The Shortest History of Europe Paperback – 4 Sep 2012
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'Beautifully and sparely constructed, yet rich in fact, feeling and detail'
'A wise, illuminating little book'
Sydney Morning Herald
'An entertaining, learned piece of historical compression'
The Courier Mail
'The balance of analysis and description, generalisation and specific instance, is beautifully maintained'
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Authors Bio, not available --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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This review is a somewhat longer version of my original review.
The original “Shortest History” covered only up to circa 1800AD. This version brings us up to date. I guestimate that it runs to about 65,000 words. It is a masterpiece of concision, especially as it quite intentionally returns repeatedly to certain points.
Based on a series of his lectures, it is written by an Australian professor, whom I suspect is old enough to have received a Eurocentric and/or Anglocentric education.
It contains very few names and dates instead concentrating on a few very big themes. It might more meaningfully be called, in the author's phrase, "What is it about Europe?" as its subject is what it is that makes Europe Europe? Eastern Europe - other than ancient Greece - and Scandinavia are hardly mentioned.
Hirst begins by looking at the "three elements" that, to him, formed the foundation of European civilization - Graeco-Roman culture, Christianity, the culture of the Germanic warriors who overran the Western Roman Empire and how these three elements interacted and evolved to create Latin Christendom. He then discusses the transition from medieval to modern through the influences of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.
These comprise the first quarter of the book. He then looks at the impact of the Germanic, Muslim and Viking invasions; the forms of government in pre-modern Europe and how these were influenced by military necessity and the comparative weakness of European monarchs vis-à-vis their subjects compared to rulers elsewhere; the struggles between emperors and popes; the evolution of Romance languages and of English before a chapter on the lives of the peasants and of the evolution of field systems before what was the brief conclusion of the shorter version where he addresses the question "What is it about Europe?"
The slightly less short Shortest History had two additional chapters, forming its last quarter. The first, on Industrialization and Revolutions, covers the 19th century and compares and contrasts industrialization and political change in Britain, France and Germany. The second covers the two World Wars and is very much focused on Germany.
One factual error I noted was that on page 122 he states that two European countries – Finland and Hungary – have non-Indo-European languages, thus ignoring Estonia and Georgia.
While one can agree or disagree with certain of Hirst's conclusions and/or inclusions or exclusions I regard his work as a miniature gem.
So do others. All the reviews this has received to date are either 4 or 5 star – this is the only 5 star review I’ve given to date – with one exception, a 1 star review on Amazon.com by Michael Demkowicz and I would refer would be readers to it to obtain an alternative appraisal.
I really do feel I've learned more history from this than from any other book. Not that it has introduced me to new events or personages; what it does is to rise above all these details and pull them together into a unifying whole. The huge amorphous slew of historical facts that I have absorbed over 60 years (from books, talks, films, t.v. programmes and travel) suddenly makes sense! It was, for me, an experience similar to reading about the periodic table and suddenly realising that chemistry wasn't simply a whole collection of unrelated elements...
I would also compare what John Hirst does for history with what Steven Pinker does for language: both make their points with exemplary clarity and an easy, witty style (with judicious use of diagrams). What's remarkable about this book, though, is its concision - how does he manage to pack so much into less than 150 pages?
This book is only loosely chronological; it does move towards the modern day as it progresses, but it's not a strict chronological narrative of leaders and battles. It's really more about big ideas and big changes than it is about the details. This book starts with Europe's ancient foundations (Greek and Roman culture) and then shows how it evolved and was reshaped over time (ie Christianity, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, etc) into the continent we know today.
What this book doesn't do is swamp you in endless detailing of obscure dynastic feuds, or drown you in a never-ending list of kings and queens, or expect you to care about troop formations in insignificant medieval skirmishes. That's not to say it completely avoids talking about specific places and people - for instance, you'll meet Charlemagne, Napoleon, Cromwell, Robespierre, among others - but it's always concise and places these 'details' within a broader narrative.
This book is perfect for beginners because it requires virtually no background knowledge - even relatively well-known concepts such as the Roman Empire are introduced before they are utilised to explain some aspect of European development. It's an excellent gateway into European history, well-written and full of fascinating facts as well.
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