Reviewed: Europe - the Struggle for Supremacy by Brendan Simms

Neighbourhood watch.

Europe: the Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present
Brendan Simms
Allen Lane, 720pp, £30

The old Cambridge Modern History, written more than a century ago, was a splendid read. The overall editor, Lord Acton, was confident that not much more history needed to be done and Cambridge refused to institute a doctoral research degree of the German type (and gave in only in the First World War, when there was a need for US dollars that otherwise would have gone to Heidelberg or Tübingen). The emphasis was confidently on the international, diplomatic and military story – there wasn’t too much about peasants.

Brendan Simms is a fellow of Peterhouse, which in old Cambridge was the outstanding college for history, with Herbert Butterfield its presiding spirit, supported by still-read specialists on continental Europe, such as Denis Mack Smith. Simms is a natural successor to them and the spirit of the place has seeped into his unrepentantly oldfashioned, lively and erudite history of Europe since 1453.

The book is centrally concerned, rightly, with Germany, which Simms knows at first hand. Its great strength is that you are always reminded that European countries did not grow autonomously. Europe was fragmented and the fragments, in conflict, greatly affected each other’s development.

Europe is very ambitious in scope and covers successive periods in thematic chapters – “Empires, 1453-1648”, “Successions, 1649-1755”, “Revolutions, 1756-1813” and on to “Partitions, 1945-1973”, with a final section on “Democracies, 1974-2011”. The references are prodigious, multilingual and extremely useful.

I used to have fun with Turkish students quoting an article that I regarded as the ultimate in time-wasting: “Little-known aspects of the coronation of Joseph II”. I now stand corrected. The Church stopped the Holy Roman emperor Joseph II from touching the congregation for scrofula, which was alleged miraculously to disappear if a newly crowned emperor laid on hands. This was modernisation (liberalism) from below and so, once you understand the context provided by Simms, you can see that it was not such a meaningless article after all.

The popes were heroically anti-modern. Gregory XVI, in 1836, inveighed against railways and there were only two rutted and bandit-ridden roads across the Apennines in the papal states. (I also have fun with students pointing out that the last Vatican castrato survived long enough to be recorded, warbling forlornly, on one of the first gramophone discs in about 1902.) But the Habsburg rulers of Italy at that time were, by contrast, go-ahead and sensible: there was an administrative and legal liberalism at work in, for instance, Tuscany or Milan that made the Risorgimento unnecessary (and, anyway, look where that led with Mussolini).

Simms knows what he is talking about, though he is better on his home territory of the 18th century than on the 20th, where there is just too much that has to be included. Still, it is better to have a history of Europe as a whole, in this way.

You could make a case that each country is most influenced by its neighbour to the east: England by France, France by Germany, Germany by Russia (or, in the old days, Poland), in each case drawing further and further away from the Anglo-Saxon verities in which the old Cambridge historians firmly believed. Simms begins his book with a great threat from the east, the Ottoman Turks (whose own story owed much to Persia). The Ottomans gave shape to the Habsburg (Austrian) empire and you could even argue that they created it, since Hungary was forced under Habsburg protection. This made Austria only half- German and was one factor that weakened the old Holy Roman empire, which never became a centralising state such as emerged in England or, less securely, France. Simms is most drawn to the German lands, the history of which he knows inside out, and his book divides neatly into two parts – one in which Germany is fatally weak and one in which it is fatally strong:

The struggle for mastery in Germany also drove the process of internal change in Europe. Englishmen revolted against Charles I because he failed to protect Protestant German princes . . . Frenchmen broke with Louis XVI because of his alleged subservience to Austria.

Without this factor, the French Revolution would not have had its international momentum and Simms’s account of it is valuable; in so many other treatments of the same events, it is difficult to work out what is going on and why. The revolutionaries thought that ancien régime Europe was going to intervene against them in the summer of 1792 but Austria and Prussia were far more concerned with Poland, the Ottoman empire and Belgium. They were eventually goaded into a half-baked invasion of France that was easily stopped by gunfire at Valmy.

Franco-German hostilities characterised the history of the continent and these go back a long way. Initial battles occurred over Italy. Even in 1494, when the French invaded Lombardy, their point was to defeat a German emperor’s domination of the pope; 50 years later, Henry II of France captured Metz, Toul and Verdun in his “march to the Rhine”; and under Louis XIV, as a result of French efforts to seize the Rhine frontier, the adjoining German state, the Palatinate, was ravaged again and again. Alsace and Lorraine were largely taken over by the French and they remained a symbol of Germany’s prostration and ineffectiveness until 1871, when Bismarck took them back.

Simms could perhaps have talked rather more about the cultural impact of all this on Germany. In the later 18th century, reaction against the dominant Latin French led the German literati to adopt a Greek model and to devise their peculiarly cumbersome verbs-at-the-end syntax and a handwriting alphabet that included Greek letters. A century later, they were coming up with absur - dities such as “Rundfunk” (“round-spark”) to avoid saying “radio”. Perhaps this is why classical German literature is so difficult to translate.

At any rate, much of modern history can only be made sense of if you accept that Germany went ape. In the end, the problem was solved only when the US intervened. “Europe” as we recognise it today fell off the back of an American army lorry. Even the common currency was first suggested by an American, the deputy head of the office of the Marshall Plan, in 1950.

The Europe that emerged, now taking in countries such as Latvia and Croatia that once formed part of a German bloc, is not very interesting to read or write about; but it is better that than the alternatives so richly described in this book.

Norman Stone is professor of European history at Bilkent University in Turkey. His latest book is “World War Two: a Short History” (Allen Lane, £16.99)

A statue of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.