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Books

May 1997

Against the old clichés,

by Anne Applebaum

Review of Europe: A History by Norman Davies

My introduction to European history began with a map. The peninsula of Europe lay stretched out over a blackboard; the lecturer drew an imaginary line down the center. Empires shifted, he explained, but this line had remained the same. To the west of it lay the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the “progressive” Great Powers, and what we learned during the Cold War to call “the West.” To the east lay barbarism, feudal states, Russia and Austria-Hungary, and what was then known as “the Communist bloc.”

The lecturer explained that the division of Europe was nothing new: it had its origins in deep cultural and political differences, land use patterns, the absence of capitalism in the East, the scientific revolution in the West. In all cases and at all times, the peoples to the west of the imaginary line had been more sophisticated, more progressive, more advanced. The peoples to the east were slower to develop, less democratic, less “European.” The peoples to the west of that line would, therefore, be the object of the next nine months of study.

It only takes a few swift sentences early on in his monumental Europe: A History[1] for Norman Davies to dispense with that sort of history. After all, he notes, there are many dividing lines which shaped the history of Europe. Some of the most important—in terms of climate, culture, family structure— divide north from south rather than east from west. Some of the most permanent— like that which separates Catholic and Orthodox Christianity—have nothing to do with who is and who isn’t now in NATO, or who was or wasn’t in the Holy Roman Empire. Nor did all of the lines divide Europe exactly as one might think. During large chunks of history, Byzantium was far more sophisticated, scientifically and politically, than the old Western Roman Empire, for example.

Certainly it isn’t the case that at all times, and in all places, the division of Europe which persisted through the second half of the twentieth century remained the same. Contemporary events shape our idea of which countries are and are not meant to be “progressive,” and in our era, the event which has most shaped history is the Second World War and its aftermath. The Allied Scheme of History—of which more later—produced a number of assumptions, all of which I also distinctly remember being taught: the belief that the “Atlantic Community” is the pinnacle of progress, the demonization of everything German, the generally indulgent view of both the tsarist empire and even the Soviet Union, at least in its wartime role, and the unspoken acceptance of the division of Europe as “natural.”

Powerful though these assumptions and geographical prejudices may be, Professor Davies ridicules their historical basis so thoroughly that it seems surprising no one else has thought to do it before. After all, we live in an era of hyper-historical consciousness, in which the prejudices of our historians have themselves become the subject of learned theses. In recent years, women have been discovered, the history of the illiterate lower classes has been unearthed, the stories of slaves and chambermaids have been published to great acclaim. Only our geographical prejudices have remained curiously intact—and Norman Davies was precisely the man to dissect them. His own family is Welsh, his wife’s family is from what is now Ukraine, and he is a British scholar whose two-volume history of Poland, God’s Playground, has become, in translation, the standard text in many Polish schools. With family ties and professional interests on Europe’s peripheries, he has long been privately and publicly critical of the way “European” history has come to mean the history of England, France, Germany, and very occasionally Italy and Spain.

Most historians are content merely to complain about such things over sherry and leave it at that. Professor Davies took it upon himself to correct the prejudices he perceived, however, and the result is this book: the story of Europe from Indo-European tribes to the present, in which the many strands of European history—not only English and French but Slavic, Irish, Spanish, Swiss, Dutch, Jewish, and Scandinavian—are at last woven together. Although largely narrative history, the main text is enhanced by a series of “capsules” of social and intellectual history, about thirty-five to a chapter, on subjects ranging from the origins of the goose step to the evolution of table manners to the history of the Papal Index. To give some added flavor of different attitudes of different times, each chapter also ends with a detailed description of a scene which was, in one way or the other, pivotal to the era it describes: the fall of Syracuse, the construction of Bernini’s Rome, Whitehall on August 3, 1914.

Despite all of these distractions, Professor Davies does manage to keep up, throughout a thousand pages and two thousand years, his basic theme. “For some reason,” he writes, “it has been the fashion among some historians to minimize the impact of the Magyars … all this means is that the Magyars did not reach Cambridge.” He then goes on to list the effects of the great Magyar invasion of the ninth century: within sixty years they helped form modern Hungary, as well as Bohemia, Poland, Serbia and Croatia, Austria and Germany; they permanently separated the northern Slavs from their southern cousins; they opened the way for German colonists to come down the Danube. “Only armchair historians, sitting in a backwater of an offshore island, might judge such developments trivial.”

Not all of this book, however, is about reviving that which is forgotten. Professor Davies is also adept at tracing the dissemination of ideas from their origins to the nether regions of Europe, tossing out odd bits of erudition on the way: reintegrating the history of East and West Europe also means describing the profound effect which the latter had upon the former. Discussing the Enlightenment, he pays due homage to Voltaire and friends, as any traditional textbook would—and then points out that the ideas of the Enlightenment were put to use “for different purposes in different countries.” The Polish king adopted Rousseau’s theories of education. In Britain, Enlightenment ideas influenced the liberal wing of the Establishment. In the American colonies, they were invoked by revolutionaries who opposed the British Establishment. In France, Spain, and Italy, they inspired intellectuals who opposed monarchy; on the other hand, Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia selectively adopted them as ruling principles.

Davies resists traditional classifications, like the simple division of post-Reformation Europe into the Protestant North and Catholic South. As one might expect of a historian of Eastern Europe, he dwells upon the linguistic and cultural foundations of nations, or, more normally, lack thereof. On the other hand, he gives the main events their due, noting that “there is a universal quality about the French Revolution which does not pertain to any of Europe’s other convulsions,” and proceeding to examine the impact of that particular event at length. The result is learned, quirky, and inclusive at the same time. Perhaps more importantly, in this age of overspecialization, it is readable: Davies’ achievement is literary as much as it is historical. He makes a special plea on behalf of readable history, citing the example of Thomas Carlyle: “Imaginative historians such as Thomas Carlyle have not simply been censured for an excess of poetic license. They have been forgotten. Yet Carlyle’s convictions on the relationship of history and poetry are at least worthy of consideration.”

If there is an important flaw in the structure of the book, it is Davies’ insistence upon downgrading the efforts of his predecessors, whom he derides as the promulgators of cliché and received wisdom, in order to explain why he is writing the history of Europe the way he is writing it. Had he been more tactful, he might have avoided some of the inevitable revenge the book has incurred. But at least the revenge has been interesting. In fact, the objections to Europe: A History have been so acrimonious that they would themselves fit very well into one of Norman Davies’ capsules: they make a curious intellectual snapshot of the state of Anglo-American intellectuals at the end of the twentieth century.

The British objections are the mildest, and most predictable. Paul Preston, for example, reviewing the book in the London Times Higher Education Supplement attributes the success of Norman Davies’ book in Britain to the enthusiasm of “right-wing” reviewers. He also explains the London Times’s decision to serialize extracts from the book as a ploy designed to “target Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party.” All very strange, since Norman Davies votes Labor and has nothing to do with the Conservative Party, and since one of the most enthusiastic reviews in Britain came from the outspokenly left-wing writer Neal Ascherson, in the outspokenly left-wing London Review of Books. Perhaps the explanation lies somewhere in Professor Preston’s dismissal of Davies’ “bitter demolition of communism:” alas, a healthy dislike of Communism is still not quite acceptable in the higher realms of academe.

Stranger still was the write-up which Europe: A History received in The New York Times. Theodore Rabb, in a long, humorless, and surprisingly nasty review, unaccountably dismisses the main of the book (“as it happens, he redresses the East-West imbalance only occasionally”) and goes on to describe it as having “inaccuracies, on average, every other page.” Yet if this is so, Rabb hasn’t done a very good job identifying them. Some of the “mistakes” are subjective judgments—Rabb describes, for example, Davies’ account of Copernicus as “misunderstood” without explaining why. Sometimes Rabb is simply incorrect: he complains that “William Harvey does not make it into the book” when in fact he does, on page 1,272. And while plenty of other reviewers noticed mistakes, most forgave them, as did one reviewer, on the grounds that “any book of this scope and this scale, written by a single author, would contain some errors in those fields which were not the author’s special subject.” While Oxford University Press is at fault for not assigning special fact-checkers to this book, and doubly at fault for having had it copy read in India (a new fashion in publishing, I am told), the real interest of the book is its style and its brilliantly sustained thesis—a thesis, as I say, that Rabb hardly mentions in his review. In any case, a new error-free edition is already due to appear in June.

But if my guess is correct, Professor Rabb’s motivation for attacking the book is not its errors. The real motivation must lie in Professor Rabb’s obscure comments about Jewish matters. Among other things, Davies stands accused of “singularly and irrelevantly” describing the historian Simon Schama as Jewish, the “equating of the now notorious German police battalion in the Otwock ghetto in 1942 with the role of Jews in the postwar Communist security forces in Poland,” as well as a “skewed” discussion of usury and “errors about the origins of ghettoes.” Why it is wrong to describe Simon Schama as Jewish, since he is Jewish and writes about being Jewish; what exactly is skewed about Davies’ discussion of usury or the origins of ghettos, both of which have struck other historians as perfectly acceptable; none of this is explained. Rabb, it seems, is fond of making vague and unsubstantiated accusations in reviews, and has been caught doing so on at least one previous occasion.

As for the accusation concerning Battalion 101 and its behavior in Otwock, these were also picked up in a series of letters to the editor of The Times Literary Supplement by the historian Abraham Brumberg and a woman named Esther Kinsky, who even took it upon herself to send a plaintive form letter around London, asking supporters to “contribute your opinion on this matter and to help instigate a public debate.” What all appear to object to was Norman Davies’ description of Nazi atrocities and Jewish postwar cooperation with Communist atrocities in the same capsule. Nothing Davies writes is untrue, but Brumberg feels that describing the two on the same page “helps to camouflage the unique nature of the German holocaust.”

Davies himself, also in a letter to the TLS, claims that “I do not equate; I juxtapose, and sometimes invite a comparison.” Reading the capsule myself, I understood that Davies was trying to point out that ordinary people behave badly when faced with certain kinds of moral dilemmas, whatever their nationality. He quotes from a famous study of the Otwock incident, which asked “if the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under the circumstances, what group of men cannot?” It was certainly provocative to ask whether Jews could also have become killers under certain circumstances, but then it is about time that Jews in the West learn to stop behaving as if the uniqueness of the Holocaust automatically excludes Jews from being accused of any form of bad behavior. It is also about time that historians acknowledge that, in the postwar era, there were some Jews who took part in Communist atrocities, and learn to discuss this fact as part of history, asking why it might have happened: suppressing it will simply create the anti-Semitism we should be attempting to eradicate. A decent book about the subject would hlep clear the air. Nothing about that discussion need “camouflage the unique nature of the German holocaust” in any way. I don’t, in fact, see what one has to do with the other.

There is a background to these disputes, namely that when Norman Davies’ history of Poland, God’s Playground, was published in the 1980s, some historians found the book too “right-wing” and anti-Soviet: as late as 1989, a British historian told me he thought Davies’ book “biased” because it attributed the Katyn massacres to the Russians instead of the Germans. Worse, a group of American academics complained that Davies had failed to put sufficient emphasis on the role which the Poles had played in carrying out the Nazi Holocaust. Although no one spoke openly of anti-Semitism—just as Professor Rabb does not speak openly of anti-Semitism—the accusations were enough to prevent Davies from getting the tenure which he had been promised at Stanford.

Davies has always argued that it is too easy for comfortable Westerners to look for culprits among East European populations which were themselves threatened with death for helping Jews, and that it is oversimplistic to argue that all Poles behaved equally badly: after all, it was a Pole, smuggled in and out of Auschwitz at great risk by the Home Army, who first told Roosevelt about the Holocaust (Roosevelt refused to believe him). But this is not the place to conduct that particular argument. In any case, the allegation that Norman Davies is anti-Semitic, or that he denies the importance of the Holocaust, has always been absurd: “Nazism was the most repulsive movement of modern times,” he writes on page 976.

Part of what lies behind all of these criticisms, of course, is precisely the phenomenon which Davies is trying to describe, that same old Allied Scheme of History again. The Allied Scheme of History sees only one mass murderer in Europe this century, not two: Stalin could not have killed more people than Hitler because he was on our side, and it is “right-wing” to say otherwise. The Allied Scheme of History also sees only one set of victims of the Second World War: the Jews. East Europeans were not victims; on the contrary, East Europeans, whichever side they fought on, belonged “naturally” to the more primitive half of Europe, not least because they were more susceptible to primitive emotions like anti-Semitism—and never mind that while there were plenty of French officials who openly collaborated with the Nazis, there were no Polish officials.

Unfortunately, the Allied Scheme of History, which Norman Davies dismisses out of hand, is also practiced by most of Norman Davies’ critics. I distinctly remember a long article in The New York Review of Books by Abraham Brumberg, right about the time of Ukrainian independence, dwelling upon Ukrainian anti-Semitism and predicting an unpleasant future for the new country. In fact, while there are plenty of Ukranian anti-Semites out there, since independence, the Ukrainian state has behaved in an exemplary fashion toward its minorities, Jews included. Why does Abraham Brumberg not write long articles dwelling upon that?

But the Allied Scheme of History also makes anyone like Norman Davies, who has devoted his career to these nasty East Europeans, seem somewhat suspect. The politically correct attitude toward the region is the one promulgated by the lecturer who taught me about the “natural” divisions in Europe, or by the East European editor of the Financial Times of ten years back, who dismissed the tribulations of the peoples he wrote about on the grounds that “every country has the government it deserves.” It does now appear that unless you go on spouting the clichés—that the only crimes in Europe this century were Nazi crimes, and that the proper historical place for the vicious peoples of this region is on the peripheries of “civilized” Europe—then you are likely to find your book, however brilliant, however original, dismissed as “right-wing” or “anti-Semitic.”

All of which is a great shame, because if the spouters of clichés win this round as well, Europe: A History, which was featured on bestseller lists in London for many months, may well not get the recognition it deserves in the United States. Leaving aside the arguments about who did what to whom in Europe between 1935 and 1950, Americans will then miss out on a quirky, erudite, and fascinating history of the continent whence came many of their ancestors, and much of their political culture. It isn’t that often that a book as enjoyable as this appears in print, and after the initial reception this one has received in the United States, there may not be one like it again.

 

Notes
Go to the top of the document.

  1. Europe: A History, by Norman Davies; Oxford University Press, 1,365 pages, $25. Go back to the text.

Anne Applebaum's most recent book, Gulag: A History, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004.


more from this author

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 May 1997, on page 70

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

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