A Book for the Times, Review of Norman Davies' Europe: A History

A Book for the Times, Review of Norman Davies' Europe: A History

Mini Teaser: Davies has written a work worthy of the remarkable continent with which he deals; a continent that is now struggling to redefine and reunify itself, and whose cultures have been released once again to meet and mingle.

by Author(s): Anthony Hartley

A Book for the Times, Review of Norman Davies' Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Anthony Hartley

It is unusual for a standard work issued by the Oxford University Press to be obscured by a fog of controversy. Unfortunately, it has happened with Norman Davies' huge history of Europe--for reasons that are not always easily comprehensible. Admittedly, there were a certain number of errors and literals in the first edition (I am assured that corrections have been made in the second), but this is surely not sufficient reason for dismissing a work of great originality without even discussing its leading ideas or the novelty of its method. To do so is to open oneself to the charge of pedantry, or else of hostility for some unstated reason.

For instance, Professor Theodore K. Rabb of Princeton, in his review in the New York Times (December 1, 1996), describes how he abandoned in despair the enterprise of reading Davies' Europe. Since he seemed determined to restrict his critical scope to the noting of errors and literals, this is hardly surprising. It must indeed have been a discouraging task to read so long a book purely to spot mistakes, and without any realization of what the author was getting at. Nor are his lists of errors entirely accurate, as noted by Anne Applebaum in The New Criterion (May 1997). I am sure that Professor Rabb does not wish to be known as the pedant from Princeton, and would prefer, therefore, the conclusion that the reading of Davies' Europe has been too difficult for him. It would be a pity, however, if readers should follow his example, since, as Tim Blanning, professor of modern European history at Cambridge University, writes in the Times Literary Supplement (December 20, 1996), "Despite all these blemishes, it is a tremendous achievement, before which one must stand in admiration, if not awe."

The obvious absurdity of Professor Rabb's review leaves one puzzled. It is so clearly meant to be a "killing" review, and the emotion contained in it is far beyond the ordinary irritation caused by inadequate proofreading. Applebaum has sensed this too and puts it down to outrage at Davies' remarks on the Holocaust. The "worst" of them, it would appear, is that after describing in the same capsule the murderous anti-Jewish 1942 actions of German Reserve Police Battalion 101 at Otwock, Poland, and the 1944-45 actions against Germans of the mainly Jewish-staffed communist Security Office (UB) in Gliwice, Poland, Davies concludes, "In this light, it is difficult to justify the widespread practice whereby the murderers, the victims, and the bystanders of wartime Poland are each neatly identified with specific ethnic groups."

If umbrage over this capsule is indeed the main explanation for Rabb's hostility to Davies, it is strange that it has become increasingly difficult to comment broadly on these terrible happenings; immediately after the opening up of Auschwitz or Treblinka there was not such sensitivity. The Holocaust remains a mysterious event, one whose motives seem clear but which leaves much to be known about how ideology was translated into awful fact. It is also mysterious because it involves the descent of one of the more civilized peoples of Europe into an abyss of intolerance, persecution, and cruelty, culminating in the slaughter of most of the Jewish population of Germany and the countries around it--a slaughter, moreover, carried out at great inconvenience and with the expenditure of vast resources in the middle of a life-and-death struggle. How did the Germany of Goethe and Schiller, the Germany of small states, each furnished with its local operahouse, theaters, and orchestras, the Germany where families played Bach or read the Bible in the evening, manage to gestate these hellish events?

This is not the place to seek an answer to this terrible conundrum. But, at the very least, it is obvious that it poses a very difficult problem for all other Europeans. For, unless we have some idea of the special circumstances that produced it, then we must come to the conclusion that such an appalling development might have happened in any other European country. If Germany is not "special", then other countries might similarly hold the seeds of a final intolerance within themselves. If it is "special", in the sense of a special intolerance, a special brutality, then how does Germany fit into alliances or future plans for Europe? The question is one of some importance. It is not only legitimate but necessary to discuss it.

When, then, Professor Tony Judt asks--in a letter to the London Review of Books (April 3, 1997) objecting to Neal Ascherson's favorable notice of February 20--why Davies should "feel constrained" to compare the Holocaust with past events, the answer, surely, is obvious, and it is unnecessary to draw the sinister conclusions that seem to lurk in the background of Professor Judt's mannerly prose. Comparisons with, say, the massacres carried out by the "blues" in the Vendean war that resulted from the French Revolution reveal the readiness of human beings to resort to brutality to wipe out opponents in a civil war--and the VendŽe was a peculiarly bloody affair--without, it is true, possessing the means furnished by modern technology (efficient bureaucracy plus Zyklon B) that swelled the death toll of the Holocaust to such monstrous proportions. Such comparisons may at least suggest that the urge to brutality is not the possession of one people alone, and making them is not a proof of Davies' turpitude or secret prejudice. There is nothing in this book to justify the fears and suspicions floating beneath the surface of some reviews. If Davies showed less than perfect tact in the way he phrased the capsule "Batt-101" on pages 1,022-3, he showed nothing less than pro-Jewish sentiment in his capsule "Auschwitz" on pages 1,026-7.

Europe is not only a work of high merit but a very timely one. When the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have just emerged from "the enormous, badly organised school"--Ronald Hingley's apt image for Russian-inspired communism--it is particularly useful to have a history that does them justice. Davies' book shows the connections between the two halves of Europe. It completes our knowledge and indicates our future. For it seems likely that the more interesting events in our continent will happen in its eastern half in the years to come. Now we shall have an inclusive Europe and an inclusive history as well. Davies' book is the first serious attempt at such a history, a mammoth work based on great erudition, strong opinions, and a fiery prose style.

In the past Eastern Europe's role was confined to being sometimes the victim, sometimes the conqueror, of the steppes (first the Mongols, who hardly figure in Western history, and later the Turks, whom an East European king, John Sobieski, defeated outside the walls of Vienna). Russian history was permanently diverted from its course by the Mongol conquest and Russian political manners changed for the worse by the hegemony of the Golden Horde. Significant too was to be the German migration into Eastern Europe, and the organized attack on states such as Poland and Lithuania by the Teutonic knights--the "Baltic Crusade", which, inevitably, became an exercise in German eastward colonization. With these clashes of peoples, as well as the quarrels between kingdoms, it is not surprising that the German state that grew up on the edge of Eastern Europe should have been a military monarchy. Prussia brought into German politics the authoritarianism of czarist Russia, combined with some of the logical elements of eighteenth-century France. Its final gift to Europe was President Hindenburg and his worries about the fate of East Prussian estate owners, which had such a bad influence on the last years of the Weimar republic. Now a reunited Germany finds itself face to face with the enormous potential of Russia (even without Ukraine). The relations between them, and how these will affect the countries of Eastern Europe, will probably be the deciding factor in European history over the next half century.

As Davies shows, there have been innumerable historical definitions of Europe. A recent "history of Europe", sponsored by the European Commission, distinguished itself by leaving out Greece entirely. Nor has the emergence of the European Union, carrying with it aspirations to economic and political unity as well as a formidable bureaucratic apparatus based in Brussels, made things simpler. Our present EU may be meliorist in intent, but it brings with it no spur to the enthusiasm of peoples, though it may create a select band of initiates. A great historian, Hugh Seton-Watson, made the point when he observed how badly Europe needed a mystique and how insufficient were anti-communism and free trade as an ethos. Jean Monnet may have been an idealist, but the Europe he helped to create appears singularly unexciting to subsequent generations.

Davies himself has made his choice. His history is a history of facts--great quantities of fact, various, swarming, proliferating in all directions throughout the book. There are no rejections, except perhaps rejection itself. Throughout his methodological discussions Davies can be seen constantly refusing to accept the placing of Europe on a procrustean bed of definition, its ill-fitting limbs lopped off, and the huge mass of information is presented as part of the case against the over-neat European history of the past. Inevitably, however, this risks confusion, and he has had to perform miracles of compression and tours de force of clarity to avoid it. At his best Davies is witty and crisp in his narrative. The section on ancient Greece (with Hellenism and Byzantium looming up over the horizon) and the treatment of the Renaissance are particularly good, especially as the latter takes in the extension to Poland and Hungary. Then there are the celebrated "capsules" with which the work is studded. Ranging from information about medieval table manners to the trumpet notes that sound every day in Krakow to commemorate the Mongol attack in the thirteenth century, these constitute a fascinating reminder of the infinite variety and apparent strangeness of human nature. But there is no denying that they also interrupt what is already a packed narrative, and they require a high degree of alertness on the part of the reader if he is to avoid being led away by the lure of the capsules--to being "encapsulated", as it were.

Of course, there is room for legitimate differences of opinion about the balance of the work. One might, for example, complain that what has been gained in the East has been lost--or, at any rate, diminished--in the West. To describe England's Civil War in the seventeenth century as "a tragedy of essentially regional significance" is to neglect its impact on one of the main currents of political philosophy, as well as on the future history of the United States, Canada, Australia, and various other parts of the globe. The issues raised did not concern simply the court-imposed centralization of a small state on the periphery of a continent, but the shaping in the eighteenth century of the ways of thought of an entire people. Debates such as those held among the officers of the New Model Army in Putney Church raised questions of universal significance, and Hobbes, Harrington, and Locke were hardly of merely "regional significance."

But perhaps this is beside the point. It is not so much in dealing with the well known rubrics of English history that Davies excels as in the assignment of new roles to actors on the European stage and in the limelight he switches on to figures previously unknown to most of us. Possibly, he does overreact against the old "Armada-Trafalgar-Waterloo" view of English history, but it is salutary for us to be chivvied out of the grooves of habitual orthodoxy. Naturally, the re-adjustments required are the more painful, the more recent the events with which they deal. Though some may feel that the United States and Great Britain did play a rather larger part in Hitler's defeat than he is willing to concede, Davies' view of the Second World War as the most recent great struggle between Germany and Russia, ending with the latter's incursion into Central Europe and the moving of the frontiers between Teuton and Slav further to the West, is hard to contest. Certainly, we can hardly begrudge Russia the lion's share of the victory.

Earlier I suggested that this book "indicates our future." What I meant is that to read it is to be led to contemplate the combinations that will become possible now that the countries of Eastern Europe have been released from the bondage imposed on them in the 1940s. Now they are more mobile pieces of the European puzzle. There are signs too that some have learned to shun the ethnic and religious hatreds that have been the curse of the region. Others, of course, have not, and the frightful massacres in Bosnia and the Krajina, carried out by neighbors who had lived alongside each other peacefully for decades, show just how unforgiving the message of history--whether real or spurious--can be. The Serb Orthodox bishop who said that it was time to shut the New Testament represented the authentic voice of great Serb nationalism. And the fact that the massacres in Bosnia were only stopped finally by American intervention through the NATO machinery should have carried another kind of message to a Europe that often appeared to believe in the reality of its own speeches and communiques.

It would be naive to think that those faced with solving Europe's problems might be able to learn from Davies' book lessons that will help them in a task that seems to grow more complex as the ideological barriers come down. But should they ever read it, they would at least realize that no one solution fits a continent whose heritage is so diverse and whose desires so hard to understand. If we consider what Europe was in the nineteenth century and what the twentieth century then made of it by dint of sheer human folly, it is not easy to be optimistic about its future. Do statesmen learn from history? Are there still men at the head of affairs in Europe whom one can dignify by the name of statesmen? If such men exist, the lessons they might learn from Davies' book are to avoid oversimplification in their plans, to be moderate in their ambitions, and to be neither legalistic nor ideological in their choice of means to achieve those ambitions. Those who seek to unify Europe should not give way to the natural bureaucratic desire to eliminate differences for the sake of a false uniformity. Peoples are attached to their symbols, and to strike these down in order to demonstrate a European unity that does not yet exist is both foolish and dangerous.

Davies has written a work worthy of the remarkable continent with which he deals; a continent that is now struggling to redefine and reunify itself, and whose cultures have been released once again to meet and mingle.

Essay Types: Book Review