Few books command a major field for sixty years. Herbert Albert Laurens Fisher’s long History of Europe, first published in 1935, was one such. It was a book with authority, not least because the writer had been minister of education in Britain, the man who introduced state scholarships to allow pupils to study at university regardless of their means. Yet Fisher’s History was badly timed. He wrote it, from a vantage point within the English establishment, as testimony to the fading Christian values of a continent in decay, to its “squandered treasure of humanity, tolerance and good sense.” Within a very few years—by 1940, in fact, when, as the Second World War reached London, Fisher was killed there by a truck—he already needed a successor.
The successor to Fisher, Norman Davies, born in the year that war broke out, is good on such ironies of history throughout his own equally long volume. A product of the Fish-erite university reform, he does not feel himself part of an establishment: rather he shares the puckish instincts of his teacher, A.J.P. Taylor. The other most striking influence upon Davies is his training as a historian of Eastern Europe, especially Poland.1 He recognizes a large personal debt to his mentor in this field, Hugh Seton-Watson, and the views of the noted Polish scholar and critic Leszek Kolalakowski are also much in evidence here.
The emphasis on Eastern Europe, the most important intellectual feature of Davies’s work, will engage us later. But it is another distinctive aspect of his approach to which readers are likely to respond first and, on the whole, with delight. They will immediately encounter a cornucopia of ready information, handily packaged and apparently miscellaneous, distributed among some three hundred separate short essays he calls “capsules,” which are set off from the rest of the text, as well as in a wealth of revealing, well-designed maps and tables.
Davies’s capsules are not, as their name surely suggests, “time capsules”: flashbacks or snapshots, like the documents and artefacts sometimes placed for the benefit of posterity in the foundation of new buildings. Rather they are thematic soundings or boreholes, “modules” we might say, averaging about a page in length and ranging across the centuries, from a few deft lines on the significance of earthquakes to a finely-turned mini-disquisition about the Hanseatic trading association in the history of the Baltic. They display literary quality of a high order: wit and terseness, polish and crispness; by turn they can be trenchant and poignant. In the capsule entitled “Murano,” for example, Davies considers the history of glassmaking and, in particular, the silvered mirror, first manufactured at Murano, that revolutionized the way we see ourselves. “The ancients had seen through glass darkly,” Davies concludes. “The moderns saw through it clearly, in a shocking, shining cascade of light that reached into their innermost lives.”
Davies uses his capsules to pursue some fascinating topics: the implications of wheat-growing and plow technology; the evolution of the goose step; the creation of national traditions through folklore and epic; the symbolism of colors and the development of synthetic dyes, among many others. Elsewhere he supplies stimulating introductions to some of the current professional preoccupations of his colleagues: “Samos” and “Novgorod” for archaeology; “Mores” for the history of manners; “Chastity” and “Matrimonio” for the study of demography; “C14” for carbon dating; “Tour [de France]” for the history of sport; and so on. At several points he addresses the absorbing subject of chronology itself. He also points to the influential work of historiographical gurus, under such headings as “Montaillou”—referring to the minute reconstruction by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie of life in a medieval French village of that name.
Altogether this highly original format serves to identify many themes of the book as a whole. The Christian religion and its liturgy are suitably well represented (including a vignette of Davies’s local parish church on the edge of Oxford)—but so are various forms of magic—while the author evokes customs and legends in profusion. He also makes valiant attempts to embrace literature, art, and thought, most successfully with music (which Davies perceptively postulates as the only common European tongue), least so with philosophy. There are rich evocations of regions and cities, identified by their original names or some other special feature, from “Chersonesos” (Crimea) to “Mezquita” (Córdoba), from “Teichos” (Constantinople) to the “Grotemarkt”—the main square—of Brussels, from “Massilia” (Marseilles) even to Chernobyl. He makes space for exotic languages and scripts, and for ethnic groups who do not command attention otherwise: “Shqiperia” (for the Albanians), Gagauz, Abkhazia, Eesti…
Another of Davies’s themes is suffering, and he uses his capsules to document much unspeakable cruelty, as the headlines “Spartacus,” “Vlad,” “Tormenta,” “Noyades,” “Vorkuta,” “Katyn,” and “Auschwitz” will suggest. Yet his dominant tone is more whimsical, and this sometimes leads him to make comments which sound inappropriate (at least where they are placed), facetious, or even merely bathetic. “Syrop,” an allusion to his work on medicinal syrups, seems a fatuous way of introducing Michael Servetus, the sixteenth-century physician and sometime theologian whose personal betrayal by Calvin led to his being burned at the stake. It is entirely typical of Davies’s unorthodoxy that the headline “Eros” should introduce the one and only European ruler who features as the main subject of a capsule—that supreme lecher, Augustus the Strong of Saxony and Poland.
Numerous capsule titles are still weirder, and will not win the indulgence of all. Here is a representative selection: “Gat-hunter” (for hunter-gatherers), “Tammuz” (the Egyptian corn god), “Dasa” (Sanskrit for the number ten), “Spice-ox” (for Pythagorean views on diet), “Xativah” (an Iberian town where paper was first made), “Dannebrog” (for the Danish—and other—national flags), “Goncalvez” (for the first European slave-trader), “Cap-Ag” (for theories of “capitalist agriculture”), “Eldluft” (for theories of combustion), “Metryka” (the public records of the Kingdom of Poland), “Moarte” (a terrorist organization in Romania). It may be wrong of me thus to let the cat out of the bag, since Davies’s method here smacks of a parlor game (what of “Adelante” or “Keelhaul”?), and readers should perhaps be left to solve such puzzles themselves—or even to devise examples of their own. The capsule obscurely headed “Rufinus,” which treats the history of the Oxford University Press, serves to highlight another feature of this volume which is at best playful. Just as the OUP, we are told, began its career with a misprint on the front page of its first published work (a commentary by one Rufinus Tyrannius), so Davies’s book is disfigured by a host of minor errors that will mislead the incautious reader as they will irritate the informed one.2
Besides, Davies’s capsules might be thought a soft option: a brilliant device to avoid every historian’s hardest task, that of integrating all his material into a continuous and coherent sequence. Yet this criticism is disarmed by the quality of the book’s main text. Here again the first impression is one of a certain faddishness: most chapter titles read like word processor file names (except that they are in Latin); and each chapter begins with a standard generalization that often veers dangerously toward cliché. (“There is a sense of fatalism,” we are told, “about life in the later Middle Ages.”) Once into his stride, however, Davies reveals a comprehensive design, tremendous narrative power, a remarkable gift for compression, and a shrewd sense of overall balance. His account is livened throughout by an arresting (and very deliberate) use of quotations. And the end of each chapter consists in a virtuoso word-picture of a particular place at a particular time, from the eruption of the volcano Thera in 1628 BC (with disastrous results for Minoan civilization) to a day in the Nuremberg Trials: the kind of turning points which Stefan Zweig once popularized with comparable artifice as Sternstunden der Menschheit (roughly, “the starred moments of Mankind”).
Davies begins with a masterly account, in the Braudelian manner, of the geographical preconditions for the European story, and of the pattern of prehistoric settlement that culminated in Iron Age and Celtic culture and the spread of “Indo-European” languages, largely lost to us except for the evidence of place names. He then moves through the Greek “moment” (a period of cultural domination that is shown to have lasted rather a long time, a thousand years in fact) into brisk and adroit coverage of Roman politics, society, and culture, leading us to the foundation of Constantinople, which confirmed the rise of the Christian religion.
Barbarians (Huns, Goths, and Vandals among them) then flooded into the Roman Empire; but they were increasingly integrated, especially through Christianity, into a continent which was, on the one hand, now first divided, by that same Christian factor, into East and West, and, on the other, crucially confined—and also defined—by the encompassing Islamic foe. While stressing the continuing role of migration as late as the high Middle Ages (with the arrival of Vikings, Magyars, Turks, and Mongols), Davies sees these trends toward an identifiable continent as consolidated by the age of “feudalism”: the time of a resurgent papacy, of chivalry and crusades—and of new urban life (mainly in the West).
A darker tone (I have already quoted Davies on this) appears with the “waning of the Middle Ages.” He tells us much about the decay, disease, and intolerance that became pervasive in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, focusing especially on the extinction of the Byzantine Empire and the emergence of Muscovy (singled out here—for reasons which become apparent later—instead of the simultaneous voyages of Columbus, though the latter is subtly included too). It was a period, Davies concludes, of “prolonged crisis for which contemporaries had no solution. There was no awareness of a dawn to come. In more senses than one, late medieval Europeans were children of the plague.” There follows crisp, slightly old-fashioned good sense on the centuries of Renaissance and Reformation, with their tapestry of new states whose interrelations are described from Ireland to Russia, and a concluding tableau of Bernini’s Rome in the decades around 1650. Davies here suggests that the Baroque period offered the last chance for visionaries of a united Christendom to realize their hopes. “Seen from Rome,” he writes,
Christendom had reached a sorry pass…. St. Peter’s was not just a building; it was the chief temple and symbol of the loyalty against which Luther had rebelled, and to which the Pope’s own divisions had rallied. It is also true that the building of Bernini’s colonnade marked a definite stage in that story…. Historians can be tempted to say that it marks the end of the Counter-Reformation. And so, in a sense, it does.
An essay on the age of ancien-régime France, concentrated on its monarchy and its Enlightenment thinkers, leads organically into a fairly jaundiced view of the French Revolution and its Napoleonic outcome, with due attention to the human costs of the revolution and to the bitter struggles waged against it, not least within France itself. “It has taken the best part of 200 years,” Davies remarks soberly, “for France to come to terms with this terrible story of populicide, of génocide franco-français.”
The meat of Davies’s interpretation is yet to come, in two colossal chapters on Europe’s grandeur and decadence. He matches a taut analysis of dramatic economic and social changes in the nineteenth century with a fine mastery of their intellectual and psychological concomitants. “The factory hooter, the railway timetable, the need for punctuality and sobriety were all innovations that a peasant might find strange and irksome,” Davies observes. “Lastly, there was the psychology of late nineteenth-century imperialism, where a whole generation of parvenu Europeans were taught to look down on other races and cultures in ways that secure and settled societies would not have embraced.” The political scene, dominated by Bismarck (“the century’s greatest statesman”), is rather more patchily presented, but ends in a memorable extended reconstruction of the 1914 crisis. Bismarck’s pugnacious successors as rulers of Germany, in Davies’s view, embody only one element in the shared international responsibility for World War I, the ultimate European folly, whose global repercussions were heightened by the legacy of imperialist conquests.
What ensued was nemesis (anticipated in some measure by signs of fin-de-siècle intellectual depravation and excess). Essentially, in Davies’s view, there was a fight to the death between Russia and Germany, with Western Europe maneuvering clumsily between the two, failing to profit from the temporary economic and political advantages it enjoyed in the 1920s and blundering at last into the “degrading capitulation” of Munich, which brought Armageddon to much of the continent. In the controversial new orthodoxy of the 1990s, Nazism and Bolshevism are seen, convincingly enough, as twin devils; their effects are recorded, in all their inhumanity, with cool and penetrating discernment, but with a genuine sense of anger and anguish too. “Militarism, fascism and communism found their adherents not only in the manipulated masses, but among Europe’s most educated elites….”
After such atrocities, the last chapter on the postwar period, though extensive and cogent, reads like an epilogue. East and West now become the main organizing units. Whereas the Western countries, energized by Franco-German reconciliation and rebounding from the forced loss of their colonial empires, moved to economic cooperation with increasingly political aims, the East fell under the thrall of Soviet neo-imperialism (which also intensified the military expressions of Western solidarity). “Europe’s wasted years” from 1945 to 1991—curious terminology?—ended only as communism was elementally rejected from below in the East, an event which coincided, indeed interacted, with renewed initiatives to unify the rest of the continent. By the end even Davies, tenacious writer as he must be, shows signs of fatigue. The final pages of text, which describe his completing the book in his Oxford study, are uncharacteristically self-indulgent, close in fact to self-parody. (“A solitary crow stands sentinel on the tip of the highest beech, as on a thousand such dawns since ‘The Legend of Europa’ was written.”) His reflections on finishing the book seem also slightly arch: there is plenty of internal evidence that writing was not actually concluded on the date indicated, February 14, 1992.
What was this “Europe” anyway upon which Davies—and even his faithful readers—have by now expended so much intellectual energy? Did it comprise anything more than a loose geographical expression, as delineated here on some striking and ingenious maps? Davies is suggestive rather than explicit about this question. The “subject-matter of European history” is “shared experiences.” Whereas the term “Europe” was briefly used by Charlemagne, only in the medieval and modern periods do we find that “a recognizably European community can be seen to be operating.” By the end of the seventeenth century, “Europe” emerged as a secularized, neutralized version of Christendom; in the eighteenth a “European system” came to control the balance of international power relations, such that “any change in one part of Europe” was viewed “as a potential threat to the whole.” (Davies might have followed Paul Schroeder’s impressive new interpretation and identified this “concert of Europe” as more a product of the years after 1800.3 ) Yet Davies also admits that, during all the centuries he writes about, Europe “has had no unifying ideal”; in fact, the notion of “Europe” has constituted an “unattainable…goal.”
Of one thing, however, Davies is sure: this Europe equally embraced both the eastern and western halves of the continent. From Seton-Watson to Pope John Paul II, he cites witnesses to the interconnectedness of Europe’s “two lungs.” He is brief but persuasive on their interdependence, whether in trade, military organization, agrarian development, forms of society, political symbolism, or culture. He acknowledges no Western or Eastern distinctiveness even when it comes to such developments as nationalism, and adduces good examples to demonstrate this (Ireland and Ukraine, for example). Davies is correspondingly acerbic about Western observers who have, he claims, long disparaged Eastern Europe. He reckons this view is still pervasive in much American historical thinking about “Western civilization” (a concept that could take perverted form even in Bolshevik, as in Nazi, world views), and in what he calls the “Allied Scheme of History” propounded after 1945, of which non-Russian East Europe was, he argues, the chief victim.
Davies’s chief model for the “European-ness” of the East is Poland. From their arrival on the Vistula in the eighth and ninth centuries (celebrated with a snatch of folk-song), Poles are accorded a prominent—though not obtrusive—place in his book. Their Christianization proceeded with echoes of developments further west (such as a local equivalent of Thomas à Becket, the Bishop of Cracow who in 1079 was “cut to pieces in front of the altar by the knights of the king whom he had defied”). Powerful Polish and Lithuanian states arose, which, united by royal marriage and later merged in the Union of Lublin (1569), assumed significance for the rest of Europe, above all because of their civilization, tolerance, and “bold experiment in democracy,” whereby the numerous members of their nobility and gentry could have a personal role in national politics.
Davies does not seek to mitigate the subsequent decline of this Commonwealth, but he shows that decline to have been by no means complete. He salutes the pioneering constitution of May 3, 1791, and the progressive activity of the National Education Commission, which was set up by the last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, to establish a secular, unified system of schooling that “educated the brightest generation of Polish patriots and literati that ever learned poetry or pushed pen.” He even makes a lively comparison between Hasidic Polish Jews and religious renewal in the West: the Hasidim “were very distant in space and culture from Christian Methodism, but were close in temper,” he observes. Both movements were “marked by the fervor of the masses, by joyful music, by the revival of spirituality.”
Davies becomes correspondingly indignant about the infamous Partitions of Poland, execrating the “gangsterish methods” and “hypocrisy” of the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian regimes which carried them out:
The century of the Enlightenment drew to its close with the spectacle of three enlightened despots taking concerted action to crush an enlightened reform movement.
He effectively juxtaposes these misdeeds with the international consequences of the French Revolution, showing how events in Poland not only mirrored those further west, as when the mob went on the rampage in Warsaw and Wilno and “popular courts sentenced bishops, Russian agents, and confederates to death,” but had their own crucial significance for the destiny of Europe in the 1790s, distracting the surrounding countries from concerted action against France.
Poles also enliven Davies’s catalogs of cultural achievement. We encounter not just the likes of Copernicus and Chopin, but the flamboyant Gothic carvings of Veit Stoss, the ideal Italianate planning of the town of Zamosć, the Renaissance vernacular verse of Jan Kochanowski, the realistic novels of Boleslå?aw Prus, the operas of Stanislaw Moniuszko, the verse dramas of Adam Mickiewicz, and the lyric poetry of his contemporary Juliusz Slowacki. In the modern period, semi-familiar Polish creative artists like the composer Szymanowski and the rebellious avant-gardist Witkiewicz rub shoulders with some who will be obscure to most of us, like the precocious social thinker Kelles-Krauz and the Constructivist Wladyslaw Strzeminski.
Among Poland’s neighbors, Ukrainians are accorded less space, but equal sympathy: they are identified, among their many other travails, as victims of genocide—Davies cites the “terror-famine of 1932-33.” They form the subject of both the first and the last capsules in the book. Other parts of the region also receive welcome and colorful attention: the Balkans are well covered, especially the medieval kingdoms there before the fatal battle of Kosovo when, after “the last Serbian king was slain and the Ottoman sultan treacherously murdered, Serbia joined Bulgaria as an Ottoman province.”4 Hungary features in playful though erratic fashion. Even Bohemia has its moment of glory, as host to Mozart for the first night of Don Giovanni.
Nonetheless, Davies grants that the division between East and West in Europe “is not entirely fanciful.” The East (or a significant part of it) lacked feudalism, the Gothic style, and Renaissance culture; it found itself on a path of geopolitical divergence after 1400, with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, as the Orthodox world “dug in behind its mental stockade.” And it long enjoyed no access to America. The cleavage grew in the eighteenth century and took on a more economic character in the nineteenth. There is no doubt where Davies locates the chief repository of separate development in the East: the antithesis of his thoughtful sympathy for Poles and other eastern peoples appears in his almost unrelievedly hostile presentation of the Russian state.
A dazzling essay introduces the mendacious, cruel, and intolerant ideology of late medieval Muscovy—directed above all against the combined Poland-Lithuania. Ivan III, hoping to destroy this political union, married his daughter to the Lithuanian Grand Duke Alexander, while simultaneously seizing inconvenient Lithuanian officials and burning them alive in an open cage over the frozen Moskva River. We are led through the various stages of Russia’s ceaseless drive for aggrandizement, especially (so far as Europe was concerned) in the Balkans. Russia’s expansion, says Davies, was caused by “bulimia politica…gross territorial obesity in an organism which could only survive by consuming more and more of its neighbors’ flesh and blood.” This is an arresting diagnosis, though hardly an explanation. By comparison, Davies may seem to let off lightly Western warmongers like Louis XIV and Napoleon, the latter portrayed with much lively anecdote and a brilliant vignette of his abdication. The same could be said of Bismarck, with his policies of “blood and iron.”5
The author reserves his sharpest invective of all for the Bolsheviks, seen as direct heirs to Russian state terror and national oppression, and with only the briefest recognition that many of them genuinely expected a world revolution. Davies stresses the role of Poles in the contest against them, from the first great check to Bolshevik ambitions in 1919-19206 to the disintegration of the Soviet system in the 1980s. And he makes clear his view that distortion of the Russian past has extended to almost all of its native historiography. In the same spirit he betrays unconcealed contempt for those Westerners who fawned on the USSR during the time of its consolidation, and is almost equally sour about commentators who saw any good in the evolution of the Soviet bloc after 1945. He dismisses as “pure make-believe,” for example, the idea that there could be any economic convergence between East and West.
Was, then, the “East” of Europe—and let us, for the purposes of argument, hold to the book’s terminology, though it is rather rough and ready7—basically the same as the “West,” or different from it? Was it basically civilized or barbarian? For Davies such formulations are taken to be matters of judgment, and hence badly posed questions. Yet one means of addressing these questions has been little exploited in Davies’s book. Alongside Westerners’ verdicts on the East, so often negative, may be set the equally often positive ones of Easterners about the West. Maybe the only authentic yardstick for assessing backwardness is the perceptions people have of their position relative to that of others. (Another way, of course, would be to inquire into the views of non-Europeans about the alleged advancement of European culture, but Davies, reasonably enough, abstains from that task too.)
At least in recent centuries the Western experience has frequently been taken as a model or ideal in the East: by “Westernizers” (zapadniki) in Russia, “cutting a window into Europe,” as Pushkin put it, in the tradition of Peter the Great; by Polish or Hungarian devotees of enlightenment, liberalism, and capitalism; by Balkan radicals and modernizers; by twentieth-century émigrés and domestic intellectuals of many different kinds. Perhaps the admiring cast of mind really originated much earlier: “Europeanization” has of late been persuasively depicted as a conscious policy going as far back as the high Middle Ages of accommodating peripheral areas of the continent to the norms of the center.8 At all events, “Europe” has long been a notion constructed preeminently by those who did not—sometimes, admittedly, because they had no wish to—feel themselves fully European.
Two central attributes of that influential Western European experience suffer neglect in Davies’s book. Conceivably he thought them too obvious for sustained discussion, or merely a pale legacy from the pages of H.A.L. Fisher. One is the modern state; the other is representative institutions. The first, for all its faults, laid the foundations of equitable, efficient administration based on a concept of equal citizenship; the second, for all its limitations, ensured some respect for the rights of individuals and groups within such states.
Davies is thin and sometimes inaccurate on the actual making of states (currently a topic of intense interest among historians): he hints at their military roots and the role of mercantilist economics in their formation. He sketches some elements of their sovereignty. But his capsule devoted to the “State” deals only with the superficial attributes of statehood, while his table of the process of “liberalization” is crude and misleading. Absolutist government in the early modern period—including many European regimes from Scandinavia to Iberia—Davies rightly allows to have been a “radical force for change,” but he then promptly and unwisely brands this form of government a “dismal failure.” He tells us hardly anything about its “Enlightened” form (the kind which destroyed eighteenth-century Poland).
The new administrators of the European states themselves feature here only as bureaucrats, and bureaucracy as halfway to totalitarianism. Not that we need to admire everything about such centralized administrations, but even the influential critical insights of Guizot and Tocqueville into their workings in France are strangely absent from Davies’s coverage. He writes at some length about Louis XIV, but the king’s seminal comment, “l’état c’est moi,” is cited merely as a witticism. Davies is himself funny, but not very helpful, about the German Rechtstaat (sic), when he remarks that this “‘state ordered by law’ would grow into a land which could produce the famous road sign in Baden: ‘It is permitted to travel on this road.”‘ On the Austrian state, though he briefly notes its merits as a force for order and stability, Davies is likewise perfunctory, and somewhat accident-prone. Its boldest architect, Joseph II (not, as is here awkwardly suggested, the “penultimate occupant of the Holy Roman Empire”),9 has little more than a walk-on part in that splendid interlude Davies devotes to his most celebrated subject, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Davies’s treatment of constitutional bodies is of a piece with his censoriousness about England, their most renowned source. Some of his iconoclasm, with its unmistakable debt to A.J.P. Taylor, is thoroughly welcome: not only Celts will appreciate Davies’s strictures on English behavior toward other parts of the British Isles (and his sensitive attention to their particular characteristics). Elsewhere it is rather the carelessness of author and publisher which combine to épater les Anglais. Thus a gremlin has recorded inaccurate dates of death for both the most famous Tudors, Henry VIII and Elizabeth, and for their deadliest adversary, Mary Queen of Scots. The laborers of Tolpuddle, in Dorset, first martyrs to trade unionism, are placed in the wrong county (Devon); their more eminent contemporary, poor William Huskisson, the cabinet minister who became the first martyr to the railway age, is run over in the wrong year by the wrong engine. London’s National Gallery finds no place in Davies’s list of great art collections (and there is predictably no capsule for “Londinium”).
Yet a more important point is at stake here, a point that is hinted at when the British civil wars, though they earn two whole pages of text, are still dismissed as a tragedy of “essentially regional significance,” and when Davies says that the “absolute sovereignty of Parliament” in eighteenth-century England differed fundamentally from popular sovereignty. That may be so, but the English example, however refracted—as through the American Constitution or the French Charte—and combined with stout local parliamentary traditions, as in the Netherlands or Sweden, in Switzerland or parts of Germany, was surely a vital factor in the shaping of limited government in Europe.
Representative bodies were of course, in some measure, at odds with central authority; but they came to live with it symbiotically. The Western achievement was to bring both together, in fragile but on the whole fruitful harmony. The “liberal state” (civil society ordered by a powerful administration) that emerged in Great Britain and parts of Western Europe—and the US—may not have proved a roaring success, but it was strong enough to attract the unremitting hostility of both fascist and communist regimes, and to prevail over them. Such a state can certainly claim to be (and has frequently been consciously represented as being) part of a longer story, a legatee of Greek democracy and Roman law, through the contractual relations and local liberties of feudalism. Appallingly perverted during the abominations of the continent’s “Thirty Years War” between 1914 and 1945, the traditions of the liberal state furnished the source of the subsequent European idea and of the European Union as a super-state—and the chief explanation for their extraordinary success during the fifty years after 1945.
Further east this liberal state did not flourish. There the two elements that were elsewhere combined in it either remained separate—Poland’s “golden freedoms” on the one hand, Russian ukases on the other—or at best, as in Hungary, long stood on a war footing with each other. The reasons for that failure are doubtless deep and complex: plenty of hints can be found on Davies’s pages. Yet one factor deserves concluding mention here precisely because he is surprisingly unforthcoming about it. Our sturdy champion of the underdog gives little space to those who were, cumulatively speaking, the continent’s greatest sufferers of all: the peasants.
One informative capsule indeed moves from serf revolt in Russia (“Pugachev”) to note the flourishing historiography of “peasant studies”; but Davies hardly reflects elsewhere on the ways of life of the rural masses, and on their place in the history of Europe in general or of Eastern Europe in particular. For, as he allows en passant, it is not just a matter of Western prejudice that “serfdom ruled supreme” in the eighteenth-century East, which still supported “peasant societies” into the twentieth—hence, evidently, the recent scope for programs of collectivization there. The consequences of that state of affairs for overall political development were huge, as historical sociologists (rather more than historians proper) have stimulatingly shown us of late.10
Davies argues at one point that the British landed establishment “purged” its peasantry, thereby depriving itself of “the social solidarity, the primitive democracy, and the sort of national consciousness which grows naturally from a peasant-based community”—gaining a class system in return. The proposition has its grain of truth, but is hardly plausible overall. Davies does not, for example, record the indifference of Polish peasants to the whole nineteenth-century nationalist program “aimed to restore the crucified commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania,” except for fleeting reference to the notorious uprising in Galicia in 1846, when serfs massacred their noble masters rather than fight for them. A mass peasantry under the thumb of its landlords has, of course, proved compatible with many political systems the world over—but not with the liberal state. It is also at the farthest remove from any kind of “European” vision. That was long the preserve of the favored few. “What is Europe,” asked Tsar Alexander I of a French diplomat, “but you and me?” “Europe,” mused Chancellor Metternich, was for him “the essence of a fatherland.”
Portraying such leaders is one of Davies’s strengths, and that is basically a good thing. Much of the construction of a European community over recent decades has appeared an impersonal process, civilized but faceless. The work of the historical profession itself favored this tendency: the same period, after all, witnessed a vogue for the study of social and economic forces, institutions, mentalities, the collective round of everyday life. Davies now reminds us triumphantly that Europe has also been made by separate human beings; at every point it betrays their whims and oddities, the irreducible particularity of time and place, name and character.
Davies has his present rivals for the mantle of H.A.L. Fisher as acknowledged historian of Europe.11 Yet this book is rightly set to make the most impact. Davies’s idiosyncratic but forceful account will give the reader who digests it thoroughly much to think about, while yet attracting those many who lack the stamina to do more than sample its pleasures. In bringing the European past to life with such incomparable verve, he can also speak to the European present, the more so since—unlike other worthy new contributors to the genre12—he writes in what is today (perforce) the continent’s most important common language. Perhaps fittingly, however, his finest qualities are ones for which that language possesses no adequate word of its own: those of brio, élan, and Schwung.
May 15, 1997
His best-known works are God’s Playground: A History of Poland, 2 volumes (1981; Columbia University Press, 1982), and Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1984). ↩
There are even some outright contradictions. Did gypsies enter Europe in the eleventh century (p. 220) or the fourteenth and fifteenth (p. 387)? Was Tsar Paul mad (pp. 652, 739)? Did photography render representational art obsolete (pp. 862, 866)? ↩
Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848 (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1994). ↩
But Kosovo is also the occasion for one of Davies’s gaffes: a Serbian curse may fall on him for calling it the “Field of Ravens,” rather than the “field of the blackbird.” ↩
Davies believes that Bismarck’s speeches which use this famous imagery (and whose chronology he imperfectly records) were merely about “budgets and social affairs.” Contemporaries thought otherwise. ↩
The subject of Davies’s first book, White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-20 (St. Martin’s, 1972). ↩
The notion of “Eastern Europe” is a comparatively recent one, whose origins have lately been discussed in Larry Wolff’s stimulating Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford University Press, 1994). Parts of the area denoted by it have often been thought more helpfully described as “Central” or “East Central” Europe. But that issue is not raised by Davies and cannot be pursued here. ↩
See Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (Princeton University Press, 1993). ↩
Davies is not at ease with the Habsburgs. Charles V was not the son of Maximilian I; Joseph II did not profit from the wealth of the Church; Franz Ferdinand did not marry a “low-born Czech,” and the author cannot spell his resting place right. The dynasty did not rule over “seventeen official nationalities,” nor complete a mere “500 years of rule” over Vienna by 1918. It was never “Königliche und Kaiserliche” (sic), but always the other way round; and so on. ↩
Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Beacon Press, 1966) is the classic text. Of course, peasants survived long and in great numbers in the “West” as well, not least in the Mediterranean lands (which helps to prove the general point being made here). The very breadth and immanence of the associated issues underline the need for more to be said about them in such a treatment as Davies’s. ↩
A History of Europe, by J.M. Roberts (Oxford: Helicon, 1996), published in the UK almost simultaneously with Davies’s book, provides a most distinguished treatment of the same subject matter in a more orthodox, professional mold. ↩
Giuseppe Galasso, Storia d’Europa, 3 vols. (Bari: Laterza, 1996), is another thorough and comprehensive new survey, giving closest attention to events since around 1800. ↩