Book review: A Short History of Europe, from Pericles to Putin, by Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins PIC: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Simon Jenkins PIC: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
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“This book,” Simon Jenkins writes, “is aimed at those without the time or inclination for a longer one.” Nothing wrong with that; he doesn’t believe that history should be taught in depth rather than breadth. On the contrary, without a knowledge of the outline of history, detached episodes or studies are meaningless and “those who cannot speak history to each other have nothing meaningful to say”. So he offers a short, invigorating gallop over two and a half thousand years. If, generally ignorant of history, you read this book from start to finish, you will at last have an understanding of how Europe comes to be as it is today, and you will have learned a lot that is interesting.

The book comes as the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. It can do this, whether the departure is well-judged or not, but leaving Europe is all but impossible. Jenkins, for what it is worth, sees the EU changing, becoming less centralised, evolving into something like the old Holy Roman Empire which was “messy” but “did not set too bad an example”. He may well be right; such a development seems more probable that the creation of a centralised federal state.

Jenkins’ history is a history of states, of politics and war, not a social, economic or cultural history, though naturally some attention is paid intermittently to these areas of life. Some will rightly find it odd, even ridiculous, that there is no entry for “Christianity” in the index. After all, for centuries after the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, historians write of “Christendom”, not “Europe”. But it should be said that Jenkins is not at ease in the Middle Ages, and gets through the mediaeval centuries as briskly as he can.

Treatment of the 16th century Reformation is likewise superficial. Jenkins is a 20th century liberal, what Protestant and Catholic zealots alike would have denounced as a “Laodicean”. His attitude to the Reformation is “why couldn’t they be reasonable?” He has written engagingly about English cathedrals and parish churches, but without much feeling for the faith which inspired their builders.

Jenkins rarely approves of authoritarian leaders, though he has a curiously soft spot for the Tsar Peter the Great. Napoleon is a “megalomaniac” disturbing Europe by his insane ambition; even his domestic achievements – the codification of law and the creation of a national system of education, decades before there was such a thing in England – are downplayed. On the other hand Jenkins is consistent in his hatred of war and disapproval of brutal methods of waging it. He regards the British and American aerial bombardment of Germany in 1944-5 as both immoral and ineffective. As for the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this meant that “the war ended in an act of humanitarian obscenity” – a strange use of the adjective, one may think.

As an Englishman, though he likes to remind us that his father was Welsh, Jenkins seems inclined to regard France as England’s perpetual rival, even enemy, and to have a 19th century regard for Germany or the German people. Certainly he regards the French determination to punish Germany at the Treaty of Versailles as, in Keynes’s words, “one of the most serious acts of political unwisdom of which our statesmen have ever been responsible”. Four years later, the French Occupation of the Ruhr “united Germans in misery and resentment… France’s economic aggression was conspicuously counter-productive”. In time “the Versailles chickens would” – what? – “come home to roost,” of course. You are almost surprised not to be told that the French put Hitler in power.

Well, all historians are opinionated – or at least agreeably readable ones usually are – and one may choose to take issue with Jenkins on many matters. Like most English (and Welsh) historians he has a soft spot for the ghastly Tudors, even that monstrous brute Henry VIII – “intelligent and energetic” – while Elizabeth was ”a monarch of rare charisma and intelligence”. Never mind; the book is rich in such brief characterisations, usually vivid, quite often apposite. Indeed one of the many charms of Jenkins’ gallop across the centuries is his knack for the good quotation. It’s nice to be reminded – or to learn – that Martin Luther “derided Copernicus’s thesis that the Earth went round the sun as the work of an ’upstart astrologer… this fool’.” Here at least was something on which Luther and the Pope could agree. - Allan Massie

Book review: A Short History of Europe, from Pericles to Putin, by Simon Jenkins, Viking, 354pp, £25