Simon Jenkins and Kathleen Burk on the history of Europe
Simon Jenkins’ new book, A Short History of Europe, offers a concise overview of the successes and failures of the continent across centuries. He met fellow historian Kathleen Burk to discuss these highs and lows
Kathleen Burk: Why did you decide to write a ‘short history’ of Europe?
Simon Jenkins: Because I didn’t have time to write a long one! But it’s also because I don’t regard myself as – and I’m careful here – a ‘serious’ historian. I’m a popular historian – a journalist by background. When I did the first book in this series [2011’s A Short History of England], I was fascinated to see if there were actually any virtues in such a book being short. It came to seem to me that the exercise of editing and excision, of leaving things out, was a serious activity in a history of any sort. That’s different to, say, the [20th-century British historian] Lewis Namier approach, in which you put everything in, leaving the reader to do the editing and decide what’s important. I do also think that shortness is a virtue in itself in this day and age, when people like things brief. I can see why short books sell.
You write that yours is “a conventional history”, based on power and led by great men – and, of course, the odd woman. Why write it this way? Was it because your intended market would easily recognise and accept such an approach?
Yes. When you use the word ‘history’, people think of kings, battles, and dates, and they do so for a good reason. As in a newspaper, history is mostly about those things, along with diseases and divorces. So it does appeal to people.
But, much more importantly, I’m trying to tell the story of Europe, which is a political entity. It’s not a geographical entity, really: there’s no real reason why Europe should be a separate continent from Asia, for instance, other than the nature of territorial aggrandisement and the politics of land. I believe – and this is possibly controversial – that all history begins with politics, and with the battle over land and who should occupy it.
A key theme of your book seems to be that people are inherently violent. How did you come to reach that view?
The development of Europe, since it began two millennia ago, has been dominated by the struggle over land. This relentlessness fascinates me: it was peculiarly violent, and that violence was the dominant factor in people’s lives.
I was also fascinated by the efforts that Europe has made over the past two or three hundred years to stop being violent. Europe achieved this extraordinary supremacy over the world – European empires dominated two-thirds of the globe at one point – before blowing it all in the horrors of the 20th century. Out of those horrors came this quest for some sort of union, which we’re in the middle of now, and it’s through that apparent triumph over the history of violence and horrors that Europe is, in a sense, achieving some sort of atonement.
More like this
You could argue, though, that one of the reasons Europe was so peaceful in the 19th century was that its nations simply directed their violence elsewhere, couldn’t you?
Yes, and you’d be right. There are all kinds of ways in which we suppress, overcome and cope with violence: nation-building, diplomacy, and so on. But the fact is that, in the 19th century, European states became very powerful and technologically more advanced than others elsewhere – and were therefore in a position to conquer them. I’m not a defender of empire, but there was nothing we did to other people that could be compared to what we did to ourselves in the Thirty Years’ War – or, for that matter, the First or Second World War. Europe’s capacity for violence against itself was supreme.
You write about the teenagers in the ancient and medieval worlds who went out and fought wars because they saw it as a great thing to do. You could perhaps say – albeit not entirely seriously – that there has been more peace of late because statesmen have become older.
Yes, I do think that. 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.
I was also fascinated 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.
How important were wars in the development of Europe throughout its history?
As Frederick the Great said, the nature of power is to want to expand. Europe had very confined borders, lots of people, and growing populations that rubbed up against each other. All of this meant that nations ended up fighting.
I was very careful to not be Anglocentric in writing this book, but it was difficult in some senses because Britain’s history in Europe is very different from that of other countries. I believe that’s because we are an island, and therefore don’t rub up against our neighbours in the same way as other nations do. The wars that Britain has fought in Europe since the 17th century were, on the whole, accidental wars in which we were almost mercenaries for other people, rather than wars of aggrandisement. Non-intervention in Europe has been pretty close to an ideology in British foreign policy through history.
How do you fit the papacy into this story?
One of the problems with writing a short history of Europe is that you end up with lots of easy villains: the late Roman emperors, for instance, or the French monarchy, who made what might be called wrong decisions for something like 300 years.
But then I came to the popes. Whatever one thinks of Catholicism, their capacity for causing suffering and getting things wrong was extraordinary. Yet they did have a remarkable ability, through the power of faith, to take over from the Roman empire and provide a sort of glue for barbarian Europe. The papacy provided discipline and gave people a sense of loyalty, secular as well as religious, to a cause. The papacy was a remarkable phenomenon up until the 13th century, when various megalomanic popes lost the plot.
Continuing with the idea of religion as a glue, how much emphasis would you put on the growth of Islam as a factor that caused Europe to coalesce?
Before writing this book, I hadn’t really realised the completeness of the Islamic incursion around the Mediterranean in the eighth century. Almost none of their conquests reverted to Christianity, and they penetrated right through almost to Vienna and up through Spain and into France. They were relatively tolerant – they did not demand that people changed their religion or burned Christians – and they were very successful. North Africa and the Levant converted to Islam.
The consequence was that Christendom shrank by about a third. Islam was very important to European history, because it defined Europe. It was after that incursion that Europe decided it no longer included the eastern or southern Mediterranean.
Why do you think Islam was less violent than Christianity? Do you think that’s one of the reasons why it was a bit more permanently successful?
I don’t know the answer to that; all religions change over time, of course, not least Christianity. But, certainly, the early incursions were tolerant. When they arrived in Damascus, for instance, Muslims shared the church with Christians. They were not interested in conquering faith. The result was that the Coptic Christians in Egypt, for example, loved the Muslims, who told them they could worship as they wished, whereas the church in Constantinople was endlessly excommunicating them and decrying them as dissidents and heretics.
You refer to the “growth of authoritarian populism”. Does this have a history in Europe, or is it a recent phenomenon?
European states that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries were used to having kings. Kings were useful, because they were a fount of identity and loyalty, and because they defended you against your enemies. People became congenitally attuned to having strong leaders: you saw it strongly, I’m afraid, in the attitudes of even British people to Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s. The idea of a strong leader had tremendous appeal.
Even today, when we are supposedly conditioned and programmed to prefer some kind of democracy, the concept of the strong leader comes to the fore when democracy seems to be erring, or failing, or not delivering as promised. What I’m more puzzled by is why it appears to be so much stronger in eastern Europe than western Europe. Slavs seem to have a natural tendency to seek a strong leader, whereas the British, French and Germans seem to be more sceptical. When someone in those countries gets too much power, the people tend to turn against them.
Do you think that’s also programmed into Russian DNA? Were they so tired of being invaded by various hordes that they decided – or their leaders decided – that what a disparate, large and threatened empire such as Russia needed was a strong leader?
It was certainly programmed into the DNA of Russia’s leaders, yes. It was very explicit: rulers including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great all stated that the rationalism of figures such as [French enlightenment thinker] Voltaire, and possibly even democracy, was fine – but not for Russia. It was so big, as they saw it, that it needed a strong leader and strong central government.
You suggest that all of the aspects we have discussed – including the role of violence and the formation of the nation state – brought the continent of Europe close to self-destruction in the 20th century. Yet a greater proportion of the population died in the Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648 than in the wars of the 20th century. So why give pride of place to that recent century rather than to the 17th?
The Thirty Years’ War was so horrific because it was at the end of the Middle Ages; when government collapsed, there were huge numbers of deaths from starvation, people went marauding, and so on. So I think the parallel is not very helpful.
Just why the wars of the 20th century were so cataclysmic is a much more difficult question to answer. Some people say it’s the nature of the weaponry: in the First World War it was almost impossible for a land army to win, because machine guns were so effective. In the Second World War you had air power, which was useful up to a point but whose massive destructiveness was wilful and meaningless. The other problem in the Second World War was that you had two very powerful dictatorial regimes that were able to mobilise reasonably modern economies to the purpose of war, so that conflict just had to fight itself out until it was finished – across a bigger scale, and a much wider territory, than the Thirty Years’ War.
You cite the great treaties of Europe – Augsburg, Westphalia, Utrecht, Vienna, Versailles – and say that they kept the peace for only two generations. Why should current arrangements prove any more durable?
That’s a very good question! A pessimist would say they think they won’t, and an optimist would say they hope they do.
So we’re back to faith, are we?
Well, it’s not entirely faith. If there’s any duty incumbent upon a historian, it’s to try to work out if anything can be learned from history. I do think it’s possible to discern, in the point I make about the recurring pattern of two generations of peace, the aversions that lead people to rely on diplomacy more than they did before.
My mother, who was a student at the end of the interwar period and very politically active on the left, always said that no one would ever understand how people approached diplomacy between the wars. She said that it’s impossible to imagine, when all you could remember was the First World War, why anyone would do it again. When [British prime minister] Neville Chamberlain came back from meeting Adolf Hitler in 1938, 90% of the nation were cheering him on, because everyone feared another war and he’d apparently stopped it. Six months later the situation was very different, but at that point in time the horror of war was foremost in people’s minds.
How far you can see that echoed in modern diplomatic relations between states, I’m not sure. All I know is that on the few occasions since the Second World War when things became very dangerous, largely due to the incompetence or age of Russian leaders during the Cold War, we pulled back from the brink. I think that’s because people were so horrified by the prospect of a nuclear exchange that they couldn’t bring themselves to instigate whatever process was necessary to precipitate it.
We survived those crises, and others since – even the approach of hot war along parts of the Russian border. I can’t believe that the sequence of events necessary to produce another war on anything like the scale of the last one will happen. But perhaps that’s an act of faith!
But we are two generations on now...
The big mistakes are not always the ones you think they were. I remember the era during which the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 as a time of unbelievable optimism. Between 1990 and 2000 history was at an end, liberal democracy had triumphed; all these things were being said – but we didn’t notice, sitting at the eastern border of Europe, an utterly humiliated major nuclear power: Russia. And we did humiliate them, and we did drive Nato’s boundary eastward into what they regarded as their territory. That was a very dangerous thing to do, and I believe that if anything goes wrong in my lifetime it will be caused by that decision.
What are your thoughts on the future of Europe?
I’ve always been a sceptic of the EU. I was not in favour of Britain joining, because I think it’s a dysfunctional, ill-formed, protectionist body that is not serving the interests of Europe well. That’s my scepticism.
My positivity about it is based on the fact that it’s all we’ve got. Looking at the break-up of Yugoslavia [in the early 1990s], I wonder if it may have been possible to stop the violence if the EU had been more engaged. So I have faith in unions: they are our only defence against the resumption of war.
That’s why, over the centuries, Britain has been sucked back in to European interventions designed to avoid open conflict – most conspicuously in the 18th-century War of Spanish Succession, but also against Napoleon and again against Hitler. In my mind, those have been noble interventions by Britain in a good cause: that of a sort of united Europe. These were genuine attempts by good people to find peace.
Britain has always gone in and out of Europe: we engage, we disengage, we have nothing to do with Europe and then we find we have a noble reason to get involved again, or we’re sucked back in. We’re part of European culture, and we can’t avoid that.
About the authors
Simon Jenkins is a journalist and author. A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin will be published by Viking in November.
Kathleen Burk is a historian and writer. Her latest book is The Lion and the Eagle: The Interaction of the British and American Empires, 1783–1972 (Bloomsbury, 2018).
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99