A Different World: Teaching Americans about European History

A Different World: Teaching Americans about European History December 9, 2016

I have often taught courses focused on Europe, or in which Europe plays a substantial role (for instance, about the Second World War). Through the years, I have identified common themes where students need some help and additional explanation, and I usually introduce these in my first couple of sessions. I offer some of the lessons I have learned here. If they might be useful for you, please feel free to borrow them.

One of the hardest points for Americans to grasp about Europe concerns size, and the relative dimensions of the US and European nations. When teaching about the Second World War, for instance, I use a slide of a map of Europe in 1933, with a circle of 400 miles radius drawn around a central German city such as Kassel or Erfurt. (Neither the exact center chosen, nor the radius, matters much for the purpose of the illustration). I then ask the students how many nation states fall entirely or partly within that circle., and the answer is about ten or twelve. I then show a comparable map of the US centered on Kansas City, and count the nation states within that circle. The answer, obviously, is one, namely the United States.

However large they may look on detailed maps, distances within Europe are actually quite tiny by US standards, and that affects such crucial military facts as the time taken to move forces between and along fronts. In the First World War era, for instance, the distance from Paris to the crucial and embattled fortress at Verdun was just 250km, or 155 miles. Paris to Arras (a key British base in that war) is 185 km, or 116 miles. In 1944, just 220 km (140 miles) separated Paris from the Norman city of Caen, and thus the front-line in the Allied invasion. If these distances are not exactly walkable for pleasant tourist recreation, they are very compact. At is narrowest, the English Channel is just twenty miles wide, and has often been swum.

Put another way, in terms of land area, Pennsylvania is about the same size as England, or considerably larger than all the Low Countries combined. Maryland is around the same size as Belgium, and a bit smaller than the Netherlands. And western US states are generally much bigger than their eastern counterparts: Texas covers about the same area as France. All the European Union nations combined cover an area of 1.7 million square miles; CONUS, the continental US, excluding Alaska and Hawaii, covers 3.1 million, almost twice as much.

Never think of the US just as a nation: it’s a subcontinent.

Once that size point is made, I move on to some implications. I draw a 400 mile circle around Philadelphia (remember, this class was in Pennsylvania) and ask students to count the states included within it. As an intellectual exercise, I then ask: imagine that American history had been different, and each of these states was actually a nation state in its own right. Imagine, moreover, that each was known to be aggressive and ambitious. What would that mean for a state like Pennsylvania? How could citizens defend themselves from the depredations of the vicious hordes of New York, Maryland or New Jersey?

Several students usually point out that this hypothetical situation is not too far removed from observed reality, especially in sporting matters….

But they also soon get to the heart of the matter. What would it mean for Pennsylvania? What if Pennsylvania was a European nation rather than an American state?

Well, the narrow geographical scale would mean that theoretically, it would be very easy for neighboring powers to launch surprise attacks and seize major portions of the home territory, all within days. Pennsylvanians do not have the luxury of the larger US in being able to let invaders tire themselves traveling to our shores, leaving plenty of time to organize resistance.

So what could Pennsylvania do? The first obvious necessity is to maintain a constantly strong defense, ready to resist aggression at a moment’s notice. That would demand a permanent standing army supported by strictly enforced conscription. Every male citizen (historically) would be trained extensively and regularly as a member of the armed forces, and those not actively in service would always be in reserve. There would be networks of barracks and armories.

The whole state would to some extent stand in constant military readiness, with rail systems, factories and so on ready to be mobilized. Transportation systems would always be designed with military goals in mind, to get the troops to where they most needed. At various points through history, key transit routes and geographical centers would be heavily guarded and fortified. There would be a network of linked fortifications and bastions. If these did not stop invasion, at least they would provide a nucleus for rallying and resistance.

In every sense, Pennsylvania would have to be a fortress state. That would become ever more true as technological change (rail, freeways, aircraft) accelerated the rate at which likely invaders might appear on our soil. Matters might even become so desperate as to demand pre-emptive attacks.

That military commitment would resonate through the whole society, shaping value systems. There would be no option but to place power in the hands of military elites, whether traditional aristocrats or newer professional soldiers. In such an environment of constantly competing states standing right next to each other, pacifism or anti-war sentiment would never be more than a marginal belief. Countries without the need and capacity to defend themselves would rapidly crease to exist, and would be absorbed into other larger powers and empires.

The exception to that rule would be smaller states who retained independence because larger empires found it in their interests to do so. If Massachusetts and Connecticut could not agree which of the two should absorb Rhode Island, then that territory would of necessity be allowed to remain an independent state. Perhaps it would even offer a useful neutral ground where larger powers could conduct business and trade, and organize intelligence operations. Actually, a state system like that I am describing would benefit greatly from the presence of one or more neutral nations.

Not that the central military commitment leads to policies that are entirely reactionary in nature. So anxious are states to develop themselves and their military capacities that they invest heavily in infra-structure of all kinds, including human capital. Healthy and well fed populations supply the best warriors, placing a premium on generous social welfare policies.

Fortress states, warrior states, imperial states, welfare/warfare states ….

Also, obviously, any state would need a network of alliances, constructed on the ancient basis of “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Pennsylvania would have a natural interest in a long-term alliance with Massachusetts and Connecticut, whose troops would pour into New York should that ancient enemy attack us. New York, meanwhile, would maintain its historic Axis with Ohio and Maryland. The problem then is that systems of linked alliances massively raise the risk that a state will be drawn into distant quarrels in which it actually has little interest.

In whatever forms, collective security would be a vital and necessary goal.

Each state, likewise, would have a very strong interest in cultivating intelligence. Once one state decided to attack another, it would be too late to fight back, so that foreknowledge would be all. In early stages of society, spies and human intelligence are critical, but radar and electronic means revolutionize that whole world of surveillance and observation. Breaking codes saves states.

It is also likely that over history, repeated wars would leave contested boundaries, and restive populations trapped within one state, but avidly seeking to be reunited with some other power. Such uneven boundaries and population maps would provide constant incentives for future wars and aggressions.

This may all sound like science fiction Alternative History, but what we have actually done here is describe life in Europe between about 1815 and 1945, and especially during the twentieth century. And then, my class moves on to the non-imaginary worlds of France, Germany, Belgium, Britain, Poland …

All those nations had and have their distinctive traditions, based in religion, culture, social development and intellectual conflict. But to a remarkable extent, their options were severely constrained by geography, communications, and the brute fact of physical scale.




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