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[Readings]

Occidents Happen

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From the opening lines of chapters in A Short History of Europe, by Simon Jenkins, published in March by Public Affairs Books.

It helps to be a god. As Zeus gazed along the Phoenician shore, his eye fell on a fair princess named Europa playing on the beach.

If Greece was founded by a princess raped by a bull, Rome was founded by a baby suckled by a she-wolf.

From the moment of Diocletian’s division of the Roman Empire, Europe moved into a state of transition.

The old imperial heartland of Italy, new home to the defeated Ostrogoths, now lay open to anarchy and invasion.

The concentration of power on which Charlemagne’s empire relied went into decline.

The emperor approached the pope with a plea to heal the now forty-year-old Great Schism. He was desperate.

The pope intended Christian Europe to be an empire of the spirit under his command. But though Europe might devote its soul to the service of one master, the church, its body was in the service of others, kings and emperors.

The church was aware of its critics.

The Renaissance and the Reformation were processes as well as periods.

The rulers of medieval Europe acquired legitimacy through force of arms.

The princes left Europe’s conflicts unresolved.

France faced what the best-known student of its politics, Alexis de Tocqueville, called “the most dangerous moment for a bad government … when it sets about reform.”

The French Revolution lasted barely five years, but it shook Europe to the core. It witnessed in turn representative government, mob rule, terror, collapse, and eventually dictatorship.

The failures of the reformist upheavals may have disappointed revolutionaries, but they galvanized ideologues.

Memoirs of the turn of the twentieth century dwell on Indian summers and imperial autumns. They list moments when a bold statesman, a wise decision, or sheer luck might have averted the forthcoming tragedy. In retrospect, the period was one of self-satisfaction and overconfidence, but its starkest feature was a lack of leadership.

The Versailles Treaty was a low point in European diplomacy. It left resentment throughout Germany and bitterness that others were not sharing their war guilt.

The start of the Second World War was like an opening in a game of chess—predictable.

Europe confronted a bald fact. A continent that fifty years earlier had confidently ruled a third of the world’s population had torn itself to pieces.

The world watched mesmerized as the once-mighty Soviet Empire gave a sigh, tottered, and collapsed. It vanished.


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April 2019