Reviewed: Europe - the Struggle for Supremacy by Brendan Simms

Neighbourhood watch.

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

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)