Since the 15th century Europe has been the bloody battleground in a continent-wide struggle for power. But today war seems a distant threat. What changed?by Josef Joffe / March 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
The battle of Pavia, 1525, at which the forces of Francis I of France were overwhelmed by those of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V © The Art Archive/Ashmolean Museum
Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present by Brendan Simms (Allen Lane, £30)
Diplomatic history—the history of interstate politics—has fallen on hard times in the academy. Half a generation ago, a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education claimed that the discipline had become boring, elitist or irrelevant. Its “corps is shrinking, losing academic prestige and tenured positions,” reported the author. After all, diplomatic history is about princes and potentates, “mainly about dead white males.” Whatever the righteous tone, the facts cannot be gainsaid. “Real history” is now bottom-up—social, gender and economic history. Chronology—who did what and when—has yielded to category: “Industrial Revolution”, “Colonial Conquest,” or “Cold War.” Classics like AJP Taylor’s Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1954) or William L Langer’s European Alliances and Alignments (1931) now look like ancient history. Departmental careers are being made from smaller bricks.
Hence the big surprise of Brendan Simms’s Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present. At 690 pages it is big in heft and ambition, sweeping across half a millennium of European history. Aficionados of the craft should cheer the arrival of Simms’s brainchild. There is nothing in the recent literature to match it. Even Paul Kennedy’s bestseller Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is now 26 years old.
Aficionados might also feel envy. Not only has Simms bitten off a huge chunk of history, he has also mastered it with style and an awe-inspiring command of the literature (the footnotes run on for almost 100 pages). He deserves a prize just for this Herculean feat of synthesis. Another one might beckon for breaking the mould of traditional, that is, state-centred, diplomatic history. The narrative weaves together grand strategy and domestic politics, economics and ideology, and the European as well as global strands of a story that is about “us”—the west with its magnificent achievements and untold cruelties. How did this 500-year story come to an end in the aftermath of the two world wars, with Europe pacified and “communalised,” fighting no longer in the trenches but over the euro and the EU budget?
To map a boundless ocean of detail, one needs a theme. Simms’s…