Populism’s Echoes

"The idea of synchronous political waves was best outlined in Norman Stone’s magisterial 1983 book, Europe Transformed 1878-1919. Stone, who died earlier this year, was one of a kind: a maverick historian who left Cambridge for Oxford, then went to Ankara, and finally, advised Margaret Thatcher—all while maintaining his unabashed candor. He was a marvelous linguist and a connoisseur of Central Europe’s history, obsessed with the Habsburg dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Stone’s friends remember him as an exceptional conversationalist—one of those men who, like Winston Churchill, took out of alcohol far more than alcohol took out of him.

In Europe Transformed, Stone shows how “the world of yesterday”—to quote the title of Stefan Zweig’s memoir—became the world of today. It tracks the decline of liberal Europe—liberal in the European, classical sense. While no government adhered religiously to the principles of laissez faire, nineteenth-century Europe represents perhaps the best approximation of the ideal. Free trade, championed by England, swept away most protectionist measures; durable goods and people moved virtually freely. Passports were viewed as relics of an odious past—only states like Russia and the Ottoman Empire issued them. A Victorian idea prevailed: individuals should put checks on themselves, without state interference. John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer became household names among the educated class. Europe thrived in a period unshackled by government controls, with millions able to afford new and more sophisticated goods, including products created by an ongoing technological revolution. This consumer transformation, however, benefitted the urban population more than the struggling rural one.

Yet just as liberal Europe could have celebrated its triumph, it began to destroy itself."