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Europe Since Napoleon by David Thomson
Some time ago and in relation to a different book, I wrote a review that in essence began, “Occasionally, just occasionally, one comes across a book so impressive, so scholarly and so communicative that it leaves a reader both in awe of its achievement and completely rewarded by the experience of reading it.” I did not expect to encounter another book in the near future to which that description might also apply. I have done just that, and my life is immeasurably richer as a result.
The title, Europe Since Napoleon, communicates what the book addresses. This is not a history of the United States, Asia, China, South America or Africa. Europe is the focus, but the vision is in no sense myopic. During the period in question, history of course documents that some European powers were imperial powers, claiming ownership and rule of colonies across the globe, indeed on every continent. There was also the detail of two World Wars, which have been granted that title because the conflict was near global in scale. Hence Europe Since Napoleon addresses many aspects of history, politics and economics that relate to the global interests of the European nations and, as such, this book, at least in the opinion of this reader, becomes more of a Eurocentric view of world history, rather than a narrower discussion of a specific continent. And it must also be added that any Eurocentrism arises nearly out of the focus, and not from any form of bias or sense of superiority.
There is a problem with the book’s title, however. Europe Since Napoleon implies that it might begin at the end of the French Imperial era, but Europe Since Napoleon begins by analyzing the circumstances and events that allowed Napoleon to assume power. We start, therefore, with the discussion of pre-revolutionary France and the revolution, itself, because it was out of these events that the arose the opportunity for Napoleon to assume power.
The Napoleonic Wars, the peace, reform, revolution, socialism, labor, economy, Russian expansion, nationalism, the creation of Italy and Germany, the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune all pass by and we have yet to complete half of the book’s two centuries of coverage. Of course, there follows the Berlin Conference, the partition of Africa, the lording it over the rest of the world to shape it into European advantage zones, the Great War, another revolution, boom, depression, strike, greater war, atomic bombs, the Iron Curtain, the suggestion of international cooperation, the rise of science, the nuclear age and the molecular age.
Of course, Europe Since Napoleon, like any summary work cannot even address the claim of being comprehensive. But in his book, David Thomson regularly illustrates how the big issues of the day re-drew the map, forged new alliances, created opportunity and transformed people’s lives. The author wrote over 400,000 words spanning almost 1000 pages and at the end provides a thorough bibliography of works he has no doubt read to provide greater depth across most of the issues covered in the book.
But the real strength of Europe Since Napoleon is not its coverage, nor its description of the events it lists, but its narrative. Throughout David Thompson resists the temptation merely to list facts, opting instead for a fluid, narrative style that does, it has to be said, assume a modicum of prior knowledge. But what if the reader gains from this apparently stylistic ploy is quite brilliant contextualization, synthesis and thereby understanding. This is a thousand-page history book that is simply a joy to read, from page one to page 946, to be precise, not counting the appendices.
And, if the foregoing were not enough praise, the author’s final observations, written in the 1960s are ostensibly predictions of where the human race may go over the following decades and it is nothing less than revelatory. Not only does David Thompson have a bigger view of history, but he also demonstrates a true intellectual vision that is both breathtaking in its scope and exciting in its optimism. Reading this vision sixty years on, one can only ask the question, how on Earth did this happen, how on earth did we end up here? And, after reading this book, the one thing that history has taught us repeatedly, is that we may catalogue, describe and understand, but also that we should not predict, and we should not take anything for granted. History is a guide, but never repeats itself, never returns us to the familiar. That is how it happened. What a superb book!
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