The Emperor strikes back: "Napoleon on the field of Eylau" (1807) by Antoine-Jean Gros (detail)
Who said: "It must therefore remain the objective of our struggle to create a unified Europe, but Europe can only be given a coherent structure through Germany"? It was not one of the founders of the current "European project" but Adolf Hitler, who also opined that "whoever controls Europe will thereby seize the leadership of the world".
Germany at the centre of Europe and Europe at the centre of the world, at least up to the mid-20th century, are two central themes in Brendan Simms's encyclopaedic, ambitious and fluent history of Europe since the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453. "Germany," he says, "was the key." The year 1453 makes a rather odd starting point, at first reflection, because of Simms's German perspective, but less so when one considers that one of the great headaches of the 15th-century Holy Roman emperors was the Ottoman presence in vast swathes of the Balkans. And Simms is right to insist that histories of Europe written in English have generally laid so much emphasis on western Europe, principally France but also Italy and Spain, that they have failed to understand the central role of territories that looked east, through unfortunate Poland towards the great expanses of Russia, and through rather more fortunate Hungary towards the Balkans, as well as towards France and Italy. This approach may bring to mind a bestseller of a dozen years ago, Norman Davies's immensely enjoyable Europe: A History, a goldmine of curious facts and witty opinions, notable for its insistence that eastern Europe (and in particular Poland) had been grossly neglected in the writing of European history.
Simms eschews the oddballs and quirks that delighted Norman Davies, and a smile does not often wrinkle his lips. He too has his distinctive way of writing about history, and its novelty lies precisely in the fact that it is a throwback to the type of history being written more than a hundred years ago. Europe's history as he tells it is dominated by politics; the politics are those of great power rivalries; the rivalries are expressed in the constant attempts to seize an advantage over one's neighbours, which means seizing something else as well — chunks of territory. No one much cares about who lives in those territories, partly because, if you are a Habsburg emperor or an Ottoman sultan, you simply accept that your subjects will follow any number of religions and will have any number of ethnic identities. On the other hand, once we reach the 20th century, ethnic identity matters enormously, particularly from a German perspective, and conquered spaces are seen as territories to be resettled with the Master Race rather than simply as buffers against neighbours, sources of taxation and signs of prestige. Simms is a professor of international relations, and that means we will not find much in his book about all the internal factors that might propel a ruler to claim mastery over neighbouring lands — the search for income, the opportunity to reward noble followers, or even the dodgy dynastic claims that it was often convenient to keep in a Foreign Office drawer and dust off when opportunity beckoned. I once picked up on a bookstall a copy of Sir John Marriott's The Eastern Question, which was first published nearly a century ago and then went through any number of editions. His was the same sort of approach: Austria wanted this; Prussia felt it needed that; Turkey was alarmed; Belgium was swatted like a fly; Sweden stood in the wings and watched. The history of Europe is reduced to a great game of chess, except that as well as black and white pieces there are green, blue, orange and purple ones all moving around a multidimensional board. Place names swirl, battles are won and lost, and the pieces are reordered. But underneath all this is the principle: "watch your neighbours like a hawk; be prepared to swoop like one too."