In the 19th century, the population of Europe increased from 190 million to over 400 million. Industrialization of continental Europe followed England’s examples and appeared early in the century in the regions where coal was easily accessible (i.e., northern France, Belgium, and the Ruhr Valley in Germany). Many of the industries and the necessary railway transportation systems were built and operated by governments, because of a lack of private capital. The industrialization of war began in the 1840s when railroads and semi-automated mass production together with Prussian breech-loaders and French naval steam efforts began to transform the previous military establishments. European scientists tried to find the secret of damask steel and in so doing initiated the field of metallography.

The decline in oversea transportation costs made possible by the development of the steamship allowed an era of migration from Europe to the Americas, Oceania, Africa, and Siberia. Railroads and steamships alike extended the area from which bulky crops such as grains and minerals could be marketed, and refrigeration allowed food and meat to be brought in from America, China, Australia, and India. Ireland, England, and all northern Europe, including Russia, were badly hurt in mid-century by the potato crop failure caused by a Peruvian parasitic fungus, which implanted itself in European potatoes. The resulting famine in Irish, Belgian, and German populations, along with typhus fever and other diseases, killed millions of people.


By 1829, the Cyclades had become part of Greece, rather than the Ottoman Empire. The Greek Cretans revolted against the Ottomans in the Greek-Ottoman War at the end of the century and Crete became independent. Sir Arthur Evans began excavations at the ancient historical site of Knossus. The Italian Frederico Halbherr also did some excavation work on the south shore of the island as early as 1884. Britain occupied Cyprus in 1877.


Led by Alexander Ypsilanti, the Greeks rose against the Ottomans in 1821 and in the following year declared their independence. The war which followed was a savage one as the various groups advocating for independence fought the Ottomans and frequently each other. Great Britain, Russia, and France finally helped Greece by defeating the Egyptian leader Muhammad Ali, who had taken control of Greece for the Ottomans, along with Crete and part of Syria. The victory came in a great naval battle of Navarino in 1827 and an independent Greek kingdom was established in 1830 under Otto I, who had been a Bavarian prince. A constitution was forced upon the unwilling king in 1844 and by 1862 he was forced to abdicate in favor of Prince George of Denmark. After that Greece gradually gained more territory, acquiring the Ionian islands and Thessaly.


A painting of the Battle of Navarino (Source: Wikimedia)


From a material standpoint, the Balkans lagged behind most of Europe. Panes of glass were not commonly seen in Serbia until late in the 18th century and were still a rarity in Belgrade in 1808. In 1815, Prince Milos Obrenovic III led a successful independence movement against the Ottomans. Serbia proclaimed its autonomy in 1830. In 1859, the areas of Moldavia and Wallachia became united as Romania. Both Serbia and Romania became fully independent in 1878. Bosnia rebelled between 1875 and 1878, when Austria was permitted to proclaim a “protectorate” over it as Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bulgarians rose up against Ottoman rule in 1876 and after initial defeat were finally helped to independence by Russia in the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78 and the subsequent Congress of Berlin.

Later in the century, nationalist ideas spread rapidly throughout the entire Balkan area, but the variety of languages, including Romanian, Bulgarian, Ottoman, Macedonian, Greek, Albanian, Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, and Hungarian, spoken throughout the region limited the emergence of clear national identities based on ethnicity. Languages included. Many conflicting national claims were made.

Greek merchant shippers constituted a limited area of transmission between the Orthodox Balkan Society and western Europe. On the cultural level, Vuk Karadzic used the peasant dialect of Herzegovina as the basis for literary Serbian, replacing the old written language which was based on Church Slavonic. This allowed Serbian and Croatian languages to converge and made the development of a new nation, Yugoslavia, in the 20th century possible.


A painting of Vuk Karadzic in 1850 (Source: Wikimedia)


In the early years of the century, Napoleon Bonaparte appointed himself as king of Italy and members of his family as viceroy of Italy and king of Naples. Pope Pius VII was kidnapped and held captive until Napoleon’s downfall in 1814. Thereafter, Italy was controlled by Austria. Minor revolts, which occurred in Naples and Piedmont in 1821 and in Parma, Modena, and Romagna in 1830-31, had no national aims, but later uprisings were more forceful. Further war against Austria in 1858 and 1859 allowed Camillo Benso, a political revolutionary and military leader who had fought in Italy and South America for the cause of independence and national unity, to unite Sicily, Naples, Umbria, Romagna, and Marches with Piedmont-Sardinia into the Kingdom of Sardinia. He was one of the great European statesmen of those times. In the last three decades of the century, the Italians extended the Sardinian constitution to the whole country and transformed Italy into a centralized nation-state following the French model.


Between 1801 and 1803, Napoleon and his minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, supervised the reorganization of the old Holy Roman Empire. The initial steps involved over half of the more than three-hundred political entities that had claimed sovereign status since the Treaty of Westphalia. In October of 1806, Napoleon and the French armies invaded Berlin. In the same year, Napoleon established the Confederation of the Rhine, with himself as its official protector. All states of the old empire joined except Austria, Prussia, Brunswick, and Hesse. This effectively ended the Holy Roman Empire by forcing Francis II of Austria to discontinue using the title of emperor. At the same time, Napoleon rewarded Wurttemberg, Saxony, and Bavaria for their loyalties by elevating their dukes to kings and giving each more territory. 1813, Klemens von Metternich (1757-1831) convinced Austria to declare war on France. In a four day battle near Leipzig, Napoleon was defeated and in the later Peace of Paris and the European Congress at Vienna, Europe was divided and national boundaries were fixed (as shown in the map below).


This map shows the national boundaries in Europe established by the Council of Vienna (Source: Wikimedia)

In the 1820s, while many parts of Europe reverberated with liberal revolutions, Prussia and Austria remained calm. In Prussia, the widespread introduction of steam power in 1812 and an extensive net of railways produced an economic boom and eventually helped in the final unification of Germany. Prussia established itself financially by charging a high tariff on goods transported across its territory. Since Prussia was located along most important trade routes between northern and southern Europe, this was a source of great income. The Zollverein (Customs Union) derived out of that tariff was joined by even small neighboring states in 1828. By 1842 almost all German states except Austria, Hanover and a few free cities had joined the Zollverein. This, along with railroads and the electric telegraph, bound the states together, acting as a unifier. By 1848, there were three-thousand miles of railroad track in Germany.

In 1848, revolutions spread across Europe, most of them essentially interrelated. In Germany, revolutionaries had three main aims: the unification of all German speaking regions into one country, the demand for basic civil rights and a measure of popular sovereignty, and freedom for serfs with better hours, wages, and benefits for city workers.

Watch and Learn

Learn about reform movements that spread through Europe in the early 19th century by watching Crash Course in European History, #25.

A new concept of Germany as a united nation slowly developed in the 19th century. This was part of a larger historical process occurring throughout Europe known as nationalism. While the idea of a “nation” is commonplace today, this has not been true for most of human history. Although empires did rule over large swaths of territory and diverse peoples, most human beings grounded their political identity in family, clan, village, or region. For example, few outside of the city of Rome in the age of the Roman Empire would have called themselves “Romans.” The political revolutions of the 18th century initiated a new thinking about political identity that intensified in the 19th. People began to speak of a political entity known as the “nation.” French revolutionaries mobilized people to defend the “French nation.” In similar fashion, the aggressive actions of Napoleon and his army stimulated opposition to the “French nation” in the name and defense of various “nations.” Conflict in Europe was common in previous centuries, but in the 19th century, the conflicts were fought in the name of “nation-states” whose citizens believed themselves to be citizens of a nation, deeply bound to their fellow-citizens by ties of culture (with a special emphasis on religion and language), blood, or common experience – not simply common subjects of a ruling dynasty.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about the impact of German nationalism and the rise of a united Germany by watching Crash Course in European History, #27.


Nationalism was a powerful idea in Germany that led to the creation of a new united Germany (known as the Second Reich or Imperial Germany) in 1871. All of the southern German states, except for Austria, joined the North German Confederation. Wilhelm (William) II of Prussia became Emperor, and Berlin was named the capital.

The chief architect of the new German nation was Otto von Bismarck. As chancellor, he placated England and Russia, obtained colonies in Africa and the Pacific, and made many social reforms within Germany. He promoted a good deal of social legislation including a health insurance law which gave financial and medical aid to workers unable to work because of illness, an accident insurance law for workers’ disability compensation, and an old age and invalidism insurance for all those disabled and/or over 70 years of age.


A photograph of Otto von Bismarck (Source: Wikimedia)

By the second half of the 19th century, all of Germany west of the Elbe had mechanized industry and eventually outstripped both France and England in its industrial production. Possessing abundant raw materials and supported by scientific, educational systems, and research facilities, after 1871, Germany set the pace for industrial supremacy in chemicals and electricity, with the latter industry dominated by Werner Siemens and Emil Rathenau. The German phase of the Industrial Revolution embraced a wider variety of materials (electrical, chemical, petroleum, and light metals), but coal and iron remained primary. Coal was used for tars and derivatives as diverse as aspirin, dyes, and explosives. Iron underwent potable chemical diversification after the invention of the Bessemer Converter in 1856. The German contributions to industrial development included deliberate, planned invention, extensive credit through banks and cartels, and human engineering, with the cultivation of an elite in both the military and industry.


A schematic drawing of a Bessemer converter (Source: Wikimedia)

Industrialization provided the resources for the rapid expansion of the German navy. New ships were launched, and the Kiel Canal was dug from the North Sea to the Baltic, bypassing any possible Danish blockade. In the last decade of the 19th century, the population of Germany increased fifteen percent to 56,400,000. As with most other industrializing nations in the 19th century, however, the working poor suffered. There was inadequate urban housing, crowding, exorbitant rents, and low wages.

Germany of this century was not all business and politics. German scientists were busy as well. By the end of the century, German speaking countries led the world in medicine. Friedrich Serturner isolated morphine as a pure alkaloid in 1806. Robert Koch established the bacterial cause of anthrax and tuberculosis. Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) was called the “Pope” of medicine in Europe. He wrote on leukemia, thrombosis, embolism, and phlebitis as well as delving into multiple scientific and social fields.


In the early 19th century, Austria was invaded by Napoleon while Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Sweden formed an alliance, along with Prussia, to contain him. This alliance was the so-called “Third Coalition.” After the Austrians suffered a defeat at Ulm, Napoleon entered Vienna and annihilated the Austrians and Russians together in the Battle of Austerlitz in Moravia in late 1805. In the Peace of Pressburg on December 26, 1805, Austria ceded all claims to her Italian and south German territories. Emperor Francis was forced to relinquish his title of Holy Roman Emperor, and thereafter the Habsburgs were emperors of Austria and Hungary only. Napoleon reentered Vienna, and took up residence in the Schonbrunn Palace.


A painting of Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz by Francois Pascal Simon (Source: Wikimedia)

It was at this time that one of the most important European diplomats of the 19th century emerged: Klemens von Metternich. A traditional conservative, Metternich strove to prevent the breakup of the Austrian Empire. At home, he used censorship and implemented a wide-ranging spy network to suppress unrest. Metternich was both praised and criticized for the policies he pursued. His supporters pointed out that he presided over the “Age of Metternich,” when international diplomacy helped prevent major wars in Europe. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that his domestic “system” led to revolution and his eventual downfall. To prevent the rise of nationalism in his multi-racial domain, he developed a police state that denied many freedoms. There was no free parliament, no free press, no free university, and no intelligent civil service.


A portrait of Klemens von Metternich in 1815 by Thomas Lawrence (Source: Wikimedia)

After 1790, the chief demand of the Hungarian Diet, whenever the Austrian emperor allowed it to meet, was for wider use of the Hungarian language, known as Magyar, in administration, courts, and education. In 1840, the government passed a law that made Magyar the official language of all institutions of Great Hungary. The reaction of the non-Magyars, including the immigrant Saxons and Slavs and the Romanians in Transylvania, was strong. Revolution broke out in Austria in 1848, along with that in much of Europe. Ironically, while inspired by the same spirit of nationalism, those advocating for reform in 1848 in Austria had different aims than their counterparts in Germany. While revolutionaries in Germany had aimed to unite, those in Austria wanted to divide. In Austria, the revolution was designed at securing independence for the diverse people groups who had been united in one empire under the Habsburg rulers. The Hungarians adopted their own constitution, and other coalitions rose to demand self-rule. In Italy, the Milanese forced the withdrawal of Austrian troops, and the Venetians set up an independent republic again. The Czechs, Moravians, and Galicians also clamored for independence.

In response to the turmoil, the Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph requested help from the Russian Tsar, Alexander I. Two Russian armies entered Hungary, put down the revolutionaries, and reestablished imperial authority. The Revolution of 1848 forced Metternich to resign. Negotiations between the Hungarians and the Austrians were finalized in the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, the Ausgleich, that provided for a dual sovereignty, the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about the 1848 Revolution in Austria and its impact on Europe by watching Crash Course in European History, #26.

The list of contributions to world knowledge and culture by Austrians is quite impressive. Carl von Rokitansky was the founder of pathological anatomy, Hermann Nothnagle first evaluated blood pressure in diagnosis, and Ernest Bruecke pioneered in physiology. Multiple world-famous psychiatrists – especially Sigmund Freud, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Joseph Brewer – advanced understanding of the human person. Among the orthopedic surgeons were Adolf Lorenz and Lorenz Boehler. Bela Schick devised the diphtheria skin test, while Johannes Mueller was the first to establish medicine as a true science. Hermann von Helmholtz developed the ophthalmoscope to examine the retina and other parts of the eye. Robert Koch worked out the bacteriology of tuberculosis and cholera. Ignaz Semmelweiss found the cause of postpartum infections (also known as childbed fever and puerperal feral), one of the great advances in obstetrical care. Probably the greatest surgeon of the 19th century was Albert Theodor Billroth, who although born and educated in Germany, worked in Vienna, where he was the first to perform extensive operations on the pharynx, larynx, and stomach. His students subsequently filled most of the prestigious surgical appointments in Europe. The great musicians of Austria included Johann Strauss, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Brahms (originally from Hamburg, but settled in Vienna), Richard Wagner (from Bavaria) and Franz Schubert.

By 1900, over a million people worked in mining and industry in Hungary. There were two universities in Hungary and one in Croatia. Budapest was about eighty percent Magyar speaking. However, significant ethnic enclaves were present as well. Perhaps most importantly for 20th century history, Jews made up five percent of the overall population and twenty-five percent of the people living in Budapest.

CZECH LANDS (also known as BOHEMIA)

This area was restless under the rule of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Moravia was an important battle ground for Napoleon’s rout of the Russian and Austrian forces in the first decade of the 19th century. After 1850, the rapid growth of cities in the Habsburg domains, together with the ravages of cholera resulted in peasant migration into the towns of Bohemia to such an extent that the previous pattern of those people learning to speak German and being “Germanized” was changed as the ideals of nationalism asserted themselves. The result was that Prague became a Czech-speaking city within one-half century, just as Budapest had become a Magyar-speaking capital.

In the last decades of the 19th century, there was growing business prosperity, with particular emphasis on textiles, shoes, cheap china and glass, sugar refineries, breweries, coal and graphite mines and the great Skoda machine shop at Pilsen. Prague University had new vigor with Professor Thomas Masaryk becoming one of the greatest of Czech philosophers and patriots. He later became a member of the Austrian Parliament, promoting the Czech (Bohemian) cause and in the next century was to become the first president of the Czech Republic.


A photograph of Thomas Masaryk (Source: Wikimedia)


In the 18th century, Napoleon and his French armies conquered Switzerland. In 1803, he allowed a federal constitution, and, after the fall of Napoleon, the Confederation was restored. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna guaranteed the perpetual neutrality of that land. After a short civil war in 1847, a national union was formed resulting in the writing of a new federal constitution. The International Red Cross was formed at the Geneva Convention of 1864, chiefly due to the efforts of Jean Henri Dunant, a Swiss banker, who had been traumatized by a battlefield in northern Italy which had been littered with tens of thousands of wounded soldiers lying unattended on the ground. The Red Cross insignia is the Swiss flag, with colors reversed.


Witnessing the suffering of thousands of wounded soldiers of the Battle of Solferino in 1859 led the Swiss humanitarian, Henry Dunant, to publish the book A Memory of Solferino. It was an important document that led to the founding of the International Red Cross. In this book, after describing the horrors of war, Dunant argued strenuously for the establishment of an international aid society:

There is need, therefore, for voluntary orderlies and volunteer nurses, zealous, trained and experienced, whose position would be recognized by the commanders or armies in the field, and their mission facilitated and supported.

Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers?

On certain special occasions, as, for example, when princes of the military art belonging to different nationalities meet at Cologne or Châlons, would it not be desirable that they should take advantage of this sort of congress to formulate some international principle, sanctioned by a Convention inviolate in character, which, once agreed upon and ratified, might constitute the basis for societies for the relief of the wounded in the different European countries?

Humanity and civilization call imperiously for such an organization as is here suggested… In an age when we hear so much of progress and civilization, is it not a matter of urgency, since unhappily we cannot always avoid wars, to press forward in a human and truly civilized spirit the attempt to prevent, or at least to alleviate, the horrors of war?

You can download the book for free as a PDF at https://shop.icrc.org/un-souvenir-de-solferino-2551.html


The Napoleonic Wars brought Spain to the edge of ruin. After war with France and then against England, Spain’s sea power was destroyed. Napoleon put his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne in 1805. In 1812, Joseph abolished the Inquisition and limited the powers of the Catholic Church. The Spanish never accepted Joseph and as Napoleon’s dominion collapsed, King Ferdinand VII (1784-1833) resumed rule and revoked the new laws regarding the church. At this time, Spanish overseas colonies in the Americas were experiencing their own burst of nationalism which resulted in independence movements. The Spanish-American War began in 1898. When a United States ship, the U.S.S. Maine, was mysteriously blown up in Havana Harbor, war was formally declared by the United States against Spain. When that war ended and the treaty signed in Paris, Spain’s influence in the Americas ended.


At the beginning of the 19th century, Portugal was ruled by Pedro III, under the regency of his mother, Maria I. The first decades were characterized by military battles with both Spain and France. Portugal’s relationship with Great Britain was solidified. Like the rest of Europe, the winds of political change also were felt in Portugal as a liberal revolution against the regency broke out in 1820. A liberal constitution was adopted in 1822. Portugal made progress, with sanitary reforms, the building of railroads, telephone lines, and schools. Portugal also abolished slavery in her remaining colonies. In the last half of the 19th century, two opposing factions of professional politicians, the Regenerators and the Progressives, developed a system of rotating power.


The story of France in the early decades of the 19th century is centered on the person of Napoleon Bonaparte who came to power near the end of the French Revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France for 15 years as First Consul of the First Republic (1799-1804) and as emperor from 1804 to 1814. As Emperor, he led French armies to conquer almost the whole of Europe. His armies were initially remarkably successful. Crushing defeats were given to Austria at Austerlitz (1805), to Prussia at Jena (1806), and to Russia at Friedland (1807). In 1808, in a rapid invasion of Spain, a British expedition force was forced back to the sea. Switzerland came under French protection, while Spain, northeast Italy, Naples and Westphalia became satellite kingdoms under the Bonaparte family. On the European mainland, only the reduced kingdoms of Austria and Prussia preserved some semblance of independence.


A painting of Napoleon Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David in 1812 (Source: Wikimedia)

Napoleon and the French were never able, however, to defeat the British or the Russians. His invasion of Russia in the winter was a disaster as the freezing cold devastated his army. Approximately twenty-five percent of his soldiers died. It was reported that Napoleon’s chief surgeon performed over two hundred amputations in one twenty-four-hour period during the Russian campaign. Tsar Alexander I pursued the fleeing French and together with the armies of Austria and Prussia defeated the French at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813. Napoleon’s attempts to resurrect his army and extend French power were destroyed by the British at the Battle of Waterloo (Belgium) in 1814.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte by watching Crash Course in European History, #22.

The legacy of the Napoleonic period of French history is mixed. Napoleon extended many enlightenment ideas of the French Revolution throughout Europe. He forcibly ended feudalism, proclaimed equal rights, insisted on religious toleration, reformed legal codes, and established government on the basis of rational ideas. In many places, these initiatives planted seeds of change that would blossom in subsequent decades. At the same time, Napoleon’s armies were resented and resisted. The battles fought by his armies were also incredibly deadly. Napoleon himself estimated that his campaigns resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million Frenchmen, more than were killed in both World Wars of the 20th century. It is interesting, however, that more soldiers died of typhus fever in the Napoleonic Wars than in battle. Small pox was not a problem in his own armies as he had had all his troops vaccinated in 1805, introducing this to Europe. He also pioneered the large-scale use of canned food for his troops.

Overall, the French Revolution did not lead to popular and republican government, but to military dictatorship. While the French Revolution initiated many positive changes to French society, such as peasant proprietorship, replacement of feudalism by a free peasantry, encouragement of science, and a national system of schools, true democracy was thwarted by the practice of appointments to office by the central government. As a result, the central government was controlled solely by Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet much was accomplished. There was wholesale cancellation of seigneurial rights and fairly extensive dispersal of land ownership through confiscation and sale of church and noble properties, making 19th century France a nation of peasant farmers. Napoleon’s administrative reforms in the Code Civil contained over two-thousand articles and countless amendments which still constitute the basic French legal text.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord was second only to Napoleon in interest and influence in Europe in the 19th century. As one of the leaders of the French Revolution, he had helped to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In 1794, he was forced to escape the “Terror” by fleeing to America. He returned to Paris as foreign minister in 1796.


A portrait of Charles Talleyrand by François Gérard in 1808 (Source: Wikimedia)

The end of the Napoleonic era did not terminate internal strife in France. A new provisional government, headed by Talleyrand, called a Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, back to power. The successor of Louis XVIII, Charles XI, an ultra-royalist, was overthrown by revolution in 1830 to be replaced by Louis Philippe, who reigned only until 1848 when he too was disposed by revolt. After Louis Philippe, the Second Republic was proclaimed and Louis Napoleon, nephew of Bonaparte, was elected president. He immediately made himself dictator and emperor, so that the Second Empire was launched in 1852. As Napoleon III, he unsuccessfully tried to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. After a period of German occupation of Paris and another civil war, a stable French government was finally established as the Third Republic in 1871. During the Third Republic, French imperialistic efforts in North Africa and Asia increased dramatically.

In the 19th century, Louis Pasteur made great discoveries in chemistry, biology, and medicine and Francois Magendie and his pupil Claude Bernard made great advances in human physiology. Charles Brown-Sequard is sometimes considered the founder of endocrinology and Rene Laennec, considered one of the great clinicians of all time, is most known for his invention of the stethoscope. But, like most medical practitioners throughout Europe and the Americas, bloodletting was still a major treatment. Interestingly, the French started using leeches, importing over forty million of them in a single year. This practice was continued until late in the century. The principle of canning with heat was developed by Nicholas Appert in 1810 while Francois Arago discovered that an electric current could be made to magnetize iron.


Napoleon’s take-over of Belgium caused Great Britain to enter the war against him and, as noted above, French defeat occurred on Belgian soil in the Battle of Waterloo. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna created the Kingdom of the Netherlands and gave William of Holland the Austrian Netherlands as compensation for Dutch colonial losses. Since this was the first time that the northern and southern parts of the Netherlands had been united since the 16th century, there were now many differences in religion and in the economics of the two sections. The Belgians felt themselves conquered subjects rather than equals and as part of a July revolution in Paris in 1830, the Belgians rose up in Brussels and by October declared their independence from King William and separated themselves from the Dutch and the Dutch language. But there were still two peoples and two languages in the liberated Belgium. By 1850, their railroad network was complete and by the last decade of the century there was mechanized industry in a great part of Belgium.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about the Congress of Vienna by watching Crash Course in European History, #23.


All four of the countries of the British Isles (England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland) were united under the government of Great Britain in the 19th century. The English, although socially and economically divided into classes, were in another sense surprisingly homogenous. They were almost all Protestant, with less than sixty thousand Catholics (chiefly of Irish origin) and about twenty-five thousand Jews, who lived in London and were still without civil liberties. After the Congress of Vienna had restored a balance of power in Europe, England was left loaded with debt. An economic depression threatened revolution at the time that William IV came to the throne in 1830. He helped to pass the Reform Bill, which gave a vote to the middle classes and enlarged the House of Commons. In the last decades of the century, England recovered economically and politically, under the leadership of three capable Prime Ministers (Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, and William F. Gladstone). For nearly twenty years, the last two alternated as prime minister under Queen Victoria who ruled Great Britain from 1837 to 1901. A number of far-reaching social changes were introduced at this time – including the enfranchisement of urban working men in 1867, the secret ballot in 1872, and a nearly universal male suffrage in 1884.


A portrait of Queen Victoria by Franz Winterhalter, 1859 (Source: Wikimedia)

In spite of the apparent political advancements in this century, the lives of the common people of Britain were still difficult. Education in England was poor, overall, with an estimated two million children in England and Wales receiving no education at all in 1806. It was not until 1870 that a national system of elementary schools, separate from the church, was established in England. Women were used to carry coal up from the mines as much as a hundred feet. In Scotland, the coal and salt miners were legally bound to the mines for life. There were frequent famines, with the worst following the potato blight in 1846. There were also epidemics of cholera and food riots. Eventually economic recovery and the Industrial Revolution arrived in Scotland with the establishment of new coke-fired blast furnaces in some of the desolate regions of the country.


In the 1830s, the English Parliament began to investigate working conditions in factories. The following excepts, which come from a 1842 report entitled, Report from the Poor Law Commissioners on an Inquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Laboring Population of Great Britain, show the difficult conditions facing most workers:

The chimneys of the furnaces which darken the atmospheres, and pour out volumes of smoke and soot upon the inhabitants of populous towns, afford most frequent examples of the inefficiency of the local administration, and the contempt of the law for the protection of the public against nuisances which are specially provided for. As smoke in Manchester and other towns becomes more dense, the vegetation declines.

The various forms of epidemic, endemic, and other disease caused, or aggravated, or propagated chiefly amongst the labouring classes by atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings prevail amongst the population in every part of the kingdom.

The report also demonstrated the impact of these factors on workers by comparing life expectancies in the major industrial centers of England (as demonstrated in the following chart):

Average Age of Death in 1842





Bethnal Green
































Read a longer excerpt from the Report here.

Great Britain, France, and Germany faced agricultural crises in the 19th century. Railroads, steamships, and refrigeration had made it possible for the vast new areas in Russia, North America, and Australia to sell their grain and meat in European markets at relatively low prices. In Britain, the fall of wheat and meat prices speeded the break-up of rural society and undermined the economic foundations of the landed nobility. A disastrous cattle epidemic between 1863 and 1867 added to the agricultural problems so that the price of meat soared. Between 1870 and 1900, land devoted to grain diminished by twenty-five percent as dairy farming, fruits, and vegetables became more common.

Modern industrialism began in England and involved coal and iron, with a technology which flowered about the midpoint of the 19th century. Thirty million tons of coal were mined in 1840. In 1870, Britain produced more steel than the combined output of France and Germany and then, using the Bessemer converter and the Gilchrist-Thomas steel process, England boosted the world output from five-hundred and forty tons in 1870 to fourteen million six-hundred thousand tons in 1895. The British population grew by ten million in this century. From the first Liverpool-to-Manchester Railway in 1830, a modern railroad system was completed by 1870. By that time Britain had sixty percent of the world’s steam tonnage on the seas.

Watch and Learn

Review the significance of the Industrial Revolution on Great Britain and Europe in the 19th century by watching Crash Course in European History, #24.


English scientists were active in the 19th century. John Dalton revolutionized theoretical chemistry with his Atomic Theory in 1804. Humphrey Davy used electrolysis to discover and isolate sodium, potassium, barium, boron, strontium, calcium, and magnesium. He also was able to produce both heat and light from electric current. In other fields, there were research on the nervous system and brain by Charles Bell, and Joseph Lister was the first to use antiseptic surgery in 1865. London had such great clinicians as Astley Cooper, Richard Bright, Thomas Addison, and Thomas Hodgkin, all of whom have had diseases named after them and all of whom worked at the famous Guy’s Hospital and Medical School. Noteworthy surgeons of the era were Benjamin Brodie and James Paget.

In the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott of Scotland wrote popular novels, including The Lady of the Lake and Waverly. Women also were prominent novelists – especially Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth. Three of England’s great poets wrote in the 19th century — William Wadsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. And then there were the romantic poets – Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. Last but not least of the poets was John Keats.

Charles Darwin published his influential book, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. This book precipitated a whole series of profound re-evaluations in philosophy and social thought as well as leading to a crisis in religious circles. Although Darwin refrained from attacking the Bible, others, like his friend and publicist, Thomas Huxley, were not so reticent. In the latter half of the 19th century, Darwinism was used as an endorsement of industrial and laissez-faire capitalism. Social Darwinism was promoted by Herbert Spencer in the 1870s as a racist-militarist endorsement of “survival of the fittest” and that “the strong must rule over the weak.”


The front page of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, 1859 (Source: Wikimedia)


In his book, On the Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin argued that that populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection. In the passage posted below, he explains this process and its effects:

Again, it may be asked, how is it that varieties, which I have called incipient species, become ultimately converted into good and distinct species, which in most cases obviously differ from each other far more than do the varieties of the same species? How do those groups of species, which constitute what are called distinct genera, and which differ from each other more than do the species of the same genus, arise? All these results, as we shall more fully see in the next chapter, follow inevitably from the struggle for life. Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.

You can a larger except of Darwin’s book here.

Important changes occurred in Ireland in the 19th century. After the Act of Union of 1800, which joined Ireland to England, Daniel O’Connell won the right for Catholics to sit in Parliament and hold office in 1829. He also called for the repeal of the Union to free Ireland again. By the 1840s Ireland’s population had reached eight and a half million. Many of the Irish lived destitute lives and relied almost entirely on potatoes for sustenance. When a parasitic fungus initiated the great potato blight in 1845, there were soon not only no potatoes to eat but none for seed for the next season. The remaining livestock was slaughtered because they were also without food. Hunger was soon accompanied by scurvy (due to the lack of vitamin C in the diet). Hundreds of thousands fled Ireland, some to England, but most to the United States. The famine increased Irish bitterness against the British so that in the 1860s and 70s, there was new agitation for independence, fanned by the Fenian Brotherhood, who acted secretly and violently.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about the reasons for migration from Europe in the 19th century and its impact on world history by watching Crash Course in European History, #29.

Simultaneous with the great medical tradition that developed in Paris in the first half of the century, a clinical investigation center arose in Dublin at Meath Hospital. Three men in particular should be named and, although trained in Scotland, they became famous as the “Irish School.” They were John Cheyne, William Stokes, and perhaps the most famous of all, Robert James Graves, known for his description of toxic goiter (Graves’ Disease). Abraham Colles and Robert William Smith described the mechanics and treatment of various wrist fractures and the latter wrote about neurofibromatosis.


At the close of the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain forced Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden, but the Norwegians refused to accept the Treaty of Kiel, proclaimed themselves an independent nation, adopted a constitution, and elected the former Danish governor, Christian Frederick, as their king on May 17, 1814. After a brief war with the Swedes, the two sides reached a settlement so that the king of Sweden was recognized as the titular head of Norway but the recently adopted constitution was to be followed in Norway. The first king of the two countries under that arrangement was Charles IX John (1763-1844). Near the end of the century, with industries and shipping growing, the desire for complete independence again became very strong and just after the turn of the century (1905), the Norwegian Parliament deposed the Swedish king and elected a Danish prince to rule them as Haakon VII. Some Norwegian merchants became rich using ice for a fresh-fish industry, which replaced the old, salted herring. This was the period of Henrik Ibsen, one of Norway’s literary greats.


During the reign of Gustavus IV (1792-1809), Sweden joined the Third Coalition against France, thus giving Napoleon an excuse for seizing Pomerania and Stralsund, which were Sweden’s last possessions on the mainland. In 1808, a Russian army crossed the Gulf of Bothnia on the ice and eventually compelled Sweden to cede Finland. In the 19th century, the national legislature, called the Riksdag, became a two-chamber congress, industry developed, and the middle and working classes exercised more political influence. Education, science, and literature advanced rapidly in Sweden. The universities of Uppsala, Abo and Lund were among the best in Europe. Jons Jakob Berzelius was one of the founders of modern chemistry, developing a table of atomic weights and isolating many chemical elements for the first time. Alfred Nobel perfected nitroglycerine and dynamite. Poets abounded, with perhaps the most famous being Esaias Tegner, who wrote the Frithjofs Saga, a series of legends taken from older Norse stories. By 1888, this was translated into both English and German.


The title page of Tegner’s Frithjofs Saga, 1876 (Source: Wikimedia)


In August of 1800, Denmark joined Russia, Prussia, and Sweden in the Second League of Armed Neutrality and pledged to resist British search of neutral vessels. Fearing that the combined naval power of those nations might put an end to her mastery of the seas, Britain decided that one of those fleets had to be destroyed. Denmark’s, being close at hand, was chosen and attacked in a vicious sea battle off Copenhagen and most of the Danish ships were disabled or sunk. In the middle of the century, a number of citizens went to the king and demanded a free constitution. However, in both Schleswig and Holstein, there were many German people who wanted German rather than Danish rule and the Danish king soon had to go to war against the Holstein rebels. Bismarck’s support of the rebels led to the defeat of the Danes. The provinces became part of a larger Germany. The old Norwegian dependencies of Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe, and Virgin Islands remained under the control of Denmark.

In the 19th century, the Danes made significant contributions to science, literature, and art. Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851) founded the science of electromagnetism through 38 years of experimentation. Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) was one of the two greatest sculptors of Europe of his time. After a Dane invented an improved cream separator, Denmark developed a large butter industry to go along with bacon production. The most famous Danish author of the 19th century was Hans Christian Andersen, the author of many beloved children’s stories. Hans Christian Andersen was born in 1805 and died in 1875. He is best remembered for his fairy tales. Some of the most famous of his stories are “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Snow Queen,” and “The Ugly Duckling.” His stories have inspired ballets, plays, and both animated and live action movies.


A painting of Hans Christian Andersen in 1836 by Christian Albrecht Jensen (Source: Wikimedia)

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You can read many of Hans Christian Anderson’s stories in English by visiting a website devoted to the famous author from Denmark.


Russia took control of Finland in 1809 with a sudden, surprise defeat of the Swedish forces. Late in the century, however, when Tsar Nicholas II wanted to blend the Finns into the Russian Empire, a struggle resulted that led to a revolution just after the turn of the century in 1905 which forced Russia to grant some new freedoms to the Finns. A new one-chamber Diet was formed with some political advancements such as freedom of the press and universal suffrage. The Finns did not obtain their final independence until the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. The establishment of the modern Finnish language is credited to Johan Snellman (1806- 1881). Carl Ludwig Engel (1778-1840) was the architect of the great square of Helsinki. Jean Sibelius (1875-1957) began his symphony work as the century closed.


As the 19th century began, a divided Poland remained. When Napoleon marched into Warsaw at the end of 1806, the people at first felt that he was a savior and about to free their country. The Russian troops retreated to their own border after several battles with the French, but the existence of an independent Poland did not survive the decisions of the Vienna Congress. When the Poles revolted in 1830 and declared their independence in Warsaw in 1831, Tsar Nicholas I’s army quickly crushed them in the battle of Ostroleka. Under Nicholas I’s orders, an internal campaign attempted to eliminate all traces of dissidence. Polish universities were suppressed, and the Polish army disbanded.


The Battle of Ostroleka painted by Karol Malankiewicz in 1838 (Source: Wikimedia)

Nicholas I’s successor, Alexander II, at first allowed Polish exiles to return, the Catholic Church to function, and a new Warsaw University to be formed. But those attempts at reform did not placate the Polish people, and religious ceremonies were used as political demonstrations. When an attempt was made to conscript dissident Polish youths into the Russian army, hundreds of young men fled to the forests. In January 1863, a Polish revolutionary committee called for an insurrection that began with an attack on a Russian soldiers’ barracks. After two years of guerilla warfare against the Russian army, then the largest in Europe, the Poles were defeated. There followed wholesale executions, confiscations, and deportations to Siberia. Subsequently Poland became the most industrialized province of the Russian Empire, producing large amounts of textiles, coal, and iron. In the last third of the century, the Russian imprint on Poland became ever more evident.

In the 1880s and 1890s, after the assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II, Russian-Polish Jews were exposed to a series of organized massacres targeting Jewish communities called pogroms. In response, close to two million Jews fled, with the vast majority going the United States. Others responded in different ways. Some Orthodox Jews, who looked to protect Judaism, tried their best to isolate themselves from hostility and outside forces. Zionists promoted the idea of mass migration to Palestine, while socialist Bundists sought to unite all the Jews in Eastern Europe in a class-based fight for economic reform. Others believed that assimilation (or acculturation) into mainstream culture was the proper response.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about the history of Anti-Semitism in Europe and how it created an atmosphere of hatred in a short video produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.



Tsar Alexander I (r. 1801-1825) started his reign with a humanitarian desire to liberate the serfs and establish a constitutional monarchy. However, before his plans could be initiated, he became entangled in European politics and diplomacy, first as an ally of France and then as an enemy. After Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in the winter, Tsar Alexander I led his troops into central Europe and then Paris, as Napoleon abdicated. The Tsar was influential in the final peace at Vienna and the subsequent formation of the Holy Alliance of European monarchs.


A painting of Tsar Alexander I (Source: Wikimedia)

Under Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825-55), Russia aggressively added Armenia to its empire and tried to take over the Balkans but was thwarted in its attempt by the British. The Russian army was used during Nicholas’ reign on many diverse fronts: in central Asia (1839-43 and 1847-53), in the Caucasus (1829-64), against Persia and the Ottoman Empire (1826-29), against Polish rebels (1830-31 and 1863), and against revolts in Hungary (1848-49).

Some of the reforms which had been attempted by Tsar Alexander I were enacted by Alexander II (r. 1855-81) who emancipated the serfs in 1861 and established councils for local self-government. He refused a national constitution, however, and retained absolute rule. The Act of Emancipation also divided the nation into two great classes: (1) gentry and urban classes and (2) peasantry. In 1864, a Local Government Law or “Zemstvo” was passed under which each province and each country was authorized to elect its own assembly. This promoted better education and public health. Other provisions established trial by jury with an system of defense and prosecution.

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Alexander II issued his Emancipation edict in 1861 freeing the serfs. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation order freeing American slaves in 1863. Learn more about these two events by reading the article, “How American Slavery Echoed Russian Serfdom.”

In 19th century Russia, many voices were raised in opposition to the autocratic rule of the Tsars. The leaders of the opposition parties endorsed differing political ideas and aspirations. Nikolay Chernyshevsky preached materialism and intellectualism, stating that man’s creative thinking was superior to any spiritual power from above. Dmitry Pisarev wrote about nihilism, with an intellectual attitude promoting extreme individualism. Dmitry Karakozov advanced a philosophy of terror and prophesized that all of Europe, including Russia, would soon be in the flames of revolution. Sergey Nechaev formed a society called “The Peoples’ Justice” and sowed the seeds of anarchism. Pyotr Tkachev called for a “Russian Revolution.” Georgi Plekhanov founded the Land and Freedom Party (sometimes translated as Land and Liberty) which attempted to spread socialism to the peasants working in the countryside.


Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel, What is to be Done?, was written in 1863. The chief character is a woman, Vera Pavlovna, who escapes the control of her family and an arranged marriage to seek economic independence. The novel advocated the creation of small socialist cooperatives based on the Russian peasant commune, but oriented toward industrial production. Chernyshevsky promoted the idea that the intellectual’s duty was to educate and lead the laboring masses in Russia along a path to socialism that bypassed capitalism. The idealized image it offered of dedicated and self-sacrificing intellectuals transforming society by means of scientific knowledge served as a model of inspiration for Russia’s revolutionary leaders. The following excerpts from the novel demonstrate some of his ideas:

You ask me what I seek in life. I wish neither to dominate nor to be dominated. I wish neither to dissimulate nor deceive; nor do I wish to exert myself to acquire what I am told is necessary, but of which I do not feel the need. I do not desire wealth. I wish to be independent and live in my own fashion. What I need I feel that I have the strength to earn; what I do not need I do not desire. What I do know is that I wish to be free; that I do not wish to be under obligations to anyone. I wish to act after my own fancy. Let others do the same. I respect the liberty of others, as I wish them to respect mine.

Let every woman maintain, with all her strength, her independence of every man, however great her love for and confidence in him.

When a man recognizes a woman as his equal he ceases to regard her as his property. Equality is the source of freedom.

You can a larger except of Chernyshevsky’s book here.

When Alexander II was killed by a terrorist bomb, his son Alexander III began his reign as Tsar in 1881 and reigned for 13 years until his death in 1894. A great industrial region was developed where the Don River empties into the Sea of Azov around the Donets coalfield. A railroad connecting that area to the iron-ore fields of the west helped Russia industrialize. After 1870, the steel industry grew five hundred times faster than in any other country

Russian literature was dominated by Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Russian scientists excelled in many fields. In mathematics, Nikolai Lobachevsky developed non-Euclidean geometry. In biology, Elie Metchnikoff worked with Louis Pasteur. Sofia Kovalevsky founded comparative embryology and experimental histology. In chemistry, Dmitri Mendeleyev became world famous for his Periodic Table of the Elements. Physiologists included Ivan Pavlov, who worked with digestive glands and conditioned reflexes, and Kliment Timiryazev, who identified the role and significance of chlorophyll. Alexander Popov was a pioneer in electromagnetic waves and predicted the development of radio. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who was the father of jet-propulsion and cosmic rocketry, also did his work at the end of the 19th century.


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