer, and exciting too. At this point the relevant details have been mentioned and repeated enough that it should (hopefully) be easier for the reader to follow through. Not to mention, the chronology is a lot more consistent and cohesive now. The final – and arguably the best part of the book – is all about the wars waged in Europe, from the Peace of Westphalia (which ended the Thirty Years’ War) to the 1815 Treaty of Paris (which ended the Napoleonic Wars).

And boy, are there so much wars to tackle, as the 167 or so years covered by the book is packed with so much conflicts, (largely useless) treaties, territorial changes, and generally just straight-up political drama, the reader would be advised to have maps and maybe Wikipedia ready to consult often. That said, the timeline is a lot more cohesive, and unlike in previous chapters, the conflicts are discussed more in-depth, so things are way easier to follow and understand in general.

At this point, it should be obvious that this book is not for the faint of heart – neither is it for the simply curious reader, who probably just want to widen their bit of knowledge of history. Even for someone like me, the book still feels pretty convoluted. Yet, for the well-prepared history buff, I would say this is a good book to have, though possibly more as a general survey of the period than a serious dive into early modern European history.

The Pursuit of Glory succeeds in illuminating the period 1648 – 1815, in a truly comprehensive – if not the most cohesive – manner. As a guide for the political upheavals of the times, the wars fought, and the revolutionary changes that defined the era, it can be daunting and intimidating, but the effort it requires the reader definitely pays off, and towards the final part of the book, pays off really well.

The Coming of the Third Reich

This book, The Coming of the Third Reich, by Richard J. Evans, is a first of a 3-part series by author Richard Evans, which discusses the story of Hitler and the Nazis, from the Party’s rise into power, up to the Second World War, and ultimately, the Third Reich’ complete and utter destruction in 1945.

The Coming of the Third Reich tells the story of how a small German Workers’ Party, upon accepting former WW1 Corporal Adolf Hitler as its member, transformed into the NSDAP – known to everybody as the Nazi Party – and, throughout the life of the ever-fragile Weimar Republic, rose into power and came to dominate Germany until 1945. And more than that, in fact, as the antisemitism at the core of Nazi ideology didn’t just come from out of thin air. It has always been there, beneath the surface, a lingering philosophy and way of life for many – but not most – of the Germans, ever since the Bismarckian era.

The failures of the Weimar Republic became the fuel to the fire that both the Communists and the far-right groups, including the Nazis, used to burn down the democracy that most people didn’t approve of anyway. The hyperinflation of 1923-1924, and the Great Depression, both became the catalysts for groups on opposite sides of the political arena, who used all methods of violence available at their disposal to try and destroy one another, while also competing for dominance of the Reichstag. And in this is the irony, that the people who most wanted to destroy the Republic, actually availed of democratic methods to bring down that very system that they somehow belong to.

The Coming of the Third Reich is a tragic story of how Germany, limping about after the Great War, throughout its period of “decline and fall”, transformed into the Nazi Germany that, in 1939, would plunge the world once more into absolute war. Above all, it is the story of the failure of democracy, and the triumph of evil and violence, in a country that so proudly boasts itself as a model of civilized society.

Finally, the rapid “Nazification” after Hitler’s ascent into Reich Chancellor is one of tragedy and fury – and so much fury I felt reading this, as helpless Germans – most specifically the Jews, who were stripped of everything they have – were forced into total submission, their democratic ways of life turned completely upside down, through an unprecedented level of violence unraveled in full view of the world, without even the slightest hint of remorse.

There are many lessons to learn from the history of the rise of the Nazis into power, and the author explicitly notes that they are “for the reader to take from this book, not for the writer to give.” There isn’t much discussion of morality in here, as the writer believes it’s not what writing and telling history is about – a view that probably isn’t for everyone to agree with. But if you ask me, you wouldn’t really need such moral arguments in this book – for the horror and the tragedy of Hitler’s rise to power is laid bare, and after reading this book, whatever lessons to take from it will be all too clear and obvious for the reader.

City of Fortune

How Venice Ruled the Seas

Venice, a city within a lagoon, came into being as a refuge for Romans fleeing the barbarians, a collection of islands with virtually no natural resources except salt. Yet the Venetians defied all odds, and rose to become a model republic and a powerful maritime empire.

Much of what made Venice into a formidable power that it was is due to the wars it fought, either for profit (the Fourth Crusade), or for survival (War of Chioggia, the Wars with Ottoman Empire). The Venetians also developed a kind of bureaucracy which, while absolutely convoluted, turned out to be a fairly efficient one. More importantly, Venice’s political model made it very difficult, if not completely impossible, to concentrate power into the hands of a very few elite.

The book City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley is the story of how the measly lagoon settlement, in a span of almost one millennium, became the maritime empire that ruled Mediterranean and bridged the West and the East. It also discusses the inner workings of the Most Serene Republic of Venice- the government, the economic system (including the banking and financial innovations rooted in Venetian trade), and many other aspects of the Venetian life.

Additionally, the focus on Venice’s wars also shows much of how medieval warfare looked like, especially the sieges that were so common during the Middle Ages. The coming of the Black Death, and its effects on Venice and the rest of Europe, is also discussed here, as the Plague’s effects had a major role in the successive wars fought by Venice.

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas is an excellent overview on Venice’s rise to power. It’s aimed primarily for the general readers, so even with scant historical knowledge, one can easily understand and appreciate the book.

The Guns of August

The Outbreak of World War I

The First World War is history within history. To understand the Great War, you have to start with its origins, the military plans, alliances, events that all together culminated in arguably the most convoluted diplomatic crisis ever – the July Crisis. And the ensuing war, in itself, is the origin of the Second World War, the bloodiest conflict in human history.

The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman, zooms in on the causes and origins of the First World War, and continues through to the war declarations, the general mobilizations, and the first few weeks of the war itself, up until the Battle of the Marne. The book places the spotlight on the decisions that led to the war, and the decisions that kept the war going. The book’s emphasis is on the people at the top, the ones who made the calls – the sovereigns, the diplomats, the military commanders – and the things they did and didn’t do during the most critical moments before and during the war.

The Guns of August, more than being an overview of the prelude to the First World War, is the story of the failure of policy- and decision-making, and how the mistakes of Europe’s leaders inaugurated the most destructive half-century (and, to an extent, century) in the history of mankind.