Simon Jenkins’s Short History of Europe has a very different character. As well as being considerably briefer, it is thematically narrower, concentrating on European high politics. Chronologically Jenkins takes a much longer view, starting in Periclean Athens, although he, too, is most at home with modernity: around half of the book is devoted to the past three centuries. Its concerns are inward-facing: not with what Europeans have done for or to the rest of the world but with what they have historically done to one another. His verdict has little of MacLennan’s triumphalism: the course that he charts is marked out with European battlefields and body-counts. Jenkins’s Europeans are inveterate and seemingly incurable warmongers, whose bitterest foes are always one another. Treaties and peace conferences notwithstanding, it is only ever a matter of time before it all kicks off again. Britain (which here mostly means England) appears as a lone outpost of calm in this sea of troubles. With its eleven dead, the 1819 “Peterloo Massacre” seems almost quaintly named beside the sanguinary tallies from foreign upheavals. Jenkins’s standpoint is unmistakably insular, to the extent that “Europe” is portrayed on one occasion, revealingly if perhaps inadvertently, as a continent altogether distinct from its offshore adjunct. It is at Westminster that cooler heads and more moderate counsels repeatedly prevail.
I have great admiration for Jenkins as a journalist; he has an annoying tendency to bring logic to arguments I’m viscerally inclined to oppose. In other words, he’s disturbingly convincing. Unfortunately, his razor-edged logic is not allowed to flourish in this book because it’s too short. He’s in too much of a hurry to pause and reflect. In addition, I’ve always felt that the mark of a really good short survey is if the author still finds room for telling detail — quirky little stories that reveal big truths. Sadly, there’s little of that here. This book fails to surprise.
He has written engagingly about English cathedrals and parish churches, but without much feeling for the faith which inspired their builders...one may choose to take issue with Jenkins on many matters... Never mind; the book is rich in such brief characterisations, usually vivid, quite often apposite. Indeed one of the many charms of Jenkins’ gallop across the centuries is his knack for the good quotation.
Jenkins, the former editor of The Times and chairman of the National Trust, has not written that book. Instead he has produced a whistle-stop tour of the most old-fashioned kind, all emperors, kings, wars and treaties, heavily weighted towards the continent’s west and particularly to England.
...Does Jenkins’s short history have a thesis? Not really. At the end he muses about the tension between the idea of European civilisation and the reality of European diversity, and suggests, plausibly enough, that the EU will only survive in the long run if it evolves into a “multi-tiered confederacy”. But most of his book is simply a gallop from one war to the next, very much along the lines of 1066 and All That’s “103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates”...But although most academics will surely hate it, I found Jenkins’s book impossible to dislike. He is an admirably polished and confident narrator, and even if he did dash it off in a couple of evenings, so what? We often complain that youngsters know little European history and have no sense of overall narrative, and it is unrealistic to expect millions of people to plough through all 1,300 pages of, say, Norman Davies’s Europe: A History. Old-fashioned it may be, but if you are looking for a Christmas present for a teenager who has never heard of Peter the Great, the Borgias or the Crimean War, this is the book for you.