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French Revolution

Back to the Future

Eliana Cardoso's picture

Imagine if, in 1799 – the year in which Napoleon seized power – a research institute had published its global forecasts for the next 20 years. Its researchers would have known about the tremendous changes that took place over the previous two decades: from the United States’ declaration of independence, through the French Revolution and the execution of Louis XVI, up to Napoleon’s victory over Austria in his Italy Campaign.

Even so, the chances of the researchers accurately predicting the events that came to pass over the subsequent 20 years, including their impact on the 19th century’s world order, would have been infinitesimal. No one could have anticipated that Napoleon would have plunged Europe into non-stop war for a decade until being overcome at Waterloo, or that, by the time of his defeat, he would already have swept away the foundations of traditional structures and initiated an unstoppable wave of reforms.

Because of its industrial might, this Europe would dominate the rest of the world during the 19th century. When European rivalries exploded into World War One, the face of the earth had already changed considerably compared to the previous century. And, having changed the world, Europe set the conditions for the demise of its own empire. Even before World War One, Teddy Roosevelt had heralded the start of the United States’ ascension to its current hegemony.