A review of “A Short History Of Europe” by Simon Jenkins

My young granddaughter did not think that this book looked ‘short’ but, at around 300 pages to tell the story of some two and half millennia, this can truly be termed a concise history and Jenkins has done a splendid job in making it very accessible and immensely readable. The alliterative subtitle of the work is “From Pericles To Putin” which neatly advertises the breadth of the subject. There is no escaping it, however, the history of Europe is one bloody war after another.

Starting with the Greco-Persian Wars (499–449 BC – “among the deciding events in Europe’s evolution”) and the three Punic Wars (264-146 BC), following the fall of Rome and waves of invasions from Huns, Vikings and Normans, we had no less than nine Crusader Wars (1095–1291) and the interminable Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453). There were also the Hussite Wars (1419-1434), the Thirty Years War (1618-1648 – “regarded as Europe’s bloodiest before the twentieth century”), the Nine Years War (1688–97), and the Seven Years War (1756-1763) before we had the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871 – “as pointless as that over Crimea”).

Then, after the peaceful period known as the belle époque (1871-1914), Europe was the starting place for two truly huge and devastating conflicts that consumed the globe: the First World War (1914-1918), including the nighmare of the trenches, and the Second World War (1939-1945), including the unique horror of the Holocaust. Jenkins gives figures of 17M and 40M as approximations for the respective European death tolls of these worldwide conflicts. 

Wars often lead to treaties and Jenkins highlights the most important in term of the evolution of modern Europe, including Verdun (843) – “No treaty was more significant in the early history of Europe”) – Augsburg (1555), and Westphalia (1648 – “often awarded credit for fathering the concept of the nation state”). Other important settlements were at Utrecht (1713), Vienna (1815) and Versailles (1919).

This history includes many awful experiences such as the Black Death (a peak of 1347-1351), when “As much as a third of the world’s population died and, in Europe already weakend by famine, possibly more” and Communist terror, when “Stalin’s rule in the [nineteen] thirties and forties brought more death and misery to the people of just one European country than any government in history”. But there have been magnificent triumphs, most notably the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries) and the Reformation (16th century) – “processes as well as periods” – and of course the Enlightment (late 17th-early 18th century). Meanwhile, the history of Europe is permeated with the role of the Catholic Church with the shenanigans of a succession of venal popes (sometimes two or even three at a time). 

In his epilogue (written in 2018), Jenkins talks of “the violent conflicts that have been Europe’s default setting”. And yet, with the horrible exception of the wars around the break-up of post-Communist Yugoslavia, Europe has enjoyed over 70 years of peace and – at a time when Brexit is consuming political debates in Britain – one has to acknowledge the role of the European Union in this. Jenkins himself asserts: “For all their flaws, the EU’s treaties of Rome, Maastricht and Lisbon have presided over over half a centry of not just of peace but also of prosperity”.


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