Published by EH.NET (April 2004)

Harold James, Europe Reborn: A History, 1914-2000. Harlow, UK: Pearson-Longman, 2003. xiv + 492 pp. ?13.59 (paperback), ISBN: 0-582-21533-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joel Mokyr, Departments of Economics and History, Northwestern University.

The cultural bend that has affected academic historians in the past two decades has produced an odd situation that some might even call a “contradiction.” While an increasing number of academic historians espouse distinctly left-wing causes and devote their research to one permutation or another of class, gender, and race, sprinkling their text with quotes from radical continental philosophers, they seem to know and care less and less about economic history — what Marx would call the material conditions of life. To this reviewer, at least, this state of affairs is not an equilibrium. Sooner or later post-modernist historians will be forced to face skeptical graduate students wondering whether such matters as influenza epidemics or the Great Depression are really devoid of factual bases worth discussing and indistinguishable from fiction.

In this brilliantly-written and richly-informed general-audience text, Harold James shows us what an amazing tale can be told about the turbulent and dramatic years between 1914 and 2000 by an economically informed historian who sees facts for what they are and not as socially constructed representations of agents driven by their libido. The book, inevitably, covers a lot of ground that will be familiar to professionals who teach this material. Yet throughout the book James displays an enviable combination of factual knowledge that is both deep and broad and an economic intuition and social understanding that makes him look in corners others have missed. James is no economic determinist, but he understands politics and power as much as he understands taxation, innovation, and international finance.

The ground covered by James is all of Europe, and history in all its aspects. To say that 430 pages are hardly enough to cover this topic would be an understatement. Yet James covers the 1990s with as much panache as he does the years before World War I. The narrative advances at a breakneck speed, but here and there he meanders about a bit and gets into details that many readers may not be familiar with, such as in his discussion of the career of German Central Banker and Economics Minister Hjalmar Schacht, or his summary of how the European Common market coordinated product quality standards in its famous Cassis de Dijon case. James relishes in little ironies: the foreign minister of Luxembourg telling the formerly Yugoslav republics that “they were too small for self-determination” (p. 413). But this book is not only about politics and economics. In a little two-page reflection on the impact of chemicals on youth culture, James discusses how the pill and LSD changed youth culture, citing British poet Philip Larkin as claiming that “sexual intercourse began in 1963” (p. 308). Indeed.

This is not a very quantitative book; the statistical appendix promised on the cover blurb turns out to be one little table of population figures, and there are few figures and graphs. Nor is it, strictly speaking, an analytical book; there is no single thesis or theme that dominates the narrative. Nor does it bask in free-market triumphalism or gloat in the demise of Communism. Instead, the book is full of little insights and pieces of wisdom that attest to a career of wide reading and informed reflection. Some of those are quite personal and might be controversial in some corners: was Poland in the 1980s really “an equivalent of Spain in the 1930’s” (p. 302)? Was De Gaulle’s vision of France in 1962 really “creakily out of date” (p. 249)? Was Ireland in the 1930s really a society held together “in part by backwardness and in part by the hated memory of … British domination” (p. 127)? In most instances, however, this book is enlightening. In explaining the persistence of the Great Depression, for instance, James points not only to the Gold Standard but also to something he calls “fiscal rectitude,” a felicitous term he illustrates by Ramsay MacDonald waving banknotes and warning that their fate would be like the German Mark during the hyperinflation if unorthodox remedies were applied (p. 120). His assessments of key personalities, from Hitler to Milosevic, may not please everyone, but James realizes that at some junctures individual personalities played a pivotal part.

The result, inevitably, is not a balanced narrative. James is particularly good discussing the seams of history, the short but dramatic episodes in which powerful nations underwent a “phase transition” such as Russia in 1917, Germany in 1933 and the Communist world in 1989. He has no patience, for instance, with military history: his account of World War I does not mention Jutland, Gallipoli or the war in the Middle East. His account of World War II finds the space to report that Hitler was reading Carlyle’s Frederick the Great but not to mention Rommel or Guderian. Some countries, including some close to the heart of this reviewer (such as the Netherlands) get short shrift or nary a mention. The economic history in the book is of a particular kind: James knows banking and international finance, he understands economic policy but he has no interest in the relationship between human capital formation and technological progress, or in the institutional factors that brought about long-term per capita growth or the welfare state. The cheapest shot one can take at a book like this is to complain that the author did not write the kind of book that the reviewer would have written. It is not possible or even desirable to write a “balanced” or “fair” account of Europe in the twentieth century: this is a personal account, a century as seen by one historian, and one who was visibly having fun while writing it. Read the book, and share Harold James’s fun.

Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Economics and History at Northwestern University. His The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy was published in 2002 by Princeton University Press. He is the editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History (2003).