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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Europe’

- - Tuesday, May 21, 2013

EUROPE: THE STRUGGLE FOR SUPREMACY FROM 1453 TO THE PRESENT
By Brendan Simms
Basic Books, $35, 690 pages

In his sweeping, intelligent and enormously ambitious book, British historian Brendan Simms argues that whoever controls Central Europe can dominate the world.

Mr. Simms' thesis is that for centuries the most pivotal country in the core of Europe has been Germany and that the struggle for and against Germany has driven history.

The University of Cambridge professor begins his book with 1453, the year that saw the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman invasion of Europe. These events resulted in the Holy Roman Empire defending Christian European values against Muslim religion and dominance.

Over time, the Ottoman Empire managed to penetrate Europe to the outskirts of Vienna, where it was defeated in 1683 by Polish, Austrian and German forces.

During the past two centuries, the key players in the struggle for Europe stretched from Napoleon Bonaparte of France and Otto Bismarck of Imperial Germany to Adolf Hitler of the Third Reich as well as Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan of the United States. One might add Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to the list — though he sought not to dominate Europe, only to save an empire and his nation. He struck out on both.

Germany, which became unified under Bismarck in 1871 following its defeat of France, was the dominant force in Europe by the early 20th century.

This united Germany was ideologically dominated by Frederick II of Prussia (ruling from 1740 to 1786), who is supposed to have said that he wanted Prussia to become "not a country with an army, but an army with a country."

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a refugee from the Third Reich, described the Kaiser's Germany as "too big for Europe, but too small for the world." With a population of some 41 million people, Germany was the largest nation on the Continent after czarist Russia, which had 77 million subjects but was vastly inferior in industrial, military and scientific achievements.

The existing order in Europe faced enormous stress with the outbreak of World War I, which initially pitted Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire against Britain, France and Russia.

World War I resulted in the collapse of the empires of Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottomans and Germany, and it economically weakened Britain and France.

As the prominent historian Istvan Deak observed, "While the Habsburg dynasty's Austria-Hungary disappeared from the face of the earth, and the multinational Ottoman Empire was not quite replaced by a much smaller and nationalistic Turkish Republic, both Germany and Russia emerged from the ruins under the dictators Hitler and Stalin. The two were far for more ruthless and far more efficient than the monarchies had been. The only absolute winners of World War I were the United States and Japan; their rivalry would later form a major part of World War II."

America had no alternative but to enter a world war again after the Japanese Empire struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Hitler's rash declaration of war against the United States made things easier for Roosevelt to fight in Europe as well.

Mr. Simms researched his book meticulously, with much of his material coming from German archives. One minor error was his assertion that Adm. Miklos Horthy, the governor of Hungary between the two world wars, was replaced "by energetic German action in December 1944." In fact, Horthy was ousted by the Germans in October 1944 after he made an abortive bid to end the war with the Russians.

Germany, occupied and divided by the Western powers and the Soviets after World War II, became the focus of rivalry.

But postwar Germany also was a driving force of European integration that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the expansion of NATO and the European Union. The key for German and European stability was America's engagement on the Continent.

The book went to press during a period of what Mr. Simms calls "an exceptional European uncertainty."

"Nobody knows whether the Franco-German-led Eurozone will survive the onslaught of the markets or whether it will be pulverized by the outside world," he writes.

Mr. Simms says the question is whether a united Europe will find a common position on the challenges and opportunities of the Arab Spring, on Russia's ambitions and the growth of Chinese power.

If not, Europe could fragment into its component parts, only to be dominated again by Germany.

Frank T. Csongos was a longtime reporter, editor and news executive with United Press International and Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty.