Hiding from Big History
We genealogists spend our time hiding from Big History, convinced in our hearts that small personal experiences are the real core of history. Because it’s always good therapy to stretch unused muscles, I’ve spent the past six months reading Brendan Simm’s whopping Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present (Allen Lane, 2013).
It’s taken six months because it’s impossible to absorb more than a dozen pages at a time. The level of detail and the breadth of overview are jaw-dropping. But it is a very particular overview. This is a history of statecraft, the way Louis XIV understood his world, with the interlocking endless consequences of diplomacy, treaties and wars. Simms masters it all as if it were a single, endlessly fascinating Rubik cube.
Two big ideas shape the book. First, states’ foreign policy decisions have deep unacknowledged impacts on what appear to be purely internal events: the American Revolution is analysed as a by-product of European big-power manoeuvring, for instance. And second, it’s all about Germany. Every significant event since 1453 has revolved around the question of German power, whether as the Holy Roman Empire, the “German Lands” or the modern German state.
At times, the evidence is stretched a bit thin to fit these theses, but it’s still an extraordinary achievement and I’m exhausted.
So what does Simms (an Irishman) have to say about Ireland?
Not much. Like it or not, on his telling we’re well removed from almost every world-historical event, an island off an island off the mainland. All the great upheavals of European history have ended as gentle ripples on our shores: the last incident of world significance to happen here was in 1690, when the Dutch beat the French at the Battle of the Boyne.
Patrick Kavanagh knew this when he wrote “Epic”, his lyric paean to parochialism, in which we “make our own importance”. Because if we don’t, nobody else will.