[I meant to have this finished by the time I left, but it won’t be completed. I’ll finish it later if there’s enough interest.]
In his afterword to Caliphate, Tom Kratman invited us to imagine a world without Europe – except as a geographical expression. The statement is dramatic, but somewhat inaccurate. The key to understanding Europe – and the European Union – is to bear in mind that ‘Europe’ has never been anything more than a geographical expression. While there are plenty of political leaders willing to give airtime to the concept of European unity, the truth is that Europe remains a deeply divided continent.
Part One: The Rise
If an alien visitor were to look down on Earth in 1500, he would see the civilisations in the Middle East, China, India and Latin America. He might well conclude that the future belonged to the Ottoman Empire – still waging war with the Europeans – or the Chinese. Europe – disunited Europe – seemed weak and insignificant. Yet by 1600 Europe was advancing forward at astonishing speed, by 1800 it was effectively superior to every other civilisation on the planet and by 1900 it ruled much of the globe. Naturally, there was no such thing as ‘Europe;’ the empires were British, French, Spanish and – the latecomers – German. Yet European influence ruled.
Why did this happen? In many ways, Europe’s disunity provided the key. In China and to some extent the Ottoman Empire, the rulers could freeze large parts of society in stagnation. Such luxuries could never be allowed in post-1500 Europe; states that stagnated, that failed to innovate, died. Europe was a boiling caldron with too many states in close proximity. Europeans both struggled for dominance and expanded overseas.
And yet there was no such thing as a dominant power. Almost every state in Europe attempted to create a hegemony, but they failed. The English lost their empire in France. Spain couldn’t leverage its vast wealth from Mexico into European-wide dominance, France couldn’t expand beyond its natural frontiers, Germany was caught between two hostile powers … even Russia, with its vast natural resources, was unable to rise to supreme power.
The three geopolitical rules of Europe, 1500 to 1945, are these;
1) No state will manage to create a complete hegemony over Europe.
2) No state will ever truly vanish from Europe, nor will it stay down forever.
3) Fighting outside Europe is largely irrelevant to the overall war.
The first rule is aptly illustrated by a list of would-be conquerors that range from Edward I of England, Napoleon of France and Hitler of Germany. All of them managed early successes, but eventually bit off much more than they could chew. They were, at least in part, defeated by geopolitics. No European state could muster the power to keep the others down permanently.
The second rule is also well-illustrated with historical examples. Prussia was soundly beaten by France during the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, yet she recovered in time to play a crucially important role in Napoleon’s final defeat. France was also soundly beaten (and thrown into revolution) in the Franco-Prussian War, but she also recovered far quicker than anyone expected. And Germany, of course, was beaten (on the battlefield, despite Hitler’s later claims) in 1918, yet she would return to power and make another try at dominating Europe in 1939.
The third rule may seem absurd to modern eyes, but it was very definitely true at the time. Napoleon was beaten in Europe, not in the rest of the world. (The brief War of 1812 was nothing more than a distraction for the British.) The shifts in the balance of power as Prussia became Imperial Germany were centred in Europe. Germany, in both world wars, had to be stopped in Europe. The fighting outside Europe was largely immaterial to the overall conflict.
So what, you might reasonably ask, went wrong?
As history glided into 1900, the signs of European weaknesses were already becoming apparent. Outside powers – the US and Japan – were gaining in local power (the Japanese had beaten the Russians in 1904-05) while Europe itself was becoming a powder keg. The satisfied powers (Britain, France and to some extent Russia) were being pressured by the newcomers (mainly Germany), while tech was advancing to the point where European advantages were being cancelled out.
The powder keg was ready. And then some idiot lit a match. Twice.
Part Two: The Fall
The geopolitics of World War One ensured that the war would be bloody and lengthy, both of which would be disastrous for Europe as a whole. Put simply, Germany had to beat France before Russia invaded from the east, while the French and Russians believed that they could crush Germany between them. In order to win, Germany had to invade through Belgium, which dragged the British into the war. British support ensured that France couldn’t be knocked out quickly, while Russia was simply too large to be beaten by Germany. The war stalemated.
Naturally, both sides started looking for ways to get around the slaughter. British and French forces attacked the German Empire and the Ottoman Empire (Turks) in the hopes that it could prove a silver bullet. Unsurprisingly, it failed; Germany could only be beaten in Europe and Turkey proved surprisingly resilient. Germany, meanwhile, experimented with unrestricted submarine warfare, which had the unexpected consequence of bringing America into the war. For the first time, a major outside army joined a war in Europe. It was a harbinger of things to come.
That Germany was beaten on the battlefield is no longer in doubt. By the time the Germans sued for peace, the BEF had mastered mobile warfare to the point where it was the most capable army in the world. European economies had taken a beating, but Germany had broken first. Still, the effects were traumatic, made worse by meddling from President Wilson and the sudden collapse of several European powers. The damage had been so shocking that common sense was forgotten and, having knocked the Germans down, the rest of Europe promptly blamed them for the entire war. Put bluntly, the Treaty of Versailles was a gross diplomatic and geopolitical blunder without parallel until 1991, when the Gulf War ended so unsatisfactory.
Hitler charged that the treaty was grossly unfair. For once, he was right. It was also grossly unwise. European history said that Germany would rise again – it was not clever to give Hitler (or any other nationalist) such a wonderful rallying cry. Nor was the treaty really enforceable. The Germans could not (and never did) pay the full reparations they were supposed to pay. Finally – to cap the stupidity shown by the diplomats – Germany was not broken up. To paraphrase a line from Machiavelli, they missed the opportunity to do Germany a lethal injury – and settled for a minor injury that ensured that the Germans would want revenge. Hitler used the treaty to help him get into power.
This should not have been surprising. What was surprising was the barbaric nature of the Nazi Regime. It was not only the last (so far) attempt at establishing a European-wide hegemony, but an attempt to reshape large sections of the globe in a manner that no other European ruler had dared to dream. Hitler was underestimated largely because he was almost completely unprecedented.
The other European states were not in any fit state to wage total war against Germany from the start. Chamberlain and the other appeasers have gone down in history as weak and foolish men and (to some extent) they were. On the other hand, there was very little enthusiasm for refighting the utterly devastating Great War, Round II. Even if the Western Allies came out ahead (as seemed plausible, at least up to the Fall of France) the costs of war might well destroy them. The Great War had gained them very little worth having.
This combination of a reluctance to stand up to Hitler and partly underestimating him proved disastrous. Chamberlain conceded far too much to Hitler before finally realising that the Fuhrer would never be truly satisfied. But by the time they did try to stand up to him, it was too late to stop him without a major war.
Matters were made worse by the existence of the Soviet Union. The Western Allies saw Stalin as a considerable threat too (the USSR had been trying to subvert the European Empires and populations ever since its foundations) and found it hard to find common ground with the soviets. Stalin – quite rightly – realised that what proposals were put forward were basically ‘lets you and him fight.’ The agreement between the Nazis and the USSR came as a complete surprise, but in hindsight it makes a great deal of sense. Stalin had no reason to trust the Western Allies.
To add to the Western Allies woes, the Germans had been working hard on developing new tactics and technology for breaking the lethal stalemate of WW1. When war came, the Western Allies were swept off the continent entirely, leaving France occupied and Britain at bay. Had Hitler stopped there, he might have achieved the continent-wide hegemony dreamed of for so long. Instead – like so many others – he bit off more than he could chew. Invading Russia was bad enough, but declaring war on the United States was suicide.
But by the time the war came to an end, Europe was forever changed.