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Donald Rayfield

How the West Won

Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present
By Brendan Simms (Allens Lane/The Penguin Press 698pp 30)

Brendan Simms made his name in 2001 with Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia, a fiery denunciation that deplored the impotence of Europe and the intellectual cowardice, if not dishonesty, of British politicians such as David Owen and Douglas Hurd, who let the Serbs shed so much blood for so long. As happens when a brilliant lecturer is rewarded with a professorship, savage indignation simmers down into a calm, even complacent acceptance of the Machiavellian principles underlying history. This makes Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy more informative than provocative, and mildly disappointing. The book fails to explore what the blurb hints at: that Europe owes its supremacy to qualities and political strategies that others, say the Chinese or Arabs, were incapable of sustaining. Perhaps no European can write of Europe's supremacy with real polemical verve. A history of Europe written by an African, an Indian or a South American might be able to inject savage indignation into the narrative.

Six hundred-odd pages are probably too few to recount the history of European state-building and state-disintegration and then to draw convincing conclusions about the processes that govern these rises and falls. Simms focuses very much on the 20th century: the first 450 years of his narrative take up no more space than the last hundred. He strips from the story almost every factor except wars, treaties and constitutions, thrones inherited and lost, and nations unified and broken up. His main interest is in the central position of Germany, not only geographically but also politically, in Europe: Germany is for Simms the victor in this struggle for supremacy, in which, up to 1918, only France was a serious contender. The reasons vary according to the century, but Simms singles out, perhaps more plausibly than his predecessors, some factors that at various times allowed the Habsburgs or Bismarck or Hitler to dominate mainland Europe. First, since the middle of the 17th century, Germans have been the only major nation to promote ethnic and linguistic unity above religious divisions, so that Protestants and Catholics could live together in a union of smaller states, reconciled by their Teutonic pride. Secondly, Simms seems to imply (the argument is made parenthetically at different points in the book) that the Germans, ruled by compromises between emperor, king or elector and some form of diet or parliament, very often had governments that could make decisions based on consultation, whereas others were either paralysed by too much delegation of power (such as the Poles by their liberum veto) or made erratic by untrammelled absolutism.

The year 1453 is not an arbitrary beginning: the Byzantine empire is finally extinct; the Turks begin knocking at the door (at first with battering rams and today with a polite tap of the knuckles); the English retire from the fray, to have a largely walk-on part in European dramas for the next five hundred years. The chessboard for Simms's great game is laid out. But the 15th century brings in other elements that ensured Europe's supremacy over the rest of the world, at least for five hundred years. First of all, Tamerlane's death ended a thousand years of invasion from the Eurasian steppes: no longer would nomadic Hephthalites, Huns, Avars, Tatars or Mongols ravage Europe. Secondly, advances in shipbuilding and navigation, as well as the abandonment by both Arabs and Chinese of overseas exploration, left the oceans open to Europeans. The consequences would strengthen western Europe to the disadvantage of eastern Europe as well as Asia. The silver of Peru that flooded into Spain, and from Spain eastwards into the Habsburg dominions, was not quantitative easing but an injection of hard currency that gave Europe unprecedented purchasing power. African slaves gave Europe the manpower that provided the cheap sugar to energise its own labour force. Simms does not dwell on the contribution of Africa and the Americas to Europe's progress and does not mention the Germans' or Belgians' African empires at all.

In Simms's account, these economic forces are very much subsidiary to less tangible ones, notably the development of European political thought and the emergence of philosophers prepared to override traditional principles and force religion to envisage a tomorrow that would differ from today. Perhaps he overestimates European primacy in this respect: the Ottomans and the Chinese during this period certainly repressed dissent and innovation more thoroughly, and to their own disadvantage, but if we assume that they were wholly self-immured we are mistaken. We have plenty of historians of Europe, but only a handful of specialists in Oriental history to point out that the viziers of Oriental sultans and emperors frequently discussed alternative approaches to their policies. Arguably, the failure of the Ottomans and Chinese to take advantage of New World imports (both quickly adopted tobacco, but even the Ottomans took a century to accept maize and tomatoes) was not the most trivial reason for Europe's rise.

What distinguishes Europe from other centres of political power, of course, and what makes its history so difficult to summarise, is that, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was a fluctuating medley of states without even a language in common. Part of the struggle for European dominance has been the struggle to impose a lingua franca, and one curious factor is that this lingua franca, at first French and today English, is not necessarily the language of the nation militarily or economically most powerful. In the 1940s, in occupied Paris, the most senior and rabid Gestapo officers took pride in speaking good French; as I write, Germany's president, Joachim Gauck, has just called upon the European Union to adopt English as its common language. There are many supremacies, cultural, military and economic, and some of them shift from one nation to another without attracting notice, let alone armed conflict.

The best historians make lousy prophets, and any history subtitled '...to the Present' is giving hostages to fortune. In his last chapter, Simms acknowledges this: he offers a series of questions instead of prognostications, but his questions imply a dim view of Europe's present political viability, very much as his book on Bosnia did. Unity, he says, comes only when an outside threat presents itself. (This we may doubt, when we think of Pope Boniface VIII welcoming the Mongols in 1300, or France in the 16th century treating the Ottomans as a stick to beat the Habsburgs.) Today's perceived external threats vary from Putin's reconstitution of the USSR to China's continuing economic dominance and resource-grabbing in Africa. In no case is there likely to be a unified response, even from the Eurozone. Militarily, again and again, Europe has proved itself incapable of mounting any coherent intervention. Even under American leadership, the British (whom Simms still regards as the greatest of Europe's armed forces, even though the British army is now no larger than Greece's) has proved ineffectual in Basra or Helmand. Economically, Europe is stagnant. This particular Green-ish reviewer is content to live in a part of the world that is losing its capacity to kill more people and consume more resources, but Europe's politicians and, evidently, historians are not.

True, there is something embarrassing about a European Union that has Catherine Ashton instead of Metternich, or Herman Van Rompuy instead of Charles V, a unique superstate that politically amounts to far less than the sum of its parts: 'Who do I ring when I want to speak to Europe?' complain the Americans and Chinese. But look on the bright side: what other state could have managed a project such as the reunification of Germany with so few traumas? And Europe has for the first time in recorded history managed nearly seventy years without a significant international war (let us, as before, ignore Bosnia).

Simms has so much story to tell that he cannot describe patterns in detail, or anchor his passing judgements. He is hampered by the fact that nearly all his sources are German and British. Nobody, except perhaps Norman Davies, can be expert in all Europe's histories and languages, but the 'bit players' of central Europe and the fringes (Turkey and Russia in particular) are too often overlooked. Simms's history is like Mercator's projection: it doubles the size of large objects.


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Donald Rayfield, Emeritus Professor of Russin and Georgian at Queen Mary, University of London, is the author of Stalin and his Hangmen. His most recent book is Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia. He has recently translated two novels by the Georgian author Otar Chiladze.


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