A Short History of Europe

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 05 Mar 2019

Member Reviews

This book was not as easy read and that's not because it wasn't good or interesting; there was just so much information to absorb and I hadn't read a lot of the past info since high school. I enjoyed this book, even though it took a while to read, because it was a great reminder of what I had previously learned and how people seem to repeat history expecting different results. 

If you are looking for a good refresher on European history, I would recommend this book. 

4 stars. 

I voluntarily reviewed this book on Netgalley.
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A "great men" overview of the history of Europe.

I presume the author is English, but in general he does well at keeping the appropriate focus on what has been deemed the "most relevant" stories of the development of Europe over time: quick prehistory primer, Greece, Rome, first migration period, Charlemagne and all that, "Holy Roman Empire," second migration and the Vikings, Britain vs. France/HRE vs. Pope, Habsburgs vs. everyone else, the French, and then the standard narratives since the Renaissance.  

In general the narrative seems consistent with what I have seen in other textbooks, although I found one glaringly bad explanation: the author seems to have no understanding of the Christological controversies of the 5th century.  Granted, anyone who claims to have complete understanding of those controversies is delusional; nevertheless, it cannot be said, as the author does, that it was all about the "Nestorians" vs. the "Orthodox," and the latter won.  The lack of nuance actually hurts his arguments anyway: in truth, the whole thing was more smoke than fire, more political than anything else, with two groups going to extremes ("Nestorians" and "Monophysites"), and the "orthodox" trying to maintain some Biblical balance at Chalcedon (which, ironically, sounded more "Nestorian" than it did "Monophysite").  It wasn't just the Church of the East that broke away - so did the Syrian Orthodox and the Egyptian Orthodox (or Coptics); the latter groups were more than happy to welcome the Muslim invaders, since they ended up living under greater tolerance from them than the "orthodox" Byzantine emperor.  In the book it's a minor point, and no one can be expected to have a full understanding of everything, but the way the Christological controversy was explained is a distortion of the historical accounts.

All such explorations are done with motivations, and the author's seems to involve the push and pull about what it means to be "European."  He seems eager to understand the current politics surrounding the European Union in terms of historic parallels: British vacillation about being "in" or "out" of Europe, northern vs. southern Europe, the lingering effects of Lotharingia, etc.  There's certainly some evidence for all of this, and it's interesting, but it leads the author right into the "history of the moment," which is always a dangerous thing to explain, since it's hard to know what the controlling narrative might be.  That controlling narrative looked one way in 2003; quite another in 2010; even more so in 2015; and blown up ever since.  

The author unapologetically tells the story according to the "great man" theory, so it's all about kings and wars and national boundary changes with a little bit of the arts, philosophy, etc. as it relates to historical developments.  Caveat emptor.

A decent introduction to European history.
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This book has a lot of interesting facts, but the author is very short sighted regarding his opinions of  women in history being not as  important in Europe's history. Maybe he needs to study history more and he will find he is in fact wrong.
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As other reviews have stated, this book is more of a condensed and abridged overview of European history than a  textbook. With that in mind, I find the level of detail and examination to be sufficiently entertaining for history buffs, while also not being TOO dry for the average reader.
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A Short History of Europe begins with Neanderthals and concludes with the 2016 vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. In between are births, deaths, court intrigue and full-blown battles.

Whether you are planning to go on Jeopardy or just want to impress academics with your cocktail party banter, A Short History of Europe will assist in your goal. Each chapter is just long enough to read before bed. With enough information to whet your curiosity, you too will be searching Wikipedia for more details of those characters that intrigue you. 

My only complaint is the random first-person comments inserted within some of the chapters especially the rather long portion on the future of the EU at the end. However, the editing of over 4500 years into 400 extremely readable and interesting pages is pretty remarkable. 4 stars!

Thanks to PublicAffairs/Perseus Books and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Every so often you find a book that is quite upfront about what it is and what it isn’t, and such is Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin. Beginning with ancient Greece and going from there, Jenkins provides a magisterial overview of several thousand years of European history. It’s a bit of a greatest hits of the past 3,000 years of history, ranging over the great convulsions that have rocked the continent almost from the beginning of its existence.

The early parts of the book are a bit too reductive for my tastes, and I would say that the book really doesn’t hit its stride until he moves out of antiquity and into the medieval, Renaissance, and modern periods. There, he starts to provide what I view to be actual historical analysis rather than repetition of the traditional narratives about both antiquity and late antiquity. Once we get into the more recent centuries, we begin to see how the conflicts that roiled these centuries set the stage for what was to come later.

As Jenkins makes clear, Europe has always struggled with two competing impulses: the desire to forge a collective identity and the equally powerful drive to seek self-determination for its constituent parts. Just as importantly, Jenkins points out that Europe’s other continual struggle has been against the impulse to barbarism and warfare. Again and again, Europe has been convulsed by armed conflicts that have left hundreds of thousands of dead. One would think that this would provide an imperative for the various nations to find some way of preventing such conflict, but such peace has proved elusive.

As a result of this deep history, Jenkins allows us to see the reasons for the current struggles and upheaval afflicting the European Union. I would go so far as to suggest that it is this contextualization that is the book’s primary contribution to an understanding of European history. One senses that his own ambivalence about the EU might be coloring some of his conclusions–and some of his analysis–but as a whole I find his diagnosis of the problem (if not his solutions) convincing.

I do have a few quibbles with the book. While Jenkins makes it clear from the beginning that most of the figures he discusses will be men–presumably because most of the most important figures in European history have been male. I find this to be a rather disingenuous argument, and it runs the serious risk of marginalizing those figures who have actually been far more influential than Jenkins seems to give them credit for.

All in all, A Short History of Europe is a useful guide for those who may not have much of a knowledge of European history and want to understand how it is that the entity that we know came into being. It also helps us to understand why it is that Europe continues to be such a draw for so many people around the world, a continent characterized by its utopian desires and the concomitant inability of those desire to be fulfilled.
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When trying to tell the history of Europe in around 400 pages, I didn't expect a great deal of detail and if you go in with that attitude, I think you will be very satisfied by this book. This is a shotgun of a nonfiction, taking you from the start of civilization of Europe up to the present day. Things you may have wanted more detail on will pass by quickly but now you can look into that subject more thoroughly. I like the thought of stumbling across a name or event in these pages and then going to find out more about it, which was the intention of the book, in my opinion. 

In the end, I believe A Short History of Europe did exactly what it set out to do. Were there pieces of history that I thought were important that he left out? Of course but history, like a lot of things, is a matter of perspective and the majority of the greatest figures in history did get their due (small though it may have been).
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Two quick caveats from me: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, which follows (thanks, NetGalley!). And in contrast to the author, I was a history major in college, with a focus on European history, although that was a long time ago and this book was a nice refresher which will serve me well should I ever be a contestant on Jeopardy!

A couple of important caveats from the author, one in his prologue, one in his epilogue. He tells us right at the start that this is meant to be a short history, according to its title, and therefore covers the breadth of Europe's past without going into depth -- I've read books much much longer on individual topics, like the French Revolution or WWII. That means that he focuses on political history, which means military history since Europe almost always seems to be at war.

In the epilogue, he reminds us that he is not a historian and therefore relies on secondary sources -- i.e. the work of actual historians. He is a journalist and he has done a credible job of reporting on the work of historians, distilling their ideas into short statements that, according to my recollection, are mostly accurate (perhaps even completely accurate -- my memory is not good enough to be completely emphatic about it).

"What we learn from history is that no one learns from history," Bismarck said, as Simon Jenkins tells us in A Short History of Europe. That is what I took away as the main message that Jenkins wants us to heed -- that we are possibly on the cusp of seeing a repeat of the same historical mistakes Europe has consistently committed as it inevitably wound its way to its next disaster.

The Short History is designed to show us that there has been a recurring cycle of east-west and north-south divides, with Britain trying to keep itself at least partially out of the fray, that lead to war, often senselessly. Right now, with Russia's aggressive response to NATO taking over the former Soviet Bloc states, Britain distancing itself from the continent via Brexit, and nationalism again on the rise, the mostly peaceful post-WWII, post-Cold War era may yet again devolve into conflict. That the U.S. is embroiled in its own political divisions and is (at least temporarily) shifting its European positions (or threatening to do so) is further cause for alarm.

I recognize Jenkins's reasons for sounding such an alarm -- as an American I am alarmed at what is going on in the U.S. and as a Europhile I would hate to see my favorite continent eat itself up again. But that is the conclusion the book reaches in its final chapter. To that point, it is as promised a concise retelling of Europe's past from a geopolitical perspective, and despite being historical non-fiction, it makes for a page-turner of a story.
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A fact filled history of Europe from the beginning, while I found it dry and hard to read at times I do recommend to any history fan
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I must preface this review by saying that I received a review copy of this book from NetGalley.

A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin is a capable single-volume history of the geopolitical entity of Europe.  It is relative short and to the point.  And it is relatively novel in that it eschews the history of the states of Europe.  In his introduction, Simon Jenkins—a notable journalist and writer on history, politics, and architecture—makes the reader well aware that Jenkins is also aware of the shortcomings of the book.  And he encourages the reader to go deeper on their own, and provides the roadmap to do so.  This gives the volume a lot of utility for the general public.

Jenkins writes that he is writing a conventional history, meaning that he has divided the work into periods defined by Great Men and Great Powers.  This political approach can be problematic in that it removes all other narratives, which Jenkins repeats are absolutely as important.  They’re just outside his scope.  And given the small page count, understanding how to control scope is important.  The work is also quite unconventional.  Jenkins is generally uninterested in the life and times of states.  Those Great Men in his history are those who have transcended the nation and the state and affect a “continental consciousness”.

As such, he begins with Greece.  People existed before, a long line of European polities began long before we have names for the states and instead refer to the civilizations by their artifacts.  But Greece not only introduced the concept of a Europe, but formed the basis of European identity through Hellenistic and Roman inheritance.  From here, we move very swiftly through time.  Important figures and population movements are the meat of the first third of the book.  It’s this from which we have modern European states, which rose from Germanic kingdoms in France, Italy, and Spain on the ashes of Rome and the flourishing Roman Catholic religion.

From there we delve more into the development of the modern state itself.  In some ways, this may seem like it goes against the introduction’s insistence that individual states are not the focus, but if we view these vignettes as case studies which are representative of the growth of the state from a personal domain to a bureaucratic entity, from enslaved peoples to citizens with a social contract, it makes perfect sense.

The last third looks at how these states interacted, writ large: Napoleonic Wars, the Peace of Metternich, two World Wars, and then the Cold War.  It ends with a bit of a contradiction.  On one hand, the European political system is seeming to unify into an ever-stronger federal system in the EU.  Yet on the other, seeds of doubt are planted by a rebirth of nationalism and a Russia which seeks to profit from chaos if that EU breaks.  The book ends on a bit of a down note, questioning the future of the relative peace and prosperity brought by these four thousand years of European existence.

This is a good book for the layperson, who may not be terribly aware of European history or one seeking a history which goes beyond being a collection of national histories.  The review copy I received does not have illustrations present, but it does include a considerable list which are to be included in the final version.  Aside from that, it is well formatted and well edited.  In the back is a list of works referenced, in lieu of citations; which is sufficient for the intended audience (who, frankly, probably aren’t interested in obscure scholarly works).  Overall, this book is worth looking at.
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A short History of Europe is a astonishingly successful place. In this dazzling new history, bestselling author SImon Jenkins grippingly tells the story of its evolution from warring peoples to peace, wealth and freedom-a story that twists and turns from Greece and Rome, though the Dark Ages, the Refromation and the French Revolution, to the Second World War and up to the present day. Jenkins takes in leaders from Julius Caesar and Joan of Arc, to Wellington and Angela Merkal, as well as cultural figures from Aristotle to Shakespeare and Picasso. He brings together the transformation active forces and dominant erars into one chronological tale.
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