9 December, 2013Issue 23.5EuropeHistory

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Uneven Histories

Edward Hicks

Simms Brendan Simms
Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013
720 pages
ISBN 978-0713994278

Noted historian of 19th-century Germany and 18th-century Anglo-European relations, Brendan Simms has written a weighty tome appropriate to this present era of German hegemony in Europe. Covering over half a millennium, from Mehmed II’s capture of Constantinople to the Eurozone crisis and the Arab Spring, Simms posits Germany “as the semi-conductor linking the various parts of the European balance” throughout this entire period. This is a political and diplomatic history, with barely any mention of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment.

In an age when Angela Merkel is seen as the most powerful European leader, and Germany both praised and condemned across Europe for its economic success at home and firm commitment to austerity abroad, this interpretation inevitably connects the past and the present. Simms has not just written a history of Europe. He incorporates Russia and America, arguing that even the supposedly isolationist America of the 19th and early 20th centuries was inexorably bound up with events in Europe. Nor does Simms equate Germany’s centrality with German strength. Indeed, the weakness of this geographical entity throughout most of the time period was as important to disrupting the European balance of power as was its subsequent strength. The prime examples cited are the Emperorship of Charles V, the Thirty Years’ War, the ambitions of Louis XIV, and the French revolutionaries’ desire to secure the ecclesiastical Imperial states on their eastern border which led to the Revolutionary War of 1792. Simms’s thesis, however, involves an unfortunate equation of the Holy Roman Empire with Germany. It is by this means that he incorporates the Low Countries into his thesis, thereby strengthening the case for German impact on England and later Britain. Certainly before the union with Hanover it was this area that, as Simms notes, was called “the very counter-scarp of England” (that is, the defences just outside the inner perimeter), and which was most significant to England, encouraging both the Elizabethan assistance of the Dutch revolt and the intervention a century later against Louis XIV.

The main part of the book is written chronologically. However, Simms takes some time to warm up. Given the centrality of Germany, it is unclear why the narrative begins in 1453. Simms tangentially connects the date with both the “ending” of the Hundred Years War, which resulted in a French victory at Castillon over the English, and Mehmed’s capture of Constantinople. But the effects of these events were slow moving—France did not immediately invade the Holy Roman Empire but struggled to ensure internal security against the Dukes of Burgundy, and its next major expansionist move, in 1494, was not against Germany but Italy. Similarly the Ottoman threat subsided with Mehmed’s death, not returning until the 1520s when Suleiman the Magnificent advanced westwards. Stylistically, moreover, the opening chapter, covering the period 1453 to 1648, lacks the smooth chronological account Simms gives in later chapters. The narrative flicks back and forth through time in a confusing way as Simms endeavours to cover too much history in too short a chapter. It therefore comes as a relief when Simms concentrates on a straightforwardly linear account. In later chapters Simms also refreshingly eschews the normal historical landmarks (1776, 1789, 1815, 1871, and 1945), instead moving from one chapter to another at a date normally slightly before the famous one. The compression of events in the first chapter is also the result of the book’s heavy weighting towards recent events. By the middle page of the text (page 267), we have already reached the 1890s. This is doubly regrettable because Simms does such a marvellous job of describing events after 1648. It is possible that Simms’s central thesis is not very applicable to this earlier period, excepting the events of the Thirty Years’ War. The main battleground of the Habsburg-Valois struggle in the early 16th century was in Italy, whilst there was comparative peace in the German core of the Holy Roman Empire from the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 to the Defenestration of Prague in 1618.

Simms’s greatest achievement lies in his careful selection and provision of interesting information that helps widen the perspective on established historical events. Our understanding of European history and such notable figures as Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England is enhanced by the attention focused on the Imperial election of 1519, eventually won by Charles V. By emphasising American concerns about British influence in Texas in the 1840s and German influence in Mexico in the 1910s, Simms internationalises American concerns in an era in which they have generally been viewed as introspective. This represents an extension of his previous work, Three Victories and a Defeat, which argued that 18th-century British foreign policy was firmly fixated on Europe, as opposed to the “Atlantic” world beyond. And at times Simms can go too far. He claims that the English Civil War began in 1642 because of Stuart failure to intervene in the Thirty Years’ War in the early 1620s. But much happened between 1620 (when the Habsburgs invaded Bohemia and ejected James I’s son-in-law and daughter) and the outbreak of war in 1642—notably the English interventions against Catholic France (1627-9) and Spain (1625-30) and the personal rule of Charles I.

In antithesis to this highlighting of neglected facts and thought-provoking interpretations are several curious historical mistakes which are frequent enough to become annoying. He claims that the Dutch made a separate peace with Louis XIV in August 1674 which guaranteed their independence, presumably confusing this either with France’s strategic evacuation of Dutch territory in that year or with the Anglo-Dutch peace of February 1674. Similarly, the French Directory is ignored and Napoleon invested with supreme power in France in 1798; America credited with victory in the War of 1812 with Simms somehow overlooking the burning of Washington; the successful Brusilov offensive of 1916 (under the Tsarist regime) is strangely conflated with the failed Kerensky offensive of 1917; and Woodrow Wilson is described as having been “worsted” in the 1920 US Presidential election, when in fact he was unable to participate after being incapacitated by a stroke.

These virtues and vices of Simms’s work are on most obvious display in the final two chapters, which deal with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the War on Terror, the financial crisis and the growth of the European Union. Though it is strangely pleasant to read about events which have happened in one’s own lifetime as “history”, and though Simms’s great attention to detail must be appreciated, these chapters exhibit the biggest problem with very modern history: the loss of any sense of perspective. Without context, it becomes impossible to isolate significant events from those of passing prominence. For example, the current lauding of Germany may pass away as quickly as the praise for the Anglo-American model that dominated the previous decade. Furthermore, political judgements become unavoidable. Objectivity for an historian is always difficult, but next to impossible with respect to present events. This is demonstrated in the questions which form the core of Simms’s concluding chapter—questions concerned with the future of Europe. They are phrased in a way that clearly favours Simms’s preferred model of a more democratic European Union. Commenting on the Irish referendums which initially rejected the Nice and Lisbon treaties and the Franco-Dutch rejection of the EU constitution, Simms acknowledges the democratic deficit problem faced by the European Union. He writes of the latter: “European publics saw no compelling economic or strategic reason to give up their sovereignty and the ‘European’ ideal as such did not have sufficient traction to provide the missing dynamic.”

Yet he goes on to argue that the existing European Union is merely the equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire, whereas a successful Europe needs to follow the example of the Anglo-American legislative and economics unions of the 18th century. The reasons why Europeans might not want closer union—the differences in history, language, culture, economic and social systems, residues of national pride, and so on—are not really explored. But to assume, as Simms seems to, that the problem facing the European Union is merely that of selling the European project more effectively and of making Britain and Germany realise that their true interests lie in selflessly embracing the rest of Europe, is naive and sure to fail from the outset. This history of Europe, as with any history of Europe, may ostensibly appear to remind us that there is as much that divides Europeans as unites them; but whether that diversity is strengthening or weakening, it is unmistakably European.

Edward Hicks is reading for a DPhil in History at St Anne’s College, Oxford.