The economic expansion and urbanization of Europe after 1870 caused important transformations in society and culture. The last decades of the century saw the rise of mass societies in which more and more citizens recognized common cultural references from newspapers and professional sports teams to theatrical stars and politicians. Cafes, parks, museums, music halls, department stores, and public transportation became normal features of city life, and, as if to handle this surfeit of stimulation, individuals found new organizations in which to invest their loyalty, such as trade unions, professional societies, political parties. Women experienced the beginning of really significant changes in rights and opportunities. Gradually, higher education and professions became legally accessible to them, and a number of jobs from elementary education to retail sales and clerical work came to be dominated by women workers. By far the majority of female wage earners, however, were employed in domestic or sweated trades. They remained difficult to unionize and removed from the suffrage issues that agitated women from the middle classes. The arts both thrived and splintered in response to such changes. New movements in painting and literature adopted self-conscious labels (naturalism, impressionism, symbolism), and, as the new century arrived, formal culture increasingly pulled away from the sentimentality and vulgarity associated with culture for the masses.
An important feature of the era was the escalating attack on many of the assumptions of liberal society. Marxists and socialists, of course, rejected capitalism, though they differed on how to bring about its demise. Anarchists went further in their suspicions of any permanent organization of power. Many Christians expressed outrage at the materialism, selfishness, and moral relativism of the era, while the Catholic church maintained a firm adherence to papal interpretations, and battled with governments for control over education and social services. Cutting across class lines, education levels, and political alignments was a new fascination with action, spontaneity, violence, energy, and anti-rational forms of understanding. Few went as far as Nietzsche in his condemnation of all but the most autonomous historical actors. But many harbored suspicions that Jews represented an alien, subversive force somehow responsible for all the ills; that modernity had brought.
In each European country the forces of change experienced in common played themselves out differently. France went on from the bloody class violence of the Commune to establish the only major republican system on the continent. The Third Republic, despite episodes like the Dreyfus affair, proved durable - a regime where political discourse was volatile, but the interests of small property owners were well protected by the apparatus of the state. In Germany Bismarck’s successors struggled to make a success of the regime he had left them. With the largest popular Socialist party in Europe and advanced social welfare programs, authoritarian Germany was nonetheless a deeply divided polity that seemed bent on resolving its problems through nationalist and militarist assertion. Italy experienced rapid economic change, but remained plagued by divisions between north and south, Catholics and the liberal government, socialists and liberals. Tsarist Russia, the most authoritarian and least developed major power, faced revolution in 1905 after defeat to the Japanese at land and sea the year before. Demonstrations in cities and the spontaneous calling of local assemblies forced political concessions from the tsar, while his progressive minister Stolypin charted a course of economic modernization. Austria-Hungary balanced her conflicting languages, ethnic groups, and political institutions by governmental inaction and stalemate, while Spain, facing similar problems, resorted to a weak central government that avoided policies that would set off any of its numerous opponents. In Britain modern political parties developed. Conservative and Liberals alike proved willing to extend the government’s role to open opportunities and improve living conditions. The parties divided over home rule for Ireland, however, as well as the question of whether free trade should be abandoned in favor of imperial union and industrial protection. In the years before 1914 social strains became apparent as women, workers, the Irish, and a disgruntled aristocracy in their various ways challenged the compromising regimes of the major political parties.
Lecture and Discussion Topics
1. Assign students passages from the Stanley Weintraub’s compilation The Yellow Book: Quintessence of the Nineties. What do the passages reveal about Victorian society and the relationship of the arts community to Victorian values?
2. Research the life of Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragettes. What kinds of tactics did these women employ to make their demands heard?
3. Compare and contrast the goals, methods, and ideologies of leftist groups in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
4. Explore the efforts of Christians to engage the pressing social issues of the day toward the end of the nineteenth century.
5. Read passages from Nietzsche’s work. How did his work attack the very principles of liberalism?
6. Discuss why Jews became a target of discrimination and repression across Europe at the turn of the century.
7. Explore the brief tenure of the Paris Commune. Ask students to evaluate its legacy and to explain why it has remained a point of contention.
8. Present a detailed summary of the events surrounding the Dreyfus affair. Why did the affair place so much pressure upon the Third Republic?
9. Compare and contrast the politics of the German Social Democrats and the English Labour party.
10. Consider the Russian revolution of 1905. Was it in fact a revolution? Why or why not?
The Dreyfus Affair. 35 min. Color. 1993. Audio Forum. Looks at the charges, the cover-up, and the scandal.
The Social Classes–1900: A World to Win. 60 min. Color. 1976. Examines the various ideologies of the period, including Marxism, Nihilism, Social Democracy, Christian Democracy, Social Utopianism, and Women's Suffrage.
Battleship Potemkin. 75 min. B/W. 1925. Eisenstein’s classic film study of the Odessa Mutiny of 1903.
The Christians: The Roots of Disbelief (1848-1962). 42 min. Color. 1978. McGraw-Hill. Late nineteenth century crisis in Christian belief.
Europe, the Mighty Continent: Hey-Day Fever and A World to Win. 52 min. each. Color. 1976. Time-Life Films. Europe in 1900, and in the decade before the First World War.
Karl Marx and Marxism. 52 min. Color. Films for the Humanities. The man and his philosophy.
Karl Marx: The Massive Dissent. 57 min. Color. 1977. Time-Life Films. His life, thought, and influence.
London: The Making of a City - Late Victorian London. 20 min. Color. Films for the Humanities. London in the era of early mass society.
Nicholas and Alexandra: Prelude to Revolution. 30 min. Color. 1972. Learning Corporation of America. Excerpted from feature film.
The Paris Commune. 30 min. Color. Films for the Humanities. Disastrous civil disturbance in Paris in 1871.
Paris, 1900. 72 min. B/W. 1950. Macmillan. Uses newsreels and silent films from the era.
Multiple Choice Questions
The page numbers listed below indicate the correct answers and their locations in the text.
1. During the Belle Epoque,
a. most Europeans could not read
b. the novel became a new literary form that examined the dynamics of a changing society
c. sports figures began to acquire national reputations (p.930)
d. all of the above
2. Working women in the late nineteenth century were hard to organize because
a. of employers’ resistance
b. of opposition from male-dominated unions
c. women had no knowledge of how to create organizations
d. a and b (p.932)
e. all of the above
3. By the 1890s, women
a. were still denied access to higher education
b. moved into the growing field of social work (p.933)
c. were denied positions as teachers
d. held enough political offices that they were able to pass legislation benefiting families
4. In the late nineteenth century, the arts as an expression of European civilization
a. attained a unity of forms and styles indicative of a common European culture and values
b. saw remarkably similar trends develop in different forms of art and architecture
c. benefited from a larger and more sophisticated audience (p.934)
d. all of the above
5. Which was probably not a part of popular culture at the end of the nineteenth century?
a. theatrical entertainments
b. the decadent movement in literature and the arts (p.936)
c. professional soccer
d. mass journalism
6. The First International contributed to the development of a workers’ movement because it
a. stressed the international ties of the workers in a nationalistic age (p.938)
b. rejected dogmatic Marxism
c. encouraged doctrinal flexibility
d. allowed for local initiatives and variation
7. Which of the following did nineteenth-century anarchists see as their chief enemy?
c. the state (p.940)
d. trade unions
8. The Vatican Council of 1869-1870
a. advised the pope to come to terms with modern civilization
b. issued a statement approving the values of capitalist society
c. proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility (p.941)
d. acknowledged the exclusive authority of the state over its citizens
a. the least liberal European government after Russia
b. one of the most effectively centralized governments on the continent
c. a country that used foreign and imperial adventures to build support at home
d. a country with a tradition of parliamentarism that balanced the power of other groups (p.955)
19. In 1900, which of the following parties was founded in Britain?
a. the Conservative party
b. the Labour party (p.957)
c. the Liberal party
d. the Whig party
20. Britain’s success in representative government rested upon
a. the reluctance of the working class to strike
b. a homogenous population without religious or ethnic differences
c. a strong two-party system to channel political action (p.956)
d. an aristocracy that willingly handed over its power
e. all of the above
21. The most important cultural development of the nineteenth century was the rise of the middle class and the general adoption of its values. What were these values and how did they come to dominate a society in which aristocrats still had so much political and social control?
22. Why was the Vatican Council of 1869 called? What positions did it arrive at, and what do they demonstrate about the Catholic faith and the role of religion in European society in the late nineteenth century?
23. After 1870 it can be argued that the standard of living for most Europeans was improving significantly for the first time since the industrial revolution began. What evidence is there to support this assessment? If it was truly the case that Europeans were better off, how do you account for the rising social unrest of the decades before 1914?
24. By the late nineteenth century, liberal ideology and society were clearly under attack from a number of sides. What were those attacks and their origins? Who did the attacks seek to mobilize? What effect did they have on governments?
25. Compare the histories of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Spain in the decades before 1914. In what ways do the three states reveal common problems faced by late nineteenth-century governments in the era of the liberal nation-state?
26. Explain the relationship between industrialization, consumerism, and sport.
27. Justify the claims of Georges Sorel and Henri Bergson that liberal social and political policies derive more from self-interest and prejudice than social concern and political equality.
28. Why would irrationalism and antisemitism appeal to many aristocrats, the lower-middle class, agricultural workers and to many Christians in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries?
29. What aspects of the Paris Commune of 1870 were reminiscent of the sans-culottes of the French Revolution? How does the Paris Commune continue to reflect divisions in France between the capital and the provinces?
30. Did the emergence of social consciousness come in response to the growing prevalence of injustice at the turn of the century or to an increased awareness of the prevalence of injustice?
31. What kinds of entertainment are pictured in the painting on page 929? What kinds of social classes would have participated in those forms of entertainment?
32. Study the illustrations on pages 932-935. What kinds of activities do you see women taking part in? Do you find signs of progress and change or tradition in those activities?
33. What do the photos and illustrations on pages 950, 952, 953, and 957 reveal about politics and social classes around the turn of the century. How would Marx interpret these scenes?
G.B. Shaw Explains the Appeal of Popular Theater
34. What contrasts did Shaw draw between Hoxton and the West End? What readership do you think the Saturday Review appeals to? Who do you think frequents The Britannia Theatre?
35. Shaw himself was a member of the artistic elite. Why do you think he approves of The Britannia Threatre and its type of entertainment? What does he find distasteful about the West End?
Bakunin on Why He Opposes the State
36. On the basis of this passage, why did Karl Marx expel Bakunin from the International Workingmen's Association?
37. Do you think Bakunin would agree with J.A. Hobson's view of the nature of imperialism? Why?
38. On what bases does Bakunin reject liberalism? Why would he reject democracy? Christianity?
The Argument of Antisemitism
39. Explain the influence of romanticism and nationalism in this passage
40. What myths does this argument rely on and what myths does it perpetuate?
41. How would you critique this passage? Do you find any internal inconsistencies or historical inaccuracies or oversights?
Emmeline Pankhurst on Women's Rights
42. What does Pankhurst mean by the phrase “the last fight for human freedom.”
43. What are the specific policies and laws of the “new legislation”?
44. What roles do you think Pankhurst envisions for women in politics, society, and the household?