Sense of History: an unfinished draft of an undergraduate history textbook by Robert C. Binkley, 1939-40. This transcription is not yet fully corrected.

Generations as Measures of Change

To answer the question what amounts and kinds of change take place in the period of a generation we have only to examine and compare successive generations. Such comparisons are constantly being made, as when a father tells his son what he did when he was a boy.

It is not enough for our purposes however, to measure the changes in the circumstances of a single life. We must form an idea of the nature and extent of the entire changes of scene that mark off one generation from another. If men were bred like some kinds of Insects — a whole generation dying in one season, and the new generation coming to life in the next, it would be easy to distinguish one human generation from another. But our species is one that is constantly replacing itself — every hour of every day. Are there any mile-posts that mark off into segments the sweeping continuity of human life?

[p.003] Such mile posts, such markers, there are in certain events that are so widespread in their effects that they touch the lives of many people at the same time, and become a common experience shared by many.

A love affair may be a decisive event shared by two people; the bankruptcy of a business firm may be a shock that will permanently mark and date the lives of a hundred; a catastrophe such as the San Francisco earthquake and fire may touch several hundred thousand, and an event like the first world war reach the lives of several hundred million.

For you, twenty years old in the 1940’s the second world war is the event that will probably mould you as a generation. For me and my age group the corresponding event was the great emotional crisis of the short armistice that ended the first world war in the winter of 1918. At that time, for a moment, all over the world, there was an exalted vision of permanent peace in a new and better order for mankind. This great moment was followed by twenty years of increasing disillusionment. The whole period from 1918 to 1939 turned out to be only a long armistice in which real peace was not attained.

The people who are now in their sixties had no single world-wide common experience to usher them into adult life. Americans of the age group thrilled in their youth to the Spanish-American War, Englishmen to the Boer War in Africa, Frenchmen to an internal political crisis — the Dreyfus affair. But the great shock to these lives was the coming of the first world war in 1914. For its coming was far more of a shock to men who had established their place in life, and were torn from their moorings, than to the younger people who had not really entered the life of the Pre-War world. In the twenty years from 1894 to 1914 people often called the international system "The Armed Peace." After 1914 this period was re-named the "prewar period." And since the Second World War is in a sense a continuation of the first, with the Long Armistice between, this name — the Pre-War period — can stand.

Men who were twenty in the 1890’s were the Pre-War generation. They grew up in the horse and buggy days, and saw the advent of automobile and airplane, long distance telephone and radio. By the time you are drawing your old-age pensions these men will be gone, and there will be no Americans left alive who really knew the horse-and-buggy culture.

Let your imagination take you back to the 1890’s when the men now old were young. Two milestone dates marked the European generations then alive, 1848 and 1871. In 1848 there had been a mad burst of revolutionary enthusiasm and action all over central Europe with exalted hopes for a future of universal liberty, democracy and peace. It was a general emotional experience, like the short armistice of 1918. It had been followed, likewise, by dis[p.003]illusionment. The old men of the 1890’s could remember the mad hopes, and the reaction from them.

The dramatic event of 1871 was the defeat of France in a war with Prussia, and the founding of a new German Empire. In America it was the Civil War that marked one generation from another: those who had known from those who had not known, the times "before the war."

European international politics from 1870 to 1890 were dominated by Otto von Bismarck, the political genius who had brought about the founding of the German Emoire in 1871. He held the stage so long that he seemed to those who could not remember 1848 to be almost a permanent fixture. The years from 1879 to 1890 are usually called “the Bismarck period."

The man who preceded Bismarck in holding the central place on the European stage was Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. His regime, called the Second Empire, filled the period from the collapse of the Revolutions of 1848 to the crisis of 1870-71. In the Bismarck period (1871-90) Europe looked to Berlin, in the Second Empire period (1850-70) to Paris. The "Second Empire" period in France was the period of unification in Germany and Italy, of the Great Reforms in Russia and the Civil War in the United States.

For the thirty-three years before 1848 the capital of Europe was Vienna, and the leading figure in European politics was the Austrian Chancellor Prince Metternich. The Metternich period was a remarkably long period of peace in the great-power relations of Europe. To mark the sequence of generations at this time we need only to take note of the biography of Metternich himself.

Metternich was born in 1773. In 1788, at the age of fifteen, he entered the University of Strassbourg. Like so many young men of his age, he read the radical literature his day and joined a discussion group to talk about liberty and political reform. The French Revolution began the next year, and he followed its first moves with sympathy. Those were the days of which the poet Wordsworth wrote "Joy was it in this day to be alive, But to be young was heaven." But the fever of universal optimism did not last. A few days of rioting by mobs in Strassbourg cured Metternich of his revolutionary sympathies.

While Metternich in his twenties and thirties was making his career in the Austrian public service the French Revolution ran its course; Napoleon the First became ruler of Europe, and then Napoleon was struck down by the combined forces of all the European states but France. Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, in 1815, marked a decisive change of scene for all Europeans. Metternich stepped into a leading position which he maintained not by arms but by diplomacy,

Metternich was an old man of 75 when the Revolutions of 1848 broke upon Europe. There were not many people [p.005] who could remember as he could, the Europe that had been before the French Revolution. He had lived through two long generations — that of the French Revolution and Napoleon (1789-1815) and that to which his own name is given (1815-1848).

When the mob of revolutionists was howling for his life in the street in front of his offices in 1848 someone asked him "What is that noise?" he replied, "It is that which the democrats call the voice of God." His memory must have carried him back to his student days at Strassbourg, when he had first talked of the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, — “the voice of the people is the voice of God," and had first seen a violent mob in action.

But the mob in the street, under the windows of his Chancellery in 1848, was a mob of young men, many of them students. They did not remember 1789.

Three times — in 1789, 1848, 1918, a European generation has been caught in a wave of short-lived, buoyant hope, almost like the frenzy of a religious revival. But 1848 did not come till most of those who had experienced 1789 were dead, and 1918 swept through a world to which 1848 was only a record, not a memory. As the crisis of the second world war increases in intensity, there seems to be some question whether those who felt the experience of 1918 will be capable of repeating it.

As we look back, then through the hundred and fifty years that have elapsed since 1789, we find them marked out in European experience into six generations. Setting the dividing date with some exercise of arbitrary judgement they stand as follows:

Most of you can expect to live through two more periods of such length as these.