Whenever a reviewer in The Guardian newspaper proclaims a book on history or strategy to be “right wing and wrong-headed,” it is probably worth picking up a copy. The latest book so honored is Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present (Basic Books) by University of Cambridge Professor Brendan Simms. Simms offers a sweeping narrative of European and world history based on the thesis that Germany—defined as the Holy Roman Empire and its successor states—has been “at the heart of the European balance of power and the global system it spawned.” Simms unapologetically offers a geopolitical perspective with a clear bottom line: “Whoever controlled central Europe for any length of time controlled Europe, and whoever controlled all of Europe would ultimately dominate the world.”
This is hardly an original argument about the European balance of power and the role of Germany. Among other classics, Simms clearly echoes the geopolitical argument of the British geographer Sir Halford J. Mackinder (though Mackinder did not identify the critical Eurasian “heartland” precisely with Germany). MacKinder argued that the importance of central and eastern Europe had changed fundamentally around the turn of the 20th century when the advent of railroads and other means of land transportation signaled the end of the Columbian age of sea-power dominance. Simms wants to take the German problem, if we can call it that, even deeper into history.
With any grand historical narrative, one can quarrel with some or many components even if one agrees with the basic thesis. Or, one can quarrel with the basic thesis while appreciating many of the insights and connections that the author draws out. Simms certainly can be accused of pounding more than a few square pegs into round holes in order to force Germany into his story. By his account, geopolitical revolutions of some sort seem to take place every five to ten years, which contradicts his underlying argument about the continuity of strategic affairs. Even a casual reading turns up factual errors. One does not want to resort to the lowest form of book reviewing—finding a typo here or there, or a date out of place—to avoid engaging directly with the content. That said, Woodrow Wilson was not “worsted in the 1920 presidential election,” and Simms seems to confuse the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Mistakes, to be sure, will be made in a 700-page book covering a span of more than five centuries, but there is enough here at first glance to avoid using it as an unquestioned historical reference.
All that said, the student of strategy will be drawn immediately to Simms’s contention that
[s]ome things…never change, or change only very little or very slowly…. [T]he principal security issues faced by Europeans have remained remarkably constant over the centuries. The concepts, if not the language, of encirclement, buffers, balancing, failed states and pre-emption; the dream of empire and the quest for security; the centrality of Germany as the semi-conductor linking the various parts of the European balance; the balance between liberty and authority; the tension between consultation and efficiency; the connection between foreign and domestic policy; the tension between ideology and reason of state; the phenomena of popular hubris and national performance anxiety; the clash of civilizations and the growth of toleration—all these themes have preoccupied European statesmen and world leaders (insofar as these were not one and the same) from the mid fifteenth century to the present day. This book, in short, is about the immediacy of the past.
Simms does not claim history is purely deterministic, however. There was nothing inevitable about the defeats of Charles V, Louis XIV, Napoleon, or Hitler. Nor was the coming of religious toleration, the abolition of slavery and the international slave trade, or the spread of Western-style democracy in Europe preordained. (Simms sees these developments tied in some way to the German Question.) Still, those favorable outcomes were not entirely random. Particular choices mattered greatly, as did the general trajectory of what Simms calls “the triumph of the West” (one of those phrases that undoubtedly raised the hackles of the reviewer in The Guardian).
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The reference to Charles V brings us to the most critical enduring question of European history—whether Europe will be united, or dominated, by a single force. Simms calls the roll of would-be hegemons:
the Universal Monarchy attributed to Charles V, Philip II (for whom the world was “not enough”) and Louis XIV; the caliphate of Suleiman the Magnificent and his successors; the continental bloc which Napoleon so nearly achieved; the Mitteleuropa of Imperial Germany; Hitler’s “Thousand Year” Reich; the socialist Utopia espoused by the Soviet Union; and the democratic geopolitics of NATO and the European Union today.
For its various advocates, the unification of the continent was a necessary precondition for “progress” and peace; for its various opponents, it would have marked the end of the independence and prerogatives of those particular entities (or individuals) which would have been sacrificed to make the whole.
The central area of contention was Germany, because of its strategic position at the heart of Europe and its immense economic and military potential. Here, the strategic concerns of the great powers intersected. In friendly hands, the German lands could serve as a decisive force multiplier. In hostile hands, those same lands would be a mortal threat.
What happened there mattered to England because it was the anchor of the “barrier” in the Low Countries protecting its south coast from attack, and the hinge of the European balance; to Spain because it was the source of the imperial title and vital recruits, and served as the strategic hinterland to the Spanish Netherlands; to the Austrians later for the same reason; to the French because it was both a buffer and an inviting target for expansion; to Prussia because it ultimately provided the springboard for eastward and westward expansion; to early-twentieth-century Americans because of the Kaiser’s intrigues in Mexico; and to the Americans and Soviet Union, whose main objective was to either win that area or deny it to the enemy.
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Up until the late 19th century, the German lands were essentially the prize to be gained by or denied to powers outside of Germany seeking continental hegemony. In the late 19th century, this latent potential was united by the Germans themselves, under Prussian auspices, and Germany threatened to dominate European politics. The other great powers, both east and west, naturally resisted this impending geopolitical revolution (or attempted to appease Germany for short-term advantages). German leaders reacted to the strategic predicament of potential encirclement through their quest for Mitteleuropa in the First World War, economic dominance during the Weimar Republic, and Hitler’s genocidal Lebensraumproject. They almost succeeded. The consolidated power of a German-dominated central Europe came close to achieving continental and thus global hegemony, first in 1917-1918 and again in 1939-1942. After World War II, Germany was once more divided and the struggle for its control became the heart of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the West. Germany was reconstituted following the fall of the Berlin Wall and its power surged, although more slowly than many had expected. It now dominates the European Union. Those trying to keep that Union together today do so in large part for fear that, otherwise, Germany would become unhinged.
“Again and again, from the Treaty of Westphalia, through the Vienna Settlement, to the establishment of the Western European Union, and the new surge in European integration after the fall of the Wall, the link between the internal order in Germany and the peace of Europe has been made explicit,” Simms writes. “Some of the most important international institutions—the League of Nations, the United Nations, the project of European integration, the Non-Proliferation Treaty and (in part) NATO—were originally designed to contain Germany or to mobilize her energies in the common cause.”
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Simms’s work forces one to reconsider standard accounts of many key developments in European history. For example, the treaties collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia (1648) are typically understood to represent a breakthrough for the modern concepts of sovereignty and nonintervention in the domestic affairs of other states. To the contrary, according to Simms,
the whole purpose of the treaty was to guard against German princes exercising an untrammeled sovereignty which might jeopardize the confessional peace of the Empire and thus the whole European balance…. [T]he Westphalian treaties were nothing less than a charter for intervention: by fixing the internal confessional balance within German principalities, and by placing the whole German settlement under international guarantee, they provided a lever for interference in the internal affairs of the Empire throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
This arrangement was still a means to the ultimate end—to ensure that Germany could not be united under an imperial authority, whether native or foreign, capable of aspiring to universal monarchy. The Holy Roman Empire was supposed to be strong enough to prevent Germans from falling out amongst themselves while keeping out foreign powers, but not so powerful as to become a threat to the European order.
The old Imperial crown itself conferred a certain political legitimacy, especially for those who sought to unify Europe under their rule. Henry VIII wanted the crown; so did Suleiman the Magnificent; Charles V had it; French kings sought it; Napoleon toyed with the idea of claiming it (before he saw to the formal dissolution of the Empire). The resonance of the Empire with Hitler’s “Third Reich” was perfectly clear. The contemporary European Union originated from the same area and in the same spirit, Simms argues, though with a very different content.
Germany has also been the arena of the European ideological struggle. The Holy Roman Empire’s southeastern flank was the most important front against Islam. Central Europe was the fulcrum of the battle between Catholics and Protestants, which culminated in the Thirty Years War. In the 19th century, conservative autocrats and liberal constitutionalists confronted one another most directly in Germany. Germany was the birthplace of Marxism and produced Nazism. The Cold War between Communist dictatorship and democracy was symbolized by the division of Germany and especially that of Berlin.
The struggle for geopolitical and ideological mastery in Germany also drove the process of internal change in Europe, in Simms’s telling. He quotes Leopold von Ranke:
The position of a state in the world depends on the degree of independence it has attained. It is obliged, therefore, to organize all its internal resources for the purpose of self-preservation. This is the supreme law of the state.
The Protestant Reformation, according to Simms, was not just a theological revolt but a protest against internal political disorder and external encroachments in the Empire. Luther and other reformers were profoundly concerned about the Ottoman advance and sought to revive the German nation to meet it. The Great Rebellion against Charles I in England was essentially a revolt against Stuart foreign policy and its failure to protect the Protestant German princes on whom English liberties depended. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was likewise a product of the state system, undertaken in order to restore England’s weight in the councils of Europe.
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Frenchmen overthrew the ancien Régime in 1789, according to Simms, because it failed to mobilize resources successfully to meet France’s long-standing aims in central Europe, and they decapitated Louis XVI because of his alleged subservience to Austria. The “blood and iron” policy of Otto von Bismarck was designed to solve the problem of Germany on Prussian terms; but the Second Reich, based on a federal regime and military organization, proved insufficient to defeat Germany’s enemies in 1917-1918. As a result, the Weimar Republic (and later Nazi Germany) created a much more centralized regime, better able to mobilize resources for continental war. The Russian Revolution of 1917 “was a protest not against the war as such, but against the failure of the tsar to prosecute the conflict against Germany more vigorously.”
One can certainly argue that Simms goes a little too far in his argument about the primacy of foreign policy. Attempts at domestic reform—whether democratic, autocratic, or totalitarian—have complicated roots. Yet it is certainly fair to say that even if one cannot directly demonstrate cause and effect, the result—domestic reform that generates, or seeks to generate, greater military power and diplomatic influence—is present in a statistically significant number of cases. Of particular interest to the student of strategy is the typical behavior of great powers if they are defeated or otherwise think themselves to be suffering from “imperial overstretch.” Their response is commonly not, as one might think, that of retrenchment, reducing commitments and ambitions in order to bring limited resources in line with more modest aims. Rather, based on Simms’s evidence, great powers typically react to foreign policy difficulties by expending greater resources and, if anything, expanding their strategic ambitions. It is only at the point of true exhaustion or comprehensive defeat that major changes in national security policy take place, often long after “objective” analyses would have counseled restraint.
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The search for security and the quest for dominance also drove the expansion of the European powers throughout the globe. Simms acknowledges that the imperial age was not directly the result of German considerations, but the issue was never far from the surface. The European powers saw their empires as valuable not so much in their own right as in providing the material or moral resources to overturn or defend the continental balance of power. English mariners in the 17th and 18th centuries sought to intercept the supply of New World bullion essential to the maintain the armies of their rival, Spain, and its drive for continental hegemony. In the late 19th century, French imperial expansion was one way to try to balance a newly-united Germany. Britain tried to mobilize Jews world-wide against the German kaiser through the Balfour Declaration, which culminated in the creation of the state of Israel after the Second World War.
In this context, one important point for the student of strategy to consider is that the European balance of power—and especially the future of Germany—has been crucial to the most important extra-European power, the United States. “Despite periodic attempts at isolation, the security of the new republic was always primarily dependent on the policies of the European states,” Simms writes.
They were rivals for influence in the western hemisphere and posed a mortal threat when they sought to establish themselves on the flanks of the United States…. American strategists were fearful that were any one power to become predominant in Europe, this would soon be followed by an attempt to impose its authority and ideology on them.
The two great coincident national unifications of the 19th century—that of the United States as a result of its civil war, and of Germany as a result of its wars under Bismarck—resulted in an unprecedented accretion of political, military, and economic strength with huge implications for the balance of power. As things turned out, Germany’s subsequent bids for the mastery of Europe could only be offset by the intervention of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt’s activist foreign policy and progressive domestic agenda were undertaken in part due to his belief that Germany was the most likely threat to world peace. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points (as Simms sees them) were not based on abstract principles but on a concern to reduce German power in Europe to manageable dimensions. (Simms oversimplifies his account of Wilson’s policies and the subsequent Senate rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and U.S. participation in the League of Nations; it is fair to say that national-conservative Republicans like Henry Cabot Lodge opposed the Treaty as submitted because they felt that Wilson’s plan did not engaged the United States effectively enough in what should have been the object of American national security—to prevent the reemergence of German militarism.) Franklin Roosevelt adopted a balance of power understanding of the German threat to bring the United States into World War II.
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Simms makes the interesting argument that Hitler’s long-term strategic objectives—to a greater extent than generally appreciated—were driven by his sense of the threat posed to Germany by the countervailing power of the United States. In the second volume of Mein Kampf Hitler expressed his concern with what he regarded as the growing interventionism of the United States in German and European affairs (the Dawes and Young Plans and the Kellogg-Briand Pact), as well as its growing industrial and cultural strength. According to Hitler, Germany had reached the limits of her internal demographic development but the sheer size of the United States meant that the United States “can continue to grow for centuries.” Americans were a “young, racially select Folk”—effectively “a Nordic German state,” which elevated them above the racially degenerate “Old Europe.” Left unchecked, the world’s fate would be decided by “the Folk of the North American continent.”
Hitler sought the capture of Lebensraum in the east to provide the critical landmass to enable the Reich to survive in a world dominated by the French and British Empires, the Soviet Union, and especially the United States, all of them manipulated by the Jews. Germany would, in sequence, establish its dominance in central Europe, destroy the Soviet Union, and then consolidate its resources to deal with the United States. Hitler originally expected that the final showdown with America and “world Jewry” would take place at some point in the remote future, probably after his death. Roosevelt’s overt opposition to Germany’s plans, signaled (in Simms’s account) by the Quarantine Speech of 1937, rendered Hitler’s original timetable obsolete. The domestic transformation of the German Reich and the consolidation of central Europe would have to be sped up in anticipation of a near-term confrontation with the United States. Hitler saw the Japanese alliance as creating a second front for the United States that would delay its decisive intervention in Europe. After Pearl Harbor, Hitler quickly declared war on America in order to forestall what he feared would be a rapid Japanese collapse if Tokyo was isolated militarily. This proved to be one of many fatal misjudgments by Hitler but it was perfectly consistent with the logic of Germany’s situation.
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This brings us to the present. Now that the great democratic-Communist conflict over the fate of Germany has been decided, does the past remain prologue? Is Germany still the pivot of European and global geopolitics? Is national security still the driver of domestic affairs? Is the United States still strategically joined to Europe, and Germany, by the hip?
At first glance, one might be startled that Simms lists “the democratic geopolitics of NATO and the European Union today” as the latest project to unify Europe, following upon “Hitler’s ‘Thousand Year’ Reich” and “the socialist Utopia espoused by the Soviet Union.” Surely the European Union, composed of democratic members, is different in kind. It should be noted, however, that the Russians do not think that the project is non-threatening (certainly not if NATO is regarded as its de facto military wing). Many Europeans resist what they regard as the soft tyranny of non-elected bureaucrats and judicial officials ruling from Brussels.
Advocates of greater European integration claim otherwise, of course. Only a united Europe, they say, can exercise its just weight in international affairs—with the emphasis on “just.” The Europeanists argue that they have created a security community that precludes geopolitical rivalries within the Union and that “exports” pacific democratic values, rather than invading armies, to the rest of the world. Germany may still be the 800-pound elephant in the European room but theBundesbank is hardly the Wehrmacht.
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At the very least, however, Germany will in large part determine the fate of the European project—whether it will succeed or fail; whether it will go forward to establish a closer union or remain a confederation of nation states; whether it will be a democratic or bureaucratic regime; and whether it will be a partner with or hindrance to the United States. The United States, for its part, speaks of pivoting to Asia (“strategic rebalancing”), signaling a reduction in Europe’s (and the Middle East’s) perceived relative strategic importance. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world, Russia included, hardly looks like it is planning to take a holiday from history. If the native population of Europe and Germany continues to fall off the demographic cliff, and its armies wither away, the old German problem may indeed disappear, to be replaced by a new one.