Europe: A history.

Norman Davies. Oxford University Press, 1996.

This book has several useful features, one of which is its immense size (the Christian Science Monitor weighed it in at 3 pounds, 14 ounces), which will make it useful for dropping on the next overbearing know-it-all that uses the phrase, 'Western Civilization'. Another useful feature-- suitable for the same use-- is the extensive Introduction in which the author dissects the various variants of the historiography of Europe, with unfavorable results, and trashes the concepts of traditional 'European history' and 'Western civilization.'

In tackling the history of the continent, Davies brings to bear his own expertise in Polish history, to forcibly drag the center of gravity of his subject East. As a result, _Europe_ filled my own long-felt need to see East European history in conjunction with the Western European history covered in overviews of medieval history and in the schools. But this is by no means a reference book; it is not meant to be used to look up facts and figures. Instead, it is an absorbing, fluidly written volume that not only includes sidelights, vignettes, and descriptive passages, but a series of 'capsules' that tackle (not always well, admittedly) various cultural subjects.

Davies points out, before beginning, that the writing of history-- including his own-- is necessarily distorted; the best one can hope for is the clarity that develops from multiple viewpoints. He is fond of untidy, sprawling portrayals, replete with conflict, of each era. The intended reader is obviously someone who has some knowledge of history of the traditional kind, and this is most obvious in the post-period sections where his coverage is obviously directed against historiographical controversies that have raged in modern newspapers.

_Europe_ has earned both very positive and a few very negative reviews. The accuracy of certain dates and of specific facts and figures has been questioned (though a quick look in the Britannica clears some of these up, and Davies himself says that those pointed out have been corrected in the paperback edition), especially by those whose reviews indicate that their personal oxen have been gored, or at least chafed.

One negative reviewer pointed out that Davies ignores the "relatively modest contribution which Slavonic culture in general, and Russian culture in particular, has made compared with the more positive achievements of European civilization such as parliamentary democracy, intellectual tolerance, religious freedom, the rule of law, the creation of the welfare state, equality of treatment for men and women, and the improvement of life brought about by pure and applied science." (Since he goes to great pains to show that none of these are exclusive creations of Western Europe, one wonders about the reviewer.) Theodore Rabb's comments in a New York Times review (in which Rabb says he did not finish skimming, let alone reading, the book) were extensively polemical. Repeatedly, Davies is called an anti-Semite for 'trivializing the Holocaust'; readers will have to peruse his coverage and decide that for themselves.

The volume IS biased-- Davies appears in the guise of a Polophile, pro-EU, anti-Muscovite, anti-Nationalist generally Christian historian who believes that man's inhumanity to man is a continuing theme in history. (Some of that may be as a result of cursorily covering subjects with which we are familiar, such as the horrors of the Catholic Inquisition, and giving more detail to things which are less well-known, such as the persecution of Protestants by other Protestants.) Those who are interested in British History will, I'm afraid, get short shrift-- even the English Civil War is downgraded to an essentially local conflict, and Good Queen Bess is almost ignored. His coverage of Russian history is likewise spotty, partly because he slights those parts of the 'former Soviet Union' that are not part of Europe proper. In fact, in some ways, the whole coverage of history is spotty, due to Davies' attempts to portray history in all its messiness and to make an engaging storyline with minimal imposition of theoretical perspectives on the subject.

But the most striking point of the whole volume is an undertone that those of us who are interested in East European history will recognize, an overtone of irritation of Douglas Adamsian proportions, which, if it does not 'span the whole of time and space in its infinite umbrage', does cover Europe with a thin layer of peckiness. It is the irritation of someone whose field of study is one of those not only overlooked by one's colleagues but also slammed on a regular basis. As a result, Davies places a somewhat undue emphasis on Poland-Lithuania and Eastern European affairs in general, and he takes a stand in covering the events of the Holocaust and the other genocides in modern Eastern Europe that got him into trouble.