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In the Hands of the CannibalsNeal Ascherson
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Vol. 19 No. 4 · 20 February 1997

In the Hands of the Cannibals

Neal Ascherson

2589 words
Europe: A History 
by Norman Davies.
Oxford, 1365 pp., £25, October 1996, 0 19 820171 0
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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.’

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Letters

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.

Esther Kinsky
London NW5

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.

Tony Judt
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?

Alex Drace-Francis
London SW1

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.

Adam Czerniawski
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’

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