The Magazine

Organizing Europe

The key to continental 'unity' lies in its center.

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Early in this book, author Brendan Simms, professor of history at Cambridge, quotes John Locke: “How fond soever I am of peace I think truth ought to accompany it, which cannot be preserved without Liberty. Nor that without the Balance of Europe kept up.” As Simms indicates, for Locke, “truth” was defined as Protestantism and parliamentary government, while “the Balance of Europe” referred to the security of the German territories in its heartland. 

Europe

'The Celebration of the Peace of Münster' by Bartholomeus van der Helst (1648)

The larger significance of Locke’s comment is the basis of this sweeping and provocative volume. In Simms’s reading, the peoples of Europe long required the preservation of “German liberty,” meaning the autonomy of the German princes against the Habsburg Austrian rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. Germany was therefore the recurring battleground—during the Renaissance as well as the “revolutionary age” that began in the 17th century—for, successively, the Habsburgs, England as a partner for the Habsburgs, the French, and Russia.  

Simms argues that the foreign strategies of the powers were inextricable from their domestic policies. Linkages between peace or war and liberty extend, in his view, through every armed conflict and political upheaval since the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Moreover, Simms’s attitude toward the relation between internal freedom and foreign affairs is relevant to the current ideological debate in the West, between the supporters of global intervention and its opponents.  

In discussing the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, Simms offers a novel interpretation of its lasting import: He affirms that it “has been seen by generations of international lawyers and international relations theorists as the breakthrough for the modern concepts of sovereignty and non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states.” But, he declares, “the whole purpose of the treaty was to guard against German princes exercising an untrammeled sovereignty” over their differing Catholic and Protestant believers, and “the Westphalian treaties were nothing less than a charter for intervention.” Simms also justifies “strong central government with tax-raising powers,” amplifying a common English argument, heard at the end of the 17th century, that “a free people require a strong and expensive state.”  

Simms discloses connections between wars that appear distant, but which were fought to achieve the same end. Issues joined far from Central Europe were, for Simms, extensions or reflections of the challenges in the middle of the continent. To cite one instance, he explains that a Russian war against the Ottomans in 1736 “was intended in large part to create an alternative imperial legitimacy to that conferred by the Holy Roman Empire.” 

With the Habsburgs reigning over the Empire, none of the other European powers anticipated a new, major factor emerging in Prussia under Frederick II, who gained the throne in 1740. Prussia seized Habsburg territory in Silesia (today mainly in southern Poland), but the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa summoned a defensive force, and her dominion survived, although she lost most of Silesia.

Four main European states—which remain such to the present—had by then assumed supremacy: Great Britain, France, Russia, and Prussia, the latter as a united Germany after 1871. German echoes were present in every succeeding world crisis. Once America achieved independence, European problems occupied the American Founders, and Simms presents the constitutional debates in The Federalist as deeply marked by the bad example of decentralized authority in the German states.

In France, hatred of the royal consort Marie Antoinette, born a Habsburg princess, and rejection of a French alliance with Habsburg Austria contributed to the disintegration of the Bourbon monarchy. The French revolutionary regime turned against Austria and invaded the Holy Roman Empire; Napoleon, taking leadership of the French, fought against Austria, Prussia, and their protectors, Russia and Britain. Napoleon overcame Prussia and demanded that the Habsburgs surrender their claim over the Germans. He compelled the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, after nearly eight centuries, while Germany was reorganized and the process of its unification begun. 

Ultimately, Napoleon was defeated in 1815, but, as Simms attests, a new European order had come into existence. The end of the Holy Roman Empire was a “third revolution,” after those of America and France, in which the Central European equilibrium was overthrown.