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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts


Two prominent Americans of the early twentieth century offered distinctly opposing interpretations of history. Henry Ford, automobile manufacturer, said that "history is more or less bunk." George Santayana, Harvard philosopher, insisted that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

As these comments indicate, the value of history has been a much debated issue. In part, the controversial nature of the subject comes from the many interpretations it allows. In simple terms, history is what the historian considers the past to have been. It is an attempt to impose some sort of order or coherence on what, in its own time, may have appeared to be confused, even chaotic. In other words, history is a matter of perspective-what is seen through the mind's eye of the analyst and the writer who is the historian.

Nevertheless, even though there are many perspectives on the past, some understanding of what took place then is important for an understanding of what is occurring now, and what will continue to occur. The human being is a historical being, the only creature aware of his own mortality and, thus, the only creature conscious of the psychological dimensions of time. In the words of the German thinker Martin Heidegger, we live between the not-yet and the no-longer. The study of history provides one line of thought that meaningfully ties these two "times" to the present.

Given such an intellectual condition, we can argue that the study of Modern European History makes good sense. Regardless of our place of origin-or that of our ancestors-we are all part European in our social behavior and our thought patterns.

Over one hundred years ago, the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "all educated Americans. first or last, go to Europe." This statement is probably a debatable one, but the assertion that every educated American ought to understand the recent European past is a tenable one.

Many of the ideals, institutions, and problems that comprise our contemporary life were initially generated in Europe. Capitalism and communism, the stock market and the morning newspaper, soccer and golf, the department store and the two world wars-all were products of modern Europe.

To know something of Europe's history during the last two hundred years is, therefore, to know something of our world today.

The text that follows is designed to assist in such an understanding. An outgrowth of many years of teaching freshman history surveys, this book is addressed to those introductory students who want an overview rather than a heavily detailed account. If the manuscript can be said to have been "urged on," it was by a generation of students at the University of Kentucky who have regularly made teaching a pleasant challenge.

Raymond F. Betts

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