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The Aristocracy in Europe: 1815-1914.

Not so many decades ago an undergraduate introduced to surveys of "Western Civilization" was taught that the eighteenth century constituted "the age of aristocracy," the nineteenth century "the age of the bourgeoisie," and the twentieth century, at least after World War I, the "age of the working class." In recent years such generalizations have fallen by the historiographical wayside, and historians such as J. V. Beckett in The Aristocracy in England 1660-1914 (1986), Robert Berdahl in The Politics of the Prussian Nobility (1988), and Dominic Lieven himself in Russia's Rulers Under the Old Regime (1989) have reminded us how significant a role British, German, and Russian aristocrats continued to play during a century preoccupied with industrialization, urbanization, bureaucratization, and empire-building in distant comers of the world. What Lieven has done in the volume under review is to turn from his studies in Russian history to undertake a task that historians often preach but seldom practice, a genuine cross-cultural comparison of the experience of the aristocracies of Russia, Britain, and the German states that became the Bismarckian empire in 1871. The book also includes stray references to Austria-Hungary, but--its title notwithstanding--France, Spain, Italy, and the Balkans are deliberately left out.

Lieven, a Senior Lecturer in Russian Politics and History at the London School of Economics, concedes readily enough that his task was difficult. The word "aristocracy" is, after all, almost impossible to define precisely; thus mid-Victorian Britain included less than five hundred peers whereas a million Russians could in 1900 claim noble status; at the same time the continent's best-remembered traditional ruling elite, the Prussian Junkers, "were a relatively poor, usually untitled gentry." (xv) The aristocracy, for Lieven, therefore includes "the magnates and the richer elements of the provincial gentry, families with the wealth and status to 'live nobly' in the eyes of their peers." (xvi) His approach is far from apocalyptic: in his judgment the survival of the aristocracy into the twentieth century explains neither the Bolshevik Revolution nor the establishment of Nazi Germany nor the coming of World War I.

His format is essentially topical, and an introductory chapter is followed by five chapters devoted to the scope and sources of aristocratic wealth--agriculture, forestry, urban land, and industry. Four other chapters focus on aristocratic manners and mores, education and culture, and the role that the high-born played in the army and in politics. If seldom totally surprising, his conclusions are often provocative. All three aristocracies were to a degree open to accession from nouveaux riches, but the English aristocracy was the most homogeneous as well as, during most of the century, the wealthiest. The German aristocracy represented an often uncomfortable amalgam of Roman Catholics and Protestants, of families ennobled by the Holy Roman Empire and of others raised in status by the kings of Prussia, Bavaria, and other German states. The Russian aristocracy was the least homogeneous and the most recent to be ennobled; it also possessed the fewest permanent ties to specific localities. At the same time it was often more broadly educated, more cosmopolitan, and more concerned with art and music than the English or the Prussian. Except in Silesia, the last-named was noted for its relative poverty, its Lutheran piety, and its firm loyalty to the Hohenzollern monarchy.

About half the aristocrats in all three countries had some experience as military officers, but English aristocrats were most devoted to politics at the local and national level. They also owned far more of their country's land than did their Russian or Prussian counterparts. Unlike their Prussian counterparts, they suffered badly from the late-Victorian Great Depression; in the words of Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell: "Land gives one position, but it prevents one from keeping it up." That statement did not hold true, however, for those aristocrats who owned large stretches of property in London or in the major provincial cities and benefited greatly from urban growth. The wealth of Prussian and Russian aristocrats was derived from forest land as well as arable while until late in the century many English aristocrats were mine-owners. A surprising number of Prussian Junkers gained income from beet sugar mills and distilleries.

Economic statistics are central to our understanding of societal well-being, but they often cause the eyes of even the most devoted reader to cloud over, and Lieven's chapter, "Life, Manner, Morals," is necessarily more fun. There Lieven strongly suggests that the "separate spheres" occupied by nineteenth-century men and women were least separate in the aristocracy. Only a minority of aristocrats held salaried posts that determined the structure of their day-to-day schedule; in that respect they resembled their female counterparts. Whereas hunting and shooting remained primarily male preserves, the social calls by day and the dinners, dances, parties and card games that mingled the sexes night after night were primarily the responsibility of women--as political hostesses, social arbiters, definers of etiquette, and champions of philanthropy.

On the basis of careful reading in recent secondary works as well as some primary sources, Lieven has written a thoughtful, balanced, and generally persuasive analysis, one that reminds the reader--in the form of twenty-three tables as well as of text--what types of relevant information are available to historians and what types have not been or cannot be assembled. The book possesses only one major weakness, its organization: a century may simply be too long a chronological period to sum up in the form of credible comparative topical summaries of the various aspects of aristocratic life. The Prussia that emerged from the Napoleonic Wars was too far removed from the united Germany that entered World War I. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 made too significant a difference to the lives of Russian nobles. In Britain too, the age of Lord Liverpool was too far removed from that of H.H. Asquith and David Lloyd George, just as the stage coach inn had become obsolete by the era of "the Edwardian weekend" made possible by express trains and motor cars. That reservation notwithstanding, Dominic Lieven merits plaudits for his own spirit of scholarly enterprise. In consequence he successfully explains why and how numerous supposedly non-entrepreneurial aristocrats coped with the societal and governmental challenges of nineteenth-century modernity with an often surprising degree of skill and elan. "At their best," Lieven concludes, "great aristocrats brought to politics a genuine breadth of public spirit and vision, and a lack of narrowness and egoism...." (238)

Walter L. Arnstein University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Arnstein, Walter L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1994
Words:1073
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