Brutal tactics in a heavy-weight world

The Dutch Republic - The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848
July 14, 1995

The publication of these two books is an academic event. Schroeder's magisterial work is already justly acclaimed as a classic. Astonishingly wide reading in the printed primary and secondary literature of a number of countries enables Schroeder to write with great knowledge about the international relations of Europe. He writes with equal authority on all the regions of Europe, although he is clearly particularly interested in central and eastern Europe, reasonably enough given the period under study.

In addition, the book is well structured, clearly written and organised by a number of central theses. Schroeder is unusual among diplomatic historians in his openness to the theoretical perspectives offered by international relations specialists and his willingness to engage with them: I met him at an IR conference in Bloomington. Schroeder argues that it is crucial to consider international relations in terms of a systemic approach and to study the dynamics of the system and individual states as they operated within the system. He also believes it necessary to direct attention to the dominant ethos of the system. Schroeder claims that in order to pursue diplomatic objectives without major conflict, it is necessary for there to be mutual awareness and restraint, both between states and, more generally, within the system. He argues that such restraint did not pertain during the late 18th century, and that, indeed, the balance of power theme of the period served principally to destroy the interests of lesser powers by fostering the notion of equivalence of gains for the stronger. Schroeder glimpses a better world in the Congress of Vienna and its aftermath, a collective mentality that grasped the importance of common responsibility to certain standards of conduct in international relations. He then describes how this system was undermined in the mid-19th century.

As this volume will long stand deservedly as a classic and is unlikely to be matched at this length, it might be appropriate to advance some criticisms; as G. M. Young pointed out with reference to Gibbon's account of Byzantine history, "the errors of the great are more instructive than their triumphs".

Schroeder's relative neglect of military developments is one problem. He argues "that war was revolution", that the conflicts of the period were of great importance, not mere epi-phenomena, but he devotes surprisingly little attention to the military potential, development, culture, activities, and fate of the powers. This is especially marked in the case of naval developments, where readers will find much of interest in another magisterial work that appeared too late for Schroeder to note it, Jan Glete's Navies and Nations. Warships, Navies and State Building in Europe and America, 1500-1860.

Another weakness is a somewhat rushed treatment of the period 1763-87, and an accompanying lack of sureness of touch in the treatment of 18th-century international relations. This is worrying as it provides the background for Schroeder's analysis of subsequent developments. Had he read more widely on the earlier period, Schroeder might have been amused to note the degree to which his praise of new attitudes in the early 19th century had been prefigured by praise of a new, generally rational "climate of opinion" in the 1710s and 1720s based on collective security, a congress system and "the idea of the Society of Europe": Ragnhild Hatton, War and Peace 1680-1720.

Schroeder's praise of restraint follows that of 18th-century "enlightened' commentators such as the philosophes and the natural law theorists. Their viewpoints, however, only offered a partial assessment of the international relations of the period. Other than in terms of reprehensible ambition, there was scant understanding of dynamic elements in international relations, the scope of change, and the attempt by certain powerful rulers to match diplomatic developments to their growing power. Little guidance to the processes at work was offered. In terms of the public discourse of the period, it was difficult to find a rationale for aggressive action within the European system; but this can be presented as a weakness of that discourse. Those positions that were, to use an arresting modern term, not politically correct were not considered seriously. Instead, they were stigmatised in their definition as aggressive.

Any account that rests on a dichotomy, explicit or implicit, of aggression and restraint invited a treatment of history as at least in part an exemplary tale, because politics and morality are not differentiated, either on the systemic scale or more specifically. Notions such as restraint in ambition and action serve not only as analytical devices, but also as exemplifying a clear moral approach. Like Gibbon, Schroeder focuses on the virtue of prudence and the prudence of virtue, and this fortifies the moral tone of his powerful analysis.

There is of course room for many more detailed points. Is Schroeder too favourable to Leopold II or too unsympathetic to British assessments of international relations? Is the global dimension undervalued? This indeed seems to be the case, a consequence possibly both of the nature of Schroeder's task and of his particular interest in central Europe. He underrates the importance of the trans-oceanic interests and struggles of the European powers. A valuable but different perspective can be obtained from Christopher Bayly's Imperial Meridian. The British Empire and the World 1780-1830. Does Schroeder exaggerate the importance of Polish as opposed to French developments in the early 1790s? Such an approach reflects the similar perspective of T. C. W. Blanning, but it arguably underplays the wider dimensions of French developments: they had an ideological impact, not least in terms of provoking a response, far greater than those in Poland important as they were.

Part of Schroeder's triumph is that much future discussion of such issues will make far more than passing reference to his ideas and methods. It is greatly to be hoped that his book will be speedily paperbacked. Schroeder both has a truly European range and spans the gulf between history and political science. He achieves both more fully than any other scholar. Those who are expert in the subject will recognise the brilliance and the scholarship of this volume. If they do not agree with aspects of the approach and with some of the detailed conclusions, they will all benefit from this first-rate study.

Like Schroeder, Israel has produced a classic essentially organised on a narrative basis but one that makes too little allowance for alternative readings. It is as if the scale of the undertaking and the wealth of scholarship it represents is supposed to mute debate. Such was not of course the fate of the great 19th-century historians with whom Israel has been compared. Israel is especially strong on economic developments and also has an enviable ability to capture the dynamics of change in what is understandably far from a static interpretation of the period. The discussions of culture, politics, religion and society are all fluent, well-informed and reflect a more complete geographical coverage than that offered in Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches. While giving full and proper weight to the province of Holland, Israel does not neglect less prosperous and urban provinces and he is particularly interesting on the eastern borderlands of the United Provinces. Israel is a sure guide through the bitter political controversies of the United Provinces, though his assessments of such issues as the response to Louis XIV and the Patriots of the 1780s possibly fails to capture the controversial nature of such judgements.

Israel's volume is the first in a new Oxford History of Early Modern Europe that is being edited by Robert Evans. Few series could have started on such a promising note. Aside from the scholarship and fluency, the price is right: the book is too big to make paperbacking sensible and with this volume Oxford continues its recent policy of offering major works at a reasonable cost. From the pedagogic perspective, I wonder if Israel could be persuaded to produce a shorter version. Despite the clear and sensible organisation of the volume, it will be too long for most students. Yet it would be inappropriate to end on a critical note. Any scholar would be delighted to write a book of such learning, vigour and confidence. Very few indeed have done so, and no other has matched Israel on his topic.

Jeremy Black is a professor of history, University of Durham.

The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806

Author - Jonathan I. Israel
ISBN - 0 19 8730721
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £25.00
Pages - 248

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