is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Understanding the Private-Public Divide: Markets, Governments, and Time Horizons

Author(s):Offer, Avner
Reviewer(s):Chick, Martin

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

Avner Offer. Understanding the Private-Public Divide: Markets, Governments, and Time Horizons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. xiv + 227 pp. £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-1108791663.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Martin Chick, University of Edinburgh.


This book has its origins in the Ellen MacArthur Lectures which Avner Offer gave in Cambridge in 2018. The ideas developed in those four lectures are further elaborated here in seven main chapters, whose titles are: patient capital; corruption and integrity; plutocratic blowback; creating humans; exit from work; housing and democracy; and climate change and time horizons. Together they present a complexity of ideas concerning the economic and political conceptualisation of past, present, and future, written in an accessible style and with such a wealth of supporting evidence as to make this book of immense interest both for teaching and research.

The core concern of the book is the temporal boundaries of markets, in particular the private-public sector divide. As Offer writes: ‘the private-public divide runs across the future, not the present. It is a time horizon that lies a few years hence. Running up to that boundary is the playground of market competition. Beyond it is terrain which business prefers not to enter on its own’ (p. xi). Longer, if any, returns on investments in health, education, science, universities, nuclear power, and the mitigation of climate change are just some of the examples cited as areas in which private investors enter with caution. In an inversion of the typical neoliberal advocacy, Offer argues that when private investors do enter these fields, they seek the protection of the state. Particular ire is reserved for those instances when private interests enter markets better suited to the time horizon of the state, and where private financial gains are made while public purpose is obscured. One such is social security, with Rose and Milton Friedman, and Martin Feldstein being criticised for encouraging future pensioners to look to financial equity investment as a source of future higher returns. With the pursuit of such higher returns came higher fees. In the USA in 1999, social security administrative expenses amounting to 0.5 percent of benefit payments, were about one-fifth of the management charges on a private pension account (p. 113). As in the USA, so too in the UK. Offer estimates that in the first decade of personal pension accounts, the average charge ratio was at least 43 percent (p. 105) It was not simply a matter of costs and fees, but also that the equity return approach misstated the fundamental purpose of a social security, risk-pooling income-replacement scheme, this being better reflected in a pensions scheme on a Pay As You Go basis linked to the fundamental growth of GDP.

A dark side to this book concerns corruption. Here there is continuity with Offer’s earlier work, The Challenge of Affluence, in which with the removal of institutional constraints and structures to eating, many individuals struggled to control their appetite and to balance immediate gratification against delayed reward. In this new book, the lessening of government constraints and structures, however seemingly bureaucratic and stuffy, widened the scope for corruption. The chapter on corruption and integrity would make an invaluable central reading for classes on the development of government over the past two centuries. Similarly, the wealth of evidence and discussion in the chapter on the housing market and policies over the past two hundred years would make it a valuable reading for classes in this area.

Ultimately what the book seeks to explain is the persistent presence and size of government. As economies have grown, governments have grown faster. The fourfold increase in the size of the economies of Europe and the United States between 1913 and 1980 was trumped by the increase in public expenditure from around one-tenth of GDP to anywhere between 25 and 50 percent. In the U.K., the recent pandemic has had a wartime ‘ratchet effect’ on public expenditure which as a share of GDP rose from 40 percent immediately before the pandemic, to 53 percent during it, and has now settled back to 45 percent in what we hope is the post-Covid period. Economic history suggests that once ratcheted up during a crisis, public expenditure’s new higher share of GDP does not fall back to its pre-crisis level. Not only does this have implications for the structure of tax systems, with a further likely shift towards indirect taxation including an increasing interest in taxing wealth, but it also raises the central question of what should, and should not, be financed by public expenditure. The experience with the Private Finance Initiative in the U.K. suggests that allowing private companies to aggregate into their required rate of return all their estimated risks of financing, constructing, and maintaining new schools and hospitals for an agreed future is very costly, especially when compared with the rates at which government could borrow in the manipulated monetary conditions following the financial crisis of 2008. Why governments did not take that opportunity to raise money with low-interest, long-duration debt to build assets such as social housing on which the rental returns were higher than the cost of borrowing remains puzzling. The answer probably lies in the politically convenient assumptions made about the relative importance of reducing the national debt/GDP ratio so as not to encumber the future. Not that economists are free of such assumptions. The use made by economists of the social discount rate in assessing the response to climate change also makes its own assumptions about the stability of the entire ecological system. Not only do the time horizons involved in climate mitigation schemes make arguments over the discount rate little short of cute at times, but as Offer underlines they contrast with the relative inattention to the implications of an empirical extrapolation of observed changes in temperature to date. Thought-provoking to the end, Offer has written a highly stimulating, readable book of immense intellectual use to the study of the past and to the present’s consideration of its approach to the future.


Martin Chick is Professor of Economic History at the University of Edinburgh. His most recent book is Changing Times: Economics, Policies and Resource Allocation in Britain since 1951 (Oxford University Press, 2020). He is currently researching the development and use of property rights in, on, and under the seas since 1945.

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (December 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century

Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century

Author(s):DeLong, J. Bradford
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

J. Bradford DeLong. Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 2022. 605 pp. $35 (hardback), ISBN 978-0465019595.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joel Mokyr, Northwestern University.


The twentieth century was like no other. That statement, of course, is true for any century, but economic historians will strongly argue that degree is everything, and that the twentieth century was more different. The evocative simile of a hockey-stick blade, which turns up sharply in the nineteenth century after a long flat handle, describes far more than just the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the associated rise in temperatures. It includes income, life expectancy, average years of schooling, and many other variables. It is thus with more than usual interest that our profession has looked forward to Brad DeLong’s long-awaited hefty volume that ventures to be a survey of the century worldwide.

The title of the book (not acknowledged) comes from W.B. Yeats’s famous poem of despair, “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 after the mayhem of World War I:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(The title was also appropriated by Joan Didion in an essay on the San Francisco counterculture.) How many potential buyers of this book will get this allusion is something that an editor at Basic Books might know. The subtitle, of course, is more direct and will make every red-blooded economic historian want to plunk down for this (very reasonably priced) tome before rushing off to revise their class notes to reflect the insights of this widely respected and erudite scholar and public intellectual.

In many ways, they will not be disappointed. DeLong’s book, as will surprise no one, is exceedingly well written. It provides a narrative that is captivating, witty, often sardonic, at times even entertaining despite the often bleak realities it describes. The twentieth century, whatever else it was, was rarely boring: the rapid trend changes embodied in the hockey stick were punctuated by dramatic and often shocking events: two major wars; a great depression; the rise and fall of two brutal totalitarian movements that threatened and failed to take over the world; the rise and fall and rise of liberal democracies; and a long list of macro-inventions that changed material life on this planet in more dimensions than we can count. Arranged in a roughly chronological order, the book surveys the main events with a keen eye for irony and contingency, and while DeLong never hides his political and economic predilections, he writes with few distracting commitments to one ideological point of view or another.

This book is uncommon in that much of it is written in reference to intellectual history: far more than in most books called “an economic history of —” facts are juxtaposed with thoughts and thinkers. The writings of Hayek, Polanyi, Marx, Luxemburg, Friedman, Feldstein, Hobsbawm, and countless others are confronted with the historical developments as DeLong sees them. What influence did they have on how things turned out? DeLong is particularly fascinated by human folly, miscalculations, and plain ignorance. Time after time he cites some past essay or speech written by a policymaker or intellectual, adding his clear judgment: this was wrong. The only major twentieth century thinker who emerges entirely unscathed from DeLong’s critiques is John Maynard Keynes.

DeLong organizes his history around certain themes at the exclusion of others, which is of course his prerogative, and his choices illustrate his originality and imagination. A case where his out-of-the-box style shines through is his repeated juxtaposition of two influential thinkers of the mid twentieth century, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Polanyi, neither of whom was in the mainstream of economics. Hayek represents the belief in free enterprise and the strong resistance to regulation and redistribution, captured by DeLong’s phrase (repeated multiple times) “the market giveth and the market taketh away, the name of the market be blessed,” whereas Polanyi felt that the “invention” of the market economy during the Industrial Revolution (a wholly imaginary account) was a curse that threatened more fundamental human rights. For DeLong, the welfare states that emerged in the mixed economies in liberal post-1945 Europe represent a “shotgun marriage” between the two ideologies that otherwise shared nothing.

In many other places, DeLong provides keen insights, some big and some small, no more so than when he points out that much technological progress after 1945 was actually partially skill-reducing in that automation and mechanization could rely on workers with low human capital, and all the ingenuity was front-loaded by high-skill engineers and designers. Once that process got fully under way, firms had an irresistible temptation to outsource production to countries where low-skill labor was substantially cheaper — especially in a world in which long-distance communications (and hence control from afar) and transportation (as stressed by Vaclav Smil) became cheap and reliable (pp. 413-414).

One of the more appealing features of this book is DeLong’s willingness to engage the possibility that much of what went wrong in the twentieth century was the result of bad luck and contingency. Anyone familiar with the literature of what Acemoglu and Robinson (not cited) have called the critical junctures of the century, will see how accidents or relatively minor events with cascading consequences may have determined historical trajectories, though perhaps not everyone may embrace his example of the Florida hanging chads that gave an election to the “astonishingly-unqualified-for-the job” G.W. Bush. Others see material structures and inevitable historical forces, says DeLong, where he sees accidents and happenstance. But then he adds, “future historians will probably be in accord with [their interpretations], not mine” (p. 518). My sense is that there may be room for both.

Whether this book will do well with the general public is hard to say, but professional economic historians will notice that there is surprisingly little economics in it. Perhaps inevitably for a book about the twentieth century, it dwells far more on politics than on economics, and while the two are of course inextricable in any account of the world economy, the relative attention paid to politics and policy and the people involved in them seems oddly disproportionate for a book written by a professional economist. The book raises many of the most pertinent questions that economic historians worry about while thinking about the many challenging questions of the twentieth century: What were the economic roots of World War I? Why did the Soviet economy collapse? Why was Western Europe (a mixed economy) so successful after 1945 while Argentina (another mixed economy) failed? Why do some emerging economies become industrialized and in some fashion democratic, while others sink into poverty, misgovernment, and autocracy, ending up like Haiti, Myanmar, or Venezuela? Why did thousands of years of gender inequality and male domination over women come closer to an end in the twentieth century? The reader will find informed and thoughtful reflections touching lightly on all those and many other issues, but few if any well worked-out answers. While many scattered numbers are cited (often not sourced), there are no tables or graphs anywhere. Some of the most important economic developments of the century are either ignored or dealt with so succinctly that any undergraduate reading it may miss their significance. But even when they are discussed, some economic developments with enormous consequences seem to be treated with a broad brush if at all. Throughout the book, DeLong prefers anecdote to analysis, biographical vignettes to insight, bon-mot to depth.

The concept of utopia is a major focus of the book. Somehow, DeLong notes with sadness in his concluding chapter, utopia has eluded us despite the huge increase in material resources; humanity had an opportunity to bring it about and failed. Yet the concept seems less than fully developed. The complex and volatile relationship between the West and the Soviet world in the Khrushchev era is summarized in a typical two-line paragraph: “And so, the world entered a stable, well-shy-of-utopia equilibrium, so you had to squint hard to see it” (p. 331). Clever, but not all that enlightening. The triumph of the West at the end of the cold war, says DeLong, may have proven that the West’s economic system was “better or at least less bad” than communism, but he then adds a warning: “be not proud” —the Western system was not so much “more utopian than less dystopian” (p. 337). Few have ever believed that the economic systems that emerged in the post-1945 mixed free market economies had serious pretension to provide a utopia; but they did provide a reasonable standard of living, access to education, and economic security to a large and growing segment of the population, and in the most successful cases (sadly not including the United States) they all but eliminated poverty. Perhaps the greatest transformation was evident in the (approximate) doubling of life expectancy across much of the world and the spectacular decline in infant and child mortality, which the book barely mentions. That may not have been utopia, but it was pretty good.

Several other important episodes of the economic history of the twentieth century seem oddly under-emphasized or neglected in this volume. One is the economic history of the Soviet Union, which gets one thin chapter sardonically called “really-existing socialism.” DeLong manages to miss the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 involving the death by starvation of at least 2.6 million Ukrainians (see Naumenko’s recent analysis of this catastrophe), whereas Lenin’s taste in classical music somehow deserves a mention. The book never comes to grips with the deeper questions of whether the collapse of the Soviet system really prove that the collectivist experiment “failed” in some definable sense. Nor does it note the many ironies and contradictions of an economic system that side-stepped Hayek’s wisdom regarding the essential role of market prices in the allocation of resources, for which DeLong elsewhere expresses his unqualified admiration for (pp. 93-94, 526). Not to mention the environmental devastation that the workers’ paradise inflicted on the soil, water, and air of the socialist nations.

Equally surprising is the absence of any serious discussion of the miraculous decline in fertility that took place during this period, which has dropped every European country (and now the US) to a fertility level below replacement. For a scholar explicitly committed to a Malthusian view of most of human history, this omission is astonishing (the word “contraception” does not appear in the book). Does a phenomenon this momentous in human history really merit no more than a single paragraph in a chapter titled “inclusion”?

All in all, the great paradox of the twentieth century remains that despite the horrors and the violence and despite repeated setbacks, material life improved more in a hundred years than in the previous ten thousand. To be sure, inequality remained high, which DeLong seems to feel keeps us from utopia; it is surprising that he fails to refer to Walter Scheidel’s recent Great Leveler, which shows at length that a rise in equality and “utopia” rarely went together. The European welfare state was, as DeLong notes in a thoughtful chapter on post 1945 social democracy, as close as we may ever get to it, and even it was far from foolproof. Yet as Peter Lindert’s path-breaking work has shown, it was as good as it gets and it was cheap even if its sustainability remains a continuing open question. Perhaps the economics of the welfare state requires more Lindert and less Polanyi.

The principal driver of the great enrichment, oddly enough, is never seriously discussed in this book. The main primum movens of economic growth was and remained the rapid expansion of the combination of science and technology and the positive interaction of the two, as Robert Gordon has shown in lavish detail. For DeLong the roots of this complex and profoundly transformative mechanism seem to be a minor matter, thus opening this book to a criticism of playing a prince-less Hamlet. DeLong feels that technological progress was generated primarily by industrial research labs and through the “routinization of scientific discovery” (pp. 1, 274, 526). This cursory treatment is wholly inadequate; had it not been for the continued expansion of useful knowledge, all other sources of increased human welfare would have eventually fizzled out. But why and how did it maintain its relentless progress? How was it incentivized and rewarded? Why and how did the West maintain its leadership, and why did the capabilities to deploy it productively reach some countries and not others?

It seems unreasonable to expect that any scholar with a finite life expectancy can do full justice to a subject this enormous. With his idiosyncratic style and approach, DeLong has created an enthralling and coherent narrative of the twentieth century. Readers will be persuaded or not, annoyed here and there, impressed in many places, catch a few errors, but it is hard to put the book down even for those who know most of the details. It is perhaps not a fully satisfactory and complete account, but it serves our profession by fully heeding one tenet: the deadliest enemy of economic history is not error but boredom.


Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, New York: Crown, 2012.

Gordon, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of American Economic Growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Lindert, Peter. Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Naumenko, Natalya. “The Political Economy of Famine: The Ukrainian Famine of 1933.” Journal of Economic History, Volume 81, Issue 1, March 2021, pp. 156 -197.

Scheidel, Walter. The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Smil, Vaclav. Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.


Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Economics and History at Northwestern University, and Sackler Professor, (by special appointment) at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics, Tel Aviv University. His most recent book is A Culture of Growth (Princeton University Press, 2017).

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (December 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Income and Wealth
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century

Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China: Banking on the Chinese Frontier, 1870-1919

Author(s):Moazzin, Ghassan
Reviewer(s):Bonin, Hubert

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

Ghassan Moazzin. Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China: Banking on the Chinese Frontier, 1870-1919. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Studies in the Emergence of Global Enterprise), 2022. 334 pp. $99.99 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-316-51703-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Hubert Bonin, Sciences Po Bordeaux and BSE-Bordeaux University.


Ghassan Moazzin, Lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, has written an original and important book. Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China focuses on German banks operating in China near the turn of the twentieth century. In addition to Chinese sources, the book draws heavily on German archives, notably those of the Deutsche Bank and other banks that sponsored the Deutsch-Asiatisch Bank (DAB), the main actor of Germanic capitalism in China in 1890-1914. Despite its importance in European commerce in the Far East, the DAB has received scant attention from researchers. (Exceptions include Müller-Jabuch 1940 and Akagawa 2009). The book follows a rather recent conceptual logic: it aims to demonstrate that the actors of the Chinese economy and administration were not subject to the economic imperialism of the “great powers of Europe.” Moazzin shows that the Chinese had a real capacity for action and modes of thought capable of understanding and driving a “modern” market economy, despite the legacy of China’s international withdrawal in previous centuries.

The book is therefore a plea for a non-colonial interpretation of the country’s evolution, now embedded in an “open economy,” although concessions and “unequal treaties” had been imposed on the Chinese empire since the 1830s and 1860s. Little by little, the balance of power tended toward rebalance, and Moazzin connects the history of relations between the German banking community, Chinese companies, and the Authorities of Beijing and regional capitals to support his argument in a plausible way. He further supports it with material from the archives of the English and German Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Frank King’s four-volume history of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC).

In contrast to a history emphasizing the socio-economic victimization of China by imperial or imperialist companies and banks, the book enhances the interaction between the flows of capital and know-how from Europe–and then also from Japan and the United States–and the constitution of Chinese portfolios of business competences adapted to an insertion within some paths of globalization and to gradually structured relations by the Chinese bourgeoisies in the cities of trade and banking. These debates about relations of domination or cooperation have been recurring for decades (cf. Nield 2015).

Moazzin shows that the Deutsch-Asiatisch Bank had to break the stranglehold imposed by London–a key place for clearing bills of exchange and commercial paper and for placing Chinese bonds–and by HSBC, from Hong Kong or Shanghai. Just like the French Banque de l’Indochine and the Russo-Asian Bank, the Deutsch-Asiatisch Bank, created in 1889, implemented a strategy of rapprochement with the Chinese business communities to establish direct contacts with them and direct part of the business flows to Berlin, Frankfurt, or Hamburg square.

Moazzin uses the concept of “frontier” to characterize the fields of encounter and interbreeding between foreign and Chinese capitalist cultures, as other historians have also done recently (Becker 2017, Bergère 2007, Henriot & Bickers 2000). The agency function of Chinese intermediaries was strongly intensified in the context of internationalized financial connections and relayed by the networks of major trading places (in Chinese: guanxi) within regional production systems. Turning them into customers also allowed bankers to have useful intermediaries for better risk management.

The circumstances and motivations of the creation of the DAB are reconstituted. The banks, seeking to establish a German presence in the Asian market, sharpened their attractiveness for financial and commercial operations (flow of bills of exchange, financing of commodity trading or trade finance) and helped firms to export industrial products. A study mission was sent to China in 1885 by the Deutsche Bank and the Diskontogesellchaft, with the aim of weighing the development prospects of the railways. A first Chinese loan was issued in Germany in 1887. Bismarck himself intervened to federate the rival groups, which enabled thirteen banks (Deutsche Bank and Diskontogesellchaft, with Haute Banque merchant houses such as Oppenheim, Stern, Bleichröder and Warschauer) to set up the DAB in February 1889.

Seven German executives moved to Shanghai in 1890 with the mission of mobilizing know-how between Europe and Asia (correspondent banking for the discounts of drafts), including London, through the branch of the Deutsche Bank. It was indeed a strategy of banking imperialism to shake the British force (five banks in Shanghai, including HSBC and Chartered Bank) and the French (Comptoir national d’escompte de Paris, before the takeover of its Asian network by Banque of Indochine) in the 1880-1890s. Berlin thus attracted commercial bills and documentary credits generated by the tea bill trade by short-circuiting London. An overseas bank thus took shape.

Moazzin describes the strategy of the DAB to establish relations with about 80 Chinese banks (as of 1903) to accelerate its penetration in the Yangze valley. It also relied on the relational network and the staff of a comprador (Xu Chunrong) who, like his colleagues, served as economic ambassador within the business communities, leading to a collection of Chinese deposits and credits to local banks (quianzhuang), as well as a breakthrough at Hankow/Wuhan, Quingdao (1898) and Hong Kong (1900). A kind of partnership balance was thus achieved, far from the hegemony obtained by the British semi-colonization process, and the position of the DAB was recognized by HSBC in an interest rate agreement in 1895.

This German-English bipolarization was expressed in negotiations with the Chinese authorities to issue loans to obtain the money needed to pay the compensation imposed by Japan on its military victory. Banks intended then to finance railway networks (chapter 4) or other infrastructure designed by the reforming government of Zhang Zhidong. Berlin and the DAB, which opened an agency in Beijing in 1905, then became part of these borrowing circuits that allowed China to restart after its defeat against Japan, and to affirm its will to modernize. Moazzin offers a meticulous account of the Chinese elites involved and the negotiations that led to the financial agreements in these years.

He highlights Germany’s contribution to this ramp-up. Germany obtained about 28.66% of the issues concluded in 1895-98 and 16.77% in 1899-1911, compared with 15.74% and 11.29% for France (p. 145). And DAB was part of the great loan of 1910-12, guaranteed by the customs revenues and therefore of the operations of financing of a State faced with large revolts in 1911-12, a crisis of confidence, and the need to maintain the payment of interest to the international holders of Chinese bonds. In an original and precise way, the book recounts the negotiations conducted by the new leaders around Yuan Shi Kai in 1912-13, from the correspondence between Berlin and the agencies in China, fortunately preserved in the archives, before the reorganization loan of April 1913.

Moazzin underlines the role of Germany and the banking community led by the DAB in supporting the emergence of a “new China,” economic and then institutional, and the genesis of the creative process that led to an acceleration of the interplays among the Chinese hinterland, railway and river axis, and port-cities. The DAB was thus one of the levers of this construction which is facilitated by the insertion of the country in the international financial circuits, without imperial inclinations. And chapter 6, which weighs the achievements of a quarter of a century of strategic offensive by the DAB and the coalition of German globalist interests (symbolized by the Deutsche Überseeische Bank worldwide), confirmed its success as Germany became the second largest investor in Chinese bonds in the mid-1910s and acquired a business network and reputable capital in the major Chinese markets.

Far from telling a simple German-Chinese banking story, Moazzin manages to reconstruct a whole section of “global history.” But one may think that he has somewhat neglected the colonialist policy applied by the German Empire in China when it, too, obtained concessions and built local clusters based on shipping companies, trading companies, and DAB credits (see So 2019).

The DAB’s history was abruptly interrupted because of geopolitical and diplomatic tensions during World War One. Despite German efforts to maintain China’s neutrality through a large loan in December 1916, it was not implemented, and, above all, geopolitical issues prevailed. This led to the breakdown of diplomatic relations in March 1917 and the sudden closure of the DAB agencies, the Shanghai one being liquidated in January 1919. Despite this failure, this banking, financial, and commercial adventure still makes for an exciting story. Moazzin, mobilizes the rich available archives to tell this story in detail. He adds intermediate conclusions, in each chapter, and an excellent conclusion that furthers our understanding of the internationalization of banks and firms, and the interweaving of the Euro-Asian economies.


Akagawa, Motoaki. “German Banks in East Asia: The Deutsche Bank (1870-75) and the Deutsch-Asiatisch Bank (1889-1913).” Keio Business Review, 2009, no. 45, pp. 1-20.

Becker, Bert. “Western Firms and Their Chinese Compradors: The Case of the Jebsen and Chau Families.” In Elisabeth Sinn & Charles Munn, eds., Meeting Place: Encounters across Cultures in Hong Kong, 1841-1984. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2017, pp. 106-130.

Bergère, Marie-Claire. Capitalismes et capitalistes en Chine, des origines à nos jours, Paris, Perrin, 2007.

Henriot, Christian, & Bickers, Robert, “Introduction,” in Christian Henriot & Robert Bickers, eds., New Frontiers: Imperialism’s New Communities in East Asia, 1842-1953. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000, pp. 1-11.

Müller-Jabuch, Maximilian. Fünfzig Jahre Deutsch-Asiatich Bank, 1890-1939, Berlin, Otto van Holten Verlag, 1940.

Nield, Robert. China’s Foreign Place: The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Ports Era, 1840-1943, Hong Kong University Press, 2015.

So, Fion Wai Ling. Germany’s Colony in China: Colonialism, Protection and Economic Development in Qingdao and Shandong, 1898-1914, Abingdon, Routledge, 2019.


Hubert Bonin ( is a researcher in banking and business history at BSE-Bordeaux University. His recent publications include The Worldwide Legacy of Haute Banque, from 19th to 21st Century (Peter Lang, 2022), edited with Roger Nougaret, and Banking in China (1890-1940s): Business in the French Concessions (Routledge, 2020).

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (December 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Response to Tirthankar Roy’s review of Ashok Sanjay Guha, Reversals of Fortune: Why the Hierarchy Of Nations So Often Turns Topsy-Turvy

Author(s):Guha, Ashok Sanjay
Reviewer(s):Guha, Ashok Sanjay

Published by EH.Net (November 2022).

Response to Tirthankar Roy’s review of Ashok Sanjay Guha, Reversals of Fortune: Why the Hierarchy Of Nations So Often Turns Topsy-Turvy – by Ashok Sanjay Guha, Professor Emeritus in Economics, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.


Professor Roy’s review mischaracterizes my book. The central argument of the book – about the basic mechanism of the reversals of fortune – is not even mentioned in the review. The book argues that truly transformative innovations, as public goods, require state support in their early experimental stage, but that no state will support an innovation that is against the interests of its dominant elite. Since this elite, in any highly successful state, has flourished under the old technology, it will resist radical innovation. In states less adapted to the old technology but better fitted to the new, the opposite set of incentives emerges. Once the new technology is well established, it will spread to other regions which are possibly even better suited for it. Apart from this last sentence, the rest of the argument seems to have eluded the reviewer totally.

Sixty percent of the review focuses on five pages dealing with colonial India, which are in chapter 3. The other chapters, as well as the remaining 22 pages of chapter 3, are dismissed in a sentence or two each, purporting inaccurately to summarize each chapter’s argument. The reviewer does not seem to have read the last chapter at all, since he says that the book concludes with the previous chapter.

As for the five pages on colonial India, I have no wish to educate the reviewer on balance-of-payments theory and foreign trade multipliers. He is also entitled to believe, contrary to what I wrote, that British rule accelerated Indian economic growth – despite the fact that in the last 60 years of the British raj, India’s per capita GDP increased by just 10 percent, while in the next 60 after Independence, it rose by 482 percent.

What he is not entitled to is factual inaccuracy in the review process. For example, “The best the book can do is insist that European colonial rule underdeveloped the third world.” NO, emphatically not. In chapter 6, on pp. 77-79, there is a detailed model explaining why, under free trade and free markets and without colonial constraints, a densely populated low-wage economy would probably have stagnated before 1960. Colonialism was certainly not the only factor behind India’s – or more generally low-wage Asia’s – stagnation. I refer to it only in the specific context of Asia’s failure to adapt to the new technology of ocean navigation (“the critical factor that made the West forge ahead”), which led eventually to colonial subjugation. I argue simply that colonial subjugation certainly did not help, not that it was the only explanation for our stagnation.

Or consider the following: “Despite the claim of the book to offer a single narrative on inequality covering the whole world,” it is not persuasive “as a historiography of the third world.” I have not made any such claim. The book is not about inequality at all. It is about the subject mentioned in the title Reversals of Fortune. It examines a large number of such reversals, some large and some small, between the continental Asian empires and Western Europe (typified by Ming China and Portugal), between Iberia and northwest Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, between England and Holland in the 17th and 18th centuries, between England and the US, Germany and Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, between Central America, the Caribbean islands and the US South on the one hand and the US Northeast and Midwest on the other, and finally between the advanced West and East and South Asia in the 1960s. It looks for a common pattern, generally related to the specific geographies of the countries involved and to the technologies of the time. I do not ever claim to do a “historiography of the third world.” For one thing, I do not claim to know anything about Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Latin America. For another, I do not use the phrase “the third world,” not in this book or anywhere else.

Nor do I offer “a general reading of colonialism” as the reviewer implies. In fact, my reference to colonialism is limited to East and South Asia and in a specific context (see above). Yet the tone of the reviewer and his overwhelming concentration on the colonial issue so distort the general picture he gives of the book that any reader of the review would be misled into believing that this is a book on colonialism, which it certainly is not.

On matters of detail, the reviewer berates me for ignoring the benefits that British railway building conferred on the Indian economy. In fact, I had detailed all this — along with pacification and unification of the internal market and large-scale irrigation in the Punjab — on p. 44 as unintended consequences and collateral benefits of British rule. So what purpose was the reviewer’s critique on this point supposed to serve except to mislead readers?

Similarly, he falsely implies that I ignored the development of the Bombay cotton textile industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This I most certainly did not do. I did not of course regard it as a cause for celebration. After all, if a country that, in 1750, supplied 25% of the world’s manufactures and exports, manages, after a century of total destruction, to crawl back in the next 75 years to a point where it almost captures the domestic market, I could not regard this as a ringing endorsement of colonialism.

But, above all these details is the fact that the book that Professor Roy reviewed is not mine. He built a straw man and knocked it down to his own satisfaction. Unfortunately, in the process, he gave potential readers a false picture of what the book is about.


Tirthankar Roy replies: I welcome Professor Guha’s restatement of his book’s arguments. But his response misses the main point of my criticism, that the third world gets short shrift in the book. The book’s project requires a credible, evidence-based account of why the third world fell behind, which the book does not offer. Its discussion of comparative economic history relies upon a few papers using a controversial, even discredited, method called persistence study. The main growth area in the economic history of the world has been studies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which discard or question the key ideas and assumptions that once governed research on these regions. The Economic History of Developing Regions, the Australian Economic History Review, and mainstream economic history journals collectively contain more than 100 such studies. I specifically mentioned colonialism in the review because this is an area where massive revisions are taking place, contrary to the book’s old-fashioned summation of that history. My criticism did not stem from what story I “believe in” but the book’s disregard for a scholarship that is changing everything we know.


Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (November 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Why Democracy Failed. The Agrarian Origins of the Spanish Civil War

Author(s):Simpson, James
Carmona, Juan
Reviewer(s):Riesco, Sergio

Published by EH.Net (October 2022).

James Simpson and Juan Carmona. Why Democracy Failed. The Agrarian Origins of the Spanish Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. xviii + 299 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-108-72038-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Sergio Riesco, Department of Contemporary History, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM, Spain).


Throughout the 20th century, most Western European countries underwent a process of agricultural modernisation that enabled them to achieve the longed-for food sovereignty. In the case of Spain, this sovereignty was not achieved until barely 60 years ago, leaving the country dependent on wheat imports for most of its history. Just a few decades later, at the end of the 20th century, Spain was one of the largest suppliers of products from the primary sector both worldwide and, especially, to the European Union. Today, as in other neighbouring countries, agriculture and livestock farming account for approximately 10% of GDP and employ barely 4 percent of the labour force.

These data show that Spain, in less than 50 years, has reached the same destination as other countries. However, the delay in this modernisation process has been the subject of a rich and extensive scientific literature. It seems logical that the debate has focused on the first attempt at democratisation in its history: the Second Republic, built in the middle of the crisis of the 1930s. Perhaps we can speak of an Iberian peculiarity: long dictatorships that repelled the attempts at democratisation until the 1970s.

Why Democracy Failed. The Agrarian Origins of the Spanish Civil War aims to provide a new approach to several of these questions. The authors are leading specialists in economic history. James Simpson is the author of one of the most prestigious books on the long-term agrarian history of Spain, La Agricultura Española: La Larga Siesta (1997). Juan Carmona is a leading expert on the functioning of agrarian institutions in contemporary history. In this work, the authors attempt to articulate an overall interpretation of the failure of the Spanish democratic experiment, focusing on the state’s inability to give a voice and political weight to family farming.

One of the book’s great merits is that it situates the Spanish problem in its European context. The analysis of agriculture during the “age of economic instability” is essential to understanding the sustained growth of the family farm throughout the period 1870-1939. The authors delve into the structural limits of Spanish agriculture, in particular the enormous variety of farming and land tenure systems. In the face of all this, the growth thresholds of Spanish agriculture were limited by an environmental issue that has been highlighted in numerous studies (Pujol, et al. 2001).

Traditionally, Spanish agriculture has been polarised between two main models: the North of the country, where family farming followed a path dependence similar to that of the rest of Europe; and the South, where large farms predominated and were not always cultivated in an optimal way. The authors point to a greater fragmentation of land ownership in the South that would weaken this model, since they present numerous examples of dynamism, adjusted to the market, on the part of Southern landowners.

Another issue of great interest raised by the book is the scarce information available to the state on agrarian problems. Spain, although an agrarian country, lacked a ministry of agriculture until the arrival of the Second Republic. Then again, this fact is somewhat misleading. After the creation of the Instituto de Reformas Sociales in 1905, Spain promoted various research projects to identify the problems of the Spanish economy, especially in the agrarian sector. This situation is related in the book to a weakness of the state that related to Spain’s neutrality during the First World War. According to this hypothesis, the lack of incentives to organise a wartime economy limited the country’s capacity to face the enormous problems of the inter-war period.

Faced with a new political opportunity structure along the Second Republic, agrarian actors defended their interests according to a coherent logic. Along the lines already proposed by Malefakis (1970), but with some nuances, Simpson and Carmona propose that the clash between the different opposing blocs (great landowners and unionised landless peasants) was resolved in a violent manner, among other reasons, because a third way (that of the family farmers) had no options in the face of the radicalisation of positions.

Beyond the political interpretation, the authors’ purely economic interpretation seems more appropriate, because it raises the question of whether the problem was one of “too much land or too many workers.” This points to a rather convincing misallocation of resources (capital, land, labour).

Every book that leads in one way or another to the Spanish civil war presents a huge difficulty: the distribution of responsibilities. As is well known, this is one of the most widely discussed topics on a global level by specialists of all kinds and from all parts of the world. The greatest difficulty is, in my view, that of taking the part for the whole. The democratic era of the Second Republic had both conservative and relatively progressive governments. The latter were in power for only 30 months and tried to build the State that should have taken the lead in a balanced and productive reform. They did all this in the middle of the global impact of the crisis of 1929 and, therefore, without the resources to enable irrigation policies to provide a medium-term solution to the serious yield problems facing Spanish agriculture.

However, the other bloc, the conservative one, did nothing to contribute to the construction of this modern state. Rather, it chose to dismantle any reformist attempt made by its political enemies. The third way suggested by the authors could have worked, but in the day-to-day life of the 30 months mentioned above, the problems of inequality were such that it was hardly possible to propose profound changes.

All the economic interpretations put forward in this book have a strong foundation based on existing literature and reliable sources. The radicalisation of the landless peasants did exist, and their political and trade union representatives were conditioned by it. But on the other side, “the families that shuddered at the mere name of agrarian reform” (Tuñón 2000, 341) were very powerful and would not give up their bargaining power. Rather, they put it at the service of a coup d’état that would delay the necessary economic modernisation of Spain for decades.

Why Democracy Failed offers a compelling contrast to Ricardo Robledo’s new book La Tierra Es Vuestra: La Reforma Agraria. Un Problema No Resuelto. Spain, 1900-1950.  Both books are essential reading for anyone looking to understand how Spain’s problems of inequality led to such a brutal and violent reaction.


Malefakis, Edward. 1970. Agrarian Reform and Peasant Revolution in Spain. Origins of the Civil War. Yale: University Press.

Pujol, Andreu, et al. 2001. El Pozo de Todos Los Males: Sobre El Atraso en la Agricultura Española Contemporánea. Barcelona: Crítica.

Robledo, Ricardo. 2022. La Tierra Es Vuestra: La Reforma Agraria. Un Problema No Resuelto. España: 1900-1950. Barcelona: Pasado & Presente.

Simpson, James. 1997. La Agricultura Española: La Larga Siesta (1765-1965). Madrid: Alianza.

Tuñón de Lara, Manuel. 2000. La España del Siglo XX. Madrid: Akal.


Sergio Riesco is Associate Lecturer at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM, Spain). His publications include “La Reforma Agraria y los Orígenes de la Guerra Civil: Cuestión Yuntera y Radicalización Patronal en la Provincia de Cáceres (1931-1940)” (Biblioteca Nueva, 2006) and “La Reforma Agraria Italiana Vista Desde España (1918-1953): Un Comentario Crítico” (Segle XX, 2020).

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (October 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at


Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War

Author(s):Lowenstein, Roger
Reviewer(s):Doti, Lynne P.

Published by EH.Net (October 2022).

Roger Lowenstein. Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War. New York: Penguin Press, 2022. xii + 432 pp. $27.00 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0735223554.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Lynne P. Doti, Professor Emeritus of Economics, Chapman University.


Among the myriad books written about the Civil War, it is hard to believe that virtually none focus on how it was financed. War, and all government expenditure, is paid from taxes, borrowing, and/or expansion of the money supply. Lowenstein covers all three sources of funding by the Union and by the Confederate states. He explores the factors that influenced the choices among these three sources of funding, including success on the battlefield, blockades and embargoes, politics, European support, cotton markets, and public attitudes toward slavery and race. This coverage makes for a readable book as well as a complete view of the challenge of financing the war.

The Civil War centralized the country’s government in several important ways. The Federal government broadened its power of distributing land with the Homestead Acts and support of transportation projects like the transcontinental railroad. With tax increases, and creating money and debt to finance the war, both the Union and the Confederate governments demonstrated the benefit of centralized actions. While Lowenstein accepts the view of most historians that these centralized actions contributed to the nation’s long-term growth, he acknowledges the cost of the war to most of the population, particularly to the Native Americans cruelly displaced from their homes.

A wrenching description of Civil War-era Indian removal is not the only seeming digression from finance. Lowenstein gives attention to the role of the slavery issue in the war and attitudes of Northerners and Southerners toward the enslaved. Northerners began the war generally against slavery as a social system. They were less concerned with the plight of the enslaved individuals, but gradually come to the view that elimination of slavery was important, if not essential to the preservation of the Union.

Salmon Chase served as Secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War through Lincoln’s second inauguration. When Chase started the job, federal finances were in crisis. Government employees were owed pay. The two-million-dollar Treasury balance had been raised by the previous administration’s sales of bonds paying 10 ¾ percent. Federal revenue came mostly from duties on imports, and one-third of the duty ports were in the South. As states seceded, they took duty revenue. When Louisiana left the Union, the state seized nearly $600,000 in gold from the customs house.

The Confederacy chose a damaging strategy early in the war. Confident in their dominance of the world cotton supply, they withheld their cotton from the market. Prices were a low $0.10 a pound due to a large harvest the previous year and maturing rivals in India and Egypt, but the Confederacy could probably have collected over $100 million dollars in 1861 by selling the cotton they withheld. At the beginning of the war, when the Confederate Treasury holdings consisted of about $6 million in seized duties, the Confederacy floated a $15 million bond issue that drained the gold from private citizens in southern states.

The Union also made a strategic blunder. The British, who had a strong public opposition to slavery, favored the north, but they also favored free trade. The very high Morrill Tariff was increased in 1861 and was a major reason that Britain chose neutrality.

During Chase’s first three months in office, the Treasury collected $6 million in revenue but spent $24 million. Chase issued $3 million in bonds and $5 million in notes. But as both matured quickly, in May and then June, he had to borrow again. He approached major bankers to buy the bonds, but they insisted on discounts and at the interest rate demanded Chase felt the cost was too high. He developed the romantic vison of placing the notes directly with ordinary people who would buy out of patriotic motives rather than for profit.

At this point, the most decisive partnership in America’s financial history developed. Jay Cooke was a Philadelphia merchant also new to the New York financial world. His brother, a publisher, knew Chase. Chase was a widower, with young daughters whom Cooke hosted at his family home. Cooke also thought the bonds could be marketed directly, rather than through banks. When Cooke sold $3 million in bonds at par by hiring agents and advertising in newspapers, the partnership was born.

Jay Cooke was a major figure in Union bond sales. Generally portrayed as a pioneer of bond marketing to the middle class, he is described here as Chase’s savior when bond sales lagged. Cooke had great success in selling bonds. By the end of 1863, $2 million in bonds sold every day, except for a brief period before the 1864 election. Cooke was the main agent for bonds issued by the Northern government. However, his success in selling was achieved with great increase in his own wealth and the use of bribery to get advertising that was not only free, but also deceptive. Supposedly objective newspaper articles that promoted the bonds and portrayed the buyers as individuals of modest means were actually supplied by Cooke to the editors along with large payments.

In July 1861, Lincoln asked Congress for $400 million to fight the war. Chase trimmed the cost estimate to $318 million and asked for $80 million and the right to borrow the rest. Congress gave him authority to sell 20-year bonds, three-year notes and $50 million in “demand notes” redeemable in coin. In the winter of 1861-62, Congress approved notes that paid no interest, but were legal tender (accepted payment for all debts). With these “Greenbacks,” the federal government eventually took control of the currency away from the individual states.

Chase understood that battleground success equaled improved opportunities for selling bonds and the value in gold of the Greenback currency. He tried to involve himself in cabinet discussions on military strategy, but his jealous rival William H. Seward, the Secretary of State, effectively blocked him. Chase’s strong anti-slavery views turned out to be a strength, as any shift in Union policies toward abolishing the institution or assisting enslaved people increased bond sales and the value of the Greenback.

The Confederacy experienced a history-making hyperinflation and ended the war in financial ruin to rival the physical ruin, whereas, thanks in large part to Chase, the Union ended the war with a healthy economy. The Greenback fell in value perhaps 80 percent and the Union debt was $1.74 billion, but new industries, immigration, public works projects, and land reform placed the Northern economy on a path to growth. After serving as Secretary of the Treasury for all of Lincoln’s first term, Chase became Chief Justice of the United States.

This book is suitable for, and should be accessible to, the general reader with an interest in finance or the Civil War. It also would be of interest to academics in either of these areas. Roger Lowenstein has written several outstanding books on business history. As usual, his research is thorough and accurate. My only complaint is that the author, while revealing his biases, does not display much passion in support of his views. A little more drama could enhance a very good book.


Lynne Pierson Doti is Professor Emeritus of Economics, Chapman University Argyros School of Business and Economics. She has authored or coauthored five books and many articles on financial history and entrepreneurs.

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (October 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

Central Bank Independence and the Legacy of the German Past

Author(s):Mee, Simon
Reviewer(s):Guinnane, Timothy W.

Published by EH.Net (October 2022).

Mee, Simon. Central Bank Independence and the Legacy of the German Past. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xiii + 357 pp. $105 (cloth), ISBN 978-1108499781.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Timothy W. Guinnane, Philip Golden Bartlett Professor of Economic History, Emeritus, Yale University.


To be viewed as “German” enhances a central banker’s credibility, especially when the individual in question is Italian. Few discussions of European monetary policy disagreements get far before one hears the claim that Germans take a dim view of anything that could cause inflation. Since its creation in 1957, the German central bank, the Bundesbank, has been a reliable bulwark against inflation. Germany’s leading role in the Euro project guaranteed it would be a “hard” currency. Explanations of German attitudes about monetary policy reach for a potted history of the 1922-23 hyperinflation. German history, the story goes, teaches the danger of lax monetary policy and the importance of central bank independence.

Simon Mee digs into the origins of this tale about German attitudes. He has two goals. The first is to insist on an accurate account of the Reichsbank, the German central bank from 1876 until 1945. The large scholarly literature represents this history accurately, but the facts go astray in other accounts. Germany experienced considerable inflation during World War I, in part because the Reichsbank lacked the independence necessary to resist political pressure to finance the war via inflation. In May 1922, however, the Reichsbank acquired considerable independence as part of a deal concerning the reparations payments demanded in the Treaty of Versailles. The 1922-23 hyperinflation thus does not fit a simple story about the lack of central bank independence. Journalistic accounts also tend to overlook a second Weimar-era policy disaster. With the onset of the Great Depression, the Reichsbank pursued deflationary policies to stay on the gold standard. The government bitterly opposed these efforts. The Reichsbank had good company among central banks in this approach, but the policy definitely reflected the central bank’s independence.

The western Allies created the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) out of the three western occupation zones in 1949. A new central bank preceded the new state’s formation and survived until the new Bundesbank created in 1957. In 1948 the British and U.S. occupation authorities created the Bank deutscher Länder (BdL) using the decentralized model of the U.S. Federal Reserve. While it answered to the Allied powers and to the German states (who appointed the members of its directorate), the BdL enjoyed considerable independence from Germany’s federal government. Everyone expected the BDL to be a short-lived stopgap. However, debates over a new institution ground on until 1957, when the German parliament agreed on the framework for the new Bundesbank. The new central bank’s independence formed the core area of dispute in this debate, and Mee draws much of his evidence from this period.

Mee’s second goal focuses on understanding the way debates over the creation and operation of postwar central banks helped to create popular understanding of the Reichsbank and the Weimar era. Here he refers to “myths,” which might be a bit too strong, but the word serves to underscore what policymakers wanted: a past that was useful, if not necessarily accurate. In arguing about the new Bundesbank’s role, and in later policy debates, many actors explicitly or implicitly drew lessons from the Weimar and Nazi period. Mee’s most engaging discussions concern the way central bankers involved in post-1945 policy matters defended their pre-1945 conduct and used episodes from the Reichsbank’s experience to attack or defend the notion of central bank independence. The recent past laid heavily on the new Federal Republic of Germany. The 1922-23 hyperinflation had done much to discredit the new Weimar Republic. Germany’s especially harsh first years of the Great Depression revitalized the extremist parties, including the Nazis.

Part of the history burden reflected the biographies of leading figures. Halmar Schacht, who headed the Reichsbank 1923-1930 and 1933-1939, and who later served as a minister in Hitler’s government, had faced trial at Nürnberg (Nuremberg) for crimes against peace. Acquitted, Schacht spent much of his remaining life nursing public grievances against the BdL and the Bundesbank’s leaders, some of whom had been his co-workers at the Reichsbank. Wilhelm Vocke (1886-1973) testified in Schacht’s defense at Nürnberg. Hitler had fired both for signing a 1939 memo that protested Nazi plans to use inflation to finance the war. Vocke served as the first, and effectively the only, head of the BDL, as well as the Bundesbank’s first leader. The Bundesbank’s second director, Karl Blessing (1957-69) had his own embarrassing past. Although also fired over that 1939 memo, Blessing had been in SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s “Circle of Friends” (Freundenkreis).

Serious political leaders opposed the notional of central bank independence after the War. Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967), the FRG’s first Chancellor, argued for the central bank’s explicit subordination to government instruction. The BdL and the Bundesbank earned the public ire of other postwar Chancellors, as well, making central bank independence a constant theme. Bundesbank policy arguably played a role in the economic problems that led to the fall of a coalition government in 1966.

An especially interesting chapter focuses on the Bundesbank’s relations with the German press. Viktor von der Lippe ran the press offices for both the BdL and the Bundesbank. He enjoyed an unusual close relationship with the leadership of both institutions and evinced considerable sensitivity about the image of both the institutions and their leadership. In 1965, the Bundesbank asked a school newspaper to retract an article about Blessing’s ties to Himmler.

Economists typically think of central bank independence as the ability to resist measures that would bring temporary macroeconomic gains to help the government in power, to the detriment of longer-term goals such as price stability. Mee’s account illustrates the slipperiness of the idea of central bank independence. Governments may not force a particular policy on an independent central bank, but governments typically appoint central bank directors. At some points, Mee implies that this appointment power risks compromising central bank independence, which he presumably does not intend, as it is standard practice in most countries. Central banks operate under charters governed by parliaments, so their basic architecture endures at the sufferance of the politicians. When the Bundesbank adopted restrictive measures to deal with inflation in the early 1970s, unhappy politicians spoke openly of rewritings its charter. Mee’s discussion also raises the important question of “independent from whom?” Some central bankers in the 1950s argued to Christian Democratic leaders then in power that an independent institution would be a bulwark against future governments run by the Social Democrats, who had been out of government at the federal level from the Nazi takeover until the coalition government of 1966. Debate over the BDL’s replacement also reflected regional anxieties. The federal states exercised a strong role in the BdL’s governance. To the states, the BdL’s decentralization made it independent from the federal government.

Mee stresses the process of creating and using historical memory to justify arguments about central banks. Readers should not expect much on the nuts and bolts of central banking itself. As a result, sometimes a controversy is a little hard to follow because Mee omits key specifics about what the central bank did or did not do. The book also has an unusual structure. Each chapter begins with an extensive overview and ends with a longish conclusion. This approach implies considerable repetition and invites the reader to skip chapters in ways Mee may not have intended.

This fine contribution will appeal to anyone interested in German monetary and central bank history per se, as well as to those interested in broader themes related to the postwar German economy. Given his rich material, Mee had little choice but to focus on the central bank. But the study deals with a central theme in the history (and historiography) of the Federal Republic, one that should make it useful to a much broader range of historians. “Working through the past” (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) reflected the social and political process of coming to grips with the Nazi regime. This involved difficult institutional reform complicated by the embarrassing presence of ex-Nazis (and sympathizers) in leadership positions in business as well as political, educational, religious, and other institutions. The problem of history was not just personnel. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt told the Bundesbank in 1978 that Germany faced two enduring weaknesses, one of which was “Auschwitz,” by which he meant the legacy of the Nazi regime. Schmidt feared that German economic success would heighten foreign sensitivity to that past, and argued, in effect, that Germany needed to find ways to subsume its own monetary policy to European institutions lest German economic success provoke a political backlash. Thus, from a German perspective the various currency-coordination schemes that culminated in the Euro reflect an effort to reckon with the monetary past.


Timothy W. Guinnane is Philip Golden Bartlett Professor of Economic History, Emeritus, Yale University. Recent publications include “Creating a New Legal Form: The GmbH” (Business History Review, 2021); The Introduction of Bismarck’s Social Security and System and Its Effects on Marriage and Fertility in Prussia” (with Jochen Streb, in Population and Development Review, 2021); and “We Do Not Know the Population of Every Country in The World for the Past Two Thousand Years” (Journal of Economic History, forthcoming.)

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (October 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at



Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume I

Editor(s):Ma, Debin
Von Glahn, Richard
Reviewer(s):Hübner, Jamin Andreas

Published by EH.Net (October 2022).

Debin Ma and Richard Von Glahn, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 732 pp. $155 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1108425575.

Reviewed by Jamin Andreas Hübner, LCC International University and University of the People.


We live in a privileged moment in the 21st century, not least because of the amount of history behind us and the availability of resources shining a light on this past. The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume 1 (henceforth CEHC) consolidates the latest scholarship on the economic aspect of China’s remarkable civilization from the earliest archeological finds to around 1800, thereby introducing a number of perspectives that affect not only perceptions about China, but also global economic history as a whole.

The first of this two-volume work is divided into three sections: “Before 1000,” Interlude (“The Tang-Song Transition in Chinese Economic History”), and “1000 to 1800.” Eighteen chapters cover every major aspect of China’s ancient and early modern economy with the kind of prose, quality, and content one would expect from a series of this kind. The contributions come from a variety of scholars who have an established record within various subfields of this subject and generally write well. There are plenty of graphs and charts where appropriate and many helpful resources in Chinese and English listed after each chapter.

It is not possible to comment on each contribution in such a short review as this, so I can only provide a few reflections and impressions. These are obviously biased and determined by my own background and scholarly interests (which are currently eurocentrism in economic history, religion and cooperative economics, and direct democratic forms of firm and political governance.)

First, CEHC is, despite its price tag and occasionally technical portions, accessible for those unfamiliar with China’s economic history. While Von Glahn’s The Economic History of China (2016) is better suited for general readers, the CEHC doesn’t assume an excessive amount of prior knowledge, and is helpfully arranged not just chronologically but also topically.

Second, this work in many ways alters the standard Eurocentric narratives about “oriental despotism,” global economic development, and the various institutions surrounding capitalism (property rights, markets, financial institutions, etc.). This is very welcome. China has its own economic history and must be interpreted on its own terms—though occasionally even efforts to highlight this challenge ironically fail to succeed. For example, in an essay on “Property Rights and Factor Markets,” we read:

“[China’s economic performance from the Song to mid-Qing period] has puzzled historians of Chinese economy for more than a century. The controversy surrounding this question is caused not only by the lack of quantitative data but also by the difficulties in characterizing Chinese economic institutions according to the models constructed out of European historical experiences. On one hand, the late imperial Chinese economy shows ostensibly ‘modern’ features in the sense that, for example, people could freely trade land, choose jobs, and move to other regions. On the other hand, Chinese society seems to have lacked precise concepts of proprietorship and human rights, which are the cornerstones of modern European society.” (p. 482)

This kind of assessment leaves readers asking, “Is it Chinese society that lacks ‘precise concepts of proprietorship’—as if this is a deficiency according to some universal standard—or is it European society that lacks the ability to think outside of its sacralization of property rights?” (On this “sacralization,” see Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology). More importantly, it is puzzling how one could so confidently suggest that “human rights” is a cornerstone of a society that itself achieved some of the most notorious violations of human rights recorded in the last five hundred years—violent colonization of entire continents, international slave trading, and ongoing state-capital imperialism—all dressed in the same justifying language of superiority. (America’s founders in the late 1700s didn’t value the “human rights” of countless women, indigenes, and African Americans, for example, regardless of what they may have written in political documents.) In brief, some essays could have benefited from a China-sized dose of James Blaut’s The Colonizer’s Model of the World and Eight Eurocentric Historians; few of the essays in this new volume, unfortunately, were critically informed by a decolonial framework, which is essential for any kind of comparative analysis.

Nevertheless, even when occasionally lacking a critical perspective, many readers will be surprised to learn about the free-market ideologies and philosophical debates about private capital and merchants exercising too much power over the state (ch. 5), significant increases in living standards and wealth production, private property (chs. 10-12), contract law and commercial law (p. 433-51), joint-stock companies (pp. 627-28), vast markets (chs. 4, 16) and mass production, wage labor (pp. 463-71), the critical roles of institutions like education and religion (Interlude, p. 243 ff; cf. 204-5), sophisticated political and taxation models (chs. 3, 9, 10), monetary regimes, the first known breweries (p. 65), a plethora of land and rent arrangements, and countless other aspects of economic and social life—all of which are typically assumed to be “western” and post-1492—that existed during the Warring States Period and/or Song Dynasty. Popular neoliberal historians and economists, like David Landes, who argued that the “Chinese lacked . . . curiosity,” the “Chinese savants had no way of knowing when they were right,” and “unlike China, Europe was a learner” (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, pp. 96, 344, 348) are repudiated yet again.

Third, this volume has plenty on various markets, crops, productive activities, goods, and significant alterations (like the equal-field system), but little on specific, popular technologies. One will find more on this subject in survey works of global history in sections about China’s role in the “Scientific Revolution” (contrary to another Eurocentric myth that postdates the more substantial scientific revolutions of the Arabic and Chinese world by several centuries; note Gunder Frank, Re-Orient, pp. 186-92), such as Craig Lockard’s Societies, Networks and Transitions. This is not necessarily a fault, as the book is rigorously focused on issues of economics proper, but readers should be aware that they will have to go elsewhere for insights on this related subject.

I enjoyed reading the first volume of The Cambridge Economic History of China and highly recommend it to others who want to go a bit beyond short surveys on this area without getting too tangled in the weeds. While not intending to be “revisionist” per se, it is sure to challenge some preconceived beliefs about the world’s largest nation—and its dynamic, vibrant, and rich history.


Dr. Jamin Andreas Hübner is a faculty member at the University of the People and LCC International University. He is a scholar of religion and economics, as well as an activist, and organizational leader, and is currently writing a book on cooperative economics.

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (October 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at


Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Ancient
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

From Old Regime to Industrial State: A History of German Industrialization from the Eighteenth Century to World War I

Author(s):Tilly, Richard H.
Kopsidis, Michael
Reviewer(s):Wegge, Simone A.

Published by EH.Net (September 2022).

Richard H. Tilly and Michael Kopsidis. From Old Regime to Industrial State: A History of German Industrialization from the Eighteenth Century to World War I. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 327 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN 978-0226725437.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Simone A. Wegge, Department of Economics, College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.


Richard H. Tilly and Michael Kopsidis have produced an interesting new book and effectively present an updated history of German industrialization. They cover a wide range of topics including agricultural innovation, demographic change, labor markets, entrepreneurial activity, patent activity, regulation, banking developments and more and provide a roadmap for most of the main events in the history of German industrialization in the two centuries leading up to the First World War. While doing so they draw on their own research as well as much new scholarship in Germany economic history. The reference section, at almost 40 pages, emphasizes the authors’ extensive and deep reading and serves as an excellent source for works in both English and German on the topics of German industrialization and economic growth.

The monograph is broken up into four parts, the first part describing Germany in the eighteenth century, the second part early industrialization, the third part the growth of industrial capitalism up to the 1870s, and the fourth and concluding section Germany’s takeoff as an industrial power from unification in 1871 to the year 1914.

One of the more interesting sections of Part I is Chapter 2, which provides an intensive account of industrialization in three important economic regions in Germany, Saxony, the Ruhr/Rhine region and Württemberg. All three had vibrant proto-industrial textile sectors in the eighteenth century, and this feature seemed to be important for rapid industrialization in both Saxony and the Ruhr/Rhine region but not in Württemberg. One thus cannot conclude that an active proto-industry necessarily led “directly to industrialization” (p. 57). Interestingly, Württemberg is one of the most industrialized parts of the German economy today. Chapter 4 is the other highlight of Part I and explains reforms in agrarian property rights and citizens’ rights, the adoption of compulsory schooling, the decline in the power of guilds accompanied by the rise of manufacturers, and the ascendancy of the bureaucratic Prussian state. This chapter is crucial, as it helps one to understand the overwhelming influence of Prussian customs and institutions on the rest of Germany. Note that “unification of Germany in 1871” is considered by some to be an oxymoron for a “Prussian takeover.”

A valuable section of Part II is the material (Chapter 5) on the Zollverein, the common market that evolved between various German states in the decades leading up to 1871. Incorporating research from Dumke (1981, 1984) and more recent work from Keller & Shuie (2014), Tilly and Kopsidis argue that the main effects of the Zollverein were not tariff protection, as Friedrich List had claimed in 1841, but were instead to eliminate internal trade barriers and to expand and integrate markets. The authors also cite intriguing work from Ploeckl (2009) to show that the development of the Zollverein was a complicated sequential game that Prussia devised in the interest of bringing all its neighboring states into the fold.

The authors round off Part II with a discussion of the financial and agricultural crises that culminated in a hunger crisis in the mid-1840s and eventually the 1848 Revolution; they argue that a significant result was that the bourgeoisie gained political power but that not much else changed for the vast majority of people in German regions, most of whom were farmers, laborers and artisans. The authors are very much focused on Prussia, where in 1807 with the Prussian Edict (p. 70), many farmers were able to pay off obligations and benefit from a more modern semblance of land ownership (Bauernbefreiung or “farmer emancipation”) and thus a more market-oriented rural economy. In various parts of Germany, however, this transformation took place in later decades: for example, in Bavaria farmers were first given the option in 1848 of paying off obligations in 1848; in the Electorate of Hesse-Cassel legislation to this effect was passed in 1832 and finalized in 1848. The authors may be underestimating the positive effects of the 1848 Revolution for a sizable number of German farmers outside of Prussia (p. 118). In general, the topic of Bauerbefreiung in understudied, and there are other possible connections that economic historians will find interesting: many farmers used loans to achieve these economic freedoms, which may have in turn spurred on the founding of more local credit institutions in the 1830s and 1840s.

The third part of the book delves into the actual industrialization of Germany up to 1870. Leading sectors like railroads, iron and steel, and coal mining expanded in the 1850s up to the crisis period of 1857 and again, after a downturn, in the late 1860s. The authors describe the development as a “cyclical phenomenon,” something they attribute to the work of Spree (1977), who emphasizes the linkages between sectors, both forward and backward ones, with railroads being the “initiator” and the chief consumer of German finished iron production. Since it was expensive to move coal, the location of coal deposits played a determinative role in the location of industries, which Gutberlet (2014) expands on. The takeoff of German industry was helped by two regulatory developments: first, Prussia paved the way for limited liability corporations in 1843; secondly, this option was available to most of the rest of Germany (“German-wide”) with the 1861 ADHGB (Allgemeine Deutsches Handelsgesetzbuch) legislation on business laws (p. 122).

Other sections of Part III handle the changes to labor and capital markets as well the increase in agricultural outputs in the takeoff period. A final chapter addresses changes in the banking sector, where the authors highlight first, the emergence of universal banks as arising at their inception as a way to finance railroads and secondly, the growth of German savings banks and credit cooperatives, which made a difference in encouraging savings and financing local economic activities.

The fourth and final section of the book, Part IV, covers the period from 1871 to 1914. Chapters 12 and 13 are especially interesting, as they get into the weeds of German industrialization and describe the takeoff period. It is a remarkable story, such that by 1907 Germany was ahead of the United Kingdom in various heavy industries, including the chemical, engineering, metals, and iron and steel industries. GDP per capita was still higher in the U.K. in 1914 though, given that the British were more productive in other sectors, such as in mining, clothing, textile, and food & beverage.

A particular important event was the passage of the German Patent Law, which established the German Imperial Patent Office in 1871. The authors use the recent research of Streb et al. (2006) on “valuable patents” to describe four waves of innovations involving steam and railroads in the first wave, chemical and dyestuffs in the second wave, pharmaceuticals and fertilizers in the third wave and electricity in the fourth. Besides emphasizing patents, economic historians have debated as to whether entrepreneurial skills or scale economies were more relevant, and the author come down on the side of the latter, stressing the rise of cartels. Advanced industrialization also required skilled and knowledgeable workers, and the story of how German industry, in cooperation with German vocational schools and technical universities, invested in human capital, is also told here. By 1900, on an annual basis Germany was producing eight times more new engineers than Britain. Industrialists increasingly turned to the corporation as a form of legal organization for their firms, with 80% of large firms in the latter years of the nineteenth century organized as such (p. 186). After 1892, many small firms took advantage of the new legal form of the GMbH (Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung), designed for a private limited liability companies or partnerships (Guinnane, 2021).

Chapter 13 continues with this story of takeoff and describes in more detail financial developments. The introduction in 1873 of a national currency, the German mark, and the establishment in 1876 of a central bank, the Reichsbank, are two notable events. By the 1880s, and especially with the Company Law of 1884, which paved the way for a greater role for banks that supplied capital, banks were very much involved in monitoring the firms they financed: the markets, for instance, viewed firms more favorably when their bankers served on their corporate boards, something that is still practiced today. These big banks evolved into large universal banks and held a lot of capital.

Tilly and Kopsidis claim that this setup and universal banks’ “diversified branching network and close ties to the Reichsbank” were effective in bringing more stability to the banking sector of Germany, a stark contrast to the U.S. banking system prior to 1913 before the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank (p. 200). The literature on Germany’s universal banks and their involvement in German industrialization is extensive, and Tilly and Kopsidis cite many recent scholarly works on this topic (e.g., Burhop 2006; Fohlin, 2007).

There is much to learn in this book. If I have quibbles, it is that the authors ignore significant parts of Germany. The book focuses heavily on Prussia and the regions that developed faster, Westphalia and Saxony. Less attention though is paid to areas like Bavaria and Baden, or to Württemberg in the takeoff period. Regions like Hessen, Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg, and Thuringia are missing in the index. To discuss a less developed area of Germany, Tilly and Kopsidis repeatedly draw on the example of the East Elbian parts of Prussia, some of which is today Poland and quite removed from the rest of Germany. There were however other “backwaters,” the authors’ term that they could have drawn on. Of course, no single book can be everything to everybody. For a discussion in English of relative economic development and backwardness across all German regions, readers should refer to Oliver Grant’s 2005 monograph.

Over this almost 50-year period several notable political changes at the federal level occurred. German reunification (or “Prussian takeover”) took place in 1871 under Chancellor Otto Bismarck, who served in this role until 1890. Alongside the chancellor was the German monarch, consisting of a series of German emperors who stemmed from the House of Hohenzollern and who had ruled Prussia before 1871. The monarchy lasted from 1871 to 1918, at which point the political organization of German was switched to a republic. Did any of this matter? Tilly and Kopsidis do not say too much, although they briefly discuss the rise of tensions with other nations as Germany’s economic interests grew beyond its borders. It bears mentioning, however obvious, that Germany did not fight in any great war between 1872 and 1913, and this all helped provide stability that enabled entrepreneurs to innovate and businesses to grow.

The authors of From Old Regime to Industrial State cover much ground and discuss the many angles of economic growth, including patents, technological change, infrastructure development, education and occupational training, customs unions, evolving market structures, financial development and the rise of universal banks, agricultural productivity, and more. There is much here to absorb – the story of German economic development from many angles. That this monograph is written in English and not in German is a plus as it makes it accessible to a much larger audience. The authors’ engagement in many debates about the history of German economic growth, as well as the extensive references to so many different scholarly works, especially recent ones, makes this work further valuable.

For historians of the industrial revolution, contemplating Germany’s rise to an efficient, innovative and productive industrial economy is a must. Tilly and Kopsidis provide a fresh perspective on German economic history by considering many previous explanations and using the most recent scholarship, their own work as well as their deep reading into the subject matter. In sum, this work is a very important addition to the fields of historical economic growth and industrialization.


Burhop, C. 2006. “Did Banks Cause the German Industrialization?” Explorations in Economic History 43: 39-63.

Dumke, R. 1981. “Die wirtschaftlichen Folgen des Zollvereins.“ In W. Abelshauser & D. Petzina, eds., Deutsche Wirtschaftsgeschichte im Industriezeitalter. Düsseldorf: Athenäum-Verlag, pp. 241-73.

Dumke, R. 1984. “Der Deutsche Zollverein als Modell ökonomischer Integration.“ In H. Berding, ed., Wirtschaftliche und politische Integration in Europa im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pp 71-101.

Fohlin, C. 2007. Finance Capitalism and Germany’s Rise to Industrial Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grant, O. 2005. Migration and Inequality in Germany, 1870 – 1913. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Guinnane, T. 2021. Creating a New Legal Form: The GmBH.” Business History Review 95 (1): 3-32.

Gutberlet, T. 2013. “Mechanization, Transportation and the Location of Industry in Germany 1846- 1907.” Ph.D. Diss., University of Arizona.

Keller, W., and C. Shiue. 2014. “Endogenous Formation of Free Trade Agreements: Evidence from the Zollverein’s Impact on Market Integration.” Journal of Economic History 74, 1168-204

List, F. 1841. Das nationale System der Politischen Ökonomie.Stuttgart: Cotta.

Ploeckl, F. 2009. “The Zollverein and the Sequence of a Customs Union. Australian Economic History Review 33: 277-300.

Spree, R. 1977. Die Wachstumzyklen der deutschen Wirtschaft von 1840 bis 1880. Berlin: Dunker & Humboldt.

Spree, R. 2011. Die Industrialisierung Deutchslands im 19. Jahrhundert. Online publication.

Streb, J., J. Baten, and S. Yin. 2006. “Technological and Geographical Spillover.” Economic History Review 59: 347-73.


Simone A. Wegge is Professor and Chairperson at the Department of Economics at the College of Staten Island and a member of the doctoral faculty at the Graduate Center, both of the City University of New York. Her recent publications include “Inheritance Institutions and Landholding Inequality in Nineteenth-Century Germany: Village-Level Evidence from Hesse-Cassel” (Journal of Economic History, 2021), and, with Tyler Anbinder and Cormac Ó Gráda, “Networks and Opportunities: A Digital History of Ireland’s Great Famine Refugees in New York” (American Historical Review, 2019).

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (September 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Borderland Blacks: Two Cities in the Niagara Region during the Final Decades of Slavery

Author(s):Broyld, dann j.
Reviewer(s):Wellman, Judith

Published by EH.Net (September 2022).

dann j. Broyld. Borderland Blacks: Two Cities in the Niagara Region during the Final Decades of Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2022. xii + 296 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-8071-7706-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Judith Wellman, Professor Emerita, Department of History, State University of New York at Oswego.


In Borderland Blacks: Two Cities in the Niagara Region during the Final Decades of Slavery, dann j. Broyld creates a detailed and fascinating study of the interconnected communities and shared experiences of people of African descent in two cities near the US-Canada border: Rochester, New York, and St. Catharines, Ontario. “Black inhabitants of each city possessed transnational identities,” he argues, and “the national divide did little to hamper the shared culture and interests in the area.” Borderland Blacks “embraced a common struggle that transcended location and nationality.” In “this robust Niagara zone,” Blacks “transformed borders intended to be restrictive into flexible borderlands, which paved the way for increased self-agency and autonomy in shaping the trajectory of their own lives.” (pp. 15-17, 20)

Broyld’s focus on borderland follows the ground-breaking work of scholars such as Karolyn Smardz Frost, Veta Smith Tucker, et al. in A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland (Wayne State University Press, 2016) on the importance of borderlands for the Underground Railroad. Historians have also used the borderland concept to explain the experience of many Native peoples. Most useful for upstate New York is Alan Taylor’s The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (Vintage, 2007), which uses the concept of borderland to explain the situation of indigenous peoples in what became western New York and Upper Canada. For both Native Americans and African Americans, the concept of borderland helps us understand how communities of marginalized people transcended national boundaries and used that leverage to expand control over their own lives.

Broyld divides his work into four chapters. His initial chapter, “Setting the State for the Journey,” gives background on the Underground Railroad and legal, social, and political similarities and differences in New York State and Upper Canada that made the Niagara Frontier a “fluid frontier.” In chapters two and three, he focuses specifically on Rochester and St. Catharines. In his final chapter, “A Border that Divides but Also Unites,” he expands on his point that Blacks were able to transform the border to their own advantage.

Broyld grounds his narrative thoroughly in primary sources, especially newspapers from Rochester and St. Catharines, augmented by autobiographies and other materials. These sources yield richly detailed information about specific people and events, powerfully supporting Broyld’s borderland thesis. Focusing on neighborhoods where people of African descent lived, local institutions, cultural celebrations, work, and Underground Railroad activities, he convincingly argues that Blacks in both Rochester and St. Catharines maintained regular ties with people of color across the international boundary, a trend that escalated in the 1850s. While both cities shared similar patterns of transportation (including canals and railroads), economic development, and culture, Broyld argues that they differed in one key feature: “Black Rochesterians insisted on being integrated into the white mainstream, while Blacks in St. Catharines preferred the separation and safety of their own established community.” (p. 32)

Broyld chose Rochester and St. Catharines because, he argues, they formed the most important Underground Railroad nodes in the Niagara Frontier borderland. Taking his cure from Frederick Douglass, he suggests that these two cities were “the last stops on the Niagara branch of the Underground Railroad.”

Rochester and St. Catharines were certainly important Underground Railroad communities, enhanced by the presence of Frederick Douglass in Rochester and Harriet Tubman in St. Catharines. But Broyld is unconvincing when he argues that elsewhere “in central New York, the American-Canadian border hardly played a role in day-to-day life.” Broyld needs further evidence, for example, to support his contention that Buffalo “lacked the cultural intensity and abolitionist activities found in Rochester, and it was polluted by slave catchers.” (p. 23) And Broyld downplays the importance of Syracuse, ignoring the direct rail connection between Syracuse and Niagara Falls and the direct canal route from Syracuse to Lake Ontario via Oswego, suggesting instead that “Syracuse’s lack of a direct connection to the Great Lakes, leading to Canada, or even a major tributary to the lakes, reduced its transnational relevance.” (pp. 24-25) “Essentially, Buffalo and Niagara Falls were too near the international border,” he suggests, “and Syracuse was too far from Canada on the ‘outer borderlands’ to act as dynamic mediators of American-Canadian interchange.” (pp. 24-25)

While much work remains to be done to document African-American life in other borderland communities, preliminary research suggests that, in fact, Rochester and St. Catharines were similar in many ways to other cities across a larger area. Cities such as Syracuse, Oswego, Auburn, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls on the US side and Niagara Falls, Hamilton, Toronto, and Kingston on the Canadian side had strong Black communities, strong biracial Underground Railroad networks, and easy access both to water and rail transportation (the latter becoming especially important, as Broyld notes, after completion of the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge to carry trains directly between the two countries in 1855). Further research will test how well these communities fit Broyld’s definition of the Niagara borderland as made up of “human connections” and “shared culture and interests” that transcended the international border. (p. 15). Broyld himself suggests this possibility when he features both Jermain Loguen (who escaped from slavery in Tennessee to become “king of the Underground Railroad” in Syracuse) and Harriet Tubman (who escaped from slavery in Maryland to become a landowner in Auburn), both of whom regularly crossed the border into St. Catharines.

With its strong base in primary sources, well-organized descriptions of African American life in Rochester and St. Catharines, and powerful depictions of individual Black residents, Broyld has made a convincing case for the importance of transnationalism in both Rochester and St. Catharines. This book is an essential contribution not only to borderland theory but also to the history of the Niagara Frontier and to emerging scholarship on the Underground Railroad in an international context.


Judith Wellman is Professor Emerita in the Department of History at the State University of New York at Oswego. Her publications include The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Women’s Rights Convention (University of Illinois Press, 2004), Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York (New York University Press, 2012), and research on the Underground Railroad, abolitionism, and African-American life in the Syracuse and Niagara Falls areas.

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (September 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Servitude and Slavery
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century