The Substance of Faith

The Substance of Faith

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Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy – A Review

Events today in Ukraine make Brendan Simms’ book on European history most relevant.  Simms, a Fellow at Cambridge, pours an incredible amount of information into 533 pages of text and nearly 100 pages of end notes. If you want a 600-year, historical perspective on what is happening in Europe today, it is worth the read.

Simms describes four, lasting and competing powers in Europe: England, France, Prussia/Germany, and Russia;  along with two historical powers: Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Turks.  Six hundred years of European wars and politics have been the result of these powers maneuvering each other for dominance.  Alliances and confrontations are the consequences of each power working to keep the most threatening competitor in check.  When Napoleon threatened much of Europe, Russia and England became allies.  In the colonial period, when England threatened to dominate Europe, France came to aid of the 13 colonies, not out of love for freedom, but to preoccupy England militarily away from the continent and to weaken England economically.

The book shows how Russia and Prussia/Germany have historically viewed each other warily and have competed multiple times for geographic buffers for their respective homelands.  Neither wants the other within reach of their native territory; thus, Eastern Europe has been their battle ground.  Hitler’s offer to split the traditional buffer of Poland pleased Stalin because it kept Hitler at arm’s length without a war.  Until Hitler reneged.  Of course, at that point Hitler was much closer to Moscow because Stalin had misread his strategy and allowed Hitler access to half of Poland.

The Crimean war of the 1850’s pitted England and France – enemies during the Napoleonic years – along with Ottomans, against a threatening Russia who was encroaching on all of them geographically or economically.  The Crimea was the buffer none could afford to lose.

Thus Ukraine and the Crimea are back in their historic roles as an economic resource for the dominating power, and a geographical buffer against military aggression, no matter how unlikely that may seem to Americans.  The loss of Ukraine from their sphere of influence (following the fall of the Soviet Union) is not something the Russians will allow to continue without resistance.

If I could subtitle this book, it would be “Why Germany is the Center of All History.”  Simms clearly sees the Germans (or their Prussian predecessors)  as the pivotal power in Europe and, consequently, the world.  He outlines in many places why he believes German interests influenced events on the continent and many other places, including the American continents and Africa.  I am not a capable enough historian to confirm or deny some of those assertions, but his conviction is interesting and informative.  I had never seen some of the connections he makes.

Europe is not an easy book to read.  At many points I bogged down in reading intricate details that came in rapid-fire succession.   It did provide me with a perspective on World War I and World War II that I did not have before.  Of particular interest to me was the history behind the Central Powers alliance of Word War I (Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Turks).  It also showed me how, if history is any indication, neither Russia nor NATO (representing the alliances on the other side of the first Crimean war)  will easily back down in today’s  tensions in Ukraine.

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