Taking on the history of Europe Author: A British historian fashions 300 mini-essays into an unusual look at the life and times of a continent, from prehistory to the fall of the Soviet Union.


LONDON -- Imagine the terror of writing the entire history of Europe. Where to begin? Where to finish? What to leave out?

"You've got to be foolhardy," says Norman Davies, a 57-year-old British historian who spent seven years writing the 1,365-page book "Europe: A History." "You're sticking your head over a parapet in which certain people are bound to shoot at you."

The book is one man's unusual and somewhat controversial view of Europe from prehistory to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A lot is here: The rise and fall of the Greek and Roman empires, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and 20th-century wars that would have "amazed the most barbarous of barbarians."

There are prehistoric recipes, prayers in Hebrew, musical scores and the parting words of the famous. Karl Marx, when asked for a death-bed comment, said: "Go on, get out!"

While the work has received glorious reviews in Britain -- "A sumptuous mental feast," wrote the Times of London -- it has been savaged by an American historian who alleges that it contains a host of errors.

Even Davies admits in the preface: "This book contains little that is original." But he is toying with his audience, for he is aiming at nothing less than repackaging European history, balancing the scales between East and West. In Davies' care, European history finally stands united, from Ireland to Russia.

Even the maps are turned 90 degrees, forcing the reader to see Europe from a new angle, to understand just how vast and important the East is in relation to the West. Davies calls this book "colossal history," one written on an enormous canvas and aimed at a wide audience. But the tale moves quickly.

He provides a wide-angle view in densely packed chapters that zoom in for close-ups with 300 mini-essays on subjects ranging from Spartacus to ghetto life to birth control.

He freezes moments that define eras: Napoleon bidding farewell to the Imperial Guard at Fontainebleau, France, in 1814; Nazi war criminals being served with their indictments at Nuremberg in 1945.

"I do belong to the club which doesn't see a distinction between academic history and popular history," Davies says. "I don't see why a book shouldn't be intellectually sound, entertaining and fun to read. Historians who write academic history, which is unreadable, are basically wasting their time."

Davies' prose has humor, indignation and pathos. "Under pressure from the ruthless, the clueless combined with the spineless to achieve the worthless," he writes of the Munich Crisis of 1938, when Adolf Hitler outmaneuvered British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to gain a slice of Czechoslovakia.

"Only by painting the great panorama of history, can the great history-reading public be entertained or satisfied," he says. "There is obviously a great demand for it." More than 50,000 copies of the book have been sold.

Davies' book is not the only major study of Europe now on the market. "A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present" by John Merriman and "A History of Europe" by J.M. Roberts also are vying for readers.

This series of major histories has been driven in part by recent events -- the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But some in Europe yearn to take stock of the past as the continent embarks on historic change. Europe is making plans to unite around a single currency. Armies that once stood on opposite sides could be brought together under the umbrella of NATO.

Davies can be found in his office at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London. Amid a splendid clutter of books and files is a photograph of Davies shaking hands with Pope John Paul II.

"I've met him a few times," he says.

Davies knows something about music. About philosophy, about politics. About sports.

Sit with him for a while, though, and he tells marvelous stories and provides colorful anecdotes covering a lifetime.

"History is very much bound up in family experience," he says.

Two of his uncles were killed during World War I. Norman Davies, his namesake, crashed a plane the day after arriving in France. Another uncle was killed on the last day of the war.

His idol was yet another uncle, Donny Davies, a cricket and soccer player who became a celebrated sports writer with the Manchester Guardian.

Donny Davies taught young Norman about sports, fair play, music and writing. But Donny Davies also died, killed in 1958 when an airplane carrying the Manchester United soccer team crashed in Munich.

As a child, Norman Davies loved books and history. He made his way from his North England hometown of Bolton, Lancashire, to Oxford, where he studied with A.J.P. Taylor, whose televised lectures and journalistic forays delighted audiences and horrified fellow historians.

"Oxford dons were not supposed to be journalists, who were, after all, the lowest of the low," he says. "And there was A.J.P. writing a column for the Sunday Express and at the same time writing an Oxford history of England. People thought this was betrayal. Treason. How could a leading academic behave like that?

"He said, 'When I write for the Sunday Express, I'm talking to a half-million people. When I write the Oxford history, I'm talking to 10,000 people.' "

For years, Davies mined the then-unfashionable history of Eastern Europe. "God's Playground: A History of Poland" brought him a measure of fame in the academic world and in Poland. The Economist called the two-volume study "stimulating, authoritative and highly readable." But the book also played a part in a 1986-1987 controversy at Stanford University, where Davies was denied a chair in Eastern European history.

According to a 1987 article in the Nation magazine, Stanford officials said Davies' work had a "lack of objectivity" and was "insufficiently analytical." Davies contended that a group of Stanford professors alleged that he was insensitive to Jews and served as an apologist for Poland's role during the Holocaust.

Davies filed suit against the university and some of his critics. But the California Court of Appeals ruled against him, saying he could not take testimony from history department members who had discussed the academic chair in a confidential meeting.

"Nobody has ever openly charged me with anti-Semitism," Davies says. "What they say is the things I write about Eastern Europe don't suit various people, especially in America."

Davies still has his critics there.

Princeton University history Professor Theodore K. Rabb savaged "Europe" last month in the New York Times Book Review, ridiculing the book for its tone, style and, most of all, alleged inaccuracies.

Among the alleged miscues, Rabb says that Davies placed Hannibal in the wrong century, misunderstood Copernicus and provided various dates for the first historical mention of Moscow and the beginnings of the Dutch Revolt.

"Things got so bad that eventually I counted seven wrong dates in 11 lines, and soon thereafter [nearly two-thirds of the way through the text], I realized that there was little point either in continuing a close reading or in recommending the book to anyone who might regard it as a source of information," Rabb writes.

Davies contends, "Rabb is either talking about totally trivial things or unsubstantiated charges, or, he's simply wrong."

An unfavorable review won't spoil Davies' popularity in Europe. He's now engaged in the art of promotion, selling his book across the continent. But soon, he'll be back on the historical trail full time. His next subject, he says, is the United Kingdom.

"I'll have a go at the British and sort them out," he says. "It will be short and pithy."

Pub Date: 1/23/97

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