His Vision of Europe's History Is Huge, Dark and, for Some, Deeply Disturbing. He Dares to Offer Comparisons to the Holocaust and Let Us Judge
Herman, David, New Statesman (1996)
No book published in the past year has caused as much controversy as Norman Davies' history of Europe. The acclaim has been tremendous but the attacks have been savage. And the abuse, when it came, has been personal and nasty. "He's a shit," one professor of history told me. "An anti-Semite and a shit."
To admirers Davies is one of the best historians of his generation. During the 1980s he wrote the definitive history of Poland. Then, over the last ten years, he has written a series of fascinating essays on the second world war for the New York Review of Books. Powerful and iconoclastic, they focused on the horrors of the war in the east and challenged many conventional assumptions. Last year he published the 1,380-page Europe: a history, which became a bestseller.
Europe received the reviews every author dreams of: "an astonishing piece of work" (Guardian), "a brilliant achievement" (Financial Times), "a tremendous achievement before which one must stand in admiration" (TLS). The Times even published an editorial praising it. The book has sold 100,000 copies in hardback on both sides of the Atlantic and has just come out in paperback.
But there have been dissenting voices. The letters pages of the TLS, the LRB and Prospect have fizzed with denunciations. The New York Times ran a onslaught by the respected Princeton historian Theodore Rabb. Rabb called the book "mean-spirited, self-indulgent, cute, unbalanced". It was riddled with errors, he wrote, pointing to "inaccuracies, on average, every other page".
In September the New Republic carried a six-page attack by the NYU historian Tony Judt that makes Rabb look like a cheerleader. After some throat-clearing Judt goes to work on the book's "important delinquencies", alleging a cascade of errors of fact and interpretation.
The issue of anti-Semitism has never been far below the surface. It started with Rabb. Before his piece no British reviewer questioned Davies' treatment of Jews and the Holocaust. After it, the issue of tone and offence took off. People said he had trivialised the Holocaust.
At best, Judt concludes, this is a product of Davies' pro-Polish bias. Clearly Davies' background informs the book: it feeds his determination to write a history that includes eastern Europe. The key line comes after a thousand pages when he quotes Pope John Paul II: "Europe has two lungs. It will never breathe easily until it uses both of them."
This is one of the great strengths of Davies' book. He enlarges our vision of Europe. But there is something else. His vision is not just large, it is dark and tragic.
It springs from a personal touchstone. "Two uncles were killed in World War I and I was taken as a boy to see their graves in France." He pauses. "I was sensitive to the tragedies of European history."
Then he went to Poland. "This involved a steep learning curve." Poland "was the absolute cockpit of 20th-century tragedy."
Davies tells the story of his first father-in-law. "He was hauled off to Dachau simply because he was an educated man." After the war the Soviet secret police arrested him. "He was tortured on the same table by the Gestapo and by the NKVD."
At the same time as his first father-in-law was being arrested by the Nazis, Davies' second wife's family were being driven out of eastern Poland by Soviet soldiers. "This was typical. One side broken by the Nazis, the other broken by the Soviets."
The book's most breathtaking fact is the number of civilians killed in eastern Europe between 1914-45. "Those are the monster statistics in 20th-century history."
Has this immersion in tragedy distorted Davies' vision of European history? The commentator Noel Malcolm pointed out in his review that from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution and beyond, "the fundamental dynamics of change in European life and thought have come, for most of the last 2,000 years, from the core of west-central European states. …