Struggling Through Simms

Brendan Simms’ history of Europe is overly deterministic.

Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present

Historians tend to discourage each other from writing sweeping histories. Usually that’s good advice. Few individuals know enough to write “the” history of peasantry or “the” history of the fifteenth century or “the” history of France. Better to devote a few years of your life to writing a thorough history of peasant life in fifteenth-century France than try to be the next Fernand Braudel.

We still want the best historians to at least make an attempt at grand narrative, or we couldn’t see the forest of history through the microhistory trees.

Good examples from recent years include John Darwin’s After Tamerlane (2007) and Peter Frankopan The Silk Roads (2015) for inner, and Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels (2003, 2009) for coastal, Eurasia, and Jack Goldstone’s Why Europe? (2008) for the rise of the West (far superior to Niall Ferguson’s more popular book on the topic).

Brendan Simms’ Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy is a lesser entry in the genre.

The author deserves praise for embarking on a 500-year history, and he makes a compelling argument: that the struggle for mastery of Germany was the pivot of European, and therefore world, history. From the religious wars to Napoleon to the world wars to the Cold War, Germany was at the heart of Europe’s great, and often violent, debates; Catholicism or Protestantism? Democracy or monarchy? Democracy or totalitarianism? Capitalism or communism?

But like most books that try to identify laws of history, Simms’ is overly deterministic. He suggests Germany was not just a but the motivator of European statesmen — at all times. He ties everything from the French and Indian War to the Sino-Soviet split to the German Question.

That is not always persuasive, and Simms’ repeated need to tell rather than show weakens rather than strengthens his case. A more modest version of the book would have been more compelling.

Simms would have been helped by a more aggressive editor. His overuse of the word “now” becomes a literary form of Chinese water torture halfway through the book. Historical figures are sometimes reintroduced with their full name and title a few pages later. The first king of the Netherlands is mistakingly identified as “William IV”.