Against the old clichés - 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.”
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