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Europe: The Stuggle For Supremacy From 1453 To The Present: A Non-Fiction Book Review

Updated on December 14, 2016
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.



Today we will consider a non-fiction book by Brendan Simms: Europe: The Struggle For Supremacy From 1453 To The Present. The edition I have in my hands is hardcover. We're looking at 534 pages, including the introduction but excluding the notes. It was published by Basic Books in 2013.

I want to start by saying that this is the best one-volume history of Europe, as a whole, that I have ever read. This is so because, for me, it finally made European history understandable. This book made European history, for me, something other than an incoherent swirl of names, dates, places, battles, and wars with no central logic.

Some of you (whoever 'you' may be) may be asking: Why must events have any 'central logic'?

Question: Why must events have any 'central logic'?

Short Answer: If human events did not have any 'central logic,' that would mean that human beings do not have culture. But, of course, human beings do have culture; and any assertion to the contrary is clearly absurd.

Culture, in short, forms the basis for one's approach to life.

What is culture?

I would say that culture are all the regularly scheduled, ritualistic practices we engage in without thinking about it. There is the contradiction of a regularly scheduled event and our rather automatic adherence to whatever the observance may be.

For example, Christmas (December 25) is coming up. If you stopped one hundred people on the street (including me) and asked them why we celebrate Christmas, ninety-nine of us would admit outright defeat (again, including myself), with the one trying to provide a fumbling explanation about the birth of Christ and a mishmash of God knows what else.

The point is that as a society nobody knows why we celebrate Christmas. More precisely, it is more accurate to say that as a society, we have forgotten why we celebrate Christmas.

But we do celebrate Christmas, which makes the observance of the holiday part of American culture. Indeed, as crazy as this may sound, I think it is actually the power of forgetting that allows human beings to develop culture.

Suppose human beings had perfect recall across generations and geographical boundaries. That would leave no room for reinterpretation. Because we human beings forget, we try to "remember." It is this process of "remembering" that brings about reinterpretation, which causes generational, regional, national, and hemispheric variety, which is another way of describing culture.

I should have also mentioned that our process of "remembering" is what gives us ritual. The process of ritual (say, Civil War reenactments, for example) and "remembering" are one and the same.

Since we "forget," we try to "remember."

One of the ways we try to "remember" is through ritual.

It is through the ritualization of recollection that gives us culture.

But times moves on inexorably and we forget what it was we were "ritualizing;" and yet the behavior of the "ritual" persists somewhat "on its own."

For example, in the audio version of family therapist, John Bradshaw's, book, "Family Secrets: The Path from Shame To Healing," he gives the story of a curious ritual of how one family cooks ham. It seems there was this woman who cut off both ends of the ham before she cooks it. She got to wondering about that one day; and realizing that she picked up this practice from her mother, she asked about it.

The woman wanted to know why her mother cut off both ends of the ham before she cooked it. The mother did not know except that she had picked up the practice from her own mother. They asked the grandmother, who did not know except that she had picked up the practice from her own mother.

It was finally the great grandmother who said that the reason they cut off both ends of the ham before cooking it, was because when she, herself, was a girl, living through the Great Depression, her family did not have pans big enough to cook an entire ham in, so, for that reason, they had to trim it first before cooking it.

Notice that it was the fact of forgetting about the Great Depression that created the culture within the matrilineal line of one family of cutting both ends of the ham off before cooking it.


Do human beings act at random or according to a 'central logic'?

You may disagree with me but I think we human beings always act according to a central logic. It is the fact of our forgetting about that central logic, over time, and our various attempts at "remembering-ritualizing" it, which both make our actions seem random and provide the building blocks for the creation of "culture."

Suppose that great grandmother, in our example, never "forgot" about why she had originally cut both ends of the ham off before cooking it. This would mean that when her family's economic situation improved and she started having children of her own, she would teach that NOT to cut off both ends of the ham before cooking it.

That would mean that there would not be anything distinctively "cultural" about the way a particular matrilineal line in a particular family cooks ham.

You say to yourself: "Big deal!" But, again, you must imagine what would have become of human society, if this hypothetical trait of perfect recall, across generations and geographical boundaries, had persisted, for everything.

Why are you a fan of the Cleveland Browns NFL team, given how badly they are doing this season, and have been doing for the past few years? If you ask people why they are a fan of this or that sports team, you often get a sentimental answer of some kind. Maybe somebody's father took him to his first NFL game when he was six and it was a Browns game at their stadium, even though his family were native New Yorkers. Maybe his favorite player happened to be running back Jim Brown; and he was a fan of the player before he started following the team.

The point is, it could be anything that attached you to your particular sports team. Somehow, a loyalty to that franchise became embedded in you and you became a "fan" of that team. This does not change as the team's fortune's go up and down.

That means you were a fan of the Cleveland Browns when they were doing well, and you remain a fan of the Browns when they are doing poorly. You may be so "down in the dumps" about their present poor performance, you may have at least semi-"forgotten" about the team's salad days.

And yet you remain a fan of the Cleveland Browns. So, you are a fan of the Cleveland Browns because you are a fan of the Cleveland Browns. A component of your individual culture is to be a fan of the Cleveland Browns.

The power of forgetting allows human beings to create culture which allows human beings to create bonds of loyalty one another. And this makes human relations something other than strictly cold and utilitarian, even where certain human relations start out as precisely cold and utilitarian.

They say we should not project our own values into the people of whatever past we are studying. I have no problem with that. I agree, in fact.

They say we "know" how events played out in whatever past we're studying, but the people of that time, obviously, did not and could not. Therefore we should not conflate our hindsight certainty with their contemporaneous uncertainty. I have no problem with that. And again, I agree, in fact.

We must remember that the various historical outcomes we are so familiar with, were, by no means, inevitable. Therefore, we must not project that inevitability into the past, as a forward motivating factor gripping the people of whatever past we are studying. I have no problem with that either. And once again, I could not agree more.

One reason why I appreciate Dr. Brendan Simms book so much, is because it does not commit any of those sins.

In studying history, I do think that it is useful, and in some ways essential, to get a grasp of the underlying culture motivating people, groups of people, nations, and groups of nations to action. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that it is often the case that what we are doing is at odds with what we think we are doing. It is this contradiction that I find fascinating.

Learning and Memory

You know why eyewitness testimony is so notoriously unreliable? It is because human memory is not like a camera or tape recorder, "objectively" preserving visual and audio stimuli. Such stimuli are embedded within a tapestry of preexisting associations; they are Borg-like "assimilated," if you will, into our individual "culture."

The presentation of history as a swirl of events without a 'central logic' reduces the student to an unreliable eyewitness to events which happen to quickly to process, especially if the student comes to the scholastic study of the past without any previous background. We are reduced to doing what I call trying to "capture facts in midair."

Rather, we should acknowledge culture. With culture we have motivation, both conscious and unconscious. And with motivation we have everything.

That is what makes Brendan Simms's book so valuable. It acknowledges culture and, therefore, motivation both conscious and unconscious, which bound the nations of Europe together; and which, therefore, enables a coherent study of Europe as a whole, which puts the previously received swirl of names, places, and events into context as manifestations of culture.

What I mean by that rather circularly expressed sentiment is this: No man or woman is ever bigger than the culture she or he comes from. That's all I'm trying to say.

The Holy Roman Empire

One of the things this book makes clear is that, for centuries, Europe has been motivated either by an irrational fear or irrational reverence of and for Germany. That is to say, that for centuries Europe seems to have had a double-sided view of Germany. When circumstances called for it, they looked at the irrational fear side of the coin; and when circumstances shifted they looked at the irrational reverence side of the coin.

Assuming I'm right for a minute, this begs the question: Where does this double-sided European view of Germany come from?

In order to answer that question I have to give you some material that comes from outside the text.

So, if you are willing, here we go.

A simplified version of the argument simply traces this double-sided view of "Germans" back the Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 CE).

Tacitus wrote a short book called De origine et sito Germanorum, commonly known as Germania (98 CE) (1).

Summarizing for us, historian Nell Irvin Painter writes: "[C]onquest of the Germani is not a likely prospect, according to Tacitus, who etches the Roman empire's political boundaries more deeply than Caesar and highlights the uniqueness of the Germani off on the empire's far eastern side. Moreover, Germania downplays many differences within German tribes and instead pronounces the liberty and warfare characteristic of all small-scale societies as inherently Germanic traits. Thus the failure of the Romans to subdue the Germani flows not from Roman shortcomings but a particular German virility" (2).

Note that: "Thus the failure of the Romans to subdue the Germani flows not from Roman shortcomings but a particular German virility."

A particular German virility, indeed!

So, as far as I can tell---and for our purposes, here, of simplicity---the Roman historian Tacitus appears to have been the source of the double-sided view of Germans, that Europeans would come to hold for many succeeding centuries.

Here's what I think happened, in short.

Obviously, the great Roman legions were having some difficulty in fully conquering the "Germani." For some reason, sectors of the Roman population required some kind of explanation as to why this was so. The Roman imperial military public relations apparatus went to work, and crafted a face-saving explanation which, somehow, depicted the "Germans" as both more than human and less than human.

Obviously, both sides of that coin are extreme exaggerations and insulting caricatures.

The "more than human" part gives admiration for an exaggerated view of "a particular German virility," let's say.

The "less than human" part gives horror at the supposed special savagery of Germans.

So you have a Roman father and son talking, on their way to the stadium to watch some death sports. The child looks up and says, "Dad, why haven't our legions fully subdued the nasty Germani yet?"

Dad says something like: "Well, the Germani are a tough nut to crack, son. You see, they're a race of demon werewolves, so grounding them beneath the Roman heel is going to take some time. Mind you, boy, no power of Earth can resist the might of Rome forever; but demon werewolves are different, since they are at least partially of supernatural origin.

Operation Paperclip

Let me give one quick example of how the double-sided view worked.

During World War Two the German nation, unfortunately represented by the Nazis, sadly did do a fair imitation of being "less than human" with the well known atrocities they committed, including the holocaust.

But when the war was over, in 1945, the powers-that-be in Washington were perfectly willing to look at the "more than human" side of the coin, when the concern shifted toward thwarting the Soviet Union and Communism. As is well known, the United States looked at the "more than human side of the coin," (in the way of an exaggerated reverence of "German engineering," and the like) by accepting about 1600 Nazis (many of whom should have stood trial at the Hague) into the United States, to help out with the space program and intelligence operations against the Soviet Union (3).

Stay with me. But my point in bringing up "Operation Paperclip" of 1945, is to say that that was not the world's first Operation Paperclip. There had been another, centuries prior to that.

What I'm trying to say is that the "Operation Paperclip" of 1945 was not the first time a major Western power had reached out to a former German adversary, for help against a perceived Eastern threat.

You could say that the world's first "Operation Paperclip" actually took place about 1250 years prior in the eighth century. Historian Christopher Tyerman points out that in the early eighth century, it was a combination of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperors "flirtation" with iconoclasm (the rejection of the efficacy of the use of religious images, icons, etc.) and the Byzantine's inability to protect Rome and the Pope from the Lombard rulers of Northern Italy, which motivated Popes Gregory III (731-741), Zacharias (741-752), and Stephen II (752-757) to ally themselves with the Franks, the rulers of a large kingdom that stretched from Southwest France to the Rhineland and the Low Countries (4).

Dr. Tyerman points out that this alliance was mutually beneficial. On the one hand the papacy gained effective protection in Italy; and on the other hand the Franks got legitimacy for their eighth century conquests in Lombardy, Gascony, Bavaria, and Saxony between the Rhine and Elbe. All of this culminated under Pope Leo III (795-816), when he crowned the King of the Franks, Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (768-814), as the new Roman Emperor in the West, which became known as the "Holy Roman Empire" (5).

The Franks, by the way, were a "Germanic" people.

One thing to be very cognizant of, I think, is the fact that the Catholic Church, at least initially after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, got its prestige from the fact that it was the sole surviving entity from the greatest empire anybody had ever known or heard of. When Pope Leo III declared Charlemagne to be the new Roman Emperor in the West, the pontiff was, in effect, saying that Charlemagne best represented and upheld the legacy of the glorious (Christianized) Roman Empire; and he gave that honor to a German.

With this declaration we have a fusion of the concepts of Roman-ness, German-ness, and Christianity. Voltaire (1694-1778) famously dismissed the Holy Roman Empire with the snarky one-liner: "The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire."

Of course, we can see that Voltaire missed the point. The Holy Roman Empire was Holy, if you mean Christian, Roman by adoption, and an Empire in symbol.

Charlemagne would have been thrilled to receive the Pope's declaration, not so much for the religion, I think, but for the effective "vote of confidence," that he lived up to the standards of the rulers of the greatest empire anybody had ever known.

The reason Brendan Simms's book is so valuable, then, is because he details how European history turned on the fulcrum of a relentless chase of the European powers to seem to embody the legacy of the old Roman Empire.

Here's the thing. The double-sided view that was developed about the Germans---from the time of the Roman historian Tacitus---(the "more than human"/"less than human" sides) was then poured into the entity and sanctioning body of The Holy Roman Empire. The entity and sanctioning body of the Holy Roman Empire became an object of irrational reverence and irrational dread, both something to be honored and coveted as a symbolic possession and something to be feared, contained, and controlled.

Brendan Simms's book does an excellent job of telling the story of European history, as a whole, from 1453 to the present, in terms of how continental affairs was driven by this tension and contradiction.

I said that the Holy Roman Empire was both an entity and a sanctioning body.

It was an entity in that it was an actual physical place on a map.

It was also a sanctioning body in the sense that it issued the title "Holy Roman Emperor" to the European ruler deemed most worthy, who had done enough politically and militarily to be considered one who, at the present, best exemplified the tradition of the glorious Roman (Christianized) Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire as a geographical entity

Let me just quote to you what Dr. Simms writes because that would be more efficient.

He writes: "At the heart of this European contestation was the Holy Roman Empire, which stretched from Brabant and Holland in the west to Silesia in the east, from Holstein in the north to just below Siena in the south and Trieste in the south-east. It included all of present-day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, as well as large parts of present-day Belgium, eastern France, northern Italy and western Poland" (6).

Here is the part which may have set up the basis for the irrational dread:

"The Empire was the fulcrum of European politics. More people lived there than in any other European polity. The cities of the Low Countries, the Rhineland, south Germany and northern Italy were -- taken together -- the richest, most vibrant and technically advanced in Europe" (7).

Brendan Simms continued: "It was there that the strategic concerns of the great powers intersected. In friendly hands, the area could serve as a decisive force multiplier, in hostile hands it would be a mortal threat. What happened there mattered to England because it was the anchor of the 'barrier' in the Low Countries protecting its south coast from attack, and the hinge of the European balance; to Spain because it was the source of the imperial title and vital recruits, and served as the strategic hinterland to the Spanish Netherlands; to the Austrians later for the same reason; to the French because it was both a buffer and an inviting target for expansion; to Prussia because it ultimately provided the springboard for eastward and westward expansion; to early twentieth-century Americans because of the Kaiser's intrigues in Mexico; and to the Americans and Soviet Union, whose main objective was to either win that area or deny it to the enemy" (8).

The Holy Roman Empire as sanctioning body

Brendan Simms writes: "It was presided over by the emperor, who was chosen by seven electors -- the Archbishops of Mainz, Cologne and Trier, and the ruling princes of Bohemia, the Palatinate, Saxony and Brandenburg. He ruled in consultation with the lay and ecclesiastical 'estates' of the Empire -- the electors, princes, counts, knights and cities -- assembled at the Reichstag, the German imperial parliament" (9).

The title of 'Holy Roman Emperor' as "Holy Grail," if you will

Again, Brendan Simms informs us that: "The Empire and its successor states, has also been the principal source of political legitimacy for anybody who wants to speak for Europe. For hundreds of years, the major protagonists have sought the mantle of Holy Roman Emperor, to take up the legacy of Charlemagne. Henry VIII wanted it, so did Suleiman the Magnificent, Charles V had it, French Kings from Francis I to Louis XVI sought it, Napoleon seriously thought about it, the echoes in Hitler's 'Third Reich' could not be clearer, and the European Union originated from the same area and in the same spirit, though with a very different content. In short, it has been the unshakeable conviction of European leaders over the past 550 years, even those who had no imperial aspirations themselves, that the struggle for mastery would be decided by or in the Empire and its German successor states. Queen Elizabeth knew it; Cromwell knew it; Marlborough knew it; the two Pitts knew it; Bismarck knew it; the Allied high command in the First World War knew it; Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew it; Stalin knew it; the Russians who furiously resisted the eastward expansion of NATO after the fall of the wall know it; and the elites trying to keep the European Union together today for fear of allowing Germany to slip its moorings know it. Whoever controlled central Europe for any length of time controlled Europe, and whoever controlled all of Europe would ultimately dominate the world" (10).


I deeply appreciate everything about this book. I, perhaps, got more out of it due to some background information (as well as previously worked out speculation) I had in hand before I even opened the book. Nevertheless, I would recommend this book without reservation to college history students, both undergraduate and graduate. I think that this is a volume that should have a permanent place on the bookshelf of anyone with a serious interest in history.

I appreciate the way the chapters are efficiently laid out by centuries. The chapter headings are as follows: 1. Empires, 1453-1648; 2. Successions, 1649-1755; 3. Revolutions, 1756-1813; 4. Emancipations, 1814-66; 5. Unifications, 1817-1916; 6. Utopias, 1917-44; 7. Partitions, 1954-73; 8. Democracies, 1974-2011; and Conclusion.

You see that? This is a great book to read as a cross referencing guide along with other histories. It is a marvelous "survey" of European political history from 1453 to the near present. And as I said, I have finally come across a book that talks about the importance of "The Holy Roman Empire."

All through my grade, high school, and college years, for that matter, I took history courses; and the information was frankly presented as a pile of "stuff happens," unconnected and un-contextualized mounds of events, names of kings and generals, battles, places and times --- as though human memory works like visual and audio recording devices. This is what I mean when I talk about being reduced to trying to "capture facts in mid-air."

How was I to know, all those years ago, that it was the Holy Roman Empire and its "German successor states" that provided the very basis upon which European relations, in peace and war, functioned for more than five centuries?

This is a book and can and should be read more than once, cover to cover.

Thank you for reading!


1. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. (paperback). 25

2. ibid, 28

3. see Jacobsen, Annie. Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America. Little, Brown, & Company, 2014.

4. Tyerman, Christopher. God's War: A New History of The Crusades. Belknap Press, 2006. 5

5. ibid

6. Simms, Brendan. Europe: The Struggle For Supremacy From 1453 To The Present. Basic Books, 2013. 3

7. ibid

8. ibid, 4-5

9. ibid, 3

10. ibid, 5


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      3 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thank you, aesta1! I cannot recommend Dr. Brendan Simms's book strongly enough.

      Take care.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Interesting that the author has woven all the significant events of centuries to illustrate his thesis.


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