November 25, 2003

Books: A.J.P. Taylor: The Struggle for Mastery in Europe

A.J.P. Taylor (1954), The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press: ).

Perhaps the first thing necessary to understand A.J.P. Taylor's The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 is that its title is ironic. First of all, at the end of the book, nobody has won the struggle for mastery in Europe. Or, rather, the power that has won--the United States--has won by refusing for sixty-eight years to play the game, and then withdraws again for a further twenty-four years. All the powers that struggled--Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, Romanovs; the service nobilities of Prussia, Austria, and Russia; French and Italian devotees of universal liberty; British aristocrats seeking to keep Europe divided and unthreatening on the cheap--all of them lost. The struggle for mastery in Europe had no winners.

Second, the period of the "struggle for a mastery in Europe" was a remarkably peaceful period. Compared to the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, 1848-1914 stands out as by far the most peaceful of times for Europe. Fifteen months of civil uproar and short military campaigns at the start, very brief wars in Italy in 1859, northern Germany in 1862, Austria in 1866, a somewhat longer war in France in 1870, a few short dust-ups in the Balkans--and that's it until the catastrophe of World War I begins. The reason was the Balance of Power: the weaker powers were fearful enough of the stronger to combine, and collectively strong enough to intimidate the stronger power. Even though the rules of the international diplomacy game allowed Great Powers to choose war as an option, the practical circumstances of the Balance almost always prevented either side in a dispute from wishing to do so.

Thus the title of the book is profoundly ironic. For the book is not about the struggle for mastery in Europe. It is about how the Balance of Power made Europe an extraordinarily peaceful place from 1848-1914. And it is about how all European governments failed to realize how very much they and their nations had to lose from an industrial war--how none realized that if they "quarrelled, America might step in to knock their heads together"--and thus that ultimately the master of Europe was America, the only power that had refused to play the military-diplomatic game.

The title The Struggle for Mastery in Europe leads one to ask three questions: (1) Who won? (2) Who lost? (3) How was the struggle conducted? And the answers are: (1) Nobody. (2) Everybody. (3) By and large--up to 1914--through peace.

But let's turn the microphone over to A.J.P. Taylor:

p. xix: ...if Hobbes saw true, the history of Europe should be one of uninterrupted war. In fact, Europe has known almost as much peace as war; and it has owed these periods of peace to the Balance of Power. No one state has ever been strong enough to eat up all the rest; and the mutual jealousy of the Great Powers has preserved even the small states, which could not have preserved themselves...

p. xxi: The European Balance [of Power] worked untrammelled in the seventy years between the fall of Metternich and its several repudiations by Lenin and Wilson...

p. xxii: The men of the nineteenth century regarded their era as one of turmoil and upheaval; yet it was astonishingly stable in international affairs...

p. xxxii: There was thus some sense in most of the calculations [of] the statesmen of Europe [over 1848-1918].... There was least sense in the early fear of Russia.... But there was sense in Palmerston's calculation that the growth of Germany strengthened the Balance of Power and in Bismarck's that the Balance now made Germany secure. There was also sense in the French calculation after 1890 that they needed allies if they were to maintain themselves against Germany; and in he German calculation after 1905 that they must strike soon if they were to achieve the domination of Europe. The British were right to suppose after 1905 that their weight was needed to hold Germany in check; but also right in their belief that, if the struggle could be postponed, the growth of Russia might prevent it altogether.... [Nearly all] failed to realize that, if they quarrelled, America might step in to knock their heads together--and would be strong enough to do so.... The error can be understood. The statesmen of Europe looked at political appearances more than economic realities...

pp. xxxv-xxxvi: The seventy years between 1848 and 1918 were the last age of the European Balance of Power, a balance reinforced by political and economic developments which had been expected to destroy it. The first twenty-three years were a period of turmoil, when the old order seemed to be crumbling. It ended with... the new national states of Germany and Italy... fitted into the system of the Balance of Power; and Europe combined vast change with international peace for a generation. Then the Balance grew top-heavy and was challenged anew...

Posted by DeLong at November 25, 2003 07:41 PM | TrackBack


The period from 1848 to 1918 is, by most measures, a period of short duration. However, this period saw a complete revolution in science and technology. Einstein replaced Newton and the oil burning internal combustion engines replaced external combustion coal engines. Entire industries were placed under corporation and electrical power was harnessed, which led to individuals and research teams innovating entirely new products. The sum of this spawned a whole new type of society. In hindsight, itís clear that the United States of America came out the winner in all this.

Posted by: Scott Henry on November 25, 2003 09:32 PM


This construct works only by focusing very narrowly on Europe. A *great deal* of violence was displaced into the struggle for mastery of Africa and Asia, something not entirely unconnected with the European arms races of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Posted by: Altoid on November 25, 2003 09:43 PM


What is wrong with this sentence ?

.......leads won to ask three questions......

Posted by: Warren on November 25, 2003 11:56 PM


I haven't read the book, but it seems to me that the word "struggle" has some very different connotations than just the state of outright war that BD attributes to it. Yes, Europe was peaceful. But this was also a time that saw a lot of "struggle in the dark"--as the various partisans of the Weimar Republic used to call the conflict between their own various causes directly after that period. Perhaps instead of just talking about the "balance of power," we should also be thinking about the Clausewitzian war of position that occured during this period. Maybe it was this background struggle that AJPT is refering to. After all, "mastery" is a slippery notion, something we might see as often achieved not through conflict but through position.

Posted by: schnauze on November 26, 2003 01:13 AM


Um, one of history's more sickening slaughters in the Congo, years of unrelenting aggression in Sudan, and uh that little war in America over the issue of the slaves who supplied Europe's cotton.

Yup, sure were peaceful, those Europeans from 1848 onward...

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones on November 26, 2003 05:40 AM


>>What is wrong with this sentence ? .......leads won to ask three questions......<<

Now that's an interesting one! I need a brainwash, clearly.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on November 26, 2003 06:31 AM


I am just a little put off by your "dustups in the Balkans". I examined these wars during the Bosnia Kosovo problems, and think they were pretty significant, and are ignored because it was only Bulgarians and Greeks etc.

If I remember correctly, the numbers on the field approached a million, it was sigificant in terms of weapon development and testing, and politically was a major factor in the start of WWI.

Possibly the most significant military event between the American Civil War and WWI.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on November 26, 2003 08:12 AM


you left out the Crimean dustup.

Posted by: rd on November 26, 2003 11:06 AM


The very first bit from Taylor sets off "if Hobbes saw true..." against "in fact, Europe has known almost as much peace as war..." Fair enough to bring Hobbes into it, but does Hobbes really lose points because (recasting Taylor's statement somewhat) Europe knew slightly more war than peace, and would have known even more war, had not the capacity to wage war been so evenly balanced? Peace was lovely, I'm sure (good evidence of that from Scott Henry), but it was not peace for peace's sake.

Posted by: K Harris on November 26, 2003 12:10 PM


Post a comment