In the Hands of the Cannibals
- Europe: A History by Norman Davies
Oxford, 1365 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 19 820171 0
In this supposedly scientific age, the imaginative side of the historical profession has undoubtedly been downgraded. The value of unreadable academic papers and of undigested research data is exaggerated. Imaginative historians such as Thomas Carlyle have not simply been censured for an excess of poetic licence. They have been forgotten. Yet Carlyle’s convictions on the relationship of history and poetry are at least worthy of consideration. It is important to check and verify, as Carlyle sometimes failed to do. But ‘telling it right’ is also important. All historians must tell their tale convincingly, or be ignored.
So writes Norman Davies, in the introductory pages of this huge, heroic book. Carlyle claimed in 1834 that ‘the only Poetry is History, could we tell it right.’ In this sense, Europe: A History is an epic work of the imagination. It achieves (among many other things) one unexpected effect more commonly achieved by epic poetry or fiction than by encyclopedic histories: in spite of being well over a thousand pages long, the book demands to be read from start to finish, from the Ice Ages to the New World Disorder, without selectivity. To begin by dipping and skipping is to miss the point, to break the spell and deprive oneself of a profound pleasure. In short, the bulk and the scope do not prevent this single volume from being a narrative rather than a work of reference. ‘Gibbon Goes East’, the headline on the TLS review, was not entirely over the top.
After Davies, it will never be possible to write a history of Europe in the old way again. Almost single-handed, he has shifted Europe’s historiographical centre of gravity eastwards. This is an account in which Prague, Kraków or Kiev is as prominent as Paris, Rome or Seville, in which Comenius ranks with Erasmus and the rebellion of Bogdan Chmielnicki is treated as seriously as the War of the Spanish Succession. And this is not just a matter of ‘restoring’ Eastern and East-Central Europe to the general story, the story itself becomes a quite different one. All those ‘European histories’ which are really self-congratulatory chronicles of Western Civilisation – with obligatory references to dark, peripheral events like the Partitions of Poland or the reforms of Peter the Great – now fa1l into oblivion, not because they are incomplete but because they are distortions. Neither is this a matter of crude ‘equating’: of setting out to prove that the Counter-Reformation in Central Europe was as important as it was in the West, or that Poland’s doomed dash towards constitutionalism in the late 18th century was as significant as the French Revolution. What happened in the West often mattered more. But Davies is saying that it is impossible to grasp how or why these developments mattered unless they are put in the wider European context.
Davies was not the first Western scholar to understand this distortion. One of his models, Hugh Seton-Watson, spent a lifetime attacking the provincialism of conventional Western history writing. (Another model and tutor, the late A.J.P. Taylor, took a different line, treating the smaller nations of Eastern Europe with impatient contempt.) But he is the first to offer the general public a convincing alternative. It was high time. The old versions were already losing credibility. As Davies says,
the really vicious quality shared by almost all accounts of ‘Western civilisation’ lies in the fact that they present idealised, and hence essentially false, pictures of past reality ... judging from some of the textbooks, one gets the distinct impression that everyone in the ‘West’ was a genius, a philosopher, a pioneer, a democrat or a saint, that it was a world inhabited exclusively by Platos and Marie Curies ... Overblown talk about ‘Western civilisation’ threatens to render the European legacy, which has so much to be said in its favour, disreputable.
Vol. 19 No. 6 · 20 March 1997
Theodore Rabb’s review of Norman Davies’s Europe: A History in the New York Times last December is decidedly not – as Neal Ascherson (LRB, 20 February) would have it – ‘malevolent’. Even Davies doesn’t use this term, confining himself instead to asking people to ‘calm down’ his critics.
Seeking to dispel any notion of ‘anti-semitism’ in Davies’s writing, Ascherson chooses an example that is bound to backfire: the sanctimonious and condescending tribute to Torah-abiding rabbis in the ghettos and camps is a stereotype only too familiar from the more recent debates about Polish anti-semitism. Ascherson quite rightly identifies the connection between Davies’s attitude to Russia and his ‘long and passionate empathy with the Polish experience’. Why then does he fail to see a similar link with Davies’s very peculiar obsession with questions of Jewishness and the relativisation of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust? Davies’s notorious sympathy for Poland is paired with a rabid anti-Communism. This may have persuaded him to share a typical postwar resentment which thrived on the fertile soil of traditional Catholic anti-semitism: incorporated into the Soviet bloc, many Poles felt deprived of international recognition of their wartime sufferings under the Germans and tended to accuse the Jews of monopolising victimhood. His anti-Communism, in turn, prompts him to present Stalin and Stalinism as the ‘top evils’ of the century. His argument for the ‘humanitarian’ aspect of the gas chambers as opposed to death ‘in protracted agony or from cold and starvation’ implies that the millions who died the latter death in Soviet camps had a more dreadful fate than those who were gassed.
Vol. 19 No. 7 · 3 April 1997
Neal Ascherson’s generous review of Norman Davies’s Europe: A History (LRB, 20 February) raises a number of troubling questions. The book, as even Ascherson acknowledges, is full of errors, yet these apparently in no way reduce its ‘intellectual achievement’. Really? There are eight errors on one page in Chapter 7. In Chapter 11 we learn that the Nazis supported Papen in 1932 (they didn’t); that General von Schleicher was in the Reichstag (he wasn’t); that the Germans occupied the Vichy Zone in 1943 (it was 1942); that 77,000 Belgians were sentenced for collaboration (the figure is 57,000); that ‘tens of thousands’ were killed in postwar France in ‘an orgy of retribution’ (the figure is 9000). Ascherson has provided examples of his own and so have other reviewers, expert in different periods covered by the book. Details, no doubt – but so many of them that misfortune begins to look like carelessness. In this sense, Davies’s book is indeed, in Ascherson’s words, ‘an epic work of the imagination’.
But it is of course something more than that. Turning the map of Europe through ninety degrees such that Poland always appears in the centre is neither original nor enlightening. It is merely perverse. Being ‘tactless’ (Ascherson) on the subject of Jews, however, would matter less were it not patently obvious that it is the only arena in which Davies’s lack of tact is so relentlessly on show (Russophobia is not lack of tact, just poor history). His discussion of the ‘dissenting voices’ in Holocaust studies may strike non-specialist readers as nicely balanced – unless they turn to the notes and learn that Davies makes no distinction between critics of ‘Zionist’ historiography, critics of ‘Jewish’ influence in US politics and anti-semitic proponents of the ‘Holocaust Hoax’. It is these ‘dissenting voices’ who apparently lead Davies to his conclusion that on the Holocaust ‘the last word has still to be spoken.’
Surely it is the task of the reviewer to face up to such embarrassing warts on the face of Davies’s book, however seductive his polemical energy and iconoclastic verve? If the reiterated juxtapositions of the Holocaust with other past crimes – the drownings in the Loire in 1794, the abuses of (Jewish) secret policemen in postwar Poland – are ‘painful and unnecessary’ to Ascherson, he might at least wonder aloud why Davies feels constrained to make them. The art of comparison, especially in extreme instances, lies in the appropriateness and pertinence of the things compared. There is no justification, in scale, motive or consequence, for the comparisons Davies proposes. And they are, in any case, juxtapositions, not true comparisons; does Neal Ascherson really think that they are being offered for the enlightenment of the reader?
Finally, why is Ascherson so sure that objections voiced to Davies’s version of European history are part of a ‘campaign’ against him? I am not aware of any such campaign – Davies’s bizarre obsession with Stanford University (see pages 29-30 of Europe: A History) is not reciprocated, and the review by Theodore Rabb in the New York Times was highly critical but showed no ‘malevolence’, personal or professional. Nor was Rabb among the critics of Davies’s earlier work on Poland – he is a historian of Early Modern Europe who was previously unacquainted with Davies’s writings and unaware of Stanford University’s decision not to offer him a job. No one is out to ‘get’ Davies; but whereas foreign historians have been distinctly unforgiving of Norman Davies’s curious interpretations and his cavalier unconcern with facts and dates, British commentators are happy to reflect back to the author his own uncritical self-evaluation, even as he vilifies the few who dare to dissent.
New York University
Vol. 19 No. 8 · 24 April 1997
Norman Davies has attempted a total history of Europe (LRB, 20 February) yet seems unable to mention Romania without making either factual errors or snide remarks. He ascribes interwar Fascism in Romania to the nature of folk belief there (a quaint solecism); calls the place the ‘North Korea of Eastern Europe’, with ‘nowhere to go’, and ignores or misrepresents the major facts of its modern history and culture. It is sad that Davies, who is so eloquently aware of the ideological dangers of Great Power history, from the Greek to the Allied version, has succeeded, not in reshaping Europe’s story, but in retelling it so as to add Poland to the pantheon of civilisation while doing down smaller countries further away. Neal Ascherson – whom Davies calls a ‘fellow spirit’, but who at least had the grace to apologise when he wrote a book about the Black Sea that ignored the Romanian and Bulgarian parts of its coast – does nothing to alert your readers to this state of affairs, but instead valiantly attempts to defend a book that he confesses is error-bound.
Also, why does Patrick Parrinder (LRB, 20 March) think that The Doll by Boleslaw Prus is the ‘least-known major 19th-century novel’, when scholarship (well, Hugh Seton-Watson et ego) is unanimous in according this wreath to O Faclie de Paste by Ion Luca Caragiale, a Romanian? Does the fact that the former is slyly inserted into the canon by Davies have anything to do with it?
Esther Kinsky rightly observes (Letters, 20 March) that Poles are resentful of the fact that the death of some five million of their non-Jewish compatriots during World War Two has not been properly acknowledged. My own non-Jewish family was lucky: only one member perished in Auschwitz, only one killed in the Warsaw Uprising. But to feel resentful a Pole need not be either a Catholic or an anti-semite. The resentment and anger are provoked by certain elements in the Jewish community, particularly in the US, which even try to make Poles co-responsible for the Holocaust. Adam Michnik, the eminent Polish Jew, warned an audience of New York Jewry against turning those Poles who are sensitive to the Jewish tragedy into anti-semites.
Hawthornden Castle, Lasswade
There was a mistake in Tony Judt’s letter as published in the last issue. The sentence in question should have read: ‘In Chapter II we learn that the Nazis supported Papen in 1932 (they didn’t); that General von Schleicher was in the Reichstag (he wasn’t); that the Germans occupied the Vichy Zone in 1943 (it was 1942) … ’ Our version inexplicably sent von Schleicher to Vichy, without any mention of his being, or not being, in the Reichstag.
Editors, ‘London Review’