Share This Article

Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe

by James J. Sheehan, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2008, $26.

James Sheehan, Dickason Professor in the Humanities at Stanford, sets out to examine a fundamental paradox in recent European history: How did Europe morph from a cluster of nationalistic societies that greeted the outbreak of World War I with enormous enthusiasm into a region that rejects the use of force under almost any circumstances?

Two events underscore this transformation. In 1914 throngs in the major European cities cheered great columns of soldiers as they marched off to a war that would decimate the male populations of the contestants. Eighty-one years later, a Dutch battalion commander walked away from his mission to protect civilians of the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, allowing Serbs to rape women and slaughter thousands of men with impunity.

The officer was following the instructions of his government, which had ordered him to defend the Bosnians but not use force. It is difficult to imagine a battalion commander of 1914, given a similar mission, shirking such duty.

One explanation might be that the terrible impact of two world wars removed from the European conscience the desire to engage in any conflict, no matter the consequences. But as always in history, the answer is more complex. Thankfully, professor Sheehan is a sophisticated, intelligent historian and provides a clear account of this cultural transformation and its long-term implications for Europe’s future.

Sheehan opens by examining the background and then the course of World War I. He is concise enough for those interested only in dabbling yet meticulous enough for experts in military, diplomatic and strategic history. Sheehan’s thorough grasp of the sources also enables him to synthesize without being facile or simplistic.

One might expect that the catastrophe of war would have given Europe an appreciation for the utility of force. Of course, it did not, and the contrast between the reactions of the “winners” and “losers” drips with irony. Sheehan underlines that irony with a brilliant selection of quotes and incidents along the dark path to the next world war. In 1936 French novelist Roger Martin du Gard commented: “Anything rather than war!… Anything…even Fascism in Spain…even Fascism in France. Nothing, no trial, no servitude, can be compared to war. Anything, Hitler rather than war.” British philosopher Bertrand Russell announced to an antiwar rally in London in 1937 that if the Germans were to invade Britain they should be greeted as tourists, “since even successful resistance would cause more damage than peaceful conquest.” Within months of such nonsense, Hitler convened a meeting with his senior military and foreign policy experts to plot the Third Reich’s course to World War II.

The prevailing attitude among European democracies in the run-up to 1939 was that anything was preferable to war. The attitude in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy was just the opposite. And the world paid a terrible price for such naïveté, in Europe’s collapse before the Nazi onslaught of 1940 and 1941. The war did eventually bring the defeat of the Axis powers, at an appalling cost. But most of us today —with the exception of such writers as Nicholson Baker, whose most recent book suggests that Churchill and Roosevelt were as bad as Hitler—recognize that World War II represented a choice that had to be made, as a Nazi triumph would have been far worse for the world.

The cost of that victory might offer the clearest explanation of Europe’s subsequent pacification. But Sheehan’s argument extends to social and civil changes during the long Cold War, when Western European nations enjoyed a unique economic boom. The Soviet Union’s collapse rested as much on that economic transformation as on military deterrence. The contrast between the wealth of Western Europe and the sorry state of Eastern Bloc economies could not be ignored and contributed significantly to that collapse. Europe’s economic rise also spawned a civil transformation that eased relations among its states, thus minimizing the influence and significance of its military institutions.

Sheehan’s summary underlines his brilliance as both a historian and analyst. His conclusion: Europe will never become the superpower some in the Pentagon and American political science have suggested. While Europe’s economy will continue to grow and influence world affairs, the region will never field a true military organization, as European states will neither pay for it nor allow an umbrella governing authority the autonomy to deploy such a force. Europe will not, therefore, possess the military power to influence affairs outside its immediate purview. That development is a distinct improvement over what happened in the first half of the 20th century, but in the world outside Europe’s civil order, there lie great dangers. For instance, will Europeans be willing to quell conflicts in the Balkans that their inaction in the 1990s did so much to inflame? Doubtful. Will they be willing to defend the independence of the Baltic states against Russian aggression? Doubtful. Will they help to defuse tensions in the Middle East? Doubtful. At best they may continue to carp at Israel for its unwillingness to negotiate with murderous thugs.

In every respect, Where Have the Soldiers Gone is a wonderful tour de horizon, a fresh examination of the trajectory of European history from World War I to the present.


Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here