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

Roger Morgan on the interwoven histories of European nations over six centuries

June 20, 2013

Anyone not clear about the distinction between “diplomatic” and “international” history might compare Brendan Simms’ exciting book with one bearing a similar title, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918, by A. J. P. Taylor, published in 1954. Taylor’s is a masterpiece of diplomatic history: although he pays due attention to the fluctuating strengths and weaknesses of the European powers, his main focus is on the moves of statesmen on the diplomatic chessboard. Simms’ kind of international history is much broader in scope. In his survey of European power politics through six centuries and more, he dissects the economic, social, administrative and religious aspects of the “domestic” life of the states involved, and shows that “domestic” and “foreign” affairs often make sense only when considered together. He quotes a dictum by William Gladstone that Michael Gove ought to ponder: “History is European…it is unintelligible if treated as merely local.”

Thus not only the economic and geopolitical but also the constitutional and religious concerns of 16th-century Spain are linked here with the phenomenon once memorably described by the A-level examinee who wrote that “the silver of the New World was flooding into the coiffeurs of Spain”. Simms’ eye for the telling detail is shown, for instance, in his contrast between the use made of Silesia before 1740, when it belonged to Austria, and after that year, when it was annexed by Prussia. Whereas Austria, a declining and incompetent state, could support only two cavalry regiments from Silesia’s resources, the up-and-coming state of Prussia was able to organise them to support its entire army.

Through all the cycles of the rise and fall of a dominant power – 16th-century Spain, France under Louis XIV or Napoleon, or the Kaiser’s Germany – Simms shows how both winners and losers were preoccupied, more or less effectively, with enhancing their economic capacity and administrative efficiency in order to withstand external pressure, or to exert it. Sometimes the domestic changes were revolutionary: both the English Civil War of the 1640s and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 had their roots in a perceived need for an English ruler willing to resist the rising power of France. Simms even argues, plausibly, that Britain’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was motivated largely by Richard Cobden’s “foreign policy” aim of making states more interdependent and thus less prone to conflict.

Simms’ majestic prose flows impressively but it sometimes leaves a trail of unchecked little errors behind. In 1860, the new Kingdom of Italy did not unite “all of the peninsula”: Rome, as well as Venetia and other northern areas, were still excluded. Bismarck’s title in Prussia in the 1860s was Minister President, not Chancellor, and the parliament of the North German Confederation was a Reichstag, not a Landtag. By the 1870s, the First Workers’ International was not a “formidable challenge” to anyone, however right-wing statesmen chose to depict it: divided and exhausted, it was in the process of closing down. The 1919 Versailles Treaty was not produced by a “Versailles Conference”: there was no such thing, as the peace conference was held in Paris. The recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925-26, linked to the Locarno Treaty, included the British foreign secretary Austen Chamberlain, as well as his French and German counterparts. And Sumner Welles, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favourite diplomat, was not his long-serving secretary of state (that was Cordell Hull) but the Department of State’s under-secretary.

Simms summarises his conclusions thus: “the principal security concerns faced by Europeans have remained remarkably constant over the centuries”. Nonetheless, the solutions attempted have varied considerably. The author’s lucid and perceptive survey of the decades since 1945 shows how West Europeans, at least, have worked to conduct their mutual relations not by the old methods of arms races and the balance of power but by experimental institutions for cooperation, not least the European Union. He rightly notes that the present combination of internal and external pressures amounts to “a severe and possibly terminal challenge to the European project”. As a writer of “history” rather than “prophecy”, he refuses to predict whether Europe will respond by becoming a more effective union or by disintegrating – although he does hint that, having reflected seriously on all that Europe has been through since 1453, he would really prefer to see the former.

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