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Wednesday, February 01, 2006
Early Thoughts on David Kaiser's Politics and War

Drawing upon Clausewitz, (the aptly-named) David Kaiser argues that European wars from Philip II to Hitler were the consequences of specific political developments, as opposed to simply the desire of individual states (viz. Spain, France, and Germany) to dominate the continent. I’ve only just begun reading the book, but already there appear to be some problems with Kaiser’s historiography.

First, Kaiser does not explain why he begins his book with Philip II, even though his thesis implicitly refers to the idea of universal empire that Charles V cherished and sought to realize. Kaiser might have discussed why this idea was abandoned – if indeed it was, as his thesis suggests – and what this meant for European politics.

Second, Kaiser’s thesis – that European wars from the 16th to the 20th centuries were motivated by domestic political concerns, as opposed to expansionist visions of empire – comes across as fairly uninspiring at first glance. Why can’t both factors cannot coexist, mingle, and overlap – as indeed they probably did?

Third, in such cases when a book’s thesis strikes even the non-specialist as being scarcely out of the ordinary, the burden is upon the author to marshal the historiography and show that his predecessors did in fact misinterpret or oversimplify the evidence. But Kaiser, perhaps overly eager to launch into his narrative, offers little evidence to support his claim that earlier historians homogenized early modern and modern European wars as expansionist.

Fourth, in discussing the revolt of the Netherlands, Kaiser, marshalling Geoffrey Parker, delves deeply into the machinations of the Castilian aristocracy and the intricacies of Spanish finance to explain the difficulties Philip II faced in curbing the Dutch revolt. Kaiser’s argument, virtually identical to that of Parker in the latter’s Grand Strategy of Philip II, is that the Prudent King was prevented from achieving his aims by the weaknesses of the incipient Spanish state. But what were those aims? Parker contends that Philip increasingly sought to defend Catholic Europe (and beyond) against Turks and Protestants and engaged in “messianic imperialism.” Does Kaiser subscribe to Parker’s conception of Philip’s Grand Strategy? He doesn’t really say, because if he replies in the affirmative, he undermines his own argument.

I'm writing these comments from memory and don't have the book in front of me at the moment, but when I do, I'll try to flesh out my criticisms a little bit more. If they prove off the mark, I'll say so as well.