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December 07, 2007

After seeing Niall Ferguson's puff, Jeremy Black is surprised to find he likes and admires Bernard Wasserstein's history of Europe since 1914: Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in our Time - Bernard Wasserstein

Posted by Jeremy Black

Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in our Time
by Bernard Wasserstein
Pp. xxiii + 901. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007
Hardback, 25

I liked this book. I have to confess that my first response was not so favourable. On the back cover, the puff, by Niall Ferguson, referred to the period as "Europe's bloodiest century", a strange description of a period in which there was very little conflict after 1945. Indeed, the long peace from then has been most unusual in European history. Nevertheless, this is a good book because its coverage is wideranging and its treatment clear.

Beginning with Europe in 1914, Wasserstein, Professor at the University of Chicago, discerns a crisis in rural Europe, one that was demographic, economic and characterised by the mass ignorance of widespread illiteracy. Partly as a result, superstitions, magical remedies and folk customs played a major role.

Indeed, the retreat of this culture is one of the themes of this period. Part of the interest of the book is the manner in which periods and episodes are thus described in ways that bring out other themes, for example venereal disease among soldiers in World War One.

This is followed by a wideranging chapter on "Revolutionary Europe 1917-1921", which successfully brings together events across the continent, including the forced migration of Christians and Muslims from Turkey and Greece.

The next chapter sees the "Recovery of the Bourgeoisie" as a key theme for 1921 to 1929. Wasserstein devotes due attention here to continued tension, not least in Yugoslavia.

The treatment of the 1930s includes widespread censorship, not only of films but also, for example, of literature. World War Two receives more attention than the earlier world war, with the due coverage of the Holocaust. Growth and then crisis are a theme in the treatment of post-war Europe, and, again, there is coverage of the continent as a whole.

The treatment of Eastern Europe is particularly effective, and there are many interesting reflections. For example, for German unification, Wasserstein points out that, following the precedent of the early nineteenth century Zollverein, political unity was preceded by economic.

He also, valuably takes the story into the new century, not least by noting the transformation in social relations stemming from the decline of the peasantry, and also the weakness of doctrines such as neo-liberalism, feminism and deconstructionism in providing:

an alternative social morality that could satisfy a majority in society.
It is easy of course to suggest alternative emphases. Possibly the stress on Eastern Europe leads to an underplaying of Mediterranean and Northern Europe, but such criticism would be misplaced. Throughout, instead, there is a sense of a critical intelligence at play, and it is to be hoped that the book will be speedily paperbacked.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007) and A Short History of Britain (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).

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