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

The Era of Nationalism and the Modern Age

The entire period of a hundred and fifty years from 1789-1939 has been, of course, like each of its component generations, a period of change. But the kinds of change that take place over such a period are longer-term changes. To measure the changes that take place over such a period one would necessarily compare it with other periods of a comparable length. For instance the whole 17th century, together with the first three quarters of the 18th — the years, roughly, from 1600 to 1789, saw the establishment through[p.006]out Europe of a system of government and a way of life which has since been called "The Old Regime". It was a period in which French culture came to permeate a European aristocracy. The children of aristocratic families all over Central and Eastern Europe were taught to use French in conversation and letter writing.

If we contrast the whole century and a half since 1789 with the preceding century and a half we would find two outstanding differences—that the old Regime took it for granted that politics at the highest European level was a matter of family policy among certain great families — mostly the royal families — of Europe, while the past century and a half has taken for granted the existence of nations, each with a national interest and policy. This difference would lead us to call our own era The Era of Nationalism. Another difference is evident in the economic world. Whereas the decisive field of economic organization was agricultural under the Old Regime, it became industrial-financial in the Era of Nationalism. For this reason one of the greatest economic historians, Werner Sombart, calls this century and a half the Era of High Capitalism.

When we add up the Era of Nationalism and the Era of the Old Regime it is evident that there is still much that is common to both. One of these things is the existence of States as the supreme units of power organization in Europe; another is the presence of a great frontier of territory in America, Asia, Africa, into which European enterprise was moving. But these two characteristics of the European scene were present also in a preceding era, to which we usually give the name - the era of the Reformation. In the era of the Reformation two types of power-organizations, church and state, made fundamental readjustments of their relations. It is only from that time that the pattern of European organization has been set as an array of separate states, each in permanent competition with the others.

The Era of the Reformation, the era of the Old Regime, and the Era of Nationalism, taken together, constitute a still longer period — roughly five hundred years, which has given us, in politics, the state, economics, the expansion of Europe through the world, and in culture — science. Though the word "Modern" is a colorless word (since all times are modern to their own people) we may none the less speak of these last five centuries as the Modern Age.

As we see changes taking place around us, our understanding of these changes depends upon whether we regard them as short term, middle term, or long term changes.

[p.007] For instance, when the 1929 depression came to America, some people thought that it was an ordinary phase of an ordinary business cycle, a thing that one might expect every seven or eight years. At the other extreme there were people who thought it was a crisis marking the end of a five hundred year period of economic expansion. They argued that since the first world war it had become evident that the era of migration, of opening up of new lands, that started in the early modern age with Columbus had come to a close. Some geographers think that the world has indeed reached this point, and that substantially all the world’s habitable areas will be populated for a long future by the descendants of people who are living now. Certainly the end of new land settlement in the United States came during the first world war, when vast areas of prairie were broken by the plough to produce war food supply. Since that time the wave of land cultivation has receded, population growth is leveling off. All countries are restricting immigration. Intermediate between these views were the opinions of those who thought the depression was the delayed consequence of the world war, and those who regarded it as the collapse of "high capitalism". Was the depression an event that should be seen in the perspective of a 500 year "age", a 150 year era, a 20 year generation, or a seven year business cycle? Not only the public question of what to do about the depression, but the individual question of every man, what to do in the depression turned on the choice of these interpretations.

Of anything that happens we may very properly inquire: how big is this change? How long has the thing lasted which we see changing? How far in the future do we think the event will be felt? When we say of someone that his ideas are out of date, that he is out of step with the present, or that he is ahead of his time, we usually mean that we think he has made an incorrect estimate of the historical meaning of what is going on. Then we pass off some minor personal disappointment by reflecting that a year from now we will not remember it, we are applying historical method to its appraisal.