David G. Chandler
In 1935, a work of history appeared that would become a standard text for generations. It combined the perspective of the early 20th century with the scope of classic historians such as Gibbon and Macaulay. With its authority, extraordinary sweep and eloquent prose, it became an instant bestseller. Herbert Fisher’s A History of Europe charts the turbulent and colourful story of Europe from the dawn of Greek civilisation to the 20th century. It is a history of seemingly endless conflict – tribal, religious and ideological. Yet, as Fisher also shows, ‘the children of Hellas’ have forged a distinct civilisation through a shared history and cultural heritage that, for better or worse, came to dominate the world stage for two millennia.
H. A. L. Fisher’s achievement places him alongside his great 18th and 19th-century predecessors, and like them, he combined scholarship with an active contribution to public life. He served as a member of Lloyd George’s cabinet from 1916 to 1922, before becoming Warden of New College, Oxford, his role at the time A History of Europe was published. In his new introduction for this Folio Society edition, historian and author Richard Vinen points out that ‘[Fisher’s] knowledge of great leaders came from personal acquaintance’.
Despite his familiarity with the world of politics, Fisher’s history was not dominated by any explicit political or philosophical ideology. As he wrote in a famous passage in his introduction, ‘Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can only see one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave.’ Fisher gives the reader considered views, always beautifully written, on each place, event or personality: whether he is describing the landscape of Greece, which ‘conceals beneath its manifest seductions of line and colour a harsh discipline for man’, or commenting of the Emperor Justinian that ‘he had looked into the gutter for a wife, and picked out a diamond’, Fisher brings Europe and its leaders vividly before us. The result is a thoroughly entertaining chronicle, forceful without being dogmatic, breathtaking in its command of the broader questions and enlightening in its use of detail.
Beginning with the arrival of Indo-European settlers in the islands and mainland of Greece around 1,000 BC, Volume 1 of Fisher’s history covers a vast chronological and geographical canvas: the Greek city-states; Rome, from the early Republic, through the Empire to the emergence of Christianity; the Germanic and Islamic invasions; the Frankish Empire; the growth of the monasteries; the battle between the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires. Fisher neglects no facet of European history – from the Celtic fringe to medieval Russia – and through his mastery of narrative he makes even the most complex subjects clear. Take his brilliant assessment of the turbulence of medieval Spain: ‘As for Castile it stood apart, central, isolated, proud, priest-ridden, digesting as best it might its spreading conquests, and those burdensome legacies of its long crusade, the vast estates of the military orders, the preponderant position of the Church, together with the Jews, the Moslems, the Mozarabs, whose presence in a crusading state (now out of business) was to a nation of proud and courageous aristocrats an unwelcome necessity.’
The seismic religious, political and social shifts in Europe brought about first by the Renaissance, then the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, led to centuries of strife: England’s break from Rome; Germany’s Protestant course; the French wars of religion; and the Thirty Years War. Yet as the 17th century gave way to the 18th, and Europe entered the age of enlightenment, the great states that would come to dominate the continent’s future were on the rise, with absolute power in France, the Westernisation of Russia, the militarisation of Prussia, and the transformation of England into the ‘workshop of the world’.
The final volume spans just 150 years, from the French Revolution onwards, yet the pace of Fisher’s narrative never lets up. From north to south, east to west, the continent accelerates towards the calamity of the First World War. Fisher ends his account in 1935, the year of the book’s publication, asking two poignant questions: ‘Will peace be preserved? Can liberty survive?’ Fisher died in a road accident in April 1940, but his legacy was a work that would be appreciated for generations as the most lively and comprehensive account of Europe’s history up to the eve of the Second World War.
In his newly commissioned introduction Richard Vinen, Professor of Modern European History at King’s College, London, explains how Fisher’s public service career and outlook shaped his work, and why A History of Europe remains essential reading. This edition, the only one in print, is also enhanced with 90 superb illustrations ranging from a gold funerary mask of Agamemnon to a 15th-century tapestry showing the arrival of Joan of Arc at Chinon, and from a portrait of the Greek revolutionary leader Nikolaki Mitropoulos to the Italian Symbolist painting The Fourth Estate. Also featured are new and redrawn thematic maps representing, among other subjects, Alexander’s empire, the Habsburg rise to power, Europe in 1740, the conquests of Napoleon, the rise of 19th-century nationalism and the approach of the Second World War. Chronological and genealogical tables, appendices and three detailed indexes make this an indispensable resource as well as an enthralling narrative.