A People’s History of Modern Europe William A. Pelz

William A. Plez through his book takes up the daunting task of writing the bottom side of European history starting from the fall of the Roman Empire to Europe in 2016. In about two hundred and seventeen pages he throws light on the peasant struggles, women’s position and participation in the public sphere, life of the common people and worker’s struggles throughout this time period.

The book is written in an undecorated narrative that can easily be grasped by a wider audience rather than a limited high brow academic community. Pelz lifts the veil of mainstream history and gives his readers a glimpse of what the majority of the population in all these hundreds of years was up to their actions, reactions, visions, ideologies and efforts to achieve their visions.

Pelz has used primary and secondary data both as his sources to inform the reader. In fact his anecdotal narrative makes the book quite engaging and gives an inside view of the lives and times of the people. For example in one of the several that he has mentioned, in the chapter on World War I, on the fifth page of the chapter the soldiers take on the world war has been described. According to the book, many times during the war an understanding was established with the opponent troops to avoid an encounter, to the extent that the soldiers were so fed up after months of fighting that when the first Christmas arrived a Christmas truce was declared.
Livid by this human gesture the ones in power declared it as treason to come close to or befriend
the enemy in 1914. Despite that, there are letters found that have been sent home by the soldiers
in 1915 disclosing,

“We send them sausage, white bread and cognac”, “the Germans send us cigarettes”. (Pelz, 2016)

In the last chapter that covers the twenty –first century Pelz takes huge leaps and skips a significant amount of years to quickly wrap up this century in a few pages. Here, where Europe is done with the Communist regime, a strong case is made to establish through people’s narratives that the people are not happy with the existing capitalism and they actually wish the old regime was back. The reliance on personal narratives and anecdotes is a bit too much as the narratives are not enough to denote the sentiment of a significant part of the population and the only other source chosen to support this anti-capitalist account is a specific country’s poverty index of 2011.

Though, Pelz in his narration of the people’s history of all these years leading up to the twenty-first century does make a good case for poverty being an engineered system designed to benefit a few where as capitalism as is well known, makes it look like an individual failure.

In most parts of the book, specific indicators are used to reveal the state of the people like bread (up till industrial revolution), height (average European height kept changing throughout due to malnourishment), access to knowledge and education and status of women in public.

Women; their role in historical struggles, as a significant influence and their fluctuating power is weaved carefully in this telling. For example in the first chapter (Middle Ages) itself one takes in the various power relation that women had with the society starting from women being obligated to do domestic work and give sexual favours to priests during the middle ages for food and shelter to newly married peasant women being subjected to Jus Primae Noctis to women being violent enough to rebel against the system through physical force. Johanna Ferrour is given a special mention who is have known to beheaded Lord Chancellor Simon of Sudbury after dragging him out of the tower of London. (Pelz, 2016)

Pelz, also through this book takes up the task of complicating things in opposition to the already prevalent overly simplified narratives of history. Like in the chapter on Reformation, Pelz comments
                                 “Reformation was a process, not an event”.

He brings several other characters into the picture other than Henry VIII and Martin Luther, starting from John Ball the rebel priest to Thomas Muntzer whose theology saw ‘people as the true instruments of God’, from Lutheran reformers to Taborites who sought to establish a communist Christian community. On one hand, Taborites encouraged education of all including women, on the other hand, the Roman Catholic priests wanted to limit the knowledge of Bible to them, as it was a threat to their power. By complicating the narratives Pelz adds perspective to the events thus shifting the light from a person to the people. Similarly, he takes the lid of the mayhem Europe was in the middle of the 17th century. He while talking about the English revolution puts in the picture the Frondes revolts of France, the revolution in the Netherlands, revolt in Catalonia, Portugal, Naples, Ireland, Bohemia, German states, Swiss peasant war, Ukranian revolution and peasant uprisings in Britain, Hungary and Russia.

Despite this book’s positives, it no doubt is an extremely brief book. Pelz in an effort to write down a people’s history from the Middle Ages until the present got a bit too ambitious. This book certainly holds value in breaking several myths and is inclusive of myriad struggles, actors and ideologies but a two hundred and something page book cannot do justice to a people’s history of several hundreds of years. No doubt though, it starts a conversation that has been long due and sparks an interest for readers to start an inquiry to rethink history. The most important aspect of the book though is of highlighting the people, the masses as an agency of power and it becomes all the more relevant in the present day with the Brexit vote, Catalonia referendum, the Greek economy, refugee crisis etc.

Pelz, W. A., 2016. Protest and Mutiny Confront Mass Slaughter: Europeans in World War I. In: A People’s
History of Modern Europe. London: Pluto Press, p. 107.


Reviewed by Tripat  Sekhon, a Research Intern at The Kootneeti


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