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'Europe' for all Europeans, 4. März 2000
"I am a candle," said Reason. Love replied: "Brother! I am the sun - so your time comes only when I set." Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916)
There are not many examples of such an altruistic approach in European history. It makes us appreciate even more those few that are left. The NATO action aimed at liberating the Albanian minority in Kosovo is one of those generous acts worth remembering. Norman Davies makes us remember some other examples. When the Ottoman Empire troops stood at the gates of Western Europe more than three centuries ago, the Polish king, John Sobieski, led the Polish Commonwealth army and decisively contributed to saving Vienna , (a faraway place given the Warsaw perspective), from almost sure disaster. Not many people know the sad epilogue of that story. In less than a hundred years, the Austrian Emperors grabbed one third of Poland! That was really a special "generosity". We must not forget that some of the Western glory was just grabbed from many, sometimes exotic countries of Asia, Africa and America. The "discovery" of America could also be easily read as conquest. Immeasurable riches gathered that way by Spain are much better known than the fact that Polish prosperity at that time was earned by grain export to Western Europe. At that time, the Polish Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita) was called "the Granary of Europe". The timing of publishing this huge work by Davies is particularly symbolic and favourable. At the turn of the third millenium, Europe and also America badly needed such a book! Unlike his many predecessors, Davies paid a lot of attention to the many factors integrating rather than dividing Europe. The book is full of fine verses, original descriptions coming from library sources, and wonderful capsules - tiny streams feeding the River of European history. I absolutely agree with one of the readers in Sweden that Davies' work is one of few, if any, readable histories of Europe. Cultural European heritage is widely attributed to the Western part of Europe. Thanks to this honest West European historian, we now have a much more balanced and fair account. Davies has shocked some old-fashioned readers with his would-be new facts about Eastern Europe. The old logic of reading history was: no rights for the weak and no voice for the weak. I would compare it to the position of women or slaves throughout the ages. The Ancient Romans would probably be astonished that someone would point out their foul practice of enslaving people. Many XIXth century gentlemen would feel offended to hear that women deserve exactly the same rights that the gentlemen enjoy themselves. Oh yes, the kingdoms of Hungary and Poland were in the forefront of Christianity for centuries, defending prosperous Western European nations against the hostile Oriental world. They became much weakened that way. Their bodies, placed geographically at the heart of Europe, have been multiply raped, not only by the East, but also by the West (Austria's invasions on Hungary and Poland, Brandenburg's and Prussian Drang nach Osten against Poland). This has repeatedly occurred in more modern European history. The battle of Poland against Soviet Russia's Bolshevik hordes - culminating with the successful battle near Warsaw called the 'miracle on the Vistula', was really an event confirming that Providence had Western Europe in mind. Only a few know what a stiff price was to be paid in Katyñ and numerous other places just twenty years later. Many of Davies' readers would hardly believe how much ignorance could be displayed in some would-be reputable books on world history (see the monumental "History of the World" compiled by Prof. Esmond Wright, 1984); the battle with the Mongoles of Liegnitz (Legnica, 1241) has been located in Hungary(!); few and hard-to-find sentences, full of basic mistakes, on the history of Poland at her Golden Age have been placed in the chapter devoted to Russia's history!). I think a few readers reacted in a negative way to the abundant information on Polish or Hungarian cultural contributions or religious tolerance in XVIth century Poland. Prejudice and taboos haunt not only European nations even now. These are something Davies ruthlessly traces and embattles. Thank you, Norman, for your human and balanced insight into European history! You presented history as a source of inspiration for all Europeans and surely also Americans. Yes, the weak also have rights and with your helping hand the weak will get stronger. I would like to see an optimistic view of European history given at the end of this book.
"And I was with them drinking wine and mead, And what I saw and heard all men may read" Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), an excerpt from the "Pan Tadeusz" poem.
Really, reading this book I have an impression of being in the heart of Europe for ages. Zbigniew Lechniak, engineer, The Very Heart of Europe