Military history of Europe

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The military history of Europe refers to the history of warfare on the European continent.


  • Most obvious to historians is the part tribal and later communal differences have played in the violent conflicts that have been Europe’s default setting. These conflicts emerged from the Middle Ages as an ingrained, almost ritualized, addiction to war, practised by youths mostly still in their teens and twenties, men such as Clovis, Frederick II of Germany, Edward III of England, Charles V of Spain, Louis XIV and Napoleon. At this level, Europe’s story has been a tragedy of competing virilities. Each of the treaties that have waymarked history–Augsburg, Westphalia, Utrecht, Vienna, Versailles–has struggled to keep the peace but has done so for little more than two generations before war resumed. Even Potsdam in 1945 lasted only until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Now the conspicuous lack of a post-cold-war settlement is putting Europe’s diplomacy under renewed strain. The continent’s DNA seems to allow people to live calmly with each other only as long as the memory of the last bout of bloodletting survives. A note of wisdom from the past might be that of the dying Louis XIV, ‘Above all, remain at peace with your neighbours. I loved war too much.’ Whether Europe’s belligerence can be attributed to the fractiousness of its original tribes I cannot tell.
    • Simon Jenkins, A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin (2018)
  • But Elias did propose an exogenous trigger to get the whole thing started, indeed, two triggers. The first was the consolidation of a genuine Leviathan after centuries of anarchy in Europe’s feudal patchwork of baronies and fiefs. Centralized monarchies gained in strength, brought the warring knights under their control, and extended their tentacles into the outer reaches of their kingdoms. According to the military historian Quincy Wright, Europe had five thousand independent political units (mainly baronies and principalities) in the 15th century, five hundred at the time of the Thirty Years’ War in the early 17th, two hundred at the time of Napoleon in the early 19th, and fewer than thirty in 1953. The consolidation of political units was in part a natural process of agglomeration in which a moderately powerful warlord swallowed his neighbors and became a still more powerful warlord. But the process was accelerated by what historians call the military revolution: the appearance of gunpowder weapons, standing armies, and other expensive technologies of war that could only be supported by a large bureaucracy and revenue base. A guy on a horse with a sword and a ragtag band of peasants was no match for the massed infantry and artillery that a genuine state could put on the battlefield. As the sociologist Charles Tilly put it, “States make war and vice-versa.” Turf battles among knights were a nuisance to the increasingly powerful kings, because regardless of which side prevailed, peasants were killed and productive capacity was destroyed that from the kings’ point of view would be better off stoking their revenues and armies. And once they got into the peace business—“the king’s peace,” as it was called—they had an incentive to do it right. For a knight to lay down his arms and let the state deter his enemies was a risky move, because his enemies could see it as a sign of weakness. The state had to keep up its end of the bargain, lest everyone lose faith in its peacekeeping powers and resume their raids and vendettas.
  • War is as old as Europe. Our continent bears the scars of spears and swords, canons and guns, trenches and tanks, and more. The tragedy of it all resonates in the words of Herodotus, 25 centuries ago: “In Peace, Sons bury their Fathers. In War, Fathers bury their Sons.” Yet, … after two terrible wars engulfed the continent and the world with it, … finally lasting peace came to Europe. In those grey days, its cities were in ruins, the hearts of many still simmering with mourning and resentment. How difficult it then seemed, as Winston Churchill said, “to regain the simple joys and hopes that make life worth living“. As a child born in Belgium just after the war, I heard the stories first-hand. My grandmother spoke about the Great War. In 1940, my father, then seventeen, had to dig his own grave. He got away; otherwise I would not be here today. So what a bold bet it was, for Europe’s Founders, to say, yes, we can break this endless cycle of violence, we can stop the logic of vengeance, we can build a brighter future, together. What power of the imagination.