European Affairs

A History of Fragments     Print Email

By Richard Vinen
Reviewed by Martin Kettle

At the start of the 21st century, Europe is still coping with the successive legacies of the 20th. As Richard Vinen points out, much of the second half of the last century was concerned with grappling with the legacy of the first.

The Third Reich continues to be the abyss against which much of contemporary Europe's political structure, and many of its most important values, are defined - a graphic example being the crisis over the entry of a far-right party led by Joerg Haider into the Austrian government last year.

The evolution of a Europe defined in opposition to the Soviet Union is a more complex and uneven phenomenon right up to the present day, but Stalin, like Hitler, remains one of the central figures of our time. Both men have left a huge imprint on the shape of today's Europe.

Vinen's book is the latest in a series of broad, ground-breaking histories of Europe by British historians that attempt to bring a certain order to the unexpected interruptions in the evolution of the continent over the past hundred years. Like Norman Davies and Eric Hobsbawm before him, Vinen is an omnivorous historian.

Where Davies wrote brilliantly about things like §ags and anthems, and Hobsbawm could go into a riff about the significance of soccer in the late 20th century, Vinen has a great eye for the significance of photography, which plays an important role in his book. He deftly manages to integrate the history of modern sexuality into his account. In choosing a prominent European to make his final point, he does not select a political leader such as Helmut Kohl or Tony Blair, but the Anglo-Zimbabwean novelist, Doris Lessing.

Like his predecessors, Vinen is concerned not so much to simplify and codify the strange story of 20th century Europe as to recognize its complexity and point to its many tributaries and backwaters. Successive themes once seemed to define European history - the rise of nationalism, followed by the rise of communism, and then the rise of pan-Europeanism. But no one looking at the continent today can easily say what common theme encapsulates the current era.

That is exactly Vinen's point. The pan-European optimism of ten years ago has fractured again. It is reasonably self-evident that we live among the fragments of Vinen's title. Perhaps, he suggests, it was always this way, even when an era appeared to be more sharply defined at the time.

Take one example that Vinen usefully uses to make his point. To many British, French and German readers, the central divisions of recent European history are likely to be marked by war: pre-1914, 1918-1939 and post-1945. But these divisions, so important to some of us, appear strange to a Russian, because of the revolution of 1917 and the invasion of 1941, to say nothing of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and just as odd to a Spaniard, for whom the start of the civil war in 1936 and the death of General Franco in 1975 might appear to be more defining years.

This multiplicity of historical experience is essential for Europeans who now seek to navigate the complexities of constructing what used to be called "the new Europe." Non-Germans, for example, consistently fail to understand why both the euro and a federal Europe appear so much less problematic to Germans than they do to some others, such as the British.

Yet a knowledge of how 19th century German political unity was achieved on the basis of a customs union, and how Germany's 20th century national rehabilitation was built on the foundation of a democratic federal constitution is essential to grasping why political union still appears so compelling, as well as so non-threatening, to so many German politicians.

Vinen has written a rich and stimulating account, and has written it well. His Europe is full of new discoveries as well as new perspectives. In the end, though, he leaves the reader with more questions about Europe than answers, which in many ways, of course, is entirely appropriate.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number III in the Summer of 2001.

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