“The fundamental issue has always been whether Europe would be united – or dominated – by a single force: the Universal Monarchy attributed to Charles V, Phillip II (for whom the world was ‘not enough’) and Louis XIV; the caliphate of Suleiman the Magnificent and his successors; the continental bloc which Napoleon so nearly achieved; the Mitteleuropa of Imperial Germany; Hitler’s ‘Thousand Year’ Reich; the socialist utopia espoused by the Soviet Union; and the democratic geopolitics of NATO and the European Union today. In each case the central area of contention was Germany; because of its strategic position in the heart of Europe, because of its immense economic and military potential and – in the Early Modern period – because of the political legitimacy which its imperial title conferred.” (530-1)
Brendan Simms’ powerhouse historical exploration of the European power struggles from 1453 (the fall of Constantinople) through present day (ending at about 2011) is an impressive and comprehensive work. Weighing in at a hefty 534 pages, it oddly feels slim in its ability to cover nearly 560 years of history through engaging writing and a consistent thematic vision. Of course at this digestible length there are limitations in the book’s scope, but we all must recognize that a truly comprehensive history of such a broad time period and diverse geographic and political landscape could easily require thousands and thousands of pages to capture all the nuances of European history. Simms manages to provide an engaging analysis of such a broad time period through a focused vision that rarely digresses from what he aims to illuminate about European history.
As noted by the passage I’ve quoted from the conclusion above, that vision is focused on the Germanic influence upon Europe’s historical struggle for supremacy. From the disjointed states that comprised the Holy Roman Empire through the present-day economic power center of the European Union, Simms argues that the region and peoples that comprise present day Germany has managed to be in the center of all struggles for power in European history. Of course, this focus on the Germanic influence throughout European history and power struggle does lend itself towards a tendency to make light of the countless nation states, ethnicities, and cultural diveristy that make up the broader European continent, but Simms manages to acknowledge that his focus on the big struggles are necessary to maintain sight of the grand thematic vision of the history presented here. This isn’t a perfect summary of European history, but Simms manages to avoid the fault of seeking perfection by remaining focused on his vision.
Since the German region is the birthplace of Lutheran Protestantism, the center of Republican Liberalism within Europe, the founding inspiration for Marxist socialism, the Bismark imperialism, Nazi utopianism, and present day economic powerhouse, Simms’ argues that not only is its geographic location politically significant for European power struggles, the region has had a longstanding culture impact that has influenced the continent for better or worse through the ages. This German lense on European history does appear fanatical at times, because a well learned reader will recognize that that there is a danger toward geopolitical revisionism in lending so much weight to the Germanic influence upon European geopolitics. However this perspective does provide a lot of intriguing ideas for consideration. Prior to this reading most of my understanding of European history has been presented through the lense of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, Britain’s obvious influence upon the development of the United States and of course the major World Wars of the 20th century, and of course that is a vision of history told through a very American influenced perspective. Simms’ Europe provides a grand vision of the continent’s history that attempts to transcend prior understandings of what drives the continental power struggles.
Although Simms does consistently circle back to the question of Germanic influence, by no means does he ignore the many conflicting powers of the Ottoman Empire, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Britain, France, Russia, and even the United States once it arises on the scene. Europe’s history is certainly complex, with a multitude of conflicts for power and supremacy, but Simm’s book manages to portray the entangling conflicts as a consistent story, with each conflict affecting and building up to the next. Throughout the book, there is a lot of name dropping of Kings, Queens, Sultans, Generals, Dukes, Princes, Chancellors, Generals, and so on and not all of them live in common knowledge, but Simms aptly expresses the importance and influence of each one clearly.
This text manages to clearly depict the many reasons that led up to French Revolution and why it was so distinct from the American sister revolution and how Napoleon’s rise to empirical supremacy swept the continent. The development of the German Federation in the latter half of the 19th century and the multitude of continental treaties for peace was depicted with drum beats of the impending world war that would come sixty years on. From Simms’ telling, these continental collaborations were always met with a rationale to build areas of buffer from neighboring empirical influence, for instance Napoleon swept over the German lowlands to protect France from Russia, and Germany was always at caution from Russian and French encroachment upon her people’s lands. With Simms’ narrative approach to European history, the second world war appears as unfinished business from the first with Hitler rising to power out of advantage to the global depression, rather than simply an outcome of Hitler’s distorted utopian vision. With the fall out of the second world war, the continent was left with a power vacuum only to be supplanted by American capitalism and Soviet communism with the division of Germany through the Berlin wall as the ultimate symbol of the importance of the region for supremacy in the continent. These events I’ve discussed above are of course the momentous events that are at the forefront of all of our understanding of Europe. I mention them hoping not to diservice Simms’ ability to tie the progress of history together in a consistent story of interdependence that is convincing and engaging.
Probably my major complaint with this book is its lack of maps. There are only a total of eight maps in the entire book and they are all located at the beginning of the book. The first 200 years of history references several smaller states that no longer exist since they have been subsumed into larger nations, and since I wasn’t all too familiar with the European history of 1453-1700, it would have been helpful to have maps readily available throughout the text to provide the geographical context for this time period. Despite this drawback, I really enjoyed this book as an introduction to the big world events that have defined the European continent. However, I am fully aware of the limitations of such a focused vision of the history that defines the vastly broad, diverse, and rich European continent. Simms’ Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present is definitely worth consideration as focused perspective on the influence of the German lowlands upon the politics, culture and national boundaries of all of Europe.