Book review: Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present by Brendan Simms

Author: Brendan Simms
Publisher: Allen Lane
Reviewed by: Tim Blanning
Price (RRP): £30

How do you write a history of Europe between the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453 and the present day without making it seem like a list of dates? The answer of Brendan Simms in his new book is both simple and brilliantly successful: take a strong thesis and argue it through from start to finish.

For him it is “the primacy of foreign policy” which is the key to understanding the continent’s history. In his firmly expressed opinion, relations between states have been the dominant influence on every aspect of human life, from economics to culture. A generation or so ago, this would have been a deeply unfashionable line to take. The fall of the Soviet empire, the resurgence of nationalism and the global ‘war against terror’ have changed all that. The time is ripe for a revival of a grand narrative of international relations and this is it.

Europe The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present

It is not just any foreign policy, however. There is a clear geographical focus here too. Simms tells us on the very first page that the principal security issues faced by Europeans over the centuries have remained remarkably constant and so has “the centrality of Germany as the semi-conductor linking the various parts of the European balance”. Whether it took the form of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the German Confederation, Bismarck’s empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, or the Federal Republic, German-speaking Europe has always been the fulcrum of continental and even world politics. As the great German philosopher Leibniz lamented in 1670: “Germany is the ball which the powers toss to one another, Germany is the battlefield on which the struggle for mastery in Europe is fought”. It was also where the major revolutionary ideologies – Protestantism, Marxism, Nazism – were born.

This approach means turning on their heads many conventional wisdoms. For example, just to take the impact of foreign affairs on insular Great Britain: parliament revolted against Charles I because he failed to protect the Protestant German princes on whom their own liberties depended; the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was undertaken to restore England’s weight in the councils of Europe; the Union with Scotland in 1707 was made to prosecute the War of the Spanish Succession – and that war then made the union; and so on.

europe map

Even at a micro-level, the same primacy applied. For example, Simms tells us that the Sacheverell riots of 1710 were motivated by foreign policy (‘Sacheverell and peace’ was the cry) and Gladstone’s defeat in 1874 was “to a very large degree” the result of the Franco-Prussian War. The same applied to overseas, for the discovery of America – Simms argues – was the result of Europe’s struggle with Islam and the American Civil War was caused by the same issue that had created the United States in the first place – territorial expansion. On the other hand, the Great Depression was not caused by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 but by the contest for supremacy in central Europe.

The analysis continues right up to the present day, about which Simms has some telling things to say. Among other matters, he points out the paradox of European integration, commenting that “the European framework designed to dilute and constrain German power has actually increased it”. He also draws attention to the ‘democratic deficit’ that afflicts the European Union, which he describes as a ‘composite democracy’, a collection of democracies but not a democracy itself. The liberation of Libya in 2011 made a mockery of the EU’s much-vaunted ‘Common Foreign and Security Policy’, while the recent global financial crisis has shown it to be lacking “solidarity, machinery and capability”.

The relentless emphasis on the primacy of foreign policy might seem reductionist, but Simms has the breadth of knowledge and clarity of vision to make his case compelling. His book is also immensely entertaining as well as instructive. There are few pages not enlivened by sharp insight, telling vignette or memorable turn of phrase. In short, this is a great book and everyone interested in European history will want to read it.

Tim Blanning is a fellow of Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge, and the author of The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 (Allen Lane)