Great wars were started by young men with “jangling hormones”, argues Simon Jenkins

It’s a curious feature of Europe’s history, says Simon Jenkins, that the continent has seen many wars of conquest sparked by “virile young men”

Professor Kathleen Burk and Simon Jenkins discuss Jenkins's new book, 'A Short History of Europe'. (Photo by David Hampton for BBC World Histories magazine)

“Yet another war caused by a 21-year-old,” was the thought that struck journalist and author Simon Jenkins when writing his forthcoming book A Short History of Europe.

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In conversation with historian Kathleen Burk for BBC World Histories magazine, Jenkins highlighted a “curious feature of Europe’s history”: the many examples of “belligerent” young men who had launched wars of conquest on the continent.

Listen to the full discussion between Simon Jenkins and Kathleen Burk on the History Extra podcast, available now or read the conversation from BBC World Histories magazine in The Library

(Photo by David Hampton)

In his book, Jenkins explores the development of Europe which has been dominated by the struggle over land. It’s a relentless, “peculiarly violent” struggle that fascinates Jenkins, and in his research he noted several teenagers in the ancient and medieval worlds who “fought wars because they saw it as a great thing to do”. So, Burk asks, could you say – albeit not entirely seriously – that there has been more peace of late because statesmen have become older?

“Yes, I do think that,” says Jenkins. “I hadn’t realised until I wrote this book that they had all been young. I suddenly thought: ‘yet another war caused by a 21-year-old’. Alexander I, Edward III, Alexander the Great, Frederick the Great… they were all young men. They became most belligerent when the hormones were jangling and they were getting up, showing off and being virile young men. I do find it to be a curious feature of Europe’s history – and it’s related, of course, to kingship. People tended to die young, and therefore their sons were even younger when they took power.”

A fragment from the 'Alexander Mosaic', c100 BC, showing Alexander the Great in battle against the Persian king Darius III. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

“I was also fascinated,” Jenkins continues, “by the fact that, when each war came to an end, any so-called peace tended to last two generations – for 50 or 60 years – before the next war would come along, almost like clockwork. That suggests to me that the inclination toward violence has a lot to do with the memory of horror and the memory of war, not just a matter of how politics works.”

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Listen to the full interview here or read the conversation in the latest issue of BBC World Histories magazine, available now in The Library