Axis of empires

Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present, by Brendan Simms, Allen Lane, RRP£30/Basic Books, RRP$35, 720 pages

When a proponent of German colonialism in Africa called on Otto von Bismarck in 1888 with a stack of expansion plans, the ageing chancellor inspected them with a sceptical eye and said: “My map of Africa lies in Europe. Here is Russia and here is France and we are in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”

Brendan Simms cites this anecdote as an example of how, for about five centuries, the geopolitical imagination of European monarchs, statesmen and generals framed most global events in terms of the impact on their own continent. Battles, economic opportunities and the conquest of new worlds in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australasia were all, in the end, largely about the struggle for power in Europe, Simms contends. “Whoever controlled central Europe for any length of time controlled Europe, and whoever controlled all of Europe would ultimately dominate the world.”

Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy is a stimulating, impressive history that starts with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and extends to the present day – a time, Simms says, when the question of whether Europe evolves into a closer union or remains a loose confederation of nation states will be decided primarily in Germany. Today, the centrality of Europe to global affairs is, of course, not what it was: two world wars, the end to the cold war, which permitted Germany’s peaceful unification, and the explosive economic growth of the Asia-Pacific region have taken care of that.

Nonetheless, from Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic in 1492 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the history of the world turned more often than not on Europe’s great power rivalries, imperial adventures, religious and political ideas, scientific breakthroughs, industrialisation and cultural sway. In a book that stretches over such a vast expanse of time, two challenges face the author. One is not so much which dates, events and overviews of longer-term trends to include as which to exclude. Simms serves us little in the way of cultural, economic, religious and scientific history, but piles our plates high with diplomacy, warfare and, to a lesser extent, the domestic politics of the leading European states: England (or, after 1707, Britain), France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Spain.

‘Seated Portrait of Emperor Charles V’ by Titian (1548)

The second challenge is how to imbue a book containing a mass of material with a coherent theme, or themes. Here is where the author’s expertise as professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge university comes into play. For two arguments thread his book together. First, the struggle for power in Germany holds the key to understanding Europe’s history, at least since the age of Charles V, who ruled the Holy Roman Empire – roughly speaking, modern Germany – from 1519 to 1556. Second, it was the unstable international context and the foreign policies pursued by ambitious and insecure European states that, until the 1990s, exerted the decisive influence on their internal evolution.

These arguments are perspicacious and flexible enough to encompass the diversity of European experience. For instance, frequent warfare and the danger of subjection to France or Spain pushed 17th-century England and the United Provinces (today’s Netherlands) towards political pluralism and the development of recognisably modern state financial practices. But in Prussia and Sweden the pressure of war had quite different consequences, driving the creation of what Simms calls a “fiscal-military state”. The militarisation of state and society in Prussia, which united Germany under its leadership after three wars between 1864 and 1870, was to have baleful consequences for Europe, and indeed the world, in the first half of the 20th century.

Sometimes the facts do not quite fit Simms’s overarching arguments. It seems an exaggeration to state that the English civil war of the 1640s “was in its essence a revolt against Stuart foreign policy” – as if the struggle had no domestic religious, constitutional, social or economic causes. The same goes for the 1830 and 1848 French revolutions, for which Simms constructs explanations that pass too hastily over domestic policy failures of the fallen regimes.

Other passages, however, demonstrate the value of Simms’s approach. He rightly reminds us that the Nazi party achieved its momentous electoral breakthrough in September 1930 less because of the gathering economic crisis of Weimar Germany than because of the Nazis’ stridency on foreign policy issues – that is, rearmament and Germany’s deeply resented reparation payments to its enemies of 1914-18. Equally, the crumbling of communism in the 1980s owed something to the human rights clauses of the east-west Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which settled Europe’s borders but also inspired democratic oppositionists in the Soviet bloc, such as Václav Havel and Lech Walesa. As Simms recalls, Henry Kissinger, the mastermind of US foreign policy, poured scorn on the Helsinki act, saying it might as well have been written in Swahili. He was too cynical.

One reservation some readers will have about Simms’s book is that, though it considers Europe in its entirety, the only primary and secondary sources on which it draws are in English and German. This reflects the author’s specialist fields of knowledge: he has published extensively over two decades on Germany, as well as Britain and its empire, in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, it perhaps explains some of the book’s less balanced judgments. To describe France in the 1870s as “the most highly militarised society in Europe” is surely wide of the mark: what about Germany, which had just annexed Alsace-Lorraine from France, not to mention Russia?

Errors creep into the accounts of Soviet and post-Soviet history. Simms seems unaware that Alexei Adzhubei, the late editor of Izvestiya, was the son-in-law, not son, of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The first Chechen war in the post-communist era started in December 1994, not December 1995 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was in 2004, not 2005.

The book is nevertheless an excellent read and its insights into the grand themes of European history are penetrating and lucidly argued. Europeans have only really experienced unity, Simms says, in the face of enormous threats such as those posed by Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin after 1945. Today there are no such threats – Vladimir Putin or militant Islam hardly fit the bill. The dream of unity has not faded. But its fulfilment is anything but a foregone conclusion.

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor

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