The Long View: A History of Europe

In the twenty years since this was written, a common European identity has still failed to materialize. However, across the West we do see a common identity forming, a citizen of the world. A French voter, Rachid Berdouzi, memorably described himself as such, and this identity motivated him to vote for Macron and against Le Pen in the recent French election. John Reilly called this identity transnationalism, but I think globalism is the term most often used. This is usually contrasted to a variety of localisms, at a variety of scales.

Citizens of the world would likely reflexively oppose the idea that they are characteristically Western, but globalism is only strong in the European diaspora. Even in the West, it has ideological rivals. Other parts of the world are much more particularistic.


A History of Europe
by J. M. Roberts
Allen Lane (The Penguin Press), 1997
628 Pages, $34.95
ISBN: 0-713-99204-2

 

One of the greatest books never written is "Europe: An Autopsy," mentioned in Aldous Huxley's post-apocalyptic novel "Ape and Essence." In Huxley's story, it was possible for a scholar in New Zealand to write a definitive history of Europe because Europe had recently been depopulated by a nuclear war. It would be difficult to write an equally complete history today, since hundreds of millions of people continue to live in Europe and persist in doing things of historical note. Nevertheless, J. M. Roberts, formerly of Oxford and author of the recent "History of the World," suggests in "A History of Europe" that it is possible to look back on European history as a completed whole. According to Roberts, Europe has drawn the whole world into a single history over the past 500 years. Thus, while universal history has not ended, history in Europe is now so strongly affected by what goes on in the rest of the world that it is no longer peculiarly European.

Like most broad historical surveys, this one displays an asymptotic expansion in the number of pages devoted to each increment of time. The thirty thousand years before Periclean Athens, for instance, gets the same amount of coverage as the eight years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, the author's interest does not seem to be fully engaged until he gets to A.D.1800 halfway through the book. Still, long before that point, he introduces us to a number of questions about the nature of European civilization that still concern us today.

The greatest of these, of course, is whether "Europe" is really an intelligible unit for historical study. Using the conventional geographical definition of Europe as everything from the Urals to Ireland, it is plain there have usually been several highly distinct societies existing simultaneously in this area for most of the time since the glaciers melted. Even in the "European Age" of world history since 1800, the ancient distinction between the Latin West and the Orthodox East has persisted, though the eastern half of the continent has been steadily acquiring more and more "western" characteristics. Roberts deals with this question, reasonably enough, by acknowledging it and then ignoring it. The book mentions Eastern Europe in general and Russia in particular whenever possible, but Russia really does not seem to be part of the same story until the nineteenth century. Thus, try as he might, European history for most purposes is Western European history. The way that Roberts tells it, readers may also sometimes get the impression that Western European history is largely that of Britain and her relations with the Continent, but he obviously tries to keep a broader perspective.

Allowing that the term "European civilization" refers primarily to the Germano-Roman mix that gelled around the year 1000, this still leaves us with the issue of the degree to which its history can be regarded as culturally autonomous. Europeans had no particular sense of cultural chauvinism until late in the eighteenth century. Medieval Europeans even put Jerusalem at the center of their world maps. Nonetheless, while Europe had hardly been reclusive before the age of oceanic exploration began in the fifteenth century, few of its contacts with other civilizations were really essential to its development. Roberts tries to mention all the major avenues for the exchange of goods and ideas between Europe and other civilizations. Still, it is hard to escape the conclusion that by far the most important contact initiated by outsiders during the last thousand years was the purely military confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. It was this large degree of autonomy that makes it possible to speak of a separate European history.

Since 1500, Europe has been overwhelmingly a transmitter rather than a receiver of influence. The most striking feature of this process of transmission, indeed the most striking feature in world history during the period, was European imperialism. It has gone through two major phases of expansion, one in the sixteenth century and the other in the nineteenth. The first phase had modest impact on societies around the rim of Eurasia and Africa, catastrophic ones in the Americas. In the second phase, when almost the entire planet was controlled by European powers, the record is more mixed. Pretty much the same people abolished slavery worldwide as started the Opium Wars, which may be what you would expect considering human nature and the circumstances. In any case, as those 500 years of European imperial expansion progressed, contact with other societies increasingly changed from something that chartered trading monopolies did to something that governments and private persons did. (The big exception was the Spanish empire, which was state-dominated from first to last.) As European societies became more and more engaged with the rest of the world, the question that interests Roberts is when substantial influence began to flow the other way.

It is an axiom in some history departments that imperialism is the main theme of European history in the nineteenth century. Certainly it was economically important, particularly for small countries like the Netherlands whose colonial empires were the largest thing about them. Nevertheless, until the twentieth century there is little indication that extra-European factors were driving domestic politics; rather the opposite, in fact. Particularly in the scramble for Africa (to coin a phrase) in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many conquests and annexations made zero economic sense to the European states involved. Though economic rationales were usually provided for expansion, the Dutch and the English preferred to invest their money in the U.S., the French in Russia, the Germans in Turkey. At least in the final phase of imperialism, the empires were built for prestige, or to outflank rival powers. It is probably an exaggeration to say that some colonial wars were fought to sell newspapers, but not much of one. The chief reason why European states were able to shed their huge empires in the twentieth century with relatively little trouble is that the empires by that time were of little practical value.

Roberts credits Adolf Hitler with ending the European phase of world history. By invading Russia in June 1941 and declaring war on the United States a few months later, he ensured that Europe would be overrun. For a while, and for the first time since the Arab invasions of southern Europe 1200 years before, the continent as a whole became an object of history rather than a subject. Now, this definition of the end of European history may involve a bit of slight of hand. The U.S., he acknowledges, is part of a larger cultural unit called "the West," which may be a better unit for historical study than is the European continent by itself. As for Russia, Roberts can never make up his mind whether that country is really "European" or not. Be this as it may, though, it was certainly the case that the empires disappeared with remarkable swiftness after 1945.

The collapse of the Soviet regime in the last decade of the century held out the prospect that Europe could at least entertain the prospect of becoming an independent historical actor again. Roberts also notes, however, that even those Europeans who are citizens of the European Union are very far from adopting a common European identity. If such an identity does arise, it will be something new, like the national identities that began to appeared among the subjects of some European states in the eighteenth century.

In a way, this book may be too long for its subject. Since it is impossible to provide a detailed history of a topic like this in anything shorter than an encyclopedia, general surveys of this type are sometimes better served by very brief volumes that simply sketch trends and themes. We get plenty of trends and themes here; under the apparent influence of the Annales school, much of the book is composed of little essays that deal with things like comparative demographics and the status of women in medieval society. Still, this book is for the most part an old-fashioned political and military history, which means that very many people and events are mentioned but none of them at length. There are helpful charts scattered throughout the text that sum up the major dates and incidents of a given period. There are maybe a dozen footnotes, and no bibliography.

All things considered, "A History of Europe" is useful as a historical refresher of manageable proportions. There are many people who used to know things like the difference between the War of the Spanish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession who will be happy to have a single source to remind them. The book is lucidly written and, especially in the second half, does come close to tying together European history as an intelligible whole. While doubtless there will be more "history of Europe" to be written about in the future, Roberts is probably correct in surmising that a coda has been set to the last 500 years. Despite all the terrible features of the twentieth century, European history has come to a reasonably happy end. At least general surveys of it do not use the word "autopsy" in the title.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

A History of Europe
By J. M. Roberts