Hegel stated that Europe was the “Centre and end of History.” In a chapter by Suresh Sharma, where she gives this quote by Hegel, she writes that by the early 20th century, “the rest of the world had no choice but to learn to subsist in the shadow of Europe as the measure of all things and of all values.” This chapter is but one of 149 chapters in an expansive 3-volume history of Europe published by Bloomsbury.
Covering 1,062 pages of text (with no illustrations), I can only dip here and there into this most valuable trilogy, each with its own outlook and editors (listed at the conclusion). So just what is Europe? In volume 3 we read of a declaration made by the President of the European Commission in 2013: “Nothing is more European than opera!” While it does not directly answer the question I posed, it does serve as a fine evocation of what these three books really are – a grand opera, played out on the stage of the area broadly known as Europe. The players are many, and even though Europe has appeared more than once to be on the brink of destruction, one remembers the diktat of opera: “It’s not over till the fat lady sings!” Luckily for the world, she has not yet sung a final dirge for Europe, but in 2022 Europe is under threat as never before. “There is a real risk for new armed conflict in Europe,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in early 2022. “We cannot permit a division of our Continent into spheres of influence,” declared British PM Boris Johnson on Feb. 19, 2022. As this is written, the world wonders if the greatest armed conflict in Europe since 1939 is about to begin, as the forces of evil mass on the border of Ukraine. This trio of books covers all of the existential threats to Europe in the past two millennia, from the fall of Rome to the Black Death to two World Wars fought in the 20th century. A note before we delve into this about what history means, as most readers of this review will be American. One of the authors in volume 1 quotes a former Secretary General of the Council of the European Union: “When Americans say something is ‘history’ they mean it is no longer relevant. When Europeans say the same thing, they usually mean the opposite.”
Not all is gloom and doom in these books, as a huge number of more positive things are also given their due. Chapters are devoted on “How to make Peace,” “Enlightenment,” “The Many Lives of Amsterdam,” “Church Towers and Belfries,” “Wines and beers,” “How Shakespeare Created European Man,” and “In the Beginning, there was the Epic.” Even so, a flip through the chapter titles is sobering. “Nazism,” “The Europe of Genocides,” “The Spectre of Decline,” “The plague and the wolf,” “From The Terror to Terrorism,” “The phantoms of the slave trade,” “The tyrant, or the perversion of power.”
The title I have given this review comes from a chapter in Vol. 3 titled “The Fortunes of the Revolution.” At 14 pages it is one of the longer chapters in these volumes, with some chapters a very brief 2 pages; 6 to 8 pages is more typical. In a discussion of the revolutions of 1989, author Enzo Traverso writes of a 1976 building, the Palace of the Republic in Berlin. “Unanimously regarded as atrocious, it was demolished to make way for a reconstruction of the Hohenzollern princes’ castle – a case of history returning from the past.” Traverso does not say why the 15th century royal castle was demolished after World War II, but other sources state the East German government didn’t want Prussian symbolism in a Communist era. The reconstructed palace, Berliner Schloss, opened in 2021, with a 40,000 sq m floor area that contains collections from Berlin’s Ethnological Museum and Asian Art Museum. As another author writes, “Berlin is the best proof of all that there is no such thing as historical inevitability.”
More broadly, we understand time and again in these volumes how Europe as a whole ‘returns from the past’. Indeed, the entire framework of the science of archaeology was a European creation, prompted initially by a keen interest in understanding its own Greek and Roman past. As one author states, “Rome really has given everything to everyone… It is not the historian who makes something of Rome, but Rome that makes something of the historian.” While decidedly English, Shakespeare is acclaimed in these books as the greatest of all authors; he was a key vehicle for this transmission of an mindset rooted in the past. His “geographical identity is that of the ‘European’ Renaissance, part of a renewed preoccupation with its Greek and Roman heritage.” One chapter reminds us that the Brexit debate in 2016 was portrayed in the British press as scenes from Shakespearean plays, notably Julius Caesar and Othello.
While the continuance of current events from this distant past is uncontested, more recent events create discontinuities. In a discussion of World War I (1914-1918), the point is made that the “secular/religious divide has made it impossible for there to be a common language of commemoration linking Poland and Portugal, Serbia and Scotland, the east of Europe and the west. The addition to the European Union (EU) of the former Warsaw Pact nations after 1992 has left a fractured European memory landscape in its wake.” And of course, it was not just the EU that saw expansion in recent years; since the fall of the Soviet Union many of those eastern countries also joined NATO. It is that which keeps Putin awake at nights, plotting not only revenge, but ‘history returning from the past’ as he tries to put his beloved Communist paradise (a hell-hole) back together again.
This modern face of evil, who now pollutes the very palaces of the Tsars by his presence, speaks of ‘genocide’ in areas of eastern Ukraine that he invaded a few years ago. The concept of genocide is meticulously treated in these books. “It was in 1948,” one author states, “just before the Cold War forever froze the wartime alliance, that the victorious powers came together to recognize both universal human rights and the crime of genocide.” Using the word genocide to describe a situation that does not even exist (the Ukrainians are not committing genocide) is a desecration of the lives and memories of all those who were true victims. That includes millions murdered in Russia and Ukraine by Putin’s hero, Stalin.
Naturally this must be viewed through the lens of ‘human rights’. One author in the first volume writes “Although the French Declaration of the Rights of Man issued in 1789 may be seen as the political and public fountainhead of the European history of human rights,…it played practically no role during the nineteenth century.” Human rights took a back seat in socialist countries to so-called ‘social rights,’ thus forming an “alternative to the Western model, as was the case in Europe until 1989.” One important element of human rights is gay rights, explored briefly in Vol. 1. “The process of giving visibility to people martyred for their sexuality was initiated in 1984” in an Austrian town, with a plaque in the form of a pink triangle. The first ‘gay museum’ opened in 1985 (in Berlin), and a nod is given to the annual Spartacus guides, published since 1970. “It reflects the constant transformation of the political and memorial landscape of sexual minorities in Europe.” The widespread acceptance of ‘human rights’ is thus a very recent development, as one chapter goes on to explore whether human rights are based on Christianity or the Enlightenment of the 18th century.
How Europe influenced other areas of the world, including America, is considered in several chapters. The United States is just now beginning to realise what was widely understood by the founders of the European integration project after World War II. “Leaders such as Schuman (France), Adenauer (Germany) and DeGasperi (Italy) concluded in their design of a memory-based future that democracy could be self-destructive, that it was not automatic: in short, that it relied on a finely-tuned balance between being driven by and guiding public opinion.”
Several dichotomies are examined in these books; I will just mention one, regarding the countrysides. The dichotomy is presented to us in an “ambiguous sketch” made by Albrecht Durer after the German Peasants’ War of 1525. “The drawing exalts both the massacre, whose outcome favoured the aristocratic and urban readership, and the productive capacity of the victim, without whom no life could be sustained.” While the countryside presumably retained idyllic qualities, it was also the breeding ground for revolt. This dovetails into what England’s King Alfred the Great wrote in the ninth century. A king needed men who prayed, men who fought and men who worked. In the 13th and 14th centuries, “the concept of the three orders was snatched from the clergy and reappropriated by the temporal powers. The image of a tripartite society was closely linked to the vicissitudes of European powers, providing us with a common thread that serves as an excellent guide through European history.”
While the vast majority of the authors in these books maintain a level balance of viewpoints, I found one in Vol. 3 by Kapil Raj to be quite troubling as he makes no bones about his antipathy to British heritage, which (by the way) made India the largest democracy in the world. As a professional historian of science, I was eagerly anticipating a chapter on science in Europe. It is most unfortunate that, first, only one chapter was devoted to science in all these books, and, second, that it presents a biased viewpoint. At the outset he conflates “the trope of European scientific superiority” with “cultural and moral superiority in the European colonial enterprise.” This is a gross imputation against all the scientists who really did establish the superiority of European science, most of whom had absolutely nothing to do with colonialism. Unable to control his animus towards Britain, he specifically slurs a 1913 paper in the journal ISIS with the epithet “chauvinistic” simply because it argues “for Britain’s crucial contribution to knowledge in the modern world.” If I had to list Britain’s crucial contribution to knowledge, it would be longer than this book review. He further smears scholars who promote “Europe’s place as the home of the Scientific Revolution” as “leftists and liberals.” Where does he think the Scientific Revolution happened, Africa or India perhaps? This chapter is a black stain on an otherwise sterling set of books.
The books contain only a few typos. In Vol 1, the famous quote of Kant about the Enlightenment reads “…without guidance from one another” instead of “without guidance from another.” A French TV broadcast of 1988 is erroneously given as aired in 1968 on page 218. On pg. 335 it is erroneously stated Caroline Herschel was made an honourary member of the “Royal Astronomical Society.” Rather, she was so honoured by the “Royal Society.” In Vol. 2, “this was period” should read “this was a period” on pg 68. On pg. 277, “the Ottoman” should read “of the Ottoman.” On pg. 312, “even this serves” should read “even if this serves.” In Vol. 3, “a something of” should read “something of” on pg. 35. In general the Index is very fine, but there are some misses. In Vol. 2, for example, ‘Carmen’ is indexed, but ‘opera’ is not.
Overall this is great intellectual endeavour, which will be referenced for many years to come.
Series title: The European Way since Homer: History, Memory, Identity. General editors: E. Francois and T. Serrier.
Volume 1: Collective Memory in Europe. Edited by Valérie Rosoux & Akiyoshi Nishiyama
Volume 2: United and Divided Europes. Edited by Pierre Monnet & Olaf Rader
Volume 3: Europe and the World in History. Edited by Jakob Vogel
The books are sold as a set by Bloomsbury, for $610.
Photo credit: By Walter Sans-own work, CC-BY-SA