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Why Did Europe Conquer the World?

Author(s):Hoffman, Philip T.
Reviewer(s):Eloranta, Jari

Published by EH.Net (April 2016)

Philip T. Hoffman, Why Did Europe Conquer the World? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. vii + 272 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-13970-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jari Eloranta, Department of History, Appalachian State University.

Philip Hoffman, Professor of History and Business Economics at California Tech and recent president of the Economic History Association, is a prolific scholar, whose work has primarily focused on early modern Europe, especially French economic history and financial markets. Hoffman’s new book focuses on a pivotal issue in world history, namely how Europe came to rule the world. This is, needless to say, a hugely ambitious book and one that no scholar analyzing transitions in global history can overlook. It is a daunting task to attempt such an endeavor, let alone succeed as Hoffman has. This book will change interpretations of European warfare, the financing of conflicts, transitions in other regions of the world, the causes of the Industrial Revolution, and the Great Divergence — topics that are at the forefront of history, economics, and political science today.

Hoffman takes on big theories of history and development in this book, similar to other grand theorists like Jared Diamond (1999), Charles Tilly (1992), David Landes (1998), Joel Mokyr (1992), and Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (2005). The pivotal question for all social scientists remains: Why are some so rich and some so poor? Whereas explanations for the different development paths have ranged from biological (Diamond) to geographical and cultural (Landes) and institutional (see e.g. North 1990), Hoffman follows a similar path as Tilly, Larry Neal (2000), and Niall Ferguson (2001), who argue that understanding the costs and impacts of warfare is the key to this puzzle. Tilly (1992) pointed out that capital and coercion are pivotal components in the rise of Europe over the last thousand years and that the constant need to fund warfare led to the creation of public debt and sharing of power between sovereigns and merchants. And, as Ferguson (2001) argues, military spending was the crucial component in this transition, since it led to other financial, fiscal, and institutional innovations. Hoffman is able to go a step beyond these somewhat blunt insights to provide a theoretical and (partially) empirical foundation that fills in many of the gaps and challenges the other “big” historical frameworks.

Hoffman poses a question for a potential time traveler similar to the one asked by Landes: How did Europe go from a patchwork of small and seemingly powerless communities one thousand years ago to a position of military and political dominance by the end of the millennium? Why did the world not become dominated by the Chinese or some of the other worthy contender? He answers the question by turning to a model of tournaments — the “tournament” for domination in Europe in conjunction with other cultural and historical developments explains Europe’s global success. Ultimately, the key to Hoffman’s explanation is warfare. As he correctly points out, Europeans have been almost constantly at war. Historically, most of their sovereigns’ spending went toward military purposes, and even lavish palaces like Versailles represented only a minuscule part of the state budget. His model links the high probability that European rulers would go to war to the high value of the victor’s prize, and similarity of resources, military technology, and ability to mobilize those resources (absence of a hegemon is crucial). Moreover, the political cost of attempting to win the prize must have been fairly low, and rulers were willing and able to learn from these conflicts. Thus, Hoffman’s four conditions for Europeans’ path toward global dominance include frequent war, high (and consistent) military spending, adoption and advancement of gunpowder technology, and relative lack of obstacles to military innovations. Europeans enjoyed low fixed costs for going to war, distances were small, variable costs for mobilization were low, and there was a merchant base that helped with the financing of conflicts.

One of the key elements in Hoffman’s explanatory framework is the ability of rulers to extract revenue from the society. His comparative data — which are by necessity a bit sporadic for China and other states around the globe — prove that European rulers collected, in per capita terms, much higher revenues and invested them into warfare. He also shows, based on his research into early modern European revenue systems and military producers, that the high military spending in Europe also translated into sustained productivity growth in the military sector. He even goes further to suggest that this was linked to the eventual Industrial Revolution, which is a bit harder to verify. Positive technological externalities may arise from military technologies, but significant crowding out effects cannot be ignored.

This book is particularly interesting when Hoffman engages in comparative research to examine various empires and regimes around the world in this period. While specialists in the histories of these polities may find details that they disagree with, the overall argument about China’s stagnation from the fifteenth century onward (or later, depending on whether one ascribes to the views of Pomeranz (2000) or Broadberry and Gupta (2006)) is quite convincing. Eschewing some of the more traditional explanations, for example China’s turn inwards in the fifteenth century, Hoffman makes a case for the tournament model here as well. He shows that Chinese tax collection rates were low, and that the focus on defending against nomads meant lower military spending on navies. Also, the investment in gunpowder technology was not consistently high, and thus the Chinese eventually fell behind the Europeans, which was displayed amply in the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century. Similar arguments can be made as to why Japan and India also stagnated, although some of the reasons differed. Interestingly enough, Hoffman also assigns a large role in Europe’s bellicosity to Christianity; rather than pulling European nations together, Christianity became a source of almost constant conflict, starting with the Crusades, divisions within the Catholic Church, and then the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In general, Hoffman’s model and the empirical support presented in the book are impressive and persuasive. One could, of course, offer some counterarguments. For example, Hoffman’s model is probably not as all-encompassing as he suggests; in many ways his framework complements the broader models about the role played by geography, nature, climate, and human interactions. Moreover, he inordinately downplays the role played by the modes of financing wars — why it may make a difference whether tax revenue or loans were used to extend conflicts. Ultimately the European (or originally Dutch/British) model of financing wars with the support of domestic merchants and markets with low interest rate loans was a huge advantage when Europe entered the age of total wars at the end of the eighteenth century. Finally, it is hard to discount the role raw materials and other natural resources played in assigning winners and losers in these tournaments. The classic argument by Pomeranz (2000) about the lack of coal near developing urban centers in China as a major hindrance to its industrialization is a good example of this line of thinking. Regardless of these small reservations, this book is a classic of economic history, which should be required reading by scholars everywhere, and will be a starting point for many debates about the role conflicts and military spending have played in historical processes.


Acemoglu, D. and J.A. Robinson (2005) Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Cambridge University Press.

Broadberry, S. and B. Gupta (2006) “The Early Modern Great Divergence: Wages, Prices and Economic Development in Europe and Asia, 1500–1800,” Economic History Review, 59(1), 2-31.

Diamond, J. (1999) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, W.W. Norton.

Ferguson, N. (2001) The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000, Basic Books.

Landes, D. (1998) The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, W.W. Norton.

Mokyr, J. (1992) The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, Oxford University Press.

Neal, L. (2000) “How It All Began: The Monetary and Financial Architecture of Europe during the First Global Capital Markets, 1648–1815,” Financial History Review, 7(2), 117-140.

North, D. C. (1990) Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Cambridge University Press.

Pomeranz, K. (2000) The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton University Press.

Tilly, C. (1992) Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992, Blackwell.

Jari Eloranta ( is a Professor of Comparative Economic and Business History at Appalachian State University and author of several articles on military and government spending, including (with Andreev Svetlozar and Pavel Osinsky) “Democratization and Central Government Spending, 1870–1938: Emergence of the Leviathan?” Research in Economic History (2014).

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Military and War
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative