The historian Norman Davies is attacked for being "rightwing" and "anti-Semitic." His only crime is to contest the Allied Scheme of Historyby Anne Applebaum / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
As a student in the US my introduction to European history began with a line. The continent of Europe lay stretched out over a blackboard; the lecturer drew an imaginary line down the centre. Empires shifted, he explained, but this line had remained the same. To the west of it lay the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the “progressive” great powers, and what we learned during the cold war to call “the west.” To the east lay barbarism, feudal states, Russia and Austro-Hungary, and what was then known as “the communist bloc.”
The lecturer explained that the division of Europe was nothing new: it had its origins in deep cultural and political differences, land use patterns, the absence of capitalism in the east, the scientific revolution in the west. In all cases and at all times, the peoples to the west of the imaginary line had been more sophisticated, more progressive, more advanced. The peoples to the east were slower to develop, less democratic, less “European.” Those to the west would, therefore, be the object of the next nine months of study.
It only takes a few brief sentences early on in this monumental book for Norman Davies to dispense with that sort of history. After all, he notes, there are many dividing lines which shaped the history of Europe. Some of the most important-in terms of climate, culture, family structure-divide north from south rather than east from west. Some of the most permanent-such as that which separates catholic and orthodox Christianity-have nothing to do with who is and who is not now in Nato, or who was or was not in the Holy Roman Empire.
Contemporary events shape our idea of which countries are and are not “progressive.” In our era, the event which has most shaped history is the second world war and its aftermath. The Allied Scheme of History produced a number of assumptions, all of which I also remember being taught: the belief that the “Atlantic community” is the pinnacle of progress; the demonisation of everything German; the generally benign view of both the tsarist empire and even the Soviet Union, at least in its wartime role; and most of all the unspoken acceptance of the division of Europe as “natural.” These assumptions run so deep in British and American culture, that they have even affected our sense of geography. Asked whether the flight from Warsaw to London is longer than the flight from Warsaw to Moscow, most Londoners will unhesitatingly reply that Warsaw is closer to Moscow. They are wrong.
Powerful though these assumptions and geographical prejudices may be, Davies ridicules their historical basis so thoroughly that it seems surprising no one else has thought to do it before. But Davies is just the man for the job. His own family is Welsh, his wife’s family is from what is now Ukraine, and his two volume history of Poland, God’s Playground, has become, in translation, the standard text in many Polish schools. With family ties and professional interests on Europe’s peripheries, he has long been critical of the way “European” history has come to mean the history of England, France, Germany and very occasionally Italy and Spain.
Most historians are content merely to complain about such things over sherry and leave it at that. However, Davies took it upon himself to correct the prejudices he perceived. The result is this book: the story of Europe from Indo-European tribes and Neanderthal man to the present, in which the many strands of European history -not only English and French but Slavic, Irish, Spanish, Swiss, Dutch, Jewish and Scandinavian-are at last woven together. Although largely narrative history, the text is enhanced by a series of “capsules” of social and intellectual history (about 35 to a chapter) on subjects ranging from the origins of the goose step to the evolution of table manners to the history of the papal index.
Despite these distractions, Davies does manage to sustain-through 1,000 pages and 2,000 years-his basic theme. “For some reason,” he writes, “it has been the fashion among some historians to minimise the impact of the Magyars… all this means is that the Magyars did not reach Cambridge.” He then goes on to list the effects of the great Magyar invasion of the 9th century: within 60 years they helped form modern Hungary, as well as Bohemia, Poland, Serbia and Croatia, Austria and Germany; they permanently separated the northern Slavs from their southern cousins; they opened the way for German colonists to come down the Danube.
He resists traditional classifications, such as the simple division of post-Reformation Europe into the protestant north and catholic south. As one might expect of a historian of eastern Europe, he dwells upon the linguistic and cultural foundations of nations or, more often, their lack thereof. On the other hand, he gives the main events their due. Noting that “there is a universal quality about the French revolution which does not pertain to any of Europe’s other convulsions,” he proceeds to examine the impact of that event at length. The result is learned, quirky and inclusive at the same time. More importantly, in this age of over-specialisation, it is readable: Davies’s achievement is literary as much as it is historical.
If there is an important flaw, it is Davies’s insistence upon downgrading the efforts of his predecessors, the promulgators of clich? and received wisdom, in order to explain why he has chosen to write the history of Europe in this way. Had he been more tactful, he might have avoided some of the inevitable revenge. But at least the revenge has been interesting. One of the pleasures of reviewing a book for a second time (parts of this review originally appeared in the New Statesman) is the opportunity to re-examine it in the light of how others have received it. In fact, the objections to Europe: A History have been so acrimonious that they would themselves fit very well into one of Davies’s capsules: they make a curious intellectual snapshot of the state of Anglo-American intellectuals at the end of the 20th century.
The British objections are the mildest and most predictable. Paul Preston in the Times Higher Education Supplement attributes the success of the book in Britain (it was a bestseller last Christmas) to the enthusiasm of “rightwing” reviewers. He also explains The Times’s decision to serialise it as a ploy to “target Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party.” All very odd, since Davies votes Labour and has nothing to do with the Conservative party, and since one of the most enthusiastic reviews in Britain came from the outspokenly leftwing writer Neal Ascherson, in the London Review of Books. Perhaps the explanation lies somewhere in Preston’s dismissal of Davies’s “bitter demolition of communism”: alas, a healthy dislike of communism is still not quite acceptable in the higher realms of academe.
Stranger still was the write-up which the book received in the New York Times. In a long, humourless and unusually nasty review, Theodore Rabb unaccountably dismisses the main thesis of the book (“as it happens, he redresses the east-west imbalance only occasionally”) and goes on to describe it as having “inaccuracies, on average, every other page.” Yet if this is so, Rabb has not done a very good job identifying them. Some of the “mistakes” are subjective judgements-for example, Rabb accuses Davies of having “misunderstood” Copernicus without explaining why. He complains that “William Harvey does not make it into the book” when in fact he does, on page 1272. And while plenty of other reviewers noticed the large number of errors, most forgave them. As one reviewer put it: “Any book of this scope and this scale, written by a single author, would contain some errors in those fields which were not the author’s special subject.” While both Davies and Oxford University Press are doubly at fault for not assigning fact checkers to this book, and for having had it copyread in India (a new fashion in publishing, I am told), the real interest of the book is style and its brilliantly sustained thesis-a thesis, as I say, that Rabb hardly mentions. In any case, later editions of the book are already planned to appear with corrections.
If my guess is correct, Rabb’s real motive for attack is not the book’s errors, rather it must lie in Rabb’s obscure but pointed comments about Jewish matters. Among other things, Davies stands accused of: “singularly and irrelevantly” describing the historian Simon Schama as Jewish; the “equating of the now notorious German police battalion in the Otwock ghetto in 1942 with the role of Jews in the postwar communist security forces in Poland”; as well as a “skewed” discussion of usury and “errors about the origins of ghettos.” Why it is wrong to describe Schama as Jewish, since he is Jewish and writes about being Jewish? What exactly is skewed about Davies’s discussion of usury or the origins of ghettos? None of this is explained. Rabb, it seems, is fond of making vague and unsubstantiated accusations in reviews, and has done so on at least one previous occasion.
As for the accusation concerning battalion 101 and its behaviour in Otwock, this was also picked up in a series of letters to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement by the American historian Abraham Brumberg and a woman named Esther Kinsky, who even took it upon herself to send a plaintive form letter around London, asking supporters to “contribute your opinion on this matter to help instigate a public debate.” What both appear to object to are Davies’s description of Nazi atrocities and Jewish postwar co-operation with communist atrocities in the same capsule. Nothing Davies writes is untrue, but Brumberg feels that describing the two on the same page “helps to camouflage the unique nature of the German holocaust.”
Davies himself, also in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement claims that “I do not equate; I juxtapose, and sometimes invite a comparison.” Reading the capsule myself, I understood immediately that Davies was trying to point out that people behave badly when faced with certain kinds of moral dilemmas, whatever their nationality. He quotes from a famous study of the Otwock incident, which asked “if the men of reserve police battalion 101 could become killers under the circumstances, what group of men cannot?” It was certainly provocative, and possibly tactless, to ask whether Jews could also have become killers under certain circumstances, but I had to read the passage twice before I saw it that way. Besides, it is about time that Jews in the west learn to stop behaving as if the uniqueness of the Holocaust automatically excludes Jews from being accused of any form of bad behaviour. It is also about time that historians acknowledge that in the postwar era, there were many Jews who took part in communist atrocities, and learn to discuss this fact as part of history, asking to what extent it happened, why it might have happened, what its effects might have been. All attempts to suppress the memory of these events will simply help foment the anti-Semitism we should be attempting to eradicate. Nothing about such a discussion need “camouflage the unique nature of the German holocaust” in any way.
There is a history to these disputes, namely that when Davies’s history of Poland was published in the 1980s, some historians also found the book too “rightwing” and anti-Soviet. As late as 1989, a British historian told me he thought Davies’s book “biased” because it attributed the Katyn massacres to the Russians instead of the Germans (the Russians have now confessed their guilt-known perfectly well to most Poles long ago-and produced the order papers signed by Stalin). But much worse were the American academics who complained that Davies had failed to put sufficient emphasis on the role which the Poles had played in carrying out the Holocaust. Although no one spoke openly of anti-Semitism-just as Rabb does not speak openly of anti-Semitism-the accusations were enough to prevent Davies, he believes, from getting the tenure which he had been promised at Stanford.
As I say, I did not have much trouble understanding what Davies was trying to say, although I agree that someone with his personal history might have tried to say it more tactfully. Davies has always argued that it is too easy for comfortable westerners to look for culprits among east European populations which were themselves threatened with death for helping Jews, and that it is simplistic to argue that all Poles behaved equally badly. After all, it was a Pole, smuggled in and out of Auschwitz at great risk by the Home Army, who first told Roosevelt about the Holocaust. But this is not the place to hold that particular argument. In any case, the allegation that Davies is anti-Semitic, or that he denies the importance of the Holocaust, has always been absurd: “Nazism was the most repulsive movement of modern times,” he writes on page 976.
Part of what lies behind all of these criticisms, of course, is precisely the phenomenon which Davies is trying to describe, that same old Allied Scheme of History again, which sees only one mass murderer in Europe this century, not two. Stalin could not have killed more people than Hitler because he was on our side, and it is “rightwing” to say otherwise. The Allied Scheme of History also sees only one set of victims of the second world war: the Jews. East Europeans were not victims; on the contrary, they belonged “naturally” to the more primitive half of Europe, not least because they were more susceptible to primitive emotions such as anti-Semitism-never mind that while there were plenty of Frenchmen who openly collaborated with the Nazis, there were few Poles.
Unfortunately, the Allied Scheme of History, which Davies dismisses out of hand, is also practised by most of Davies’s critics. I distinctly remember a long article in the New York Review of Books by Abraham Brumberg, about the time of Ukrainian independence, dwelling upon Ukrainian anti-Semitism and predicting an unpleasant future for the new country. In fact, despite the existence of many Ukrainian anti-Semites, the Ukrainian state since independence has behaved in an exemplary fashion towards its minorities, Jews included. Why does Brumberg not write long articles dwelling upon that?
But the Allied Scheme of History also makes anyone like Norman Davies, who has devoted his career to these nasty east Europeans, seem somewhat suspect. The politically correct attitude towards the region is the one promulgated by the lecturer who taught me about the “natural” divisions in Europe, or by an east European editor of the Financial Times of ten years back, who dismissed the tribulations of the peoples he wrote about on the grounds that “every country has the government it deserves.” It does now appear that unless you go on spouting the clich?s-that the only crimes in Europe this century were Nazi crimes, and that the proper historical place for the vicious peoples of this region is on the peripheries of “civilised” Europe-then you are likely to find your book, however brilliant, original or controversial, dismissed out of hand as “rightwing” or “anti-Semitic” by some of your critics.
All of which is a great shame, because if the spouters of clich?s win this round as well, Europe: A History, which featured on British bestseller lists for months, may well not end up with the academic reputation it deserves. Leaving aside the arguments about who did what to whom in Europe between 1935 and 1950, many will then miss out on a fascinating history of the continent whose culture and politics shaped so much of the contemporary world. Europe: a history
Oxford University Press 1996, ?25