A History

by Norman Davies. New York - Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1996. xviii+ 1365 pages. Hardcover. Maps, illustrations. tables, index. $39.95.

Andrzej Nowak

Contemporary Western syntheses of European history have generally been flawed by deep-seated assumptions about the eastern half of the continent. The peoples living east of Germany and Italy have been edited out of European history as alien, inferior, and not interesting enough to merit attention in the enlightened literary circles of the 'real,' i.e., Western Europe. Russia alone, ever since she formed her aggressive empire, commanded more attention, critical at times but reverential most of the time. There exist individual studies of German, French, or even English authors dealing with matters of various eastern, or east central European countries with considerable knowledge, sophistication and historical objectivity, but their contributions have been almost completely neglected by the authors of the various German, French, and especially English and American textbooks of European history and civilization. In this respect, as in many others, the latest single-volume synthesis of the Old Continent's history constitutes a real revolution. At last, the pasts of Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria, and even Albania have been integrated into the big story of Europe. That Norman Davies is the author of this revolution is hardly a surprise. He made his name as a scholar writing two fascinating compendia of Polish history: God's Playground (1982), and Heart of Europe (1984). These books are indispensable to anyone who wishes to get some idea about the meaning and flavor of the other half of Europe's story. Davies' first book was the monograph of the Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920: White Eagle, Red Star.

In the early 1990s, shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the last symbol of the division of Europe, Davies set for himself an ambitious task of 'constructing a total history of all Europe.' As a Professor of History in the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at the University of London, he was well positioned to perform the task.

In his new book, Davies not only introduces a content that has been overlooked by many, but also uses certain formatting devices meant to give the readers an almost three-dimensional impression of his narration. Twelve chronological chapters contain a general overview of the whole of Europe's past, from prehistory to the present. Even on this most basic and traditional level Davies doesn't want 'to develop learning at the expense of writing' (Lord Acton's warning). Starting with the short and 'Latinized' chapter titles ("Peninsula," "Hellas," "Roma," "Origo," "Medium," "Pestis," "Renatio," "Lumen," "Revolutio," "Dynamo," "Tenebrae," "Divisa et Indivisa") he tries to intrigue and amuse. Each chapter is accompanied by a series of 'capsules' that illustrate more specific subjects, generally neglected in great syntheses. Capsules so different as "Hejnal", "Syrop," "Condom," "Cravate," "Papessa," "¸yczaków" and hundreds of others are intended to rouse historical curiosity and imagination of readers. The readers are also helped by a kind of a historical 'snapshot' at the end of each chapter presenting the whole Continent from a particular point of view and at a particular historical moment. E.g., the chapter dedicated to late medieval Europe ends with a snapshot from the Kremlin, Moscow, dated 6 January 1493, and the "Lumen" chapter ends with the premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni in Prague on 29 October 1797. The overall effect of this varied narration is compared by its author to 'a historical picture album, in which panoramic tableaux are interspersed by a collection of detailed insets and close-ups.' One hundred and thirty pages of very useful appendices follow.

Davies' great achievement is to help understand the place of Poland, and of other east central European countries, in the history of the Continent. He openly attacks historical prejudices and ignorance in this regard. His general assessment of the federative state called the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, so commonly accused by Western historians of incurable anarchism, gives justice to this particular political and cultural system as 'a bold experiment in democracy that, in the era of absolutism and general strife, offered a refreshing alternative.' The reputation of the Rzeczpospolita 'should not depend on the jaundiced propaganda of its later assassins' (555), cautions Davies. Ironically, his warning can be construed as directed not only at Western historians but also at the contemporary Polish critics of national traditions. Davies is aware that all too often, Poles have yielded to the vision of their own history propagated by Poland's most intractable adversaries.

"Propaganda" is the topic of one of the most interesting capsules. Davies draws on the theorists of propaganda to draft a concise and useful 'five rules of propaganda' illustrating the Soviet's mastery of its methods and the naivete and cynicism of its western dupes (500-501). In capsules titled "Ghetto," "Pogrom," and "Wiener Welt," Davies reminds his Western readers that Poland was not the place where anti-Semitism was born, but just the opposite: over the centuries, she was the traditional main refuge of European Jewry. He brings up the Lembergerpogrom case (Lwów/Lviv, 22-23 November 1918) to demonstrate how anti-Polish propaganda was successful in pinning on Poles the guilt for atrocities perpetrated elsewhere and by others. Davies defends the honor of the Polish winged hussars, so many times ridiculed not only in Western, but also in Polish histories (519). He incisively explains the remarkable extent of Polish tolerance during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (504). He gives credit to Polish soldiers for defending Europe against an absolutely real threat of Soviet invasion in the Summer of 1920, and to Polish workers for 'bringing the Soviet bloc to its knees' in the 1980s.

Davies' book has its anti-heroes as well. One of them is Russian imperialism. Davies depicts its history in terms of a pathological addiction to territorial conquest, born of gross inefficiency and traditional militarism. He calls this phenomenon bulimia politica (655) and incisively repudiates all rationalizations given to it by Russian historiography: 'the gathering of lands,' 'national tasks,' 'filling security vacuums,' and others. Davies rightly stresses the double standards of many Western history books when he depicts the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917-1918 and the parallel collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Most of the national republics that broke free from Russian control at that time are not given by Western historians the same status as those which broke away from the Central Powers. 'Few historians seem to regard Soviet Russia's reconquest of Ukraine or of the Caucasus as anything other than an internal "Russian" event' (932). Similarly, Davies observes the striking absence of the analyses of Soviet intentions in the historical debate about the origins of World War II. His intuition in this regard has been proven right after the publication of Europe: A History, when Russian archives 'disgorged' at last the primary sources to Stalin's aggressive plans of launching a war against Europe not only in 1939, but also in 1941 (when he was forestalled by Hitler by only three weeks).

Davies' synthesis of European history does not hide the cruelest side of either the Russian Revolution or of its eighteenth-century French model. The 'revolutions from abroad,' installed by Soviet force in east central Europe in 1944-7, likewise remain within his field of his vision. Thus the killing of the Vendée prisoners, or the famous "Noyades," form a capsule, and so do "Vorkuta," "Katy," "Smolensk" and the Ukrainian "Harvest."

Genuine scholarly intuitions, bold historical verdicts, illuminating observations; these and many other virtues are present in this unusual literary-historical collage titled Europe: A History. We have to remain indisputably grateful to Norman Davies for his achievement. But, as an ancient adage says, Plato is a friend, but truth is a greater friend... Davies pays a considerable price for his achievement as a single narrator of such a complex plot. One is tempted to apply to the author of Europe: A History the same words he applies to Izaak Babel as the author of Konarmiia: 'He is quite content to burgle history, so long as the resulting haul is artistically satisfying.' (936) So Davies' great work contains a number of small errors and quite a few typographical errors which 'burgle' dates and figures. Most of these mistakes are trivial when taken in isolation from one another; however, a concatenation of them makes this work less useful as a reference volume than might otherwise be the case. In fairness, it should be said that the task of copy editors (whom such first-rate publishing houses as Oxford University Press presumably employ) is to catch and eliminate such minor mistakes, while proofreaders should have eliminated the rest. Someone at the Press was woefully inefficient in exercising his/her editorial duties. This volume seems not to have been copyedited or proofread by competent professionals.

Some examples of why revisions in subsequent editions seem necessary: in 1241, it was not Henry the Bearded (+1238) that led the Polish princes against the Mongol invasion at Legnica, but his son, Henry the Pious (364); it was not the Grand Marshal of the Crown, Stanisaw Lubomirski (1720-1783), who owned the largest latifundium in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but another Stanisaw Lubomirski (1704-1793) who was the voivoda of Kiev, and even his fortune was never close to 'a million serfs' claimed by Davies (585); the First Polish Army fought in Berlin not under Ivan Konev, but under Georgii Zhukov as the Commander of the First Belarusian Front (720); less than 40,000 Poles were sent to Siberia after the insurrection of 1863, and not 80,000 as Davies says (828); Aleksander Bocheski could not have published his History of Stupidity in Poland in 1842 because he was born in 1904 and his book deals with the 1863 Polish insurrection (860); the fortress of PrzemyÊl was captured by Russians in March 1915, after a 19-month-long siege, and not after an 18-month siege in the Summer of 1917 (903); Roman Dmowski's Polish National Committee was established in Lausanne in August 1917, and not in Paris in August 1916 (914); Lwów is presently not the second largest city of independent Ukraine, but only the sixth, after Kiyv, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Doneck, and Odessa (920); Witkacy was not a mathematician (935); not all the western provinces of Poland were transformed by Hitler into the General Gouvernement: half of them were simply incorporated into the Reich (999); Katowice and the western part of Upper Silesia were not awarded to Poland by the Potsdam Conference in 1945, but belonged to Poland since 1921 (1049); in 1944, the Warsaw insurrectionists surrendered after 63 days, and not after 94, and on 2 October and not 4 October (1041); on the night of 13 December 1981, General Jaruzelski did not manage to arrest 'in a few hours' 40,000-50,000 Solidarity activists; the total number of the interned and arrested was about 5,000 (1108).

'It is not sufficient for the good historian merely to establish facts and to muster the evidence,' writes Davies, 'The other half of the task is to penetrate the readers' minds, to do battle with all the distorting preceptors with which every consumer of history is equipped.' Norman Davies has proved with his last book how wonderfully efficient he is in executing the second half of the historian's task in particular. After the editorial revisions which will presumably be made after initial printings, the book will become a classic for many decades.

For us, the peoples of the 'other Europe,' the book is a priceless gift. Davies went against the prejudices which still run deep in the corridors of academic power. In Davies' book, the history of Europe has been presented by a Westerner without massive silencing of voices from Europe's eastern half. Davies' boldness has been a shocking offense and scandal to many. In spite of many minor mistakes, the book introduces a major correction to our attempts to understand Europe's history.

Editor's note: The seventh printing of the book, in May 1997, eliminated a good number of mistakes and typos present in the initial printings.

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