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Though generally a liberal (an orthodox Labour Party man), Norman Davies has excited controversy on the Left by his partisanship for Poland, which has led him to both harshly condemn communism and the moral compromises the Allies made with Stalin and to place the Holocaust in the context of other European genocides, rather than treat it as a unique manifestation of a cancer in the Germano-Polish soul. These themes are on display in this sweeping text, which, while it treats of the entire history of mankind in Europe from the western islands to the Bering Sea and South to Turkey, quite consciously shifts the epicenter of Europe to Central Europe and seems all the while to be building towards the 20th Century, when both Nazism and Communism would work their evil and then be defeated, with Poland as a main battlefield. At this point his narrative becomes quite focused and grips the reader's attention, before petering off into delusions of the greatness of the coming European Union.

Along the way Professor Davies treats us to biting asides about prior historians -- very nearly all of them, with rare exceptions like Thomas Carlyle -- and a series of short but immensely entertaining interstitial essays on discrete topics that are placed to the side so as not to slow the pace of the general history. The book has been criticized, like the similarly ambitious histories of Paul Johnson, for having too many factual errors, but that's really a function of the atrocious job that publishers do as regards editing these days. Mr. Davies pays most attention to shifting our geographic perception of Europe, so doesn't propound an overall framework for the history he relates, but one is discernible. Early European history might be said to consist of the extension of Grecco-Roman culture and then Judeo-Christianity across the entire region. The ideas contained in these two packages in turn give rise to a set of liberal democratic values, first realized in Britain, Poland and America, with a dysfunctional variant--one devoid of the necessary foundations--arising in France during the Revolution. Liberal democracy at its European best was to be found in 19th Century Britain, where:
Conservatism began to crystallize as a coherent ideology in conjunction with liberal trends. It was not opposed to democracy or to change as such, and should not be confused with simple reactionary positions. What it did was to insist that all change should be channelled and managed in such a way that the organic growth of established institutions of state and society--monarchy, Church, the social hierarchy, property, and the family--should not be threatened. [...] Like the liberals, the conservatives valued the individual, opposed the omnipotent state, and looked for a reduction of central executive powers. Through this, they often turned out to be the most effective of would-be reformers, toning down proposals coming from more radical points on the spectrum, and acting as the go-between with the ruling court. The ultimate distinction between liberal conservatives and moderate liberals was a fine one. In many democracies, the large area of agreement between them came to define the "middle ground" of political life.
The Nazi and Communist challenges are obvious enough, but Mr. Davies offers up a genuine insight in his discussion of Hitler's Germany:
Hitler's democratic triumph exposed the true nature of democracy. Democracy has few values of its own: it is as good, or as bad, as the principles of the people who operate it. in the hands of liberal and tolerant people, it will produce a liberal and tolerant government; in the hands of cannibals, a government of cannibals. In Germany in 1933-4 it produced a Nazi government because the prevailing culture of Germany's voters did not give priority to the exclusion of gangsters.
What's surprising is that as he wrote at the end of the 20th Century, Mr. Davies failed to recognize that Europe generally had become so secular that it too was a valueless sort of democracy and so unlikely to produce enduring liberal government continent-wide. He proved prescient though about the "middle ground," which Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, John Howard and now perhaps even the Tories under David Cameron have gravitated towards with extraordinary success. The open question for Europe is whether it can learn from its history and rebuild the Grecco-Roman/Judeo-Christian foundations that liberal democracy requires to provide decent values. Color me skeptical.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Norman Davies (2 books reviewed)
Norman Davies Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Norman Davies
    -Norman Davies (Foosquare)
-ESSAY: The Dnieper rapids and why Putin does not belong in Ukraine: Even the country’s East is not natively Russian (Norman Davies, 27 August 2022, Spectator)
   -ESSAY: Britain and the Warsaw Rising (Norman Davies)
    -ESSAY: Lest we forget: Britain's failure to recognise Poland's wartime sacrifices is shameful (Norman Davies, November 8, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The Lessons of History for the Invaders (Norman Davies, 5 April 2003, The Independent)
    -ESSAY: Cabbages and kings: Norman Davies savours the breads, stews and sculptural desserts of Polish cuisine in Krakow. (Norman Davies, 31/07/2004, Daily Telegraph)
    -AUDIO LECTURE: "Britain and Australia: holding together or falling apart" (Norman Davies, The City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney, 21 August 2001)
    -EXCERPT: First Chapter of The Isles
    -LETTER: While we have your attention, Mr President... (Norman Davies, November 18, 2003, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt (Norman Davies, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of THE GREAT TERROR A Reassessment. By Robert Conquest (Norman Davies, NY Times Book Review)
   -REVIEW: of Konarmiya (Red Cavalry) by Issac Babel (Norman Davies, Sarmatian Review)
    -REVIEW: of Aleksander Wat Life and Art of an Iconoclast. By Tomas Venclova (Norman Davies, NY Times Book Review)
    -Norman Davies (Wikipedia)
    -ARCHIVES: Norman Davies (NY Review of Books)
    -PROFILE: Norman Davies: Daniel Snowman meets the historian of Poland, Europe and �The Isles�. (Daniel Snowman, July 2005, History Today)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: The British Isles, with Norman Davies (Dick Gordon, 3/17/00, The Connection)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview with Prof. Norman Davies (British Studies Web Pages)
    -INTERVIEW: Norman Davies: Shadows of a lost city: Norman Davies turns our maps of the past on their heads. His new book presents the Germans as victims of war, as well as aggressors. (Boyd Tonkin, 04 May 2002, The Independent)
    -ARCHIVES: "norman davies" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Europe: A History, by Norman Davies (Anne Applebaum, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW: of Europe (Theodore, Rabb, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Europe (David Herman, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Europe (Anthony Hartley, The National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of Europe (Andrzej Nowak, Sarmatian Review)
    -REVIEW: of Europe (First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Europe (Joseph Mandel, Business Week)
    -REVIEW: of Europe (R.J.W. Evans, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Golden Links by Norman Davies (Małgorzata Zdybiewska, British Studies Web Pages)
    -REVIEW: of Microcosm - Portrait of a Central European City by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse (James Hopkin, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Microcosm (David Isaacson, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Microcosm (Nigel Spivey, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Microcosm (C.J. Sch�ler, Richmond Review)
    -REVIEW: of Microcosm (Brendan Simms, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Microcosm (Anthont Beevor, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of The Isles by Norman Davies (Stephen Moss, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Isles (Peter Clarke, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Isles (Andy Beckett, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Isles (Neal Ascherson, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Isles (Ann Talbot, World Socialist Website)
    -REVIEW: of The Isles (Hugo Young, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Isles (Maria Nutick, The Green Man Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Isles (Peter Hitchens, The National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of The Isles (John Derbyshire, National Review)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw by Norman Davies (Metacritic)
    -REVIEW: of Rising '44 (Angus MacQueen, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of RISING '44 (CARLO D'ESTE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Rising '44 (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Rising '44 (Daniel Johnson, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Rising '44 (Max Hastings, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Rising '44 (David Pryce-Jones, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Rising '44 (Michael Kenney, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Rising '44 (Simon Sebag Montefiore, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Rising '44 (Mark Lewis, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Rising '44 (John Connelly, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Rising '44 (Adam Zamoyski, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Rising ’44 (Robert Citino, Military History Quarterly)

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