Peace, pop and plurality

Themes in Modern European History since 1945. First edition - Modern Europe
November 26, 2004

The use of the plural “themes” in the title of Rosemary Wakeman’s textbook on postwar Europe points to one way of tackling the almost impossible task of writing a satisfactory account of an entire period of European history: identifying key aspects and entrusting each of them to a specialist. If the editor ensures that little of what is gained on the swings of concepts and expertise is lost on the roundabouts of incoherence and patchiness, this recipe can produce such convincing results as the Short Oxford History of Europe.

Wakeman offers her readers - predominantly students of history or European studies - an eclectic chronology (1998: “Good Friday Peace Accord reached in Northern Ireland” and “Spice Girls world tour begins in Dublin”) followed by ten thematic essays covering major fields
of historical inquiry: Steven Morewood on the Cold War, Jean-Jacques Jordi on decolonisation, Ivan Berend on the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and Robert Lieshout on European integration, all address political issues.

Don Kalb tackles social change, and Michael Hanagan addresses marginalised groups. Wakeman’s essay on mass culture and Simon Sadler’s discussion of the avant-garde provide glimpses of cultural history, with economics (Wakeman on prosperity, Wim Meeusen on economic integration) completing the picture.

Multi-authored textbooks will always be open to carping about the wisdom of including some themes while omitting others (such as political violence or religion here). That said, Wakeman’s well-balanced selection appears perfectly plausible. But the impact of this textbook is lessened by some of the chapters themselves. By attempting to fill vast canvases in fewer than 20 pages while crisscrossing a diverse (capitalist and communist, Scandinavian and Mediterranean, industrialised and agrarian) continent, some of the essays brim with facts and scenarios. While informed readers will recognise the relevance of many of the cited names and events, some beginners may feel overwhelmed.

Moreover, in straddling history and politics, the book will leave neither constituency entirely happy with the styles of prose and methods of investigation. Thus, the disparateness suggested by the title leaves its mark on several aspects of Themes in European History since 1945 - for better and for worse.

Asa Briggs’ and Patricia Clavin’s Modern Europe is an altogether different work. Rather than opt for a forgiving plurality of themes, the authors have committed their narrative to one central (though admittedly myriad-faced) theme: modernity. Since the French Revolution, a “distinct, self-reflective idea of Europe with a history and a meaning of its own” has taken shape, and the authors chart the fate of the region encompassed by this notion from the late 18th century to the current War on Terror. More than 200 years of European history are neatly divided into 168 sections, with the period since 1914 (230 pages) receiving a fuller treatment than the preceding 125 years (165 pages). In spite of the blurb’s promise of “a wealth of evidence ‘from below’” and attention throughout “to Europe’s diverse peoples and classes”, Briggs and Clavin tell a largely political story punctuated by excursions into cultural and social history.

Apart from some minor quibbles - there is a sprinkling of small inaccuracies and the bibliographical guide is somewhat erratic - the main criticism that can be levelled against Modern Europe concerns not what it does but what it omits. The most glaring omission is the perfunctory section on the Holocaust: a paltry lines, compared with 51 lines on Rommel’s “desert war”. Other themes largely ignored (and absent from the index) include dynasties, the aristocracy, the peasantry, racism and religion. Overall, the text tends to neglect topics that fit awkwardly into the story of Europe’s evolution towards political and scientific modernity. As a result, the Pauperism of the 1840s, Catholicism or artisans feature rather little in a book that finds space for the Millennium Dome and its French director.

However, Briggs and Clavin generously compensate their readers for these omissions since there is little in this ambitious book that does not deserve praise. The narrative is composed with authority and elegance. The authors have a sharp eye for telling details and apt quotations. They offer an immensely knowledgeable and thoughtful account of how the Europe that embarked on a dual industrial-political revolution in the 18th century arrived in today’s globalised, postmodern world after two centuries of change.

General readers will find much in this book to enrich and deepen their thinking about how such a complex concept as Europe ought to be filled with meaning. A history book, Briggs and Clavin state in their final chapter, should end with questions. Rather than conclude the debate, the study of history should facilitate “new, often multiple definitions of Europe”. This deliberate use of the plural suggests that writing a satisfactory account of an entire period of European history without allowing for disparateness may indeed prove impossible.

Frank Lorenz Müller is lecturer in modern history, St Andrews University.

Themes in Modern European History since 1945. First edition

Editor - Rosemary Wakeman
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 3
Price - £60.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 415 21987 6 and 21988 4

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