Book Review: The Penguin History of Europe by J.M. Roberts

I cannot remember why I bought The Penguin History of Europe by J.M. Roberts several years ago, no doubt it was as a resource for an undergrad paper I wrote although I cannot find it used as a cite in any of my papers. It is also possible that I bought it just because I though it looked interesting since my specialty is European history. This is not a bad book, but it is also not quite what the title makes it out to be.

I think the best way I an categorize this book is that it presents an eclectic view of European history. It is very well written and it is obvious that Roberts has an awesome command of the facts of not only European but World history as well. The focus of this book is Europe but he ranges across the world as he recounts the ways in which Europeans did and did not affect the rest of the world. He starts in prehistory but caveats his discussion by pointing out that much of what we think we know about prehistory is supposition and guesswork. He then continues in chronological fashion to the present with significant sidebars about other areas of the world. He goes out of his to present the facts without being judgmental, which I think is remarkable enough to comment on. the book covers politics and the development of the modern nation-state very well. There is some editorializing, but only towards the end when discussing the modern era and it is clear that he is editorializing, it is not disguised at all.

What I found to be most strange about this book was thew way in which Roberts avoided discussing warfare as a formative event in European history. He mentions wars but only as sideshows and not being defining events in European history. For example, he covers the events of the Thirty-Years War in less than two pages (286-287) and the waging of World War II, which he calls The Second German War, is covered in six pages (565-570) without mentioning a single named battle except for the Battle of the Atlantic. He does spend two pages detailing the holocaust though.

All in all, at almost 700 pages this is a good book and Roberts packs an amazing amount of information into it. It is an excellent work to familiarize a novice with the general path of European and world history. I found that it’s virtual exclusion of warfare as a force shaping European history presented a somewhat skewed version of why some things happened meaning that this book should not be relied on by itself to tell the complete story of causation. I would not use this a textbook though.