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 plot is the “struggle for mastery,” a term borrowed from AJP Taylor, and not a bad one. In the author’s words: “The fundamental issue has always been whether Europe would be united—or dominated—by a single force” —from Charles V of Spain via Napoleon to Hitler and Stalin. The permanent arena of hegemonic strife was Germany in its many-hued guises: “because of its immense economic and military potential.” Germany “has also been the cockpit of the European ideological struggle”—from the religious wars to the cold war.
Should Simms be quite as Germanocentric? It’s true that the blurry landmass between the rivers Rhine and Vistula, known as the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” until 1806, was the fulcrum of Europe’s strategic balance. But as an old saw has it, this strange creature was none of the above: neither holy, nor Roman, nor German, nor a nation. Certainly it was not a real empire with real power. Prey rather than predator, it was the locale, not the engine of great-power conflict. The German philosopher Leibniz had it right when he complained in 1670: “The Empire…is the ball which [the powers] toss to one another, the battlefield on which the struggle for mastery in Europe is fought.”
So, who did the struggling? Some 500 years ago, the nation-state—make that “dynastic nation-state”—began to bestride the European stage as the most muscular and dynamic actor. Unified by royal conquest and defined ever more by language, ethnicity and recognisable borders, England, France and Spain proved best-equipped to play the game of expansion. So were the nation-states that pushed onstage later: Prussia-Germany, Russia and the United States. Meanwhile, empires kept dying. The first world war killed the Wilhelmine, Ottoman, Romanov and Habsburg empires; Britain’s and France’s went after the second world war.
Once the theme is “mastery,” the “balance of power” cannot be far behind. “Mastery” shouts: “more for myself!”, but “balance” growls: “never!” For those who dimly remember 16th and 17th-century Europe as a religious abattoir—Popists decimating Protestants, Islam besieging Vienna—Simms offers a salutary lesson in realpolitik, which is another word for the “balance of power.” Francis I of France (1515—47) had no qualms about enlisting the Ottomans against his arch-enemy Charles V, the “Most Catholic” ruler of Spain. Francis did not mind having the “infidel” on his side if that enabled him to “undermine the Emperor’s power… and to secure all other governments against so powerful an enemy.”
Similarly, the thirty years war, which claimed one-third of central Europe’s population, was a religious conflict only on the surface. In fact, it was a mortal struggle between two Catholic powers, France and Habsburg, in which both allied with Protestant states. Under Louis XIV, France once more played the Turkish card against Christian Europe. Time after time, power and interest trumped ideology, most dramatically in the two world wars, when the democracies fought side-by-side with despots both dynastic and Bolshevik.
Bundling national narratives—the stuff we learned in school—into a European saga, Simms also reminds us that the stage has always been a global one. Striking out across the oceans, the great powers fought for booty and turf to finance their wars on the European battlefield. When the flow of Latin American gold and silver dwindled, so did Spanish power in the 17th century. Yet, Simms fails to stress an opposite causal link, with colonial conflict triggering war on the home front.
The prime example is the seven years war, erupting in Europe in 1756. Europeans are wont to ignore that it had started two years earlier in North America, where it is known as “French and Indian War.” Fighting for colonial control, the British and French began to cast around for allies in Europe. Britain snagged Prussia while France recruited Austria, Russia, Spain and Sweden. What began in North America became the original first world war, prosecuted on both sides of the Atlantic, in India, West Africa, South America and on the high seas. When it was over, French and Spanish power in North America was broken, and the world became English, in Niall Ferguson’s words.
Simms might also have stressed the enormous global consequences of this war. Americans are taught how the rapacious Brits under “Mad King George” forced them into revolt with extortionist taxation. In fact, those colonists were ingrates. Britain had saved them from the French and their Indian allies, running up a huge debt in the process. Now the proto-Americans, free-riders in modern parlance, refused to pay their fair share. We know how the story ended—with the British expelled, and their former protégés set on the road to global primacy.
In Europe, this “first world war” brought another giant-to-be onstage who had been nurtured by Britain: the Prussia of Frederick the Great. The story of Prussia highlights the age-old question of balance-of-power politics: Who opposes whom, and when? Prussia’s best asset was its army, extracted from a small population with a thoroughly modern tax and draft system. Prussia was not a state that built an army, but an army that built a state. Suddenly emerging as a great power, Prussia was bound to disturb Europe’s established order. Aptly, the Franco-Austrian alliance treaty at the outbreak of the Seven Years War pledged to reduce Frederick’s Prussia “within such boundaries that he will not in the future be able to disturb the public tranquillity.”
Frederick was soon encircled by all the great powers, except for Britain. This was the “nightmare of coalitions” that would torture Germany for the next two centuries. To dispel it, the “Hun” fell for the cult of the offensive: don’t wait, attack first. The strategy worked nicely at first, but brought about precisely the global coalitions that stopped Germany in the 20th century. Frederick, though, was saved by good luck and British subsidies. Instead of repaying the favour, his heirs went after Albion in both world wars, with Britain barely holding on. Supposedly the master of the European balance, Britain made the same mistake— ignoring the real threat—twice more.
Britain miscalculated its interests again in the 19th century when it held the ring for Bismarck while he defeated Denmark, Austria and France—and conquered Germany, to boot. Britain’s former protégé had become a supersized Prussia—the “Second Reich” that was too big for Europe, but too small to dominate it. An ancient distribution of power was unhinged, and the long fuse to the first world war was lit.
Britain blundered a third time after 1919, when it pulled back from the Continent, ignoring the resurgence of Germany until it was too late to stop Hitler. Like the British empire, German primacy was acquired in successive fits of British absentmindedness. It took the United States and Soviet Russia, Europe’s great flanking powers, to defang Germany as a threat to Europe’s “public tranquillity.”
So, as the rise of Germany shows, when it came to the classic question of balance-of-power politics—who goes after whom, and when?—Britain got the answer wrong three times. This said, the starring role in the “struggle for mastery” should still go to Britain, and not to the “Holy Roman Empire,” as Simms seems to think. Equilibria don’t arise spontaneously; they need an organiser who recruits and maintains anti-hegemonic alliances. Henry VIII was the first to make the point with his maxim Cui adhaero praeest—“prevail shall those whom I support.” By 1577, his daughter Elizabeth was the “Umpire betwixt the Spaniards, the French, and the Estates,” gushed an admiring chronicler. “France and Spain are… the Scales in the Balance of Europe, and England the Tongue or the Holder of the Balance.”
This is how Winston Churchill articulated Britain’s central tradition: “For 400 years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating power on the continent… It would have been easy… to join with the strongest and share the fruits of his conquest. However, we always took the harder course, joined with the less strong powers, made a combination among them, and thus defeated the continental military tyrant whoever he was.”
Churchill’s is the prototypical, if idealised, rendition of British grand strategy throughout the ages, which Palmerston cast into general law in 1840. It enjoined Britain to “watch attentively and to guard with care the maintenance of the Balance of Power.” Britain engineered those Continental coalitions that laid low Habsburg-Spain, the France of the Bourbons and Bonapartes, and the Germany of the Hohenzollerns and Hitlers. This narrative amends Simms’s interpretation in two ways.
One is to stress the centrality of Britain, which the author, perhaps wary of “Anglocentrism,” downplays at the risk of missing out on the difference between conductor and orchestra. Others might bang the kettle drum, but Britain held the baton. Using a second corrective lens, we might look more closely at the music sheets to distinguish between the main themes and the variations. Such a lens would reveal that the “struggle for mastery” wasn’t an inchoate free for all. Seemingly a swirling melee, the struggle was in fact a series of “dominant conflicts,” a term coined by Johns Hopkins scholar George Liska.
Masterfully blending theory and international history in his day, Liska is almost forgotten by now (and thus ignored by Simms), perhaps because the clarity of his style did not always match the brilliance of his mind. (Full disclosure: Liska was a professor of mine who taught me much of what I know about diplomatic history.) He defines a “dominant conflict” as one that would not only “raise the winner to preponderance,” but also transform the system’s “culture and structure.” So pace Palmerston and Churchill, the game wasn’t just about mechanical equililibria of power, but also about the very “constitution” of Europe.
In the crunch, realpolitik did trump ideology, “supping with the devil” sounding the basso continuo of the struggle. Yet behind the question “who shall rule?” always lurked “what shall Europe be?”—liberal or absolutist, under one God or under many? Just imagine Europe falling to Catholic Spain, the battering ram of the Counter Reformation. Or to Napoleonic tyranny, operating in the guise of national liberation. Or to Nazi/Stalinist totalitarianism. These were the ultimate stakes in the blood-drenched annals of Europe’s wars. Hence the “dominant conflict,” fuelled by both interest and ideology, makes for a more revealing perspective than the “balance of power,” a strictly mechanical concept.
Henry VIII and Elizabeth fought against not only the power, but also the ideology of Spain—Roman Catholicism with its claim to universal empire. In the course of the civil war and the Glorious Revolution, England became Europe’s first liberal state, embroiled in two parallel “dominant conflicts” against both Spain and France. These lasted for centuries, the struggle for possessions and maritime control being aggravated by the clash between absolutism and constitutionalism. In the 20th century, the “dominant conflict” was driven by Nazi Germany and communist Russia. Again, the stakes were both power and ideology, like Siamese twins.
These one-on-one contests drew and redrew Europe’s map and “constitution” for 500 years. Indeed, they defined Europe until the game changed for good. The turning point was the intrusion of the United States as protector and pacifier after the second world war. Suddenly, there was a player in the game who was stronger than the others and so sterilised fear and ambition. In this perspective, the US should be seen as the true father of the European Union. Why resume fighting within when safety was assured from without? During the cold war this enabled arch-enemies like France and Germany to link hands under the umbrella of America’s strategic might.
Five hundred years after it bestrode the stage as driver of history, the European nation state began to lose the hardest core of its raison d’être—to serve as guardian of security. To grasp this stunning transformation, it helps to highlight another factor Simms might have rendered more explicit. By way of shorthand: the nation state made war, and war made the nation state. Its competitive advantage fed expansion, and war fused state and nation. Take war out of the system, and the nation state will have to give.
Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, France under the Valois, England under the Tudors, Russia under Ivan and Peter, Germany under Bismarck and Wilhelm—their careers are uncannily alike. First, a core state conquers the nation, then it uses its new muscle to strike out beyond. In turn, war abroad favours an even stronger state at home, which eliminates competing centres of power, monopolises loyalties and dismantles barriers to economic growth. The best example is revolutionary France. Attacked by the dynastic powers for ideological reasons, it was centralised by the Jacobins who dispatched aristocrats and liberals to the guillotine. Riding the nationalist fervour, they invented the force-multiplier of universal conscription, the levée en masse, that propelled Napoleon all the way to Moscow. In Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, as well, totalitarian mobilisation was the child of war, and war was the father of the supreme state.
That bloody journey has now come to an end in a Europe both pacified and democratised. Everybody now belongs to the same (secular) church. There is little left to fuel the next “dominant conflict.” But wait! The European saga reveals yet another pattern: the hegemonist always rings twice. Charles V of Spain, who stood at the beginning of the permanent conflict with France, was followed by Philip II, him of the armada, who took on England. Louis XIV of France, was followed by Napoleon, and Kaiser Wilhelm II by Adolf Hitler. By that reckoning, Russia, defeated in the cold war, should have another go. Will it?
Simms is a historian, not a soothsayer, and so his book ends on an appropriately agnostic note—with a series of questions. But the odds are that Europe’s career as arena and wellspring of history’s most consequential wars is over. The fires of ambition and ideology have burned out, and as long as the United States remains a power in Europe, it will provide security in situ, which its in-and-out forebear Britain would not do. Britain’s grand strategy was “offshore anti-hegemonism.” As Castlereagh, the foreign secretary who managed the coalition that defeated Napolean, put it in 1820: “We shall be found in our place when actual danger menaces the system of Europe; but this country cannot, and will not, act upon… principles of precaution.”
Today, Germany—Simms’s starring actor—is again number one on the Continent, but what a difference defeat and democracy have made! Prussia is gone, and so is the warrior culture that once thrust Hitler’s panzer armies to the gates of Cairo and Moscow. Chancellor Angela Merkel deploys only currency reserves, not battle-hardened shock troops. The EU is the “Holy Roman Empire of Democratic Nations,” that has made war inside Europe inconceivable. For sure, the old contest over the “constitution” of this empire has not ended, but it is peaceable to the point of boring. The contenders are the usual suspects: Britain, France and Germany. Yet there is no “tyrant,” as Churchill had it, on the horizon—the oppression by Brussels being confined to the curvature of cucumbers or the wattage of light bulbs.
How about Europe as such becoming a great power? Well, yes, if… If it acquired the character and clout of a real nation-state, with a democratic sovereign below and a legitimate ruler on top, with a European identity and culture, with a credible army and a global vocation. Europe has none of the above. Its leader is the Brussels Commission beholden to a feeble parliament. Its default language is English, and its pop culture American. Europe is happy and secure as it is. Never in the past 500 years has it enjoyed so much tranquillity. So why budge? As Napoleon’s mother Letizia famously mused: “Pourvu que ça dure”—provided it lasts.