Cockpit of the West: The ceaseless efforts by European nations to dominate their rivals shaped the modern world. Jeffrey Collins reviews Brendan Simms's "Europe."
By Jeffrey Collins, Wall Street Journal
The modern practice of history was an invention of 19th-century Germany. Its godfather, the rock-ribbed Leopold von Ranke, spurned belles-lettristic history in favor of archival research. Rankean “historical positivism” aspired to value-free objectivity. Its cornerstone was the high political narrative of nation-states, particularly their diplomacy and wars. “To history,” Ranke wrote in his first book, “has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: it wants only to show what actually happened.”
20th-century academic fashion gradually eroded the Rankean project, and in today’s modish and heavily theoretical universities, military or diplomatic historians—where they survive—are themselves regarded as virtual artifacts. Who needs high political narrative when there are subalterns to study, patriarchies to expose and traditions to deconstruct? The objective fact went out with the tweed jacket.
These scholarly trends are implicitly rebuked by Brendan Simms’s prodigious “Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy From 1453 to the Present.” If postmodern scholarship has Ranke spinning in his grave, Mr. Simms’s book will give his weary soul some rest. It offers an unreconstructed geopolitical history of the European state system, running from the Wars of the Roses through the War on Terror. In its pages whole empires rise and fall. The Ottomans march to the gates of Vienna twice; Silesia is seized three times and Poland partitioned four. There are three treaties of London and four treaties of Paris. There is a Thirty Years’ War, a Nine Years’ War, a Seven Years’ War and a “second” Hundred Years’ War.
The author analyzes hundreds of battles, congresses and diplomatic disputes with a manner of cool factuality. But his vast narrative is impervious to social or cultural history. The Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, Romanticism and modernism: These movements of the mind are ground to a rubble beneath the crisscrossing war machines that, in Mr. Simms’s telling, made modern European history. This is the history of Richelieu, Metternich and Kissinger, not of Luther, Newton and Beethoven.
Such a summary may sound arid, but “Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy” is anything but. In fact, it draws the reader forward with its grand epic of shifting alliances, clashing armies and ambitious statecraft. Mr. Simms, a fellow of Cambridge University, is a skilled writer with a rare gift for compressed analysis. His focus on the military and diplomatic arc of European history lends his book a strong narrative line and thematic coherence. Patterns emerge that might have remained buried in a more various survey.
Europe covers roughly 7% of the land mass of Earth, but by 1800 it ruled 35% of the globe and by 1914 a staggering 84%. This imperial predominance, however, is not the “struggle for supremacy” that interests Ms. Simms. He is concerned with the ceaseless efforts of various European nations to dominate the Continent itself. His book is thus an unapologetically internal history. However important the legacy of overseas empire may seem, he argues, European states were chiefly consumed with the balance of power on their home turf. “The fundamental issue,” he writes, “has always been whether Europe would be united—or dominated—by a single force.”
The threat of a “universal monarchy” advanced and receded like the tide across the centuries. In the 16th century it rose in the colossal Holy Roman Empire of Charles V, which encompassed the German lands, the Low Countries, Spain and Spain’s American empire. Other aspirants included the Ottoman Turks, the expansionist France of the “Sun King” Louis XIV, Napoleon’s French Empire and Bismarck’s German one, czarist Russia, and the Third Reich. Again and again the glittering prize of European hegemony tempted the great powers. Again and again a kaleidoscope of lesser powers coalesced to humble their ambition, but only at a wretched cost in blood and treasure.
For Anglophones, European history is too often reduced to the history of Britain and France, the great Atlantic rivals that colonized North America. Our histories tend to minimize the German-speaking lands that dominate Central Europe. Germany cohered as a nation-state only in the latter 19th century, and we usually sketch out German history as a compressed tale of imperial aggression running from Bismarck to Hitler. Before this, the German lands were fragmented into dozens of polities of various sizes, all dominated by the ramshackle federalist monarchy derided by Voltaire as “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” The sheer complexity of this history tends to defeat our curiosity.
Mr. Simms argues—and here again we feel the ghostly satisfaction of Ranke—that the convoluted history of Germany must be the narrative spine of any worthwhile history of Europe. Germany, he writes, “was the semi-conductor linking the various parts of the European balance.” The German lands sprawl across Europe, boasting the population and riches of a great power but encircled by ever-shifting political borders rather than sheltering coastlines and mountain ranges. For centuries, Europe struggled to prevent the rise of this potential behemoth or to buffer it when it began to stir. Poland, the Rhineland and other luckless territories situated between Germany and its rivals became perpetual war zones.
Mr. Simms’s case for the enduring strategic pre-eminence of Germany is occasionally reductive, but it is more true than not. The French constantly rallied to the “liberties” of the minor German states in order to rein in Habsburg ambition. Russian czars and communists alike feared German expansion, whether spearheaded by the Habsburgs, the Prussian Hohenzollerns or the Nazis. German states were vital to the succession of anti-French coalitions forged by Britain during the 18th century, when Edmund Burke characterized Germany as “that region which touches and must influence every other.”
The narrative in “Europe: That Struggle for Supremacy” reaches a pivot point in the 1860s, the age of Lincoln and Bismarck, when the coming powers of the United States and Germany experienced violent national unifications. To an extent often forgotten, supposedly isolationist Americans remained obsessed with ensuring a balance of power in Europe and with rebuffing German efforts to make a client state of Mexico. The world wars would settle that rivalry, but even Cold War geopolitics, according to Mr. Simms, remained fixated on preserving a divided Germany and containing its slumbering power.
All this history sets up Mr. Simms’s canny discussion of the grand project of European integration. In his telling, the pan-European Union of the 1920s, the abortive European Defense Community and the Common Market of the 1950s, and the current European Union have been dominated by the question of German power. The French viewed European integration as a way of entangling Germany in federalist coils. Euro-skeptics such as Margaret Thatcher, by contrast, feared a unified Europe dominated by Germany. A unified Germany at the heart of a unified Europe tended to please Washington but alarm Moscow, Warsaw and other eastern capitals with long memories.
In 1990, Germany assuaged anxieties about its reunification by promising to join the common European currency. “The German Mark was to be sacrificed as the price for ending the partition of Germany,” Mr. Simms writes. But as his narrative moves into the current European debt crisis, the inability of the “European framework” to “constrain German power” becomes ever clearer. A common currency nourished German manufacturing wealth, and common interest rates enabled the stagnant economies of southern Europe to assume catastrophic debt. Now, with the punch bowl dry, German wealth is all that stands between these weak sisters and the tender mercies of the international bond markets. But bailouts come with strictly dictated terms, as unemployed Greeks and Spanish pensioners are discovering. Chancellor Angela Merkel pays the piper and calls the tune.
The European Union, argues Mr. Simms with grim cogency, has been exposed as a grossly undemocratic project devised by a lordly managerial class. Cosmopolitan in aspiration, it is “dependent on national government support, especially from Germany.” He pitilessly chronicles the fecklessness of European foreign policy and the ruinous failures of the common currency. The former problem has been exacerbated by German “military abstinence” and the latter by Germany’s cultivation of its own economic ascendancy.
It remains an open question, Mr. Simms concludes, whether the European Union will prove the last gasp of a once-great civilization in its “dotage.” He makes a powerful case that Berlin will largely determine the matter. The “German question is back,” Mr. Simms’s writes. Readers of his book will feel the full historical weight of that assertion.
– Mr. Collins is a professor of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.