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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 352.01


Review:                  War and Society in Revolutionary Europe, 1770-1870, by Geoffrey Best (Oxford University Press, 1982).


War and Society in Revolutionary Europe is Geoffrey Best's contribution to the Fontana 'War and Society' series.  It suffers from all the defects of a solicited book, with very few compensating strengths.  Best, professor of history at the University of Sussex, apparently wrote the book off the top of his head.  It has that feel at least -- it is conventionally organized, the prose is very sloppy, and no original thought appears to have gone into it.  The footnotes are so sketchy as to be almost useless, and the short bibliography is equally unhelpful.

The most damning weakness of all is that the book entirely lacks a coherent thesis, or in fact any clear statement of what the book is about.  In the Preface, Best describes what regions of Europe he will be focusing on, but fails to give any hint just what exactly "war and society" means to him.  The closest he comes is his statement, "It is no part of the business of a 'war and society' book to provide a general socio-economic history as well.  This series has its work cut out, first to ascertain, and then to keep in focus, the military dimension of the social story, a story much less known."[1]  What exactly he means by "the military dimension of the social story" remains unclear.  This continually leads to trouble, as when he casually states at the beginning of the second chapter, "The men of Europe near the end of the ancien régime (we need not concern ourselves with the women, who had very little part in our story) knew themselves to be socially ordered in a series of strata . . ."[2]  This may be true, depending of what exactly "our story" is about, but he leaves the impression that a book with "war and society" in the title automatically excludes women from the picture.  J. J. Hale's book from the same series, on Renaissance Europe, makes it clear that this is not necessarily so.  And in fact, Best's vague perception of what "war and society" means appears to include many aspects which bring women directly into the picture: for instance, he completely ignores the role of women in the people's wars and insurrections which take up a large part of his book.

This kind of flat statement, without justification, explanation, or evidence, characterizes the entire book.  Best covers the period in some detail, but he deals entirely in generalizations or cliches.  He says of British lower-class radicalism from 1796-1810: "So effective in general was the repression of the late nineties and so well-camouflaged in the opaque, not to say muddy, waters of lower-class life were the revolutionaries, that we know nothing more certain that, despite continual French encouragement and the natural alliance of the United Irishmen, they achieved nothing."[3]  Another example, from his discussion of Napoleon and France: "Everything he did to French government and society was cut after the military pattern.  There is no evidence that the French people found it uncongenial."[4]  Best simply lacks the credibility to make such statements believable, and I am inclined to think that this supposed lack of evidence is at least partly due to his clear lack of interest in getting below the surface of any of these subjects.

Overall, I found the book to be intolerable.  Poorly written, poorly supported, and full of clichés and gross generalizations, it finally falls down completely because of its lack of a unifiying principle.  Even the concept of 'war and society,' which Best believes is so clear as not to need any explicit definition, provides only the most nebulous coherence.  Best may truly believe, as he states in the preface, that he has "operated an unusually wide-angled lens," but this width is of the most narrow breadth -- he includes naval matters, criticizing those close-minded scholars who believe that 'war and society' is limited to 'armies and society.'[5]  The shallowness of Best's book will be frustrating to the serious scholar, who will look in vain for any original thought within, and similarly dangerous as an introductory work.  Those in need of a book covering this time period are strongly advised to look elsewhere.

[1]  p. 47.

[2]  p. 18.

[3]  p. 132.

[4]  p. 112.

[5]  p. 10.

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