Why Was There No Holy Roman Project?

Brendan Simms’s new epic history of Europe is an earnest and old-fashioned of great power rivalries

Books Europe History International
The Emperor strikes back: "Napoleon on the field of Eylau" (1807) by Antoine-Jean Gros (detail)

Who said: “It must therefore remain the objective of our struggle to create a unified Europe, but Europe can only be given a coherent structure through Germany”? It was not one of the founders of the current “European project” but Adolf Hitler, who also opined that “whoever controls Europe will thereby seize the leadership of the world”.

Germany at the centre of Europe and Europe at the centre of the world, at least up to the mid-20th century, are two central themes in Brendan Simms’s encyclopaedic, ambitious and fluent history of Europe since the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453. “Germany,” he says, “was the key.” The year 1453 makes a rather odd starting point, at first reflection, because of Simms’s German perspective, but less so when one considers that one of the great headaches of the 15th-century Holy Roman emperors was the Ottoman presence in vast swathes of the Balkans. And Simms is right to insist that histories of Europe written in English have generally laid so much emphasis on western Europe, principally France but also Italy and Spain, that they have failed to understand the central role of territories that looked east, through unfortunate Poland towards the great expanses of Russia, and through rather more fortunate Hungary towards the Balkans, as well as towards France and Italy. This approach may bring to mind a bestseller of a dozen years ago, Norman Davies’s immensely enjoyable Europe: A History, a goldmine of curious facts and witty opinions, notable for its insistence that eastern Europe (and in particular Poland) had been grossly neglected in the writing of European history.

Simms eschews the oddballs and quirks that delighted Norman Davies, and a smile does not often wrinkle his lips. He too has his distinctive way of writing about history, and its novelty lies precisely in the fact that it is a throwback to the type of history being written more than a hundred years ago. Europe’s history as he tells it is dominated by politics; the politics are those of great power rivalries; the rivalries are expressed in the constant attempts to seize an advantage over one’s neighbours, which means seizing something else as well — chunks of territory. No one much cares about who lives in those territories, partly because, if you are a Habsburg emperor or an Ottoman sultan, you simply accept that your subjects will follow any number of religions and will have any number of ethnic identities. On the other hand, once we reach the 20th century, ethnic identity matters enormously, particularly from a German perspective, and conquered spaces are seen as territories to be resettled with the Master Race rather than simply as buffers against neighbours, sources of taxation and signs of prestige. Simms is a professor of international relations, and that means we will not find much in his book about all the internal factors that might propel a ruler to claim mastery over neighbouring lands — the search for income, the opportunity to reward noble followers, or even the dodgy dynastic claims that it was often convenient to keep in a Foreign Office drawer and dust off when opportunity beckoned. I once picked up on a bookstall a copy of Sir John Marriott’s The Eastern Question, which was first published nearly a century ago and then went through any number of editions. His was the same sort of approach: Austria wanted this; Prussia felt it needed that; Turkey was alarmed; Belgium was swatted like a fly; Sweden stood in the wings and watched. The history of Europe is reduced to a great game of chess, except that as well as black and white pieces there are green, blue, orange and purple ones all moving around a multidimensional board. Place names swirl, battles are won and lost, and the pieces are reordered. But underneath all this is the principle: “watch your neighbours like a hawk; be prepared to swoop like one too.”

At that point one wants to know rather more about who the people were who made the decisions, and what these states were apart from large stretches of territory with oscillating boundaries. “Austria” is useful shorthand, but what were the real concerns of Maria Theresa, Joseph II or Franz Josef? Why on earth should the Swedes be so besotted with foggy, marshy, cold Pomerania (though one could say that for them it was more of the same)? Sometimes the roots of these relationships reached back very far in time, as with the ambitions of those Swedes in the Baltic. But then there is always the question of religion: crusading Swedes against pagans in the Middle Ages, who turn into Protestant Swedes with tricky Russian Orthodox neighbours in later centuries. As Simms is well aware, fighting constant wars meant heavy spending and the development of an elaborate military machine, which reached a new sophistication under Frederick II of Prussia. And once the military state was functioning well, with its officer class closely tied to the ruler, conquest and aggrandisement became the prime business of the day. Ferdinand and Isabella had understood this at the end of the 15th century; conquering Granada was not just a matter of completing the Christian reconquest of Spain, but of establishing military leadership when their claim to the throne was far from solid. But what about other ways of establishing supremacy? In the 19th century there was the opportunity for recourse to wealthy bankers such as the Rothschilds, whose willingness to support one side or another could affect the outcome of a power struggle significantly, and could, as Simms shows, take into account such matters as the treatment of their co-religionists in Russia. And then there was trade, about which he says rather little. Seventeenth-century mercantilists promoted theories about the world’s wealth and how to exploit it. Sometimes the most successful exploiters were small states, notably the Netherlands. Austria-Hungary was well situated for commerce down the Danube, and Maria Theresa encouraged the growth of Trieste as the prime Mediterranean port of Austria-Hungary.

For Simms, Europe has much more elastic boundaries than one might expect, given his insistence on the centrality of Germany in European history. The European dimension to the history of the Thirteen Colonies and the United States is brought out clearly, as Spain and France lost influence in the New World, and the Austrian Habsburg Maximilian ended up facing a firing squad in Mexico; but Britain managed to retain its hold on parts of North America, even areas that remain to this day French-speaking. That said, we do not hear as much about Spain and Italy as one would find in older history books, which is odd, since both lands were heavily involved with the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, as well as with one another — it is easy to forget that, as well as possessing the world’s largest empire of the time, in the Americas, Spain possessed a European empire of great strategic and economic importance, in Milan, Naples and Flanders. It is also worth noting that Spain’s western frontier is by far the most stable frontier in Europe — the boundary with Portugal has changed very little over the centuries, a statement one could not even make of San Marino and Monaco. Italy, moreover, was the seat of an institution that did have a pan-European, indeed universalist, agenda, the papacy, which features less in this account of power politics than it perhaps deserves.

By concentrating so much on relations between states there is always the danger of forgetting the importance of relationships within those states that moulded foreign policy, and, though this is a subplot, it is one that runs throughout the book. With Napoleon, we can see how the emperor’s wars on many fronts transformed the internal shape of revolutionary France: having dispensed with their ancient nobility the French were foisted with a new imperial nobility, based on service — titles were hereditary, but would be cancelled if future generations failed to serve the state, as military officers or in other ways. There are other fascinating examples of the interplay between domestic politics and big power politics. One is the attitude of the European powers to the slave trade, in which Britain adopted a pioneering position; Simms shows how the United States dug in its heels over an issue that for the Americans was as much concerned with resentment at European interference in the affairs of the western hemisphere as it was with a wish to defend this horrendous traffic. Another example of the interplay between domestic and foreign policy issues is the attitude to the treatment of religious minorities, notably the Jews. In Simms’s scenario, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in order to steer the Jews away from sympathy for Germany and not simply in order to British interests on the route to the East. It was, he says, a delicate issue because Britain’s Russian ally had had a well-deserved reputation for failing to protect its Jewish subjects. Yet power politics is only part of the issue. The idea of a Jewish “ingathering” appealed to many British Christians, and it even appealed to those like G.K. Chesterton who thought the Jews could never be truly British. People will continue to argue about the Balfour Declaration, but moral issues did intrude into the competition for territory and influence.

Inevitably readers will be drawn to Simms’s fascinating picture of the origins of the European Union. His view is that even the European Coal and Steel Community out of which the EU eventually emerged was a product of big power rivalries within Europe, this time the fear of Soviet domination and, though to a lesser extent, of a German revival: “the core of the project, however, was always common defence.” Germany’s potential for making war had to be brought under control. This created a vicious circle, with the Soviet Union becoming ever more obsessed about West German “revanchism”, and more and more insistent on supporting its horrible acolytes in the “German Democratic Republic”. Here, as elsewhere in the book, we find a thoughtful and stimulating reassessment of a series of events we thought we understood well enough. And what of the current crisis in the EU? Should it be seen as another attempt to create an unwieldy empire encompassing nations, somewhat akin to the Habsburg empire that embraced Spain, the Low Countries, Italy and the Holy Roman Empire (and a lot more besides)? For Simms the fundamental issue is whether a “single force” can unite Europe. Of course, it does depend on what one means by “unite”, but it also depends on what one might mean by “force”, and the Greeks, and still more the Greek Cypriots, have reason to worry that they have been forced into doing things that are not in their interests because the club rulebook is to all intents controlled by the Germans.

What is different nowadays to the heyday of the Holy Roman Empire is that the nation state has come into being. We have seen its dark side in persecutions of minorities, the suppression of languages and cultures, even the ethnic cleansing of peoples. The heady combination of peoples and cultures of past times, that saw a German-speaking majority in Budapest and where Vilnius was the “Jerusalem of the North” for the Ashkenazi Jews, has vanished amid terrifying bloodshed. Newly-born or reborn countries such as Estonia and Slovenia glory for a few years in their new national currency and then are sucked into the eurozone. The tension between a national identity and what passes for a European identity is not as great as it could be, because no one apart from the inhabitants of Belgium and Luxembourg has much of an idea what this European identity really involves, let alone the much-vaunted “European project”. The Holy Roman Empire lasted for 1,006 years, if we take its starting-point as the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800. In that whole period it did not create a “Holy Roman identity”. Nor was there a “Holy Roman project”. Maybe the Habsburgs knew best.