on 20 May 2012
Having always an interest in the formation of modern Europe, especially of Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe, I thought this would tie things together for me. Too true. It does the job perfectly so that you can see the machinations [or is superb diplomacy] of Metternich, Cavour, Bismarck, von Beust and Russell. Taylor explains in everyday terms why Austria didn't join with the rest of the German-speaking world; and how Italy came to have such a strange northern border; and why the Triple Alliance of 1883 predisposed Europe to a major war; and .....oh too many things to mention. Just well written and easy to follow, even if you need to make the odd note of who's who. And now the Balkan question has been reopened in our time; and the viability of Greece as a sovereign state; and the dominance across the continent of Berlin the old capital of Prussia; and France's continuing claim to be the focus for culture and European sensibility. So much of Taylor's book makes sense today, probably in a way he couldn't envisage. Highly recommended.
on 11 June 2011
Wonderful read, accessible, informative, compelling and sometimes very funny. The detail is exquisite, this got my through my A level History coursework as well as the responsibility for First World War question in the exam. Would recommend this to anyone interested in the topic who wants a accessible read and to A level and University students alike who a required to study this exciting era in international relations. A.J.P Taylor is a creative, brilliant historian who brings an new level of enjoyment to the subject, you will find yourself engrossed in the story and the relationships between foreign ministers and leaders, unable to put the book down and before you will know it will be 1 in the morning. Bottom line this book is very very good for any budding historian and a thoroughly enjoyable read!
This is the story - told from the point of view of the diplomatic players - of the last decades of European domination of the world. It is also about the death of the balance of power and the decline of both France and Austria-Hungary. The focus of the book is what leaders were thinking, how they pursued their goals, and the outcome of their machinations and wars, most petty, some major. This approach (diplomatic history) contrasts sharply with analytic or narrative histories whose principal aims include the search for broad trends, the interpretation of deeper causes, and portraits of culture and everyday life. Instead, here, you get what the powerful were trying to do, literally from moment to moment. For myself, while fascinating in many aspects and essential, I found it pretty dry as a reading experience.
The beginning of the period, in the wake of the 1848 revolutions, marks the end of a long period of "revolutionary diplomacy", whereby the ideals of the French Revolution influenced many diplomatic actions. Napoleon III seized power and concentrated on more traditional balance of power diplomacy, as head of the most powerful nation-state at the time. The Brits were content to develop on their own, only stepping into continental entanglements when they could no longer avoid it. Russia, Austria-Hungary and Turkey were in perhaps terminal decline, though clinging to the perquisites of power in their respective multi-ethnic autocracies, in which nationalistic ambitions of an astonishing array of players were threatening them with territorial dissolution. In the effort to unify the country, Italy was having its own revolution. The great wild card was Prussia, at the beginning of the period a small kingdom that, under the leadership of a strategic genius, Bismarck, was slowly consolidating its hold over a vast territory of Germanic speakers; it was a nation in birth, a coming industrial superpower with a huge population that would irrevocably shatter the balance of power.
Until 1870, these powers struggled for the typical fruits of the time: gaining territories, trade rights, and any number of privileges or concessions from each other. The complexity of these concerns is daunting and almost without exception obscure, but they were indeed the principal concerns of the leaders of the time. When disputes reached a certain point of impasse, they were often resolved by small-scale war, giving the victor the spoils of whatever was demanded, be it passage into and out of the Black Sea, domination of Poland, or control of the Suez Canal for trade with Asia. The book attempts to cover every single one of these disputes, showing exactly what was contemplated in chronological succession and the what happened in the end. Some readers seem to like this detail, and the gist is important to understand, but a lot of it is historical trivia of little interest, at least in my estimation.
Each power was juggling so many interests that the whole is like a dark forest of thorny complexities, obscure secret agreements, and tenuous alliances of mutual benefit. It was like they were all playing chess on the same board - some controlling the major pieces, some smaller ones, all in potential conflict or cooperation at one time but not another. Another analogy that comes to mind is competing LEGO constructions in a limited space, each player endowed with its own array of pieces that they traded and fought over or used collaboratively.
Beyond the petty wars (to 1870), there were 3 major engagements that led to decisive consequences. 1) The Crimean War removed Russia as a top-tier player until after WWII. 2) The Prussian victory over Austria-Hungary reduced the latter, with all its ethnic divisions, to a dependent power, ratifying German domination of central EUrope. 3) In 1870, France also fell from the top tier, when it capitulated to Prussia after a brief war.
The Conference of Berlin led to the longest period of peace in Europe since the Roman Empire. Over the next 40-odd years, European diplomats played the game of the balance of power, all the while investing in the new determinants of power: commerce, heavy industry (in particular steel production), and military technology; they avoided outright war. The two greatest achievers in this realm were Great Britain (with its mechanized navy) and Germany (split between navy and ground forces), leaving others behind in one or more areas. They created innumerable systems of alliances, peacekeeping, and trade, but all for the traditional parochial reasons. It should be noted that many of their motivations were face-saving and for appearance and prestige, for they had to take public opinion increasingly into consideration. This added to inflexibility.
The outbreak of WWI is part of a long discussion in the book. This was one of the most interesting dissections of diplomatic detail that I have ever read. According to Taylor, the bottom line was that the various powers thought the war would be short and decisive. Germany wanted to dominate Europe and thought it could do so by aggrandizing its territories. France, Russia, and Great Britain feared this and hoped to preserve the balance of power to their advantage. Austria Hungary and Turkey wanted to maintain the integrity of their territories from splitting into ethno-linguistic nation states. Oddly, none of the major powers seemed to have any clear goals, backup plans, or even coherent strategies, but went into it as a way to impose solutions to their advantage by force rather than diplomacy - that is, the way things had been done prior to 1870, but with far more advanced military machines that mobilized not just whole populations but industrial economies. Once started, no one could back down and it became a catastrophic war of attrition, bringing in the USA and ending the era of EUropean domination of the world. That brings us to 1918.
I believe Taylor's interpretation of the European modus operandi - the fight to maintain yet disrupt the balance of power - is correct. What I missed was a lively narrative with biographical texture and descriptive detail. I know that that is not part of the strict discipline of diplomatic history, but potential readers should be aware of this.
Recommended. It is a fundamental text, but something of a chore to read.
on 27 July 2001
This book is typical of AJP Taylor's brilliant and original historical analysis. Where it falls below his standard (particularly Origins of Second World War) is in the turgidness of the writing, and the blow-by-blow account of events. There is also an element of "I am writing a great book here". I think also maybe the period was too long and complex to suite AJP Taylor's level of detail which I feel is character-based. In other words, the shape of events are drawn through a close examination of personal motives, the roles and motivations of the players etc. I would have preferred a more sweeping book which looked at the period as a whole. Then to look back, and summarise the role of players - perhaps at the period when they died, or fell. Therefore, the fault of the book (in my view) is in construction which conflicts too much with the style of writing. Overall, an excellent insight into the period, and a reflection of Taylor's decisive contribution to history. However, if have read his other books, you may be disappointed that this is not a casual read.
on 12 February 2013
This is book about the European diplomacy between 1948 and 1918 of Taylor who by many is regarded as one of the finest historians of the 20th Century. You could say that the book is actually discussing how the Concert of Europe (set up after the Defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815) came to an end, how international relations were changing and with that the alliances. In this, you can see how slowly the alliances came into existence that eventually lived through till the First World War. But also how Germany feared being overran by either Russia, backed financially by France or Great Britain. How Great Britain feared of losing his dominant position in the world. That gives a pretty paranoid like kind of impression on how separate nations actioned and reasoned, and with that one can clearly understand how the First World War turned out to such disaster, and perhaps was a war that could have been avoided as all this other conflicts that were avoided. Along the way Taylor disuses a dazzling amount of events and people, most important of all of course Bismarck, but also the events of 1848, the Crimean War, the Japanese Russian War, the Balkan Crisis and the founding of several nation states, as the unification of Italy and Germany and fall of others, as the Ottoman Empire. But there is surprisingly less about the Franco-Prussian War, while by now, many regard this war as a pivotal moment in modern history and a war that eventually set the stage for both World Wars.