European empires

The Times Illustrated History of Europe

September 15, 1995

As a history undergraduate in the 1970s, I was nurtured on a healthy diet of books covering particular periods or "ages" of European history, in which Europe was: reformed, divided, reshaped, transformed, renewed, industrialised, romanticised or transmogrified, according, as it then seemed, to each author's particular taste. Memorable among these was the Thames and Hudson series, which, at the time, provided a groundbreaking interface between text and illustration. Technology has changed and cartography and illustration have greatly improved. The Times Illustrated History of Europe is richly illustrated and mapped, and it is refreshing to see how the illustrations, captions and map details have integrated so well with the main body of text; clearly the author has been well served by his editorial and cartographic team. Some of the illustrations in the early part of the book seem to leap out of the page, thanks to the use of drop shadowing, and generally speaking the computer mapping is of a high standard, although inconsistent - a couple of the maps suffer from close-cropping. Nevertheless the book is an attractive and stimulating package and it can be compared with other Times publications as well as with the Penguin/Viking historical atlases.

In his broad sweep of European history, from the aftermath of the Ice Age to subsidiarity, integration and the ethnic hatred which has manifested itself at the end of the present millennium, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has produced a synthesis of historical scholarship, written in an exciting, eloquent and often racy style.

The book traces the thread of European identity across the centuries, seeking a common European identity based upon common historical experiences and taking into account the dual nature of "unity" and "diversity". The author makes it clear from the beginning that Europe has been made as much by east-west movements as by those originating in the west alone, and one of the strengths of the book is that, throughout the narrative, the impact of eastern Europe upon European civilisation is given as much consideration as that of the west. Clearly this is not a Eurocentric, revisionist interpretation, constructed to justify the European project. At times the author is provocative, for example he opens his penultimate chapter with: "Hitler would be pleased with much of what we have done since his death." Likewise in his final chapter, in an analysis of contemporary mores in which the author argues that the pursuit of personal happiness has undermined community values, we are informed that "the Marquis de Sade is out of the asylum and back on the streets". One can detect as well an underlying humour in the author's style, as when he contrasts the elegant Anthony Blunt with the "loud" and "passionate" "Dolores" Ibarruri, a "frustrated priestess", and "naughty Lola of the Left", whose posture and physique "might have been designed to adorn a prow".

On other occasions, however, the text has a tendency to run away with itself, and the imagery does not always work: whereas one might not necessarily baulk at the image of Austria-Hungary being "fragmented at the rhythm of a typewriter in Washington", some images, such as the "Blitzkrieg" launched by the Dacian ruler Decabalus in the first century ad, or of the United Kingdom losing a limb in the first world war, would appear to be rather clumsy if not actually ahistorical. Likewise one might feel a little uncomfortable with the analogy that: ". . . Roman imperialism worked because it struck the kind of balance between unity and diversity for which the European Union is struggling today". But this is being ungracious; it is easy to find fault with what is a remarkable and daring enterprise.

In his last chapter, the author deals well with ethnic identity and the empowerment of historic communities, although it would seem to be quite erroneous to attempt to draw too close a comparison between Serbs and Catalans (misidentified in one map) in their struggles against larger "multinational" states, since, in practice, the differences between them far outweigh any similarities.

It would be overdoing it to say that this book will radically change our perceptions of the "broad sweep" of European history, as claimed in the book's press release, nevertheless this is a highly readable, stimulating survey which will prove popular with historians and non-historians alike.

Robert Hudson is a Jean Monnet Scholar and senior lecturer in European studies, University of Derby.

The Times Illustrated History of Europe: From the Aftermath of the Ice Age to Subsidiarity Integration and Ethnic Hatred

Author - Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
ISBN - 0 7230 0724 1
Publisher - Times Books
Price - £25.00
Pages - 223

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