Book Summary: “The Persistence of the Old Regime” by Arno Mayer


Title: The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War
Author: Arno Mayer
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

While most historians consider Europe to have throughly industrialized, Mayer argues that the dominant class in Europe up until World War I was still the landed nobility.

Key Take-aways

  • While Europe in 1914 had an increasingly industrial economy, its political, economic, military, religious and cultural leadership came from the landed nobility.
  • Outside of the UK, most Europeans lived in rural areas or very small towns. Agriculture was still the dominant sector of the economy.
  • The new industrialization was circumscribed geographically to a few regions, such as the Midlands and Ruhr.
  • The wealthiest individuals were landed nobles. Most industrial companies were small. Their owners had little political influence.
  • Within the exception of France, all major powers were monarchies. The king’s ministers and civil servants were dominated by titled nobles.
  • Restricted suffrage was the norm and elected assemblies, other than France and UK, could not seriously challenge the monarchy’s power.
  • Military officers and clerics, particularly those of the highest rank, were dominated by titled nobles.
  • The middle class and successful industrialists still sought a noble title, rural landholding and living the noble lifestyle. They sent their children to schools that assimilated them into noble culture.
  • World War I and World War II would finally eliminate the titled nobility as a dominant class.

Important Quotes from Book

The Great War was an expression of the decline and fall of the old order fighting to prolong its life rather than of the explosive rise of industrial capitalism bent on imposing its primacy.

The third and major premise of this book is that Europe’s old order was thoroughly preindustrial and prebourgeois.

It is the thesis of this book that the “premodern” elements were not the decaying and fragile remnants of an all but vanished past but the very essence of Europe’s incumbent civil and political societies.

The old order’s civil society was first and foremost a peasant economy and rural society dominated by hereditary and privileged nobilities. Except for a few bankers, merchants, and shipowners, the large fortunes and incomes were based in land. Across Europe the landed nobilities occupied first place not only in economic, social, and cultural terms but also politically.

In fact, political society was the linchpin of this agrarian  society of orders . Everywhere it took the form of absolutist  authority systems of different degrees of enlightenment  and headed by hereditary monarchs. The crowns reigned and  governed with the support of extended royal families and  court parties as well as compliant ministers, generals, and  bureaucrats.

The Church was another vital constituent and pillar of the ancien regime. Closely tied to both the crown and the nobility,  it was, like them, rooted in land, which was its principal  source of revenue. 

With the rebirth of the territorial state and the development  of the idea of political sovereignty, monarchial authority put  an end to political and military feudalism. Claiming the monopoly  of coercion, the dynasties presided over expanded  standing armies and centralized bureaucracies loyal to the  crown . They also secured the fiscal independence needed to  pay for this large and growing state apparatus without excessively  bending to the nobility.

Even so, since  they were not shorn of their stake in the landed property,  agriculture, and processing of primary products that dominated  economic life down to 1914, the nobles retained their  wealth and status. Moreover, while working out a modus vivendi with the crown, the nobility of the sword infused the entire  public service nobility, both civil and military, with its time-honored  precepts. In fact, the kings themselves became imbued  with this noble conceit. Seeing their own thrones tied to  the hierarchical society of orders, they bolstered this civil society  economically and socially. At the same time, though the  absolute monarchs deprived noblemen and seigneurs of their  sovereign political and military authority, they assimilated  them into their state apparatus. The result was that by permeating  the state apparatus, a n d in particular its officials of  non-noble birth, with their own precepts, and by occupying key positions in the new armies and bureaucracies, the nobles  compensated for their loss of private political power. The  nobility also benefitted from close connections with the  Church, whose top personnel was of high birth and whose  wealth, like the nobles’ own, continued to be overwhelmingly  landed.

Although England’s economy was dominated by manufactural and merchant capitalism,  the aristocracy continued to be paramount. This was so because land remained the chief source of wealth and income  despite the radical contraction of British agriculture in the  course of the nineteenth century. In other words, the monarchy  and landed elite tamed the industrialization of England  without succumbing to it.

The major Continental powers, except for France, had none of Britain’s advantages: the landed elites were in tact, agriculture remained a major social activity, and insecure frontiers justified the military presumption of kings and nobles . This  explains, in part, why Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany  persisted as absolutist monarchies.

The public  service nobilities. both civil and military, took in qualified and  ambitious scions of business and the liberal professions. Though they were careful to regulate closely this infusion of  new blood and talented newcomers had to pass through elite  schools. ingest the corporate ethos, and demonstrate fealty to  the old order as a precondition for advancement. Besides, the highest ranks of the state bureaucracy and military services  continued to be reserved for men of high birth and proven  assimilation.

In other words , the old elites excelled at selectively ingesting,  adapting, and assimilating new ideas and practices without  seriously endangering their traditional status, temperament, and outlook. Whatever the dilution and cheapening of nobility, it was gradual and benign.

Throughout the nineteenth  and early twentieth centuries the grands boulgeois kept  denying themselves by imitating and appropriating the ways of  the nobility in the hope of climbing in to it. The grandees of  business and finance bought landed estates, built country  houses , sent their sons to elite higher schools, and assumed  aristocratic poses and life-styles. They also strained to break  into aristocratic and court circles and to marry into the titled  nobility.

Down to 1914 Europe was pre-eminently preindustrial and prebourgeois, its civil societies being deeply grounded in  economies of labor-intensive agriculture, consumer manufacture, and petty commerce.

Except in the United Kingdom, the agricultural sector claimed a larger share of the labor force and also generated a  larger proportion of the gross national product than any other  single sector. Moreover, except in France-and particularly in  England-vast property holdings occupied a paramount place  either as estate agriculture or as land let out for cash rent or  crop sharing. In addition, in all countries landed property was  still without exception the principal form of personal wealth  and the main source of private income, also because of rising  real estate values in the cities.

Looked at with wide-angled lenses, the Continent was a  society of landlords and peasants clustered in and around  rural settlements ranging from tiny hamlets of less than 1 00  people to agro-towns with populations of between 5,000 and 10,000.

Moreover, the new industrialization was  circumscribed geographically: the Midlands and Lancashire;  the Ruhr, Saar, Upper Silesia, and Berlin; northeastern  France; Vienna and Bohemia; St. Petersburg and the Donets  Basin; northern Italy; and major seaports .

Except in England, the bourgeoisie cannot be said ever to have  abandoned or departed from economic and above all political  liberalism, never having embraced it to begin with.

In 1914 Europe was not only heavily agrarian and nobilitarian but also monarchic. Republicanism was as uncommon as finance capitalism.

The immense crown lands provided not only the income but  above all the appropriate aura for sovereigns who in addition  to being premier aristocrats were the sole founts of honors .  Beyond this tacit prerogative to create and advance nobles, the  emperor-kings of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia  were invested with power to appoint and dismiss ministers;  issue ordinances ; convoke, adjourn, and dissolve elective bodies;  promulgate and enact laws; grant pardons ; command the  armed forces; make treaties; and decree martial law. In theory  a limited parliamentary system was in force in all three empires -in Russia since 1905. In actual practice, the ministers remained  exclusively responsible to the crown and not to the  popular house. Admittedly, the lower chambers punctually  tempered the will and willfulness of the monarchs, but they lacked not only the legal power but also the political discretion  to curb them effectively and consistently. As a last resort, the  imperial sovereigns could always ignore defiant legislatures;  armed with emergency powers, they could either suspend or  dissolve them, or call new elections, if need be after tampering  with the franchise.

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