Tomorrow Belongs to Me: Coming-of-Age in the Other Europe, 1813–1914

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“Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a history of young adulthood in nineteenth-century Europe. Based on sources in all major regional languages, it uncovers a radical transformation in how adolescents became adults since the Enlightenment. Land reforms and mass education, ideologies of meritocracy and individualism, new oceanic routes, and shattering empires freed adolescents from becoming their parents. This dissertation offers a social history of changing life courses in industrializing Europe in nine chapters. It also shows how young adults became tormented by choice. This crisis – the necessity, liberty, and risk of designing one’s adulthood – coincided with the increasing participation of youth in politics. Politicians emphasized the presence of youth in politics but subsumed their voices under discourses of nation and class. Thus, the age-specific plight of young adults remained poorly articulated and largely unwritten. Until now: weaving socioeconomic, cultural, and political histories, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” offers a new interpretation of adolescent Europe’s experience of industrialized modernity written from its East.

This dissertation studies the costs of freedom. Part 1 explores two entanglements of youth and unfreedom: service (both domestic and agricultural) and journeymanship. These were life stages. Young adults became servants and journeymen to become masters. Until they did, they were equated with the masters’ children regardless of age. They were not supposed to marry, live independently, or enjoy political rights. By the mid-nineteenth century, observers routinely denounced these life stages as slavery. The reform or repealing of servant, guild, and licensing ordinances freed the youth. The rise of capitalist modernity provided them with alternatives. But, as these chapters show, masters toiled to revert these changes, not least by emphasizing the allure of their patriarchal relations and the dangers of independence. This was often lip service. In practice, masters squeezed labor and betrayed their promise to lead their servants and journeymen into independent adulthood. The danger was still real. Domestic servants found the line between the freedom of cash and prostitution strikingly thin. Former journeymen were disabused of the charm of mastery and found joy in wage labor – if it was available.

The nineteenth century afforded questionable choices for all. Part 2 reconstructs two of them: education and emigration. Facing the fickleness of the market, families aspired for stable employment away from the powers of supply and demand. The civil service was a common goal. Becoming a bureaucrat demanded more education than most Europeans could access. As ideals of meritocracy and mass schooling prevailed, new families mustered onto the turf of a well-guarded stratum whose social standing derived from diplomas. The expansion and lengthening of compulsory schooling increased parental appetite. University education seemed not so far removed, so parents demanded the remaining obstacles (meritocratic or not) be dismantled. Their victory was pyrrhic: more choice brought greater insecurity and heightened chances for failure. Other families did not pin their hopes on education. Instead, they tried to save the life scripts that became untenable in Europe by sending their sons (and sometimes daughters) overseas. Chapter 5 explores how societies prepared their youth for crossing the ocean and how they expected emigration to shape the life courses of those who stayed behind.

Part 3 explores how youth demanded political freedom but ended the century in subjugation. It poses a counterfactual question: if the collapse of European life courses engendered a crisis of choice, why did youth lend their energy to adult parties? Working toward an answer, the dissertation offers three accounts of the encounter of youth with politics. The first reconstructs the emergence of youth as political actors and Romantic subjects in post-Napoleonic Europe. It shows how university students claimed the title of youth. Joining the political parties that courted them came at the price of muffling their age-specific concerns. The second focuses on the mission of ecclesiastics, nationalists, and other activists to minister to a broader range of youth. Youth movements became adult-orchestrated organizations for inculcating identities and loyalties, not providing room for initiative and agency. The third account shows how the fire of youth kindled by Romantics was carried by early realists and extinguished by naturalists and modernists.  By 1900, young adults found themselves once again subjected to adults. Worse, they found themselves out of the adults’ interest. When adults said ‘youth,’ they increasingly meant children.

“Tomorrow Belongs to Me” experiments with telling the history of nineteenth-century Europe outside its usual foci. It dwells on Austria-Hungary. Instead of situating it against England, France, and Germany, the narrative employs comparisons with the (post-)Ottoman Balkans and – to a lesser extent – Southern and Northern Europe. A dissertation with one leg in Central Europe and a leg rotating between “peripheral” European historiographies invites a reconsideration of European history’s master narratives. It is also a novel synthesis, complemented by original research, of social and economic histories that these master narratives often leave out. The result is an account of modernity as experienced by as many Europeans as possible: not in London, Paris, and Berlin but also in Budapest, Warsaw, and Belgrade.