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By Walter Scheidel


The Montréal Review, April 2017


Why Did Europe Conquer the World?
Philip T. Hoffman

Princeton University Press, 2015


A hundred years ago, Europeans controlled four-fifths of the world’s land surface outside Antarctica. Philip Hoffman, a prominent economic historian at the California Institute of Technology, asks what had made this possible. His answer is deceptively simple: if you want to conquer most of the globe, you need to be really, really good at waging war. Yet while it won’t come as a surprise that Europe’s endless conflicts had honed the martial skills of its belligerent nations, wouldn’t the same have been true of many other parts of the world? After all, war used to be ubiquitous among premodern societies everywhere. Hoffman addresses this problem by developing and testing a new model of historical causation. He argues that European war-making had to meet a number of very specific conditions to ensure its eventual superiority: mere bloodshed, on its own, was not nearly enough.

According to Hoffman’s model, war had to be frequent and the goals of conflict (from gaining territory and commercial advantage to good old-fashioned glory) had to be of great value to rulers and their key associates. It was necessary for the warring states to be roughly comparable in size and mobilization capacity in order to provoke repeated rounds of fighting: otherwise one of them might have absorbed the others or deterred intense conflict. Wars had to be expensive yet relatively easy to launch and fund. Moreover, all parties had to rely heavily on the new technology of gunpowder weaponry that unlike older and already optimized styles of combat offered ample room for improvement. Finally, obstacles to innovation in military hardware and tactics needed to be weak enough to encourage ongoing improvements.

All of these conditions had to apply simultaneously and for a long time. This was a tall order, and Hoffman spends much of his book trying to show that this only ever happened once – in Christian Europe from the late Middle Ages onward. Only there did this fortuitous concatenation of circumstances produce a dynamic process that funneled more and more resources into warfare and sustained ongoing innovation and learning from its results. Other major civilizations, by contrast, fell short in one or more of these critical categories. China failed to capitalize on the fact that it had invented gunpowder and firearms: hegemonic empire periodically dampened belligerence, ceaseless struggle with steppe nomads kept more traditional modes of fighting alive, and tax rates were generally low, tying the hands of rulers. After the fall of the Mughal Empire, India did experience endemic war but entrenched elites blocked revenue collection. The Ottomans were held back by their reliance on older technologies such as cavalry and war-galleys as well as by their limited fiscal reach. In several cases, cultural conservatism put a brake on innovation.

All of this made it possible for Europeans to pull ahead, opening up a growing lead in the manufacture and deployment of firearms, artillery, cannon-bearing ships, and sophisticated fortifications designed to resist bombardment. Hoffman meticulously documents dramatic productivity increases where they mattered most, from rates of gun fire to the price of arms. Ever since the late Middle Ages, Western gains in weapons productivity greatly outpaced economic growth: Europe’s breakthrough was as narrow as it was lethal.

Hoffman also explores how military superiority was converted into actual global dominance: well-capitalized and heavily armed overseas ventures by private entrepreneurs were the principal driving force. Once again, other societies, burdened by tighter government control and sometimes even bans on foreign trade, lagged behind. The pay-off was huge: by 1800, Europeans already laid claim to about half of the planet. In the nineteenth century, R&D kept military innovation going even as some of the old incentives for active warfare began to fade. This resulted in an armed peace coupled with growing military spending: it took the cataclysms of the world wars to shatter this system for good.

Hoffman makes a powerful case, grounded in wide-ranging comparative analysis. Only his answer to the question how Europe acquired all these peculiar characteristics that helped it make the most of gunpowder warfare seems somewhat less persuasive. He rightly recognizes that intense political fragmentation was a vital ingredient: had anything like the Roman Empire re-emerged later on, competitive innovation might very well have stalled. That universal empire failed to return remains one of the most puzzling, and understudied, problems of European history: after all, Roman rule had lasted a long time, and many other parts of the world witnessed a long succession of large empires that waxed and waned. Hoffman maintains that only political history, which was quite contingent in nature, can account for medieval exceptionalism that created an enduring system of productively feuding states.

But while he refutes lazy claims that Europe’s rugged terrain or irregular coastlines were somehow responsible for its political diversity, he goes too far in dismissing geographical and ecological factors in favor of purely cultural developments, such as the evolution of a warlike elite culture and the divisive influence of Christianity. Unlike the other regions he reviews, Western Europe was far better shielded from the Eurasian steppe and its mobile warrior confederations, and therefore less likely to be conquered by them or to develop powerful empires and specialized military tactics to fend them off. In the end, this difference was a simple function of geography that profoundly affected the political landscape, allowing the right kind of competitive polycentrism to develop and survive in the long term.

Yet this is just a quibble. Hoffman deftly advances and richly documents a cogent thesis that is bound to become a major point of reference for future research. A milestone in the perennial debate about the reasons for the “rise of the West,” it paints an unremittingly grim but disturbingly compelling picture of the dark forces that shaped the modern world.


Walter Scheidel is a historian at Stanford University. Earlier this year Princeton University Press published his latest book, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.


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