Wednesday’s Book Review: “Eighteenth-Century Europe: Tradition and Progress, 1715-1789”

18th-c-europeEighteenth-Century Europe: Tradition and Progress, 1715-1789. By Isser Woloch. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1982.

When I was in graduate school in the 1980s we devoured such books as this, a part of the “Norton History of Modern Europe.” Isser Woloch’s “Eighteenth-Century Europe: Tradition and Progress, 1715-1789” is a fine overview of nearly a century of history in Europe between the end of most of the religious wars of the Reformation and counter-Reformation and the age of revolution that began with the French Revolution in 1789. Fundamentally, this is a story of Enlightenment ideas, reform based on those ideas, and the setting for greater changes to come in the nineteenth century. Chapters on monarchy, absolutism, and rising republicanism; international relations and great power rivalries; the social order and economics and the state; authority versus democracy; religion and spirituality; poverty, culture, and ideas; and related major themes dominate the narrative.

In this volume some of the key themes that had vexed European life for centuries came to the fore. The most pressing was the nature of poverty, class, and reform. In Eastern Europe the Medieval feudal system still existed, but it was weakening and Serfs soon gained their freedom in Russia, Poland, and other states. In the West this concept had already withered, only to be replaced with other equally difficult problems of class and poverty. Some of those problems would be resolved violently via revolution. Others; well not so much.

Some of the aristocracy recognized that reforms were necessary and undertook them. Joseph II of the Austro-Hungarian Empire spent a decade pursuing Enlightenment ideas in the rule of this state before his death, and he may have forestalled some of the dryrot present in the empire for a century. Frederick the Great did the same in Prussia, where he worked tirelessly to organize German might not just from a military standpoint but also through administrative and especially philosophical and cultural reforms.

The result is a breathless survey of Europe in the eighteenth century. It is a very good book, and although it is now more than a generation old, having been published originally in 1982, it remains a very useful study. It is something of an Annales school study focused more on social and cultural aspects of the story than on geopolitics, battles, and leaders. For a specialist it may seem a bit elementary, but as a general introduction it is excellent.

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