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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I could have sworn that the Lincoln City striker was my dustman...

Watching a game on tenterhooks to see if the manager picks his nose.

Too busy thinking about other things, so didn’t at first realise that I was witnessing possibly the greatest event in the history of civilisation. Or since 1863, when the FA was formed.

I had tuned in to watch Burnley v Lincoln City for the pleasure of seeing if the former’s manager, Sean Dyche, is ever going to pick his nose in public. His hand goes up to his nose every 30 seconds, gives it a rub, then when he’s about to start poking around inside, he thinks better of it, only to start again a minute later. He clearly can’t help it – it’s a nervous tic, which all managers have, though some hide it better.

Then I started studying the Lincoln team, none of whose phizogs, mannerisms or walks I know. By this stage in the season, I am pretty familiar with every regular Premier player, having grown accustomed to his face, his smile, his ups and downs. When it’s a Cup match with a team from a lower division, in this case a non-League team, the players are strangers. I would not recognise any of them in my porridge.

Then I saw someone I swore was our dustman, large and beefy, with Bobby Charlton hair. I thought he must have wandered on to the pitch from the burger bar – but, no, he was a Lincoln forward, the 16-stone Matt Rhead. Even on the couch, cradling my Beaujolais, I could hear Burnley fans shouting, “You fat bastard.”

Lincoln’s captain was called Waterfall, another player I hadn’t come across before, one of those footballers who spend their whole life in the lower divisions, becoming local legends, if they last long enough, but completely unrecognised elsewhere.

I googled his first name, and oh, my God, it’s only Luke. Luke Waterfall, how romantic is that? Straight out of Mills & Boon. Did he assume that name when he went into show business, Lincoln City Division?

I started thinking of all the fab new names in football, a source of endless reverie when the game is dull. I’m allowed to do this when watching on my own. When watching with my son or anyone else, I impose house rules, which state that all conversation must be linked directly to what is happening on the screen.

Jesus at Man City, what a gift from, er, God for the headline writers. He arrived in January for £27m, a bargain already, especially if he continues to work miracles, har, har. It says “Jesus” on the back of his shirt. His first name is Gabriel, after the archangel, presumably. The sub-editors will have fun with him for years – “Jesus saves”, “Jesus wept”.

I remember waiting in the 1970s when the Scottish player Gerry Queen joined Crystal Palace. I knew that events would turn him into a headline. Then he got a red card: “Queen sent off at Palace”.

The all-time classic football headline was used in February 2000, when Inverness Caledonian Thistle beat Celtic 3-1. The result, one of the biggest upsets in Scottish football, led to the Sun headline

Super Caley go ballistic

Celtic are atrocious

In a lifetime of subbing, you don’t get many occasions when all the planets align so exactly.

The new names that I’ve been enjoying this season include Dunk at Brighton. Haven’t noticed him walking into a headline yet, and I can’t imagine what it will be – something to do with “Dunking donuts”, or “Dunk and disorderly”?

I’ve always liked Robert Snodgrass, now at West Ham. His name sounds so Dickensian. And Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk – wow, my Hollywood hero. Harry Winks at Spurs: what a shame he wasn’t given shirt number 40. When Jeffrey Schlupp appeared in the Leicester line-up last season, I couldn’t wait to decide if his name would fit a verb, a noun, a term of abuse, or a form of semi-sleeping, such as the way I schlupped on the sofa watching Burnley v Lincoln.

Then, blow me, I was wakened violently from my reveries. Just before the end, Lincoln scored – making them the first non-League team to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals in 103 years. And I was watching, sort of . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit