In the Hands of the Cannibals

Neal Ascherson

  • 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.

One disastrous result, especially in the United States, is pressure to replace European history with a half-baked curriculum of Third World and Afrocentric studies. European history may have brought this fate on itself, but non-European history deserved a great deal better.

What is ‘Europe’? What is ‘European Civilisation’? Davies is a sturdy original, and china shops bring out the bull in him as they did in his master, Alan Taylor. He once wrote a history of Poland backwards (Heart of Europe), starting with General Jaruzelski and ending with the Iron Age settlers on the Elbe – an experiment which deserved more applause than it earned. Here he frequently refers to Europe as the ‘Peninsula’, and his maps (there are nearly thirty of them) turn the continent on its side so that Spain is at the top of the page and the Urals are at the bottom. And while admitting the obvious fact that European culture is highly elaborated and that Christianity is the most persistent colour of that culture, he treats the grandiose terminology about Christendom and Civilisation as propaganda rather than taxonomy. Europe, he observes, is like a camel: better described than defined. This is exhilarating, but I would have liked Davies to go even further. It’s rewarding to visualise Europe not just as a peninsula but as a sort of narrowing fish-trap, into which the East-to-West current has been depositing shoals for millennia. As for European Civilisation, with its implicit assumption that there is some necessary connection between Beethoven and benevolence, Mantegna and mercy, and that high culture somehow ‘rubbed off’ morally ... that term has been unusable since Auschwitz.

With God’s Playground, his two-volume history of Poland which preceded Heart of Europe, Davies showed that he was a wonderful writer as well as a scholar. He gave us the music of history as well as the libretto, and he has found a way to do this again in Europe. The main texture of the book is a conventional narrative, lively and opinionated but not departing far from kings, wars and the story of empires or nations. But the music is provided by some three hundred ‘capsules’: short, wayward, highly detailed explorations of topics like ‘Mauve’ (the evolution of artificial colours), ‘Tollund’ (Europeans preserved by peat or ice), ‘Orange’ (strolling from the origins of the House of Orange-Nassau to Ulster Loyalists) or ‘Rus’ (the controversies over the ancestry of the Russian state). At first these capsules, absorbing as they are, seem to obstruct the main text – as if footnotes had rebelled and occupied their pages. But I soon grew accustomed to this two-track rhythm of reading and learned to hop from the consecutive to the in-depth, much as one might with a CD-Rom text. Each chapter ends with what Davies calls a ‘snapshot’ or ‘freeze-frame’, a subjective surveying of a particular moment. My own favourite comes at the end of the chapter on ‘Enlightenment and Absolutism’. This snapshot of the night of 29 October 1787 in Prague, when Mozart conducted the first performance of Don Giovanni, becomes a composition in itself in which Mozart, his music, the rich and poor of Prague, the Emperor, the Freemasons, even the elderly Casanova who just might have hobbled to the theatre that night, all find a part to sing.

In spite of all its virtues and charms, not everyone likes this book. There have been complaints, some understandable and others rather disingenuous. A long, malevolent review by Theodore Rabb, which appeared in the New York Times Book Review, accused Davies of persistent factual error on almost every page and concluded that the accumulation of small mistakes vitiated the entire work: ‘a huge effort of research and synthesis has gone to waste.’ It is true that there are many errors. Some of those that I noticed seem to arise from misheard dictation; for instance, the Kalmar Union becomes the ‘Colmar Union’. But others are straight inaccuracies, like the statement that ‘a procession of peaceful acts of independence’ in Britain’s African empire ‘started with that of Nigeria in 1951’; the fact is that Ghana was the first such territory to attain independence, in 1957, and that Nigeria followed in 1960. As Davies says, ‘it is important to check and verify,’ and it is as if a whole stage of revision was omitted from the process of publication. No single human being, however learned, can possibly get every fact right in such an ocean of events, and why an effective revision by qualified fact-checkers was not built into the operation is a mystery. In the end, the effect is like watching a first-class television programme on one of those sets afflicted with snowflake interference, and this is why I disagree with Professor Rabb. The programme remains first-class. The intellectual achievement of Davies’s book is not substantially reduced by the interference, only made less easy to appreciate.

Acrimonious letter-writing has followed the Rabb review. Readers are entitled to know something of the background to this. In the Eighties, when God’s Playground appeared, a group of American academics accused Davies of relativising the Jewish Holocaust. They did not openly charge him with anti-semitism, but proclaimed that they had found incorrectness in his emphasis. Davies has always pointed out that the Nazi genocide of European Jewry came about in a context of general exterminatory violence which took or threatened the lives of other populations as well; he has suggested that it is bad history – and moral self-indulgence – to accuse all non-Jews in Occupied Europe of active complicity in the Holocaust because so many failed to help the Jews in their extremity. The allegation that anything he has written is anti-Jewish or seeks to ‘excuse’ the worst crime in European history is ridiculous. The capsule ‘Responsa’ (to take one example from the present book) expounds what Davies calls the ‘moral grandeur’ of the rabbinates in the Nazi ghettos, as they maintained the Law up to the very gates of death, and strongly denies that there was anything culpable about the ‘passivity’ of many Jews confronted with their fate. Nevertheless, the campaign against him has smouldered on and now flares up in objections – Rabb’s among them – to passages in Europe: A History.

The worst that can be said about this aspect of the book is that Davies is sometimes tactless. When a capsule about Nazi massacres of Jews in Poland winds on into a discussion of the number of Jews in the Stalinist security police after the war, nothing untrue is being said – but the juxtaposition is painful and unnecessary. Another capsule (‘Noyades’) describes the systematic drowning of the Vendée rebels in 1794, and moves on to the Nazi gas-chambers: ‘a view might be entertained that the Nazi gas-chambers reflected a “humanitarian approach”, akin to that of well-regulated abattoirs. If the inmates had to die, it was better that they die quickly rather than in protracted agony or from cold and starvation.’ The context makes it perfectly clear that Davies is not one of those who might ‘entertain’ such a view. Instead, he is forcing the unwilling reader to confront the range of techniques for the mass extermination of human beings which Europeans have developed over the last two centuries. But the style of icy detachment which he adopts to set off the horror of what he is saying is mismanaged, and in the end it leaves a callous impression.

My own reservations about this book are to do with its treatment of Russia – both Tsarist and Communist. The ‘Peninsula’ which we inhabit has no eastern boundary, geographic or cultural, and yet any historian of Europe is condemned to tackle the unanswerable riddle of definition: is Russia ‘part of Europe’ or not? Phrases like ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’ are mere evasions. Equally hopeless and useless are claims that, say, the Polish city of Bialystok is palpably European while Smolensk or Tambov or even Omsk in Siberia are palpably not. Davies firmly includes Russia within the scope of his book, while equally firmly excluding Turkey. But he clearly shares what he calls ‘scepticism about Russia’s European qualifications’. The later part of this book is increasingly dominated by his mistrust of Russia and the Soviet Union, portrayed in colours which grow so mercilessly dark that they threaten to unbalance the whole operation. It is hard to find a sympathetic or admirable Russian in all these pages, and it may be that Davies regards the very existence of a unified Russian state, let alone the USSR, as a mistake which the future should correct.

There are, God knows, enough reasons for mistrust. With Norman Davies, it has two main sources. One is his sense – born of long and passionate empathy with the Polish experience – that Russian power is inherently expansionist and repressive, and that the West has repeatedly failed to understand that Russia is the arch-enemy of that wider Europe of liberty and modernity which he celebrates. The other source is his fierce anti-Communism, again coupled with a reproach to the West – this time, that the intellectuals of France, Britain or Germany remain unwilling even now to recognise the gigantic scale of Stalin’s crimes.

Some years ago, the Historikerstreit raged across Germany. Its occasion was a claim that the Nazi dictatorship was not unique but was in many respects a borrowing of the totalitarian methods already practised on a vaster scale in the Soviet Union. Davies, showing unusual caution, does not take sides in the Streit, remarking only that ‘it is an open question how far the Nazis emulated the Soviet terror machine, which was both older and larger than theirs.’ But behind the caution, I think he may lean towards that proposition.

It is not that Davies is in any way concerned to extenuate Hitlerism. He describes it as ‘the most repulsive system of modern times’, and his treatment of modern Germany is often as acid as that of his mentor Alan Taylor. In one curious passage about Hitler’s ascent to power, he observes that ‘in the hands of cannibals’, democracy will produce ‘a government of cannibals’, which comes close to Taylor’s brutal view that National Socialism succeeded simply because it offered to fulfil the desires of most Germans. It is not because of any judgment about the Third Reich that Davies devotes so much space and eloquence to the horrors of Soviet Russia, but because that changed emphasis is crucial to his whole enterprise.

He is proposing a new kind of European history. In turn, his new Europe requires different demons. For the old, West-centred histories, it was the Third Reich which was the great disaster, the negation of all the values that Europe aspired to or had seemed to represent. But this new, broader Europe requires an even greater adversary: the evil Eurasian empire which tore the continent in two for half a century, and killed or enslaved far more human beings, setting out to extirpate the humane values of Europe with a thoroughness which the Nazis could not match.

If this reconstruction of the author’s purpose is correct – and it’s certainly the effect of what he has written here – then it skews his main achievement. The last sections of the book threaten to become as much jeremiad as history, and one is left feeling that a fair account of Russia’s relationship to Europe – even to East-Central Europe – remains to be done by some other historian. Meanwhile, it is hard not to agree with Norman Davies’s last word on this problem: ‘Somewhere between the depths of Russia and the heart of Europe, a new dividing line will have to be established – hopefully along a border of peace.’