Friday, May 13, 2016

H.A.L. Fisher: A History of Europe (1935)

Napoleon at Austerlitz Dec 1805 (painting by François Gérard)

[Image source:]

H.A.L. Fisher: A History of Europe (1935)

With a preface to the one-volume edition written in January 1936. The date is arresting, of course. Fisher’s 1,300 pages lead us, as it seems, right up to the threshold of a European catastrophe; yet the author, though plainly guessing much of what was to come, has no firm knowledge of what is constantly in our minds. This is how the book ends:

Europe, then, has now reached a point at which it would seem, as never so clearly in past history, that two alternative and sharply contrasted destinies await her. She may travel down the road to a new war or, overcoming passion, prejudice, and hysteria, work for a permanent organization of peace. In either case the human spirit is armed with material power. The developing miracle of science is at our disposal to use or abuse, to make or mar. With science we may lay civilization in ruins or enter into a period of plenty and well-being the like of which has never been experienced by mankind.

In the mean time the war has left us with an evil legacy. The moral unity of Europe is for the time being broken. Nordic paganism assails Christianity. An insane racialism threatens to rupture the seamless garment of civilization. May future generations close the rents, heal the wounds, and replace our squandered treasure of humanity, toleration, and good sense.

Both destinies, you might say, came to pass; first the ruins and then the plenty. By “the war” Fisher means of course what he calls the Great War and what we call the First World War. Part of the evil legacy, ironically, was that right-minded ideal of good people (as in Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign of 1879, and embodied in the Treaty of Versailles), self-determination of the nation-state.

The sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own.

That was a remarkable and admirable thing to say for the prospective leader of a colonial Empire, but it was colonial thinking nevertheless. The idea of a single, unified native people was not even expressed, it was such a basic assumption. In Europe, the failure to clearly distinguish nation and ethnicity, national self-determination from ethnic self-determination, would be critical. For how could it work where peoples divided by religion, language, and culture inhabited the same ground? The break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, last of the imposed medieval (non-national) hereditary and religious unities, fuelled by well-meaning rhetoric about the right of national self-determination... it spelled trouble. Even more problematic is its applicability to parts of the world (in fact, the majority) where the concept of a national organism is itself a piece of alien culture that cuts right across the real affiliations that matter to its inhabitants; but that consideration takes us beyond Europe and right up to the present time...

A few lines earlier, Fisher meditates on Europe being no longer the unrivalled leader of industry. “It must take its stand on quality. It must live on its taste, its ingenuity, its good sense.” That seems like good prophecy too. Think of IKEA with its “Swedish design” all over the masthead and its actual production beneficently distributed through less favoured parts of the world.  There in miniature is the economic reason why the myth of European superiority has been so energetically and subtly sustained; why the reputation for quality, above all, is a resource that must be allowed to others in a permanently graded manner. If you have some, we must still have more.  

I seem to be writing about this backwards. The Epilogue begins:

After some twenty million years of life upon this planet the lot of the major part of humanity is still, as Hobbes once described it, “nasty, brutish and short.” Of its two thousand million inhabitants some hundred and fifty million are still living very close to the hunger limit.”

Seventy years later, the figures are 6.5 billion (total) and 850 million (undernourished).

In detail, naturally, Fisher is like every historian laid open to the ironies of hindsight. This is about Poland in 1933-34:

A second benefit conferred upon Poland by this remarkable man [Pilsudski] is a good foreign policy. Non-aggression pacts signed with Russia and Germany have brought a sense of security to a nation which dreads nothing so much as a renewal of war in Polish territory.

Similarly Fisher has hope for the other new states brought into existence by the treaty of Versailles, and invigorated by land redistribution:

There were many who lamented the disappearance of the great country houses, which had played their part in the art, letters, and politics of the middle east [i.e. of Europe] for so many centuries. But one of the results of this wide agrarian revolution was that a strong cordon of peasant owners was drawn between Russian communism and central Europe.

How irrelevant that “strong cordon” was, events were to show. All these countries fell pitiful victims to the ensuing horrors; all, to some extent, played a part in perpetrating the horrors; peasant ownership might salve some wounds, but it inflamed others, e.g. the resentment of (traditionally non-landowning) Jewish communities.  

Surprisingly, the shape of Europe imposed by the Treaty of Versailles has to a large extent survived; of course, some of the nations have split into smaller units.  I don’t know if any Hungarians still resent the loss of Transylvania, or if Vienna is still far too large a capital city for the shrunken Austria. At some stage these things do get forgotten, or none of us in the present could ever be contented.  

Many among the Allies hoped that the U.S would sign the Treaty and itself join the League of Nations. If it had done so, the guarantor of those vulnerable new nations would have had a lot more muscle: might the Second War itself have been avoided? (Uneasy speculation for those of us who think present US and British entanglement in the Middle East is wrong.) Anyhow, President Wilson’s nation was in Republican reaction against Europe’s troubles, and the Allies were disappointed on both counts.


High-level overviews work best when you're reading about something you don’t know much about. That’s how I feel, anyhow. Perhaps there are some informed people who have a real taste for masterly précis; the same kind of people, maybe, who admire a well-chosen anthology. But what I was struck by was what I knew especially little of: The Seven Years War, Napoleon’s campaigns, Bismarck. Diplomacy in general.   

I also found it interesting that the partition of Africa by European nations is first described as being motivated by a common desire to suppress the pan-African slave trade and to improve social conditions (p. 1126). The later page on British Imperialism suggests more acquisitive motives: “As usual they had secured the best places [Egypt, Uganda, Nigeria]... Yet the English were not content. Steadily during the sixties, seventies, and eighties they kept extending their tentacles... The climax was reached in 1889-91 when Cecil Rhodes, fortune-hunter and empire-builder, snatched Rhodesia” (p. 1159). – Yet this last act is seen as an affront to Germany, not Africa. I suppose the assumption is that the Africans had no nations, so could not be put out by what happened.

The chapter about slavery begins: “In the history of Europe so far as it is known to us there are two chapters marked by a special note of infamy.” These are, it emerges, the Roman slave trade centred around Delos in the second century BCE and the transatlantic slave trade of various European nations (of which Britain was the most successful and most inhumane) in the 17th-19th centuries. Fisher can say frankly that Britain was the most guilty because he is just about to say that at least abolition started in Britain too. The crucial steps to abolition were taken, as he admits, at a time that was in a way propitious: just after slave-owning America had been lost and just before industrial Lancashire had acquired a motive for defending slave-grown cotton. On the other hand, it took place in the middle of the naval war with France at a time when “every sailor from Nelson downwards declared that [the slave trade’s] abolition would be the ruin of the British Navy...”

However, the point is of course that Fisher’s opening sentence couldn’t have been written ten years later. That there would, on a scale of millions, be a third and fourth chapter in Europe's book of infamy, was yet unknown. (After genocide Hitler intended to revive slavery too. The Slav races, already slaves in name, were to be slaves in fact.)


I want details. Let’s be a bit more probing about this. I’d recently read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why (1953) – a brilliant double biography of Lords Cardigan and Lucan. The book leads up to that terrible hour at Balaclava, but deals with much more: one chapter is about Lucan’s experience as an Irish landlord during the potato famine and clearances. Fisher devotes a whole chapter to the Crimean War, but he gives only one sentence (and that a dull one) to the famine and clearances. That’s a disastrous slight on a book that purports to be about “Europe” (in actuality, the emphasis in the more recent centuries is overwhelmingly on France, Germany, and England).    

On the Crimean War Fisher’s account of diplomatic and military bungling is full of sharp lessons vaguely reminiscent of the classical historians; as if writing this kind of history is a behaviour that creates its own subjects. In its own terms this is good writing, and is for use: modern makers of foreign policy, attend!  Reading Woodham-Smith’s book, on the other hand, we are overwhelmed by something quite outside that classical range, that is by the differentness of Victorian society, the uniqueness of the disaster. Yet where does summary stop? It’s like the layers of the onion, and Woodham-Smith’s book too is surmise and generalities; this, however, is the level of granularity that I prefer to read.  



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