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Humans versus Nature: A Global Environmental History

Author(s):Headrick, Daniel R.
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric L.

Published by EH.Net (January 2021)

Daniel R. Headrick, Humans versus Nature: A Global Environmental History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. ix + 604 pp. $40 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-19-086472-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric L. Jones, University of Buckingham.


This is an encyclopedic volume, the more impressive because written by a single hand. Almost 500 pages are accompanied by one hundred pages of references. It is so voluminous and wide-ranging that the reviewer may feel ashamed to probe for limitations. For topic after topic, period after period, Daniel Headrick (Emeritus Professor at Roosevelt University) provides at least a page or two of thorough and judicious summary. Within every chronological segment, he characterizes the environmental condition of each of the world’s major regions, and often minor ones too. Proper weight is given to the immense stretches of prehistory, emphasizing not merely humanity’s ancient impress on the environment but its manipulation of habitats too, ever since the discovery was made that fire could be portable.

Headrick is certainly disposed to dwell on the losers among species, populations and societies but does not entirely neglect the winners. Of the latter, perhaps the least expected was the earthworm, which spread across North America from the east coast to which it had been inadvertently carried by European settlers. It is an example — and by improving soils by no means a trivial one — of the depth of the author’s reading in any number of specialist sources.

Throughout history and prehistory, human societies have administered and experienced every type of alteration in the environments housing them. Changes have been both stealthy and abrupt, signaled by the rise and fall of groupings as large as civilizations. Many developments have been responses to environmental opportunity, whenever the prevailing technology made fresh resources accessible. In the long run less benign factors have also been prominent, most of all climatic fluctuations and various diseases, endemic and epidemic, human, animal and plant. Apportioning the effects among these and a host of other influences, such as social conflict, deforestation (which comes to the surface in many of Headrick’s narratives), hunting and poaching, and geophysical shocks, is exceedingly difficult. Combinations of the forces are advanced as having marked most periods and most societies.

Drawing the episodes together over the whole earth and all of recorded time thus unfortunately clarifies less than might be hoped: the past is presented as a kaleidoscope. No hope, then, of isolating a prime mover unless it is the growth and migration of population — which is itself what one would like to have explained. No variable is independent of others. Societies were differently resilient, the author tells us, but that is description, not explanation. Headrick understandably plays up environmental reasons for major events, such as the Fall of Rome, and more generally leans towards the way fluctuating populations were calibrated by fluctuations in the climate. He notes cases where human action itself has probably affected the climate ever since the Neolithic. But he knows far too much to advance a monocausal thesis.

Insofar as any interpretive slant becomes apparent, the book reflects current alarm about environmental degradation and climate change. The latter may well prove a lasting game changer but there is comparatively little recognition of humanity’s satisfactory past accommodations to certain of its habitats. Historically, humanized landscapes in the temperate zones may have reached approximate equilibrium with nature; the recent excessive use of agricultural chemicals might be curbed by governmental regulation; and only global warming seems to toss an unavoidable spanner into the environmental machinery. Headrick’s view is that laissez faire will continue to rule and create an unstable mix between voluntary restraint, business as usual, and some barely understood technological fix for the planet’s problems.

Any conspectus on the gargantuan scale of this book is obliged to rely on the available literature and no one can withhold admiration for Headrick’s endless energy in that regard. An unavoidable weakness follows because the literature, at least work in English, is heavily skewed in favor of those major regions with highly organized polities. On the one hand tracing these examples constitutes a crushing work-load for the scholar; on the other they must minimize, relatively speaking, the experience of lesser regions, societies and periods. North America and Europe, and the western search for tropical products, necessarily figure large. China is increasingly claiming a share. Among early societies, archaeology has tended to concentrate on empires that had a big impact on their setting and left major monuments to be studied or excavated. Constructions of stone have obviously survived best and one can never escape the continual revaluations of Stonehenge, but the intermittently recorded achievements of societies that lacked stone give an inkling of parts of history’s jigsaw that may often be missing: in the south-west of what is now the United States, the Anasazi built their Great Houses with 200,000 logs of up to 320 kilograms apiece, dragging them from mountains 75 kilometers away because they had no draft animals!

Mentioning Stonehenge emphasizes the difficulties faced by any compiler of a general text. New techniques continue to make stunning discoveries at that site and at many others. No one can keep up with all the topics and sub-disciplines involved, which means that relying on the existing literature is slightly insecure. And interpretations can be overturned by the continual advance of knowledge. Ian Miller’s Fir and Empire: The Transformation of Forests in Early Modern China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020) is persuasive that previous views of unrequited deforestation, that is without replanting, are misleading. It was published since the book under review was written and only serves to show how scholarship’s progress must chip away at any overview. Nevertheless for the foreseeable future Daniel Headrick’s Humans versus Nature will remain the ultimate reference work on global environmental history.


Eric Jones, Senior Fellow at the University of Buckingham, is the author of Revealed Biodiversity: An Economic History of the Human Impact (World Scientific, 2014), Barriers to Growth: English Economic Development from the Norman Conquest to Industrialisation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), and Landscape History and Rural Society in Southern England: An Economic and Environmental Perspective (in press).

Copyright (c) 2021 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 (January 2021). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Historical Demography, including Migration
Historical Geography
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Corporate Conservatives Go to War: How the National Association of Manufacturers Planned to Restore American Free Enterprise, 1939-1948

Author(s):Whitham, Charlie
Reviewer(s):Phillips-Fein, Kim

Published by EH.Net (December 2020)

Charlie Whitham, Corporate Conservatives Go to War: How the National Association of Manufacturers Planned to Restore American Free Enterprise, 1939-1948. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. xvii + 400 pp. $89 (hardback), ISBN: 978-3-030-43907-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kim Phillips-Fein, Department of History and Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University.


Recent political histories of the twentieth century have shifted attention to World War II as a critical moment for understanding not only the place of the United States in the world, but also the trajectory of domestic economic policy. While this literature builds on an earlier generation of foundational scholarship on the evolution of liberalism and labor-management relations in the war years — including Alan Brinkley’s The End of Reform (1995), Nelson Lichtenstein’s Labor’s War at Home (1982) and Howell John Harris’ The Right to Manage (1982) — more recent work has been especially focused on the way that World War II transformed American political economy. In particular, James Sparrow’s Warfare State (2011) and Mark Wilson’s Destructive Creation (2016) addressed the extent to which the war both consolidated the changes of the New Deal and inaugurated a new fiscal era, as well as the impact that the massive public investment of the war years had on the capacity of the Allies to achieve victory and the shape of American industry in the postwar years.

Charlie Whitham’s Corporate Conservatives Go to War: How the National Association of Manufacturers Planned to Restore American Free Enterprise, 1939-1948 marks a useful contribution to this body of work. The National Association of Manufacturers has long been portrayed by scholars as a hidebound organization committed in a knee-jerk way to a reactionary set of economic policies. (As one political scientist put it in the title of a 1953 journal article: “NAM: Influential Lobby or Kiss of Death?”)

Whitham does not exactly overturn this interpretation, but he challenges it by portraying the cross-currents of thought and politics within NAM over the wartime years. He suggests that NAM was divided between moderate and conservative businessmen who were compelled to listen to and respond to each other over this time of crisis. The “exposure” of NAM to the “growing and increasingly vibrant community” of liberal business leaders who were invested in planning for the postwar era prodded the organization to abandon its “pre-war, negativistic” position of stubborn resistance to the reforms of the New Deal, pressing them to advocate a more sophisticated conservatism (p. 15).

The war years, Whitham shows, were a time of opportunity and peril for American business. On the one hand, private business was able to portray itself as largely responsible for economic revival as the nation shifted to war production. Despite the massive federal investment that enabled economic growth, corporate leaders presented private enterprise as the moving force. At the same time, though, the very dependence on public contracts and on direct federal investment could not help but raise the question: Would these continue after the war? And what would happen to the power of labor unions, which had grown so much during the war thanks to active federal pressure — would labor be pushed back as at the end of World War I, or would American industry be compelled to accept its power in peacetime as well?

The leaders of NAM were deeply concerned with these issues from early in the war. Even as they were well aware that their role in war production offered a chance to rehabilitate their public image, and even as they appreciated the recovery of economic growth in the war, they viewed the future with trepidation. As early as 1942, NAM formed a Post-War Problems Committee to investigate and propose solutions to the difficulties of reconversion. Frederick C. Crawford of Thompson Products took over as NAM president in 1943. Whitham draws heavily on Crawford’s archives (in addition to those of NAM) to show that he carefully sought to reinvigorate NAM’s image, to embrace new public relations strategies and to rehabilitate the organization in the public mind — to increase “public acceptance” of NAM “while advocating an extremely vigorous labor program, and yet not draw fire as a labor baiting organization,” as Crawford put it (p. 114).

Of special note is Whitham’s description of the “Soldiers of Production” campaign, an elaborate program coordinated by the National Industrial Information Council (a branch of NAM) whereby companies were encouraged to hold rallies on company time. Workers were gathered to listen to music played over the public address system, join in the singing of the national anthem led by a company executive, and then to receive a 20-minute talk by a NAM leader emphasizing “industry’s magnificent contribution” to the war effort and the future “postwar world of production and plenty” (p. 135). Anticipating later efforts — such as those of Lemuel Boulware at General Electric in the 1950s or even the corporate rallies of Wal-Mart — to use work hours and managerial authority to inspire a free-market politics in employees, the “Soldiers of Production” campaigns represented NAM’s attempt to mimic the grass-roots strategies of unions, only turning them to different political ends.

By the end of the war, NAM had moved away from its earlier intransigent opposition to recognizing unions at all, instead backing the Taft-Hartley Act which hemmed in labor power but conceded its legitimacy. The organization had also become cautiously more sympathetic to internationalist policies, helping to rally business support for the Marshall Plan.

Whitham remains tightly focused on the internal politics of NAM throughout, and the result is a book that may appear to some readers overly narrow. Lacking broader context about wartime strikes, ideological tensions and political conflicts during World War II, it can be difficult to fully apprehend exactly why business leaders were so anxious. Jennifer Delton’s recently-published study of NAM (The Industrialists, 2020) and Lawrence Glickman’s Free Enterprise (2019) are both helpful companions to this book, providing a larger framework for Whitham’s detailed history and a sense of how the brief period he chronicles fits into NAM’s larger history and that of free-market thought. Yet at the same time, through his close attention to the war years, Whitham helps us to see NAM — so often viewed as a static, one-note organization — as an entity that was riven by conflict and by disagreement over the right way forward during the 1940s. Far from simply being able to exert its influence, NAM leaders felt compelled to put substantial resources and effort into strategizing about how to influence federal policy and public opinion — thus raising important questions about the fraught relationship between economic might and political power in a democracy.


Kim Phillips-Fein’s most recent book is Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (Metropolitan Books, 2017).

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Debit and Сredit оf War, or How Stalin Made a Trillion Dollars: The Unknown Economic History of the USSR before, during and after World War II (1940–1953)

Author(s):Babichenko, Denis
Reviewer(s):Harrison, Mark

Published by EH.Net (December 2020)

Denis Babichenko, The Debit and Сredit оf War, or How Stalin Made a Trillion Dollars: The Unknown Economic History of the USSR before, during and after World War II (1940–1953). Moscow, 2020.  xi + 379 pp. ISBN: 9798610423784.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Harrison, Department of Economics, University of Warwick.


The official reckoning of Soviet material losses arising from the war with Germany makes grim reading. A state commission, established in 1942, reported in September 1945: “During the war, the German fascist invaders completely or partially destroyed and burned 1,710 cities and towns, more than 70 thousand villages and settlements, over 6 million buildings, displaced around 25 million people; and destroyed 31,850 industrial enterprises.” Agricultural losses are said to have included more than 70 million head of livestock large and small, killed, looted, or taken to Germany. A hundred thousand schools, colleges, hospitals, clinics, and so forth were also destroyed. The total was valued at 679 billion rubles at official prices of 1941 (FSGS 2020: 278-279). Semi-official sources (cited by Harrison 1996: 315n) later put this figure at around 30 percent of “national wealth.”

While a few western authors have expressed skepticism about the reported scale of losses (Moorsteen and Powell 1966: 72-77; Harrison 1996: 158-159), the findings of the state commission have never been audited. Nor has there been any comprehensive account of possible Soviet economic gains from the war, which might extend from the value of territories and assets annexed in 1939/40 and 1945 to postwar reparations from former Axis countries.

The Debit and Сredit оf War is a first attempt to strike an informed balance of Soviet losses and gains from World War II. The author, Denis Babichenko, is an independent scholar and writer based in Moscow and earned his PhD in history at Moscow State University. He has previously written about the history of censorship in the Soviet Union.

After a short introduction, the book is divided into four parts. In Part I, chapter 1 reviews the Russian and Soviet national economic statistics of the period from 1913 to 1941. On that basis, Chapter 2 evaluates the size and condition of the Soviet economy on the eve of the German invasion. Both evaluations are very unfavorable.

Part II is concerned with Soviet economic losses arising from the war. While these took place almost entirely on territories that saw fighting and temporary German occupation, Chapter 3 notes that much destruction arose from Soviet, not German actions — apparently, anyway. During retreat, Stalin’s orders were to evacuate what could be saved and destroy the rest. Babichenko argues that less was evacuated than was officially claimed and that more of the capital stock survived occupation than was claimed. With that in mind, Chapter 4 turns to the damage attributable to German war actions and occupation policies, the basis of the 679 billion rubles already mentioned. It is argued that official reports were grossly exaggerated. Rather than being based on reports from the ground, they were thrown together to match a predetermined target for postwar reparations that Stalin had fixed from above in 1943, long before the war’s end (p. 167). Babichenko shows that the reported losses from enemy occupation in physical units, which should have formed the building blocks for valuation of the aggregate loss, were implausibly large: some of them equaled or exceeded the total stocks claimed before the war on the occupied territories, and sometimes the claimed stocks for the entire country (pp. 256-57).

Part III examines Soviet economic gains from the war. Chapter 5 is devoted to “gains from allies,” finding that Allied wartime aid exceeded the mere “4 percent” of the value of Soviet wartime industrial production claimed after the war by a factor of five (p. 268). Chapter 6 considers postwar “gains from wartime enemies,” in which the most important element was reparations. From 1944 through 1953, these alone are put at nearly two trillion rubles at current prices (p. 329), or three times the value of the material losses from German occupation.

In Part IV, Chapter 7 strikes the balance, throwing together an assortment of real and financial, current and capital items to reach a net surplus to the Soviet economy of two trillion rubles of the time or, in today’s values, 1.3 trillion dollars (pp. 331-32). An afterword concludes.

The project of The Debit and Credit of War is a brave one. Today, Russian law criminalizes the denial of facts established by the international war crimes tribunal held in Nuremberg in 1945/46, where the figure of 679 billion rubles was written into the indictment of major German war criminals (IMT 1947: 60). The project is also necessary. In Russia today the scale of Soviet war losses remains a painful subject, powerfully charged with negative emotions. The forty years of Soviet obfuscation of the numbers of civilian and military war dead give no reason to accept official claims of property losses at face value. The political decisions and statistical methodologies that produced the figures are largely unknown and unexplored. This book opens up the subject. The way it does so balances important strengths and weaknesses.

In Part I, Babichenko outlines his approach to Soviet official statistics and archival documents. The dilemma for all researchers in this field is this: you know the published statistics are often deceptive, sometimes intentionally so. You go to the archives and what you find is . . . more of the same. So, what do you do? Babichenko advocates reliance on three things (p. 39). First, look for detail, which is less easily fabricated than broad aggregates and round numbers. Second, look for evidence of methodology; if there is bias in the underlying method, there is a chance you can compensate for it. Third, look for cross-checks across the documentation, which can offer confirmation or expose inconsistences.

These are sensible rules. They resemble the habits that all Western scholars of the Cold War generation (including me) had to learn in order to use Soviet official publications. The same approach continues to be useful for understanding the far more voluminous official documentation left in the secret archives.

In these respects, Babichenko’s revelations are welcome. Not all is done well, however. The tone is often angry, with many digressions. The animosity is directed against the perpetuation of Soviet-era lies and the naïve foreigners who go along with them. Translated for Western readers, the passion appears misdirected. A cooler approach with more focus on presenting and explaining the findings might have been more persuasive.

Much of the argument of Part I is distracting and irrelevant. Chapter 1 notes, correctly, that the economic information found in Soviet archives is generally of low quality. Babichenko explains this as follows: Stalin feared penetration by spies and was interested in disinformation; perhaps he had the archives seeded with fake documents designed to mislead the adversary about the true state of the Soviet economy. So far, this is conjecture. At the same time, Babichenko maintains, truthful documents were deliberately weeded out and destroyed. Here he brings evidence, but the evidence means less than he thinks. The Soviet bureaucracy had a procedure for discarding excess documentation. The procedure has left plentiful traces in the archives (Harrison 2013). In the process, important documents were sometimes destroyed. But this does not support the hypothesis. When documents were produced in multiple copies, one copy was typically assigned to the archive. If another copy was destroyed, it does not mean that the archive copy had disappeared. If the intention behind destruction was to destroy all copies, it is hard to explain why it was meticulously recorded. If the archives were so thoroughly weeded of reliable economic records, it is hard to explain why detailed records of mass killings and other abuses were carefully conserved.

Babichenko notes, again correctly, that Soviet official growth measures were greatly overstated. This is not new; it was the basis of the long Western project to reevaluate Soviet economic data that began with Colin Clark (1939). In Chapter 2 Babichenko rejects nearly all these efforts, preferring the “alternative” growth estimates of Grigorii Khanin (1991). Ironically, for the period 1950-80, the results of Khanin’s efforts differ little from those of Western scholars. For the period 1928-41, all-important for this study, Khanin’s sector components of national income follow a mix of Western and Soviet official series, but his national income measure, which should average them, falls below them by far more than can be explained by any weighting scheme (Harrison 1993). The reasons are not evident. Relying on this, however, Babichenko’s estimates of the level and growth of Soviet output between the wars fall well below those adopted by the Maddison Project (Bolt and van Zanden 2020) and currently in general use among economic historians.

A feature of the analysis, introduced in Chapter 2, and particularly important in Chapters 5 to 7, is the U.S. dollar as the standard of value. Recent decades have seen largescale collaborative efforts to improve cross-country comparisons in real terms (i.e. at purchasing power parity), represented by the International Comparisons Project of the World Bank, the Penn World Tables, and (for historical data) the Maddison Project. Babichenko conducts much of his book’s argument in dollars, but without the benefit of these efforts. That is, ruble values of various years are converted to dollars at the market exchange rate (for 1913), or (for the Soviet period) at purchasing power parity, before being updated to dollars of 2019. The PPPs, which are Khanin’s (1991) “alternative” ruble/dollar rates for selected years, give two problems. One, they are guesses. Two, even if they were roughly right for traded goods, they would then be wrong for aggregates (such as national income) that include non-tradeables. The likely direction of the biases is to overstate the value of foreign relative to Soviet resources.

Another feature of Chapters 5 to 7 that serves to swell the final sum is the aggregation of stocks and flows and of real and financial items into the balance sheet of war. Ideally, these should be separated (e.g. Harrison 1996: 156; Broadberry and Howlett 1998: 66-71). For example, while Babichenko correctly excludes defense costs and foregone output from the debit side, he adds Lend-lease supplies as a credit. But most Western aid was consumed in the war period. Even if some minor fraction of Lend-lease goods was diverted into postwar reconstruction, the greater part should be excluded.

In weighing up the book’s findings, I am swayed in different directions. This is a subject about which we need to know more. I have learned a lot from the author’s investigations, and I am grateful for that. At the end, however, I am skeptical of many findings. At times it is hard to avoid the sense that Babichenko is in pursuit of the control figure set by his own subtitle: one trillion dollars. There are too many grand claims and short cuts. The author is less critical of the potential biases that favor his thesis than of any that would work against it. Nonetheless this book opens up important questions and indicates lines along which scholarship can advance.


Bolt, Jutta, and Jan Luiten van Zanden. 2020. “Maddison Style Estimates of the Evolution of the World Economy. A New 2020 Update.” University of Groningen, Groningen Growth and Development Centre, Maddison Project Working Paper no. 15.

Broadberry, Stephen, and W. Peter Howlett. 1998. “The United Kingdom: Victory at all Costs.” In The Economics of World War II, 43-80. Edited by Mark Harrison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, Colin. 1939. A Critique of Russian Statistics. London: Macmillan

FSGS (Federal’naia sluzhba gosudarstvennoi statistiki). 2020. Velikaia Otechestvennaia voina. Iubileinyi statisticheskii sbornik. Moscow: Rosstat.

Harrison, Mark. 1993. “Soviet Economic Growth since 1928: The Alternative Statistics of G. I. Khanin.” Europe-Asia Studies 45(1): 141-167.

Harrison, Mark. 1996. Accounting for War: Soviet Production, Employment, and the Defence Burden, 1940-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, Mark. 2013. “Accounting for Secrets.” Journal of Economic History 73(4): 1017-1049.

IMT (International Military Tribunal). 1947. Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, 14 November 1945-1 October 1946. Vol. I, Official Text in the English Language. Official Documents. International Military Tribunal: Nuremberg.

Khanin, Grigorii I. 1991. Dinamika ekonomicheskogo razvitiya SSSR. Novosibirsk: Nauka.


Mark Harrison is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick. He is currently writing about secrecy and the Soviet state. His most recent book is The Soviet Economy and the Approach of War, 1937-1939 (with R. W. Davies, Oleg Khlevniuk, and Stephen G. Wheatcroft), published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.

Copyright (c) 2020 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 2020). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Les crises de la dette publique: XVIIIe-XXIe siècle

Editor(s):Béaur, Gérard
Quennouëlle-Corre, Laure
Reviewer(s):Monnet, Eric

Published by EH.Net (December 2020)

Gérard Béaur and Laure Quennouëlle-Corre, editors, Les crises de la dette publique: XVIIIe-XXIe siècle. Paris: Institut de la gestion publique et du développement économique, 2019. 532 pp. €43 (paperback), ISBN: 978-2111294639.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Monnet, EHESS and the Paris School of Economics.


The collective work Les crises de la dette publique, XVIII-XXIe siècle [Public debt crises], edited by Gérard Béaur and Laure Quennouëlle-Corre, follows on from a previous opus published in the same series in 2006 (Andreau, Béaur, and Grenier, 2006). It contains 21 chapters written by experts in the field. All are open access, freely readable online at

The content is extremely varied in terms of scope and methodology. All the chapters are written (translated) in French, but most of the authors are international academics. The main virtue of the book is to provide superb material for teaching the history of public debt to French-speaking students. Several chapters of the book accomplish an important task by presenting an up-to-date overview of the international literature on key episodes in the history of public debt. These chapters often draw on material already published by their authors, but they are not devoid of new perspectives or analyses based on primary sources. Elena Maria Garcia Guerra presents the Spanish debt crises in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, highlighting how it cannot be understood without recognizing Spanish domestic politics (the balance of power between the local elites) between the king, parliament and the cities. Mark Spoerer explains everything there is to know about the German public debt, its complex financing and its destabilizing political consequences after the First World War. François Velde highlights the differences between the financing of French and English public debt at the beginning of the eighteenth century and — through this perspective — sheds light on the technicalities and the failure of the system of John Law (1716-20). Nicolas Barreyre takes us to the United States after the Civil War and shows how the financing of public debt during this period was essential for the political construction of the nation and for the development of the American administration. Anne Murphy presents a compelling analysis of England’s public debt after the Glorious Revolution. She debunks the myth of superior parliamentary control over the English public budget after 1688 and tells about the slow institutional evolution (learning from the frequent difficulties) of public finance techniques. This strongly echoes the account of Peter Ericsson and Patrik Winton in their chapter on Swedish public debt in the eighteenth century. Patrick Verley also discusses a key piece of standard public debt history: the Argentinean public debt crisis of 1890 and its international consequences through the Baring crisis. He interprets the Argentine debt cycle as being dictated by international creditors rather than internal factors.

Unsurprisingly, the volume also contains a number of chapters that focus specifically on France (a quarter of the total). Apart from a rather obscure but informative first-hand document by Didier Maître on the rise of primary dealers in the 1980s, the other five chapters deal with the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (respectively written by Arnaud Diemer, Joel Felix, Stéphane Guerre, Tim J.A. Le Goff, and François Velde). Relying heavily on primary sources, they offer a first-rate view of the troubled financing of the French government during this period. Thus, the book is also a good introduction in itself to the history of French public debt from Louis XIV to the July Revolution of 1830. Wars are inevitably omnipresent in this history. What these chapters also show is the importance of the memory of previous crises for the actors (financiers or ministers). The evolution of public finances is thus deeply shaped by the interpretation of past mistakes and defaults.

The other chapters belong to three different groups. Some give a long quantitative overview of the evolution of a country’s public debt over two centuries (Francisco Comin for Spain; Giuseppe Conti for Italy). Others focus on international negotiations between public creditors (Christophe Farquet on the League of Nations, Marc Raffinot and Vincent Duchaussoy on African debt crises, André Straus on Franco-Russian negotiations after the First World War). Finally, three articles tell the quiet story of sustainable public debt: Natalia Victorovna Platonova on Russian public debt in the nineteenth century, Jean Béranger on Austria in the nineteenth century and Mathieu Dubois on German debates on public debt in the 1970s.

Given the diversity of approaches and topics, it is very difficult to summarize a common conclusion of the volume in a few sentences. The editors themselves, in their introduction, acknowledge that the history of public debt is so diverse and heterogeneous that it should prevent researchers from drawing strong conclusions on the causes of the debt crisis or its sustainability. In fact, the heterogeneity of the volume even calls into question the need to treat public debt as a single entity in historical analysis. As François Velde reminds us at the beginning of his chapter, there is a conceptual unity that characterizes debt: debt serves to transfer resources from the future to the present (for borrowers) and from the present to the future (for lenders). But such a conceptual feature hardly exists for the “public” or the “State.” The debt of the kings of Spain in the eighteenth century does not seem so different from private debt contracted through personal networks. In contrast, the public debt of emerging markets such as Argentina in the nineteenth century or African countries today is as much an external debt of the whole country as it is a specific debt of the government. Identifying who is the “public” in public debt, as Nicolas Barreyre explicitly asks in his political history of the postbellum United States, and who are the creditors — as the editors point out in their introduction — remain key questions to go beyond the description of historical debt-to-GDP ratios.


Andreau, Jean, Gérard Béaur, and Jean-Yves Grenier, eds. La dette publique dans l’histoire. Vol. 34. Comité pour l’Histoire économique et financière, 2006.


Eric Monnet is Directeur d’études at the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris) and Professor of economic history at the Paris School of Economics. He works on contemporary European financial and monetary history. He is the author of the book Controlling Credit (Cambridge University Press 2018) and has recently written the chapter “The History and Politics of Public Debt Accounting” (with B. Truong-Loi) in A World of Public Debts (edited by N. Barreyre and N. Delalande) Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Copyright (c) 2020 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 2020). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Central Banking before 1800: A Rehabilitation

Author(s):Bindseil, Ulrich
Reviewer(s):Hotson, Anthony C.

Published by EH.Net (November 2020)

Ulrich Bindseil, Central Banking before 1800: A Rehabilitation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. xiii + 322 pp. $80 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-884999-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Anthony C. Hotson, Centre for Financial History, University of Cambridge.


It is not clear who coined the term “central banking” but it came into common usage in the 1920s with the emergence of national monetary institutions serving an explicit public purpose. Many of these institutions had antecedents as commercial banks and the term provided a means of distinguishing them from the generality of private banks. M. H. De Kock’s influential book published in 1939 suggested that the origins of central banking could be traced back to the nineteenth century with the Bank of England and the Riksbank of Sweden as leading models.

Mainstream views about the function of central banks remained largely unchanged until the 1990s when increased emphasis came to be placed on their role as bulwarks against financial instability. Deregulation in the 1980s had rendered the banking system more competitive and more exposed to the risks of maturity transformation. Central banks were seen to be the saviors of a potentially fragile system, providing liquidity in times of crisis. Modern-day lender of last resort (LOLR) facilities were said to have developed from arrangements established in the late nineteenth century, a key historical antecedent being Walter Bagehot’s advocacy of the Bank of England’s role as LOLR in Lombard Street (1873).

Ulrich Bindseil’s book provides an important contribution to a revisionist history of central banks, suggesting that their origins can be found in institutions sponsored by European city governments — Barcelona, Genoa, Naples, Venice, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Stockholm — from the fifteenth century. Notwithstanding its name, the Bank of England operated as the City of London’s bank during its early years and was popularly known as the Bank of London. The national banking model came later with Napoleon’s creation of the Banque de France in 1800.

Bindseil and the revisionist school argue that proto-central banks set up before 1800 had a civic purpose, usually being owned by a municipality or a charitable foundation. In many cases, these banks enjoyed municipal guarantees. Private ownership developed later, most notably by the Bank of England in the late seventeenth century. The civic banks issued banknotes and pioneered the creation of paper money of undoubted credit standing. Their banknotes were to be distinguished from other forms of mercantile paper — bills and promissory notes issued by the generality of merchants. Banknotes started to displace specie as the main means of mercantile payment and provided a more resilient settlement asset, particularly during credit crises.

A number of civic banks started as full-reserve banks, but fractional reserve banking offered the benefits of a more elastic supply of money and credit. From time-to-time, some banknotes ceased to be convertible (at par) into specie and this could lead to insolvency. There were multiple reasons for a loss of confidence leading to failure, but a well-known one was political pressure to fund the state and favored corporations, beyond prudent bounds. The holy grail was to build and maintain fractional reserve banks that retained public confidence and paper convertibility.

Bindseil demonstrates that civic banks took an eclectic approach to stabilizing credit and facilitating payment. A recurrent theme was the protection of sound merchants from usurers in distressed markets, e.g. the Nürnberg public bank charter of 1498. The Banco di Rialto was established in Venice in 1587 to help stabilize credit. The Bank of Amsterdam was founded in 1609 to facilitate mercantile payments. It was meant to be fully reserved, but it was drawn into municipal lending and loans to the Dutch East India Company. Examples of systemic LOLR support during the eighteenth century include the response of the Hamburg authorities to the financial crisis of 1763, the role of the Bank of England in 1772 and Bank of Amsterdam in 1773. Bindseil’s book includes an excellent annex that provides a catalogue of 25 pre-1800 civic, public and chartered banks that operated as proto-central banks. The overriding point is that there was a longstanding tradition that predates the nineteenth century whereby civic authorities and their banks were willing to pre-empt and mitigate credit crises.

Bindseil cites arguments presented by Ralph Hawtrey (1932) and Paul Tucker (2014) to the effect that “LOLR operations should define central banking.” This is a popular contemporary view, but is it a step too far? By the late nineteenth century London’s commercial banking sector had grown to the point where the Bank of England’s balance sheet lacked the capacity of stabilize credit markets by resort to LOLR alone. The century of stability of London’s money markets from the 1870s until 1971 depended not just on Bagehot’s LOLR but also on an elaborate system of market demarcations between sectors — discount houses, accepting houses, clearing banks and building societies — each with their own trade association with responsibility for maintaining market discipline and cartelized prices. The exponents of deregulation in the 1980s discarded market demarcations and came to rely on state guarantees for LOLR facilities with an overlay of balance sheet regulation focused on capital requirements.

The experience of 2007/8 has led some, including this reviewer, to conclude that reliance on LOLR for maintaining stability is insufficient. Mervyn King’s The End of Alchemy (2016) has suggested a replacement role for central banks as pawnbrokers for all seasons (PFAS). Under the King plan, collateral rules for central bank borrowing would eventually replace bank capital requirements. In some respects, this brings us back full circle to Bindseil’s world of pre-1800 civic banks that lent for the most part against security or self-liquidating bills. A key difference between then and now is the dominance of residential mortgage lending with its heroic levels of maturity transformation. Solving the problem of home finance may require a further evolution in the role of central banks and possibly the reintroduction specialist mortgage lenders subject to their own rules.

Bindseil’s history of early central banking is a refreshing corrective to the mannerist orthodoxy that still prevails. He resists formulaic views about financial developments and embraces the vagaries of market practice, perhaps reflecting his experience as a practitioner in the European Central Bank. There are some editorial lapses — for example, specie money is systematically referred to as “species money” and the metallic fineness of specie as “finesse” — but the thesis of the book is important and the message is clear.


Anthony C. Hotson is Deputy Director of the Centre for Financial History and a member of Darwin College, Cambridge. His book, Respectable Banking: The Search for Stability in London’s Money and Credit Markets since 1695, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century