Notes on the Struggle for Europe

The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 - Cover

I don’t really read that much history anymore. It’s odd, really: I spent four years getting an undergraduate degree in history, and I’ve got bookcases packed with monographs, journalistic accounts, and the like, but I don’t read that much of it. I suppose it can be chalked up to a shift in interest: my main career goal for the past few years has been to become a writer, so I’ve spent a lot more time reading novels and treating my history stuff as an archive to use in future projects. I think the fundamental issue is that, ultimately, I don’t have the proper temperament for a historian. I don’t really have the patience to sit in archives poring over diaries and internal memoranda; I just want a good story. (If only I’d realized that ten years ago…)

Still, every once and a while you need something new. Such was the case last year, when I was looking for a book about the origins of the First World War. (It was the centennial, after all…) My mother recommended Margaret MacMillian’s The War That Ended Peace, and while I’d liked Paris 1919, I wasn’t really feeling this one. I’d flipped through it a few times, and it didn’t seem to be that different from any number of “road to 1914” books that have been printed over the years. Hell, I already owned one of them: Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought, which is a good general survey of all the key events of the 1880-1914 period, with a particular focus on the naval arms race. I wanted something more expansive. I also wanted something older, partly because older historians tend to focus on events and personalities that later generations completely forget about, and partly because there’s something about the tone of mid-20th century academic writing that I’ve always loved.

So, long story short, I received A. J. P. Taylor’s classic work of diplomatic history The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1914 for Christmas, and I’ve finally finished it this past week.

This isn’t a formal review, so I’m not going to hash it out the way you would for a journal (and to be frank I don’t have the skill do to such a thing), so I’m just going to natter for a bit about a few points.

Taylor’s book was written way back in 1954, and it definitely bears the imprint of the time. Taylor’s thesis is that the period under examination is one in which the state system of Europe operated under the auspices of the Balance of Power. To summarize briefly, the idea is that Europe consisted of a number of sovereign states, a few of which are Great Powers, i.e. states with enough military and economic clout to screw around with other states. However, while these Great Powers can mess with smaller states, not one of them can enforce its will on all of Europe without being opposed by some combination of other Great Powers in alliance. There isn’t any overarching sovereign overseeing the system, and there isn’t any particular principle to which every power is striving. It’s just a bunch of atomized bodies in the void making and breaking alliances according to their personal goals and the needs of the current crisis. Naturally, when I read this, my first thought was of the Cold War, with the Balance of Power as a premonition of deterrence theory, albeit in a non-apocalyptic form. Some digging in my old polisci textbooks also informed me that the early 1950s were also the heyday for the realist school of international relations, which is a flossier interpretation of the Balance of Power theory.

As I was reading Struggle, I was wondering how far I should take Taylor’s thesis. After all, the realist model does tend to seem highly mechanical and anti-historical, with states becoming nothing but featureless blobs you can shove into a simulation and manage with equations for all eternity. However, the great strength of Struggle is that, while it shows Europe operating under this system, it also makes it clear why this system was doomed.

It goes all the way back to the year Taylor chooses as the start of his work. 1848 was the year of revolutions, with liberal risings against autocracy in France, the German states, Austria, and Poland. Taylor argues that the revolutions had the effect of breaking the Congress system created after the Napoleonic wars to manage the affairs of Europe (as well as chasing its chief instigator, Prince Metternich of Austria, out of power). It took a while for the system to finally come apart, though Taylor describes the Crimean War of 1853-56 as being the death knell of the system. However 1848 saw the force of ethnic nationalism become a factor in the world of the great powers. Naturally, national sentiment causes its share of problems. As Taylor notes, a sovereign can easily decide to give up provinces while a people cannot.

The biggest problem people are, of course, the Germans. Taylor has something of a reputation for being anti-German throughout his career, and in Struggle, German nationalism comes across as a particularly mendacious force, capable of all manner of mayhem. Rather interestingly, while the Germans don’t come off particularly well, Otto von Bismarck is treated rather sympathetically. Taylor depicts him as someone with a keener eye than most to the dangers of German nationalism, who sought tame them by feeding them a limited amount. By forcing Austria out of the German Confederation by war in 1866, by beating France in 1870 and establishing the German Empire, he created a German homeland that did not engulf all of Central Europe, and after unification he was able to keep the Balance of Power going to by scheming, improvisation, and keeping Germany as the center around which the events of Europe swirled. Unfortunately this last point was not one that later German rulers appreciated, and after Wilhelm II took the throne, the Germans began looking for their own place in the sun.

Overall, it seems that after 1880 the jockeying for power among the Great Powers became even more vicious. The two sick men of Europe, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, were both deep in terminal declines. Both had difficulties keeping up economically with the other powers, and both had nationalities that were increasing finding less reason to listen to the central government. (Taylor studied Austria earlier in his career, and his opinion was that her nationalities problem was unsolvable. The core issue wasn’t that Austria was a multinational empire; it was a supranational empire that justified itself according to the monarchical principle. Once the monarchy lost prestige, people began to treat the state like a bank machine or scheme to free themselves from it altogether.) Austria had the dubious advantage of being patronized by the new Germany, which had the delightful effect of making Germany’s relations with Russia in Poland and the Near East even more difficult. Meanwhile, the Ottomans were kept alive during the 19th century mainly because their dissolution would pretty much kick off a war between Britain, France, and Russia over the scraps. Naturally, having the Germans blunder in with their railway companies and military advisors did little to help matters. Rather more worrying is the fact that, again thanks to the Germans, the traditional divide between European relations and colonial relations was breaking down. As the Russians, British, and Germans began to nose their way into dying Qing-dynasty China, the struggles soured their relations in Europe.

By Taylor’s reckoning, Germany in the early 20th century could have become the hegemon of Europe. Certainly she had the economy, the military, and the will to do so. However, her great flaw was that she had learned the wrong lessons from Bismarck. Rather than working towards conciliation and playing sides off against each other all the way to the top, she antagonized all her neighbors for various reasons until they had enough common ground to band against her. While Taylor renders the actual outbreak of World War One as a serendipitous event, it still seems like the last apocalyptic spasm of the Balance of Power, an attempt by one state to claim the whole pot, with everyone else fighting against that outcome. The stakes and become so high that neither side was able to formulate any objectives for the war beyond “defeat all our enemies.”

Taylor’s study ends, not in the Treaty of Versailles, but in the early months of 1918, with the entry of the United States into the war and the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Taylor’s argument is that after this point, the Europeans are no longer masters of their own house. Relations in Europe become one part of a game played across the world which outside powers can step into and influence. Another bit of Cold-War-influenced thinking, and one that can be argued. Still, I think 1918 is a good point to end the story, given how several of the major players no longer exist and everyone’s priorities have changed.

Overall, I think the great strength of The Struggle for Mastery In Europe is in showing the limits of the Balance of Power. The system works just fine when everyone is about equal in power and influence and doesn’t change much over time. However, if certain powers start doing better, if certain alliances become permanent, if the number of players begins to increase, the game will slowly break down. Cataclysm is not inevitable, but becomes far more likely.

Bonus: An ancient blog post reviewing a version of Struggle from an alternate universe. It’s a little bit of short fiction I’ve always liked, particularly for suggesting that a Russia that avoided communism would have its own share of problems.

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