Book review – Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy by Simms

9780465013333_p0_v1_s260x420[This is a slightly longer version of a review published in The English Historical Review]

A summary of more than 550 years of European history on 690 pages is no mean feat, but Brendan Simms’ Europe fails to convince much beyond its ambition.

The author decides to approach Europe’s history through the lens of international relations. After a short prologue on medieval Europe, the author sets off properly with the advent of modern times. The first 200 years of the span are dealt with in 40 pages; half of the book covers the twentieth century. Simms’ aim is to reveal a range of constants in international relations: European powers are often driven by a fear of encirclement, while aiming to uphold a balance of power in Europe. We are reminded that foreign policy enjoyed a primacy within politics for most of the past half millennium and that the western European states uncoupled themselves from it only from the 1960s. The primacy of foreign policy for a state’s survival or flourishing had a profound impact on most other political domains. Different constitutional systems developed and evolved to cope with international competition: Britain’s parliamentarism is one example, Prussia’s autocracy another one. Each system strived in its own way for flexibility and efficiency, especially with regard to financial politics, developed largely for the funding of war. The struggle for supremacy in Europe has always been a zero-sum game and the author shows how many local and far-away phenomena of the past half millennium (e.g. slavery in the Americas) can be explained through that lens. In the meantime, one stumbles upon some surprising details. The reviewers learnt that in eighteenth-century Russia ‘Westernisation’ and ‘Europe’ stood for more efficiently organised despotism (119), that London bankers financed Napoleon (159), or that the Weimar Republic was more centralised and thus potentially more powerful than both the Second Reich and todays’ Federal Republic (323, 402). The books strongest moment comes towards the end with its analysis of on-going geopolitical challenges, notably Russia’s new imperial ambitions and Germany’s indecisions as Europe’s main continental player.

An important constant is Germany’s role as the continent’s ‘central area of contention’ since medieval times, ‘because of its strategic position at the heart of Europe’ (530). The author presents it as the battlefield of Europe, later the world, as both an area fought over so to control its potential and an area in the ‘middle’ where armies happened to meet. The proposition is cherished to the point, that only few passages do not explicitly remind the reader that, in the end, Germany was the crucial area for all sorts of political exchanges, developments, or phenomena. Simms approach implicitly resembles the heartland theory of Halford MacKinder – who is quoted a few times – albeit applied to Germany as the key to the European Continent.

A major downside is the book’s the lack of a clear and coherent narrative. It enumerates wars, treaties, and alliances in chronological order, explaining then and again how they interrelate. This type of history writing is not modulated: it hardly changes pitch, and it never creates a tension to be relieved. The reason is that Simms has no ‘history’ to narrate. His agenda is to show that ‘the principal security issues faced by Europeans have remained remarkably constant over the centuries’ (xxvii) and that his ‘book […] is about the immediacy of the past’ (xviii). It is difficult to describe such permanence dynamically. The result is often an enumeration on ‘facts’ that lacks a thematic coherence or obvious structure apart from mere chronology. The approach, however, creates issues beyond style. By letting states ‘do’ things, the author avoids questions about actual agency, while ‘essentialising’ the European nations. His account neither historicises past entities, nor past decisions. That nations are imagined – to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase – never seems to have entered the mind of the author. The most obvious example here is ‘Germany’, a name applied rather inscrutably. On a diachronic level, the Holy Roman Empire is considered without doubt its forerunner, as much as the Confederation or the Federal Republic subsequent incarnations; though, interestingly, the GDR is barely mentioned. And yet, within a single chapter, ‘Germany’ can refer variously to Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg territories, or the entirety of German speaking lands. This ambiguous application of the name does not expose its inherent semantic diversity, but it conflates meanings and thus stresses a supposed unity and ethnic homogeneity, which – the book seems to imply – have changed little over the past 600 years. In between the lines, Simms does offer plenty of counter-arguments to support the political, cultural, and thus semantic heterogeneity of ‘Germany’, but stressing these would have undermined one of his main arguments.

The handling of ‘Germany’ poses additional problems. Its centrality in the book reposes on an essentialist geographic argument: Germany is geographically in the middle of Europe. Reducing most questions of international politics to ‘German questions’ is rather simplistic and contributes to the narrative’s incoherence. To take one example: after first stating that the Cold War was fundamentally about Germany and particularly Berlin, the book then stresses how ‘Eastern Europe’ was liberated in Afghanistan, since the Soviet Union’s Afghan fiasco diverted its resources to Central Asia and thus loosened its grip on the European satellites. That same conflict illustrates how the book struggles to find a clear object. While carrying ‘Europe’ as its title, the Cold War also deals with the ‘key areas’ (382) of Vietnam, Korea, and Israel, though without explaining their link to Europe. The contradiction between attempting to do justice to certain phenomena’s global context while at the same time reducing these to ‘German’ questions permeates the book and is never resolved. In a way, it does show that the book may owe even more to MacKinder than obvious at first. Rather than emphasising the central role of Germany, the book’s first half could be read as describing Russia’s rise as an imperial power, its second half as Russia’s containment by the UK and the US, i.e. the masters of what MacKinder called the ‘outer crescent’. The ever more prominent role given to the latter from chapter 3 may, however, reveal more about the location of the book’s target audience.

Another problem is the book’s rigid focus on political events, thus ignoring other factors that contribute to certain developments. Economics are regularly ignored as a country’s motivation in a particular region or as a more general factor in international struggles. Again just to give one example: the readers are left guessing how France could mutate into a large Empire after decades as a political nobody and a devastating revolution.

One last aspect particularly reduces the book’s value for an academic audience: contemporary historiographical debates are resolutely ignored. The book, for example, presents twentieth-century Central Europe as if Norman Davies, Timothy Garton Ash, Tony Judt, or Timothy Snyder had never produced a single line on the subject (Snyder’s endorsement of the book on the back-cover is baffling), let alone the many historians actually based in this large stretch of the continent. The same applies to the two World Wars, on which the enormous historiographical production published in the wake of recent commemorations alone shows how dynamic the debate is. But it is not only the debates that are ignored, so are contemporary historiographical perspectives. The book largely overlooks social aspects, bottom-up movements, questions of identities … perspectives that have changed the writing of political history over the past century and led away from too narrow and decontextualised a focus on powerful individuals. Europe, however, remains a history of the powerful. Not only do minorities play no role, while their heads of state feature strongly, but small states are reduced to an increasingly irrelevant side-cast. The ‘Europe’ of the last chapter is made up of the UK, the US, Germany, and the USSR/Russia, excluding the remainder of the continent, including France and Italy. The book looks like a potpourri with a rather old-fashioned approach. Its vision of history is that of ‘one bloody war after another’ between countries that have supposedly existed since 1453. Europe teaches little new, instead it appears as an excuse to write about powerful dead white men.

Pit Péporté & Benoît  Majerus


Benoit Majerus

Since January 2011, I am working as Associate Professor at the University of Luxembourg. I have written my PhD on the occupation of Belgium during World War One and World Two. In 2013 I published a history of psychiatry in the 20th century from below. I am also co-editor of h-madness.

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