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Customer Review

22 February 2009
Even a keen reader needs some incentive to buy and plough through a book of nine hundred pages (including notes, bibliography and index). There are after all other works which survey the history of Europe in the twentieth century, notably Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes : The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (1994) or the final chapters of Norman Davies' Europe: A History (also 1994). Admittedly, Wasserstein takes the story up to 2007, but that hardly justifies the entire volume. His accounts of each event are thorough - he is good, for example, on the origins of the First World War - but on most such events more specialised works can be found: indeed many are listed in his voluminous bibliography (which however does not seem to include either of the works just mentioned). It would be helpful if he indicated which parts of his work he regards as original, but this is not apparent. One could of course treat his very comprehensive work as a useful book of reference - the index is comprehensive - but that was probably not his aim.
The title "Barbarism and Civilization" suggests an interesting and potentially important theme, which in a shorter work might have been brought out more clearly. As it is, this gets lost in the mass of information. The barbaric disasters of the century are well enough known, from the horrors of trench warfare in the First World War through the Nazi holocaust and the devastation of the Second World War to the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Where, if anywhere, were the "civilizing" influences? Wasserstein concludes on a grimly pessimistic note. After discussing the decline of religion and the lack of an "alternative social morality", he writes: "Evil stalked the earth in this era, moving men's minds, ruling their actions, and begetting the lies, greed, deceit, and cruelty that are the stuff of the history of Europe in our time".
Fortunately, most of us can think of more positive factors. It is curious that he passes over, as of little significance, the movement towards greater integration between European states and peoples. One searches in vain in the "Contents" for a chapter, or at least a section, on the creation and development of the European Community/Union: it turns up in scattered fragments, generally as a pendant to the actions of the individual nations, and any comment he makes tends to be critical. Clearly he does not understand the decision-making process of the EU - the Commission does not, for example, "work with" the Council of Ministers (p.461) - and consequently he fails to bring out the complex process by which national interests have gradually been attuned to common European priorities; nor does he discuss the role of the European Court of Justice in ensuring the pre-eminence of European laws in the areas to which they apply.
Yet: was it insignificant that France and Germany, having fought each other three times in eighty years, decided first to merge their vital coal and steel sectors, then to create a common market with common institutions? Was it not important that their initiative was followed, step by step, by almost all the Western European nations, that membership came to underpin democracy in the former dictatorships in Southern Europe and later to offer a refuge for the Eastern European countries shaking off their Communist regimes? Has it not been a civilizing influence that citizens can move freely from Ireland to Greece, from Finland to Portugal? or that the Erasmus programme has enabled thousands of young people to study in countries other than their own? That, ultimately, and despite all the faults and limitations of its institutions, Europe - at least up to the frontiers of the former Soviet Union - has become an oasis of relative peace in a troubled world?
One feels, sadly, that Wasserstein after all his efforts has missed what might have made his work a real contribution to our understanding.
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