William A. Pelz, A People’s History of Modern Europe

(London: Pluto Press, 2016), 288 pp., $28.)
[review published in Socialism and Democracy, vol. 30, no. 3 (November 2016)]

These are momentous times in Europe. Having said that, it’s probable that I could have written the same sentence at any time since the concept of ‘Europe’ arose, without raising too much controversy. What qualifies our own times for that label is, above all, the slow but seemingly inevitable dance of the European Union toward the grave. The Brexit, and the ludicrous (on all sides) non-debate which preceded it, has sent shock waves through the European establishment and smashed the United Kingdom’s few remaining political certainties to smithereens. In doing so, it has provided a timely illustration of Pelz’s underlying message, that history is capable of being read in many different ways and its content manipulated to many different ends.

This may seem obvious to many of this journal’s readers. Pelz’s book however, is not aimed principally at people like himself and this reviewer, proud possessors of our history doctorates and many years of education, though even the well-educated non-specialist will find its wide-ranging synthesis of value. Dr Pelz teaches at a Community College and is one of the prime movers behind Chicago’s Open University of the Left. He is skilled at communicating complex and challenging ideas to people who may have been fed anything but all their lives, including in their past education. This, along with his own specialisms in various aspects of German history, means that he is well-qualified to take on the daunting task of summarizing Europe’s development from feudal times to the twenty-first century.

The book should help to provide an antidote to the fact that most Americans often make ill-founded assumptions about things European. Indeed, this is scarcely confined to the western side of the Atlantic. The British recently voted in a BBC poll to determine who was the Greatest Briton. Winston Churchill came top. This is a frighteningly inappropriate application of democracy, as illustrated by the absurd result, but it does illustrate how divergent people’s views of the past can be, and how they can be manipulated. In my view Churchill was a typical product of the English ruling class and a typical Tory, a man who hated working people, Jews, Indians, Africans and so on, a drunk and a depressive and quite unfit to lead a nation at war. Positive views of the man clearly did not abound in 1945 when he led the Conservative Party to its greatest ever defeat. But that is perhaps unfair, as the Winston Churchill who topped the popularity poll – ahead of Charles Darwin and William Shakespeare– didn’t exist back then. He was a very different Winston Churchill to the one that did so badly in the rather more important contest in 1945. He was invented in the years after the war, and especially following his death in 1965, to provide the nation with a depoliticized hero. The same is true of many other historical figures: Joan of Arc and William Wallace are two that spring to mind whose reinvented popular personae bear no relationship to their reality as living human beings. America has plenty of its own, from Billy the Kid to Ronald Reagan.

This applies also to events. As a child in the 1950s and early 1960s I would have had no hesitation in listing Dunkirk as one of Britain’s most heroic military escapades, rather than a farrago of fatal errors created by general inexperience and ruling-class incompetence. Britain, we were told at school, had not been invaded since 1066, and only later did you begin to wonder how 1688 fitted into that scenario, not to mention a host of lesser incursions. The British had won the battle of Waterloo and saved Europe from the tyranny of a fanatical megalomaniac. The reality was that British soldiers were in the minority of a multinational force. Widespread opinion, in addition, is that they actually ‘saved’ Europe for the tyrannies which as a result of Napoleon’s defeat continued to grind down everyone else.

Pelz’s book ranges wide and long over such controversies. He wisely leaves the classical world alone. It has its own specialists and its own excellent popularizers. He begins instead with the middle ages, a period in which Europe, as he says, “became decentralized and chaotic”, as it may be doing once more. As we move closer to our own time, the amount of attention devoted to each period and its major events increases. He correctly points out that ‘the Reformation’, of which he provides an excellent summation, was actually a many-sided series of events. A pattern is established in which different classes with widely differing aims come together in inevitably temporary alliances before the more powerful elements turn on their one-time allies.

The same thing can be seen to happen in both the English and French Revolutions, each of which is given a separate chapter. The treatment, though necessarily brief, is coherent and certainly sufficient to encourage people to look further into these key events. Further chapters deal respectively with the industrial revolution, the period of working-class awakening from 1848 to the Paris Commune, and the consolidation and institutionalization of proletarian power in the latter part of the 19th Century. Up to this point it’s tempting to take a ‘left Whiggish’ line in which the proletariat emerges, formulates its demands and builds organizations capable of pursuing them, and though stopping short of social revolution, massively improves its standard of living and degree of freedom. It’s a temptation which Pelz largely avoids, but one which is in any case blown away by the massive conflagration which erupted in 1914. The First World War brought several worlds to an end and set the stage for a very different kind of struggle. Although the improvement in working people’s lives was not ended by that war, and although the conflict created the conditions for the first proletarian revolution, it also ushered in a period which in most of Europe was characterized by defeat for the workers’ movement.

Pelz’s analysis of the Russian Revolution and the failed revolutions in central Europe which accompanied it owes a debt to both Trotsky and Luxemburg, and is none the worse for that. Indeed, it is in dealing with German history in this period that his own expertise becomes most powerfully evident. This forms part also of his wide-ranging narrative of the Great Depression in Europe and the consequent rise and fall of fascism and Nazism.

Moving on to the postwar period, Pelz provides a corrective to the increasingly widespread myth that the European Economic Community – the predecessor of the current European Union – was founded by far-sighted,  progressive, peace-loving leaders who wanted nothing but to ensure that war, at least on their continent, was consigned to the dustbin of history. Yet he does this largely by implication, leaving us wanting “A People’s History of the European Union” to complement his book. The EEC was in fact founded as a Cold War maneuver, partly on the initiative of Allen W. Dulles, the same CIA man who engineered Italian ‘democracy’ to keep the Communist Party well away from power.  This is one area to which I would have liked to see more attention paid. The fact that “European Union” does not appear in the index is certainly a misleading oversight, but the reader never quite gets a feel for the way in which the peculiar form of neoliberal federalism which has eroded European democracy over the last four decades emerged and became dominant.

These are quibbles, the last of which is informed by my own rather reluctant specialism of recent years. Every specialist in some aspect of the last thousand years of European history will probably have his or her own, similar disappointments. The great achievements in the arts and sciences, engineering and navigation are virtually ignored, but perhaps someone out there could complement this volume with a people’s history of these fields of human endeavor, each of which of course interacts powerfully with the processes with which this book does deal. Yet to synthesize a millennium in fewer than 300 pages is no mean feat. As it turns out, it was well worth the considerable effort involved.

The timeliness of this book is illustrated by the Brexit vote. Possibly the most absurd outcome of this vote was a march by tens of thousands of people, most of them young, most of them believing themselves to be progressive and, in American terms, ‘liberal’ in support of the European Union and the United Kingdom’s continued membership of it, in the wake of the electorate’s to them unwelcome decision. They would all have accepted the term ‘pro-Europe’, which has sadly been embraced by all sides, though as with ‘pro-life’, in real terms it means more or less the opposite of what it came to signify. I am almost certain that only a tiny percentage of those marchers were aware of the fact that they were expressing support for a ‘Union’ which has removed many deeply political questions from any effective control by elected politicians, let alone the people who elect them; that they were expressing support for a body whose supreme court, the European Court of Justice, has on more than one occasion declared strikes against foreign employers who pay below the going rate to be an illegal interference with the right of establishment; or (less forgivably) that they were enthusing about an unelected cabal which has driven a majority of Greece’s people into dire poverty.

For the record, I am happy to be European, I live in France and intend in the course of time to die here. Prior to that I lived in Belgium, and far from being a ‘Little Englander’ I travel to England just once or twice a year, only to visit friends and watch my football team, and have no intention of ever moving back there. I speak two European languages other than my own, and work on an ad hoc basis for a Dutch political party. Yet, had a reactionary law not deprived me of my vote on the grounds that I’ve lived outside the UK for more than fifteen years, I would have cast it – though in the end with a heavy heart and some trepidation – for Brexit.

I mention these personal details only in order to underline William Pelz’s point: history is complicated, assumptions are dangerous, and there are far more than two sides to every story.

Reviewed by Steve McGiffen
International Relations
American Graduate School in Paris

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