Simon Jenkins's new history of Europe is peppered with counter-intuitive takesby Zoe Apostolides / October 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
War and peace, strife and stability: these are the patterns chartered through Simon Jenkins’s new investigation of Europe’s past, which ranges from the Minoan civilisations of 2500BC to the EU referendum vote in June 2016—and beyond. Jenkins takes the long view because, as he argues, “history acquires meaning only if we can see effect following cause over time.” Along the way he builds an engrossing aerial view of a continent now home to nearly 750m people.
He explains how Europe has grappled over the centuries with disparate identities, complex power structures and the troubled relations between its composite nations. Though much of the action deals with human exploits—aristocracies, oligarchies, tyrannies and democracies—natural disasters are shown to play just as large a part in shaping Europe. The Minoan empire, for example, was ultimately extinguished after a volcanic eruption on the isle of Thera (present-day Santorini) in 1630BC.
Jenkins, a former editor of the Times and now a newspaper columnist, is by no means the first to tackle such a narrative, but this is an ambitious work that maintains a relentless momentum. Peppered throughout are counter-intuitive takes: the Vikings, who traditionally receive a bad press, threw “a girdle of enterprise” round the continent’s coastlines, leading to a “mobile and aggressive dynamic” in trade and commerce.
Given the violent history of the 20th century, it appears a miracle that any sort of “collective, continental consciousness” exists at all in the form of the European Union. His hope is that this “imperfect trading bloc” could evolve into a “multi-tiered, multivalent confederacy. There will be zones within zones, each with a bespoke relationship with the rest.” Jenkins says the future will be messy: the UK’s Brexit wrangling represents a return to its “historical detachment.” But the continent, as he shows, has dealt with harder challenges.
A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin by Simon Jenkins (Viking, £25)