Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present by Brendan Simms

Incredibly well-written. Covers nearly 600 years of European (and world) history without oversimplifying or tipping over into names-and-dates territory. Digs deep into the conflicts of those years to show how the Holy Roman Empire, and then Germany, was at the heart of most of them.

This was a serious corrective for me, since when I was growing up Germany meant Nazis and Nazis were the Last Great Bad Guys (the Soviets were more sympathetic when I was little) so Germany was the country we didn’t talk about much in history class, save to point out all the ways in which Germany had effed things up for the rest of the world.

But leaving Germany out meant a lot of European history and strategy didn’t make sense to me. Why would Britain want to defend Belgian neutrality in WWI? Why did Germany talk so much about encirclement? Why did anyone care that Charles V held both the crowns of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire?

Simms’ book finally filled those gaps in my understanding, and also taught me:

  • During World War I, sauerkraut was renamed “victory cabbage” in the U.S.
  • Spain, as the last fascist power left in Europe at the end of WWII, was singled out as being banned from the UN until it had become a democracy, and was hated by both the US and the Soviets.
  • The experiences of Germany and Poland with weak central governments were used as examples in the Federalist Papers for why the new United States needed a stronger central government.

Final thought: In describing so many historical instances of reform and liberal freedoms granted so the state could raise money and wage war more effectively, Simms ends up making a better argument for war’s utility with just the sidelines of his narrative than Ian Morris did in his book that had that explicit goal.