Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Nietzsche’s declaration that ‘There are no facts, only interpretation’ is singularly the most apt description of historical works. We are attracted to history because we hold the belief that by understanding the past, we can understand the present, and thus plot our path to a happier future. Our folly lies in the concurrent belief that history renders an unerring account of the past. But history can never be ‘an objective compilation of facts’, as E H Carr tells us in ‘What is History’ (2001 Palgrave). This causes as much trouble to the historian as it does to his readers.
To make the venture of reading history not just rewarding but pleasurable, the history reader ought first to select the area of his interest before he selects his book. He can choose specific countries, or the entire continent of Europe, or just specific epochs. A comprehensive survey of the history of Europe may be found in several works but they all comprise so many volumes that only the very serious history scholars consult them. ‘Europe’ by Norman Davies is not a small book. At 1335 pages long (excluding the index) Davies’ book presents a formidable challenge to the prospective reader, but once he finds the courage or curiosity to turn to the first pages, he will not put it down till he has absorbed every page, every cross-reference (tucked neatly in boxed lines near the general point, and every map and appendix.
Davies’ interpretation may be a mix of stories, legends, and reactions, but every line is clear to the reader whether the source was fact documented historical record or literary record. He tells the story of Europe with the ambitious aim of giving his reader a deep understanding of the reasons and causes of the political boundaries of the countries that make Europe today and that story begins from the beginning in which Davies begins by telling us, ‘In the beginning, there was no Europe’.
Davies swiftly takes the reader from there to the Barbarians’ crossing of the frozen Rhine and crashing through the gates of embryonic Europe, to the internecine clashes of the Christians – among themselves as well as the never-ending battles with the Muslims, and from there to the major wars of the twentieth century. The story grinds down to the effect and consequences those wars had on the major powers in Europe. ‘Post-war British politics had to cope with a country whose traditional identity was quietly disintegrating. They were governed by the swings of the two-party Westminster system, by the stop-go performance of the economy, and above all, by Britain’s long search for a post-imperial role.’
In the final chapter, ‘Europe Divided and Undivided’, Davies takes the reader to the rise of the Single Europe Act (‘SEA’) and the European Economic Community, the efforts of Jacques Delors and how SEA is portrayed as a Trojan horse; and Mikhail Gorbachev’s contrasting role in the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Scholars - historians, military experts, and political analysts (to name a few) - might have fresh perspectives of the current Russian-Ukrainian crisis just from Davies’ account of the history of Europe. That might be one reason why this book, first published 18 years ago in 1996 is reissued this year under Bodley Head.
One way of getting the most out of a book like this is to begin by reading the Preface and Introduction, and then skim through small portions of each chapter before reading the book from the start. In this way, the reader will be made aware of the connections that dot each page and appreciate how Davies weaved them into his general theme of presenting Europe in her grand ballroom gown and peasant shoes. Davies sought from the start to disabuse his readers of any notion that the history of Europe is the history of the West, or that the history of Western Civilization is the history of civilization.