Skip to main content

You are here

Not the West, but Europe Europe East and West by Norman Davies

Spring 2008 - Vol. 50, No. 2

Europe East and West by Norman Davies(London: Jonathan Cape, 2006). 560pp.

BRIAN DOMITROVIC teaches in the Department ofHistory at Sam Houston State University. He receivedhis Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Stanford is notorious as the university thatkilled off "Western Culture," but perhapsthat reputation is undeserved. In the late1980s, Stanford did indeed scrap a requirementthat had existed in its undergraduatecurriculum for all of eight years. What drewnational press attention was a crowd onStanford's campus that had convened toexhort the faculty on the matter. "Hey hey,ho ho, Western Culture's got to go!" welledup from the assemblage, and a thousandnewspaper articles were born.

It now emerges that in those very years,Stanford effectively took a mighty step toprotect the notion of Western civilization—atleast as the textbooks teach that notion—fromone of its most formidable opponents. Specifically,the university reneged on its implicitpromise to historian Norman Davies to granthim tenure, fighting all the way through theCalifornia court system to get its way.

Perhaps it is easy to miss Professor Davies'antipathy toward the notion of "Westerncivilization." After all, Davies is surely thegreatest European historian of our generation:epic chronicler of the millennial sweepof Polish history; brave clarifier of whatreally happened in World War II; author, inEurope: A History (1996) of a panoptic workof literary elegance and methodological virtuethat was at once a bestseller and breakerof new scholarly ground in subfields toonumerous to count.

Reading closely Davies' Europe: A History,or God's Playground: A History of Poland(2 vols., 1981), or Rising '44: The Battle forWarsaw (2003), or "The Misunderstood Victoryin Europe" essay series which is revivedwith each decadal commemoration of May1945, one could perhaps glean the argumentthat Davies now puts forth in lights in hisnewest work, Europe East and West: namely,that "Western civilization" has long beenmisappropriated by those who mean by itonly the civilization of Western Europe:specifically of Britain, France, and Germany,and of Italy in its Renaissance period.Europe East and West argues—very convincingly—that the tradition of "the West" israther the sum tradition not of these greatnations alone, but of the entire continent ofEurope, if not of the three great lands thatconverge at the Mediterranean: Europe, theNear East, and North Africa.

The arguments are fascinating, but beforegoing into them, a word must be said regardingStanford's dissociation of itself fromProfessor Davies, now going on twenty yearsago. By all accounts, Stanford did not grantProfessor Davies tenure because certain facultymembers and outside reviewers of God'sPlayground found something objectionable inthe way the book discovered a degree ofcomity in Polish-Jewish relations in Polandprior to the Holocaust. Davies, who knew hishistory far better than his assessors, sued, andthe case wended its way through the Californiacourts until a definitive ruling camedown on Stanford's side in 1990. Daviesthereafter made his career at European universities.

Since it is now abundantly clear thatNorman Davies is the historian par excellenceof his generation, we can draw up a brief tallyof the Stanford affair. The public and theprofession of history most certainly were notharmed by Davies' not getting a permanentappointment at that elite American university.Since 1990, Davies has gone on toprodigious feats of historical research, withour understanding of the high events of the"dark continent" (Europe in the twentiethcentury) vastly improved by his efforts. Asfor Davies himself, one can only assume fromthe self-congratulatory tone throughout EuropeEast and West that the author is satisfiedthat he has had a brilliant and consequentialcareer.

As for Stanford? That august institutionseems only to have played the role of theprovincial—the Lilliputian—in this affair.There in its grasp the university had therising scholar of the day, only to let him slipaway to somebody else's friendly confines onaccount of its own poorly formed powers ofjudgment. All the Stanford history studentsleft untutored by Davies, all the facultydiscussions not augmented by his presence:this is the dead-weight loss to the WestCoast's "Ivy."

So much for Stanford. As for ProfessorDavies, we should all read Europe East andWest. This of course can be said for every oneof his books, dating back to White Eagle, RedStar (1972), the book that reintroduced theworld to the utterly forgotten, when notmendaciously denied, Bolshevik-Polish warof 1920, one of the most decisive contests ofmodern history. It was that war, for historianRichard Pipes (perhaps Davies' only peer),which actually did save Western civilization,for it frustrated a potential takeover of all ofEurope, all the way from deepest Russia toBritain, by Lenin.1

In Europe East and West Davies asks, quiterightly, why in so many Great Books courses"the content matter [has been] overwhelminglyEnglish, French, Greek, Latin andGerman—in that order of priority." Oftextbooks in "Western Civ." (which hesubjects to merciless fact-checking) Daviesobserves:

[I]t can be no accident that the contents pages ofthe textbooks of Western civilization are remarkablysimilar. Typically they include: AncientGreece and Rome, the Judaeo-Christian Tradition,the Germanic Invasions, Latin Christendom,the Italian Renaissance and the continental Reformation,the Scientific Revolution, Absolutismand Enlightenment, the Romantic Movement,the French and Russian Revolutions, and ModernArt. At first sight, this can look fair enoughuntil one realises what has been rejected.... On theone hand a huge bias operates in favour of westernand southern Europe to the detriment of northern,eastern, central, and east central Europe. Russiais often the only eastern country to warrant amention, and one would have to ask why.2

Davies is at pains in Europe East and Westto demonstrate that it is eastern Europeanhistory that has at many junctures been theheart of the experience of what we for lack ofa better term call the West. In its Christianpiety, its hospitality to science, and its uninterruptedtradition of providing defense towestern Europe, eastern Europe must be asine qua non for any viable concept ofWestern civilization—and yet it is almostwholly absent from courses and textbooks on"Western Civ."

As in God's Playground, and in the wonderfuldigested version of the two volumesaptly titled Heart of Europe (1984), Daviesrelates how the concept of antemuralechristianitatis animated the founders of theNoble Republic of Poland-Lithuania (therepublic, it must be remembered, that lastedlonger than any other in history, the UnitedStates of America included, so far—from1572-1795). That is, the founders of Poland-Lithuania wished to set up a wall of protectionso that the locus classicus of medievalChristianity (western Europe) could continueon its way building cathedrals andphilosophical systems and producing saintsand great art, unperturbed by pagan invaders.That western Europe failed to cooperateand promptly bogged down in the Reformationis a testament both to the West's obtusenessand to Poland's possession, in Davies'words, of "all the quiet, dotty charm of DonQuixote."3

In Europe East and West, Davies also triesto defend the term "European history" as anacceptable substitute for "Western Civ.,"but he concedes that even this term facesinsuperable difficulties. "But where in these[Western Civ.] textbooks was Byzantium?"Davies finds himself asking.4 True enough:"Western civilization" most aptly refers tothe tradition established by the fusing ofclassical culture with that of Christianity inlate antique times, in Byzantium and NorthAfrica, and the continuance of that traditionafter the rise of Islam in those regions bysupra-montane Europeans, most notablyCharlemagne, and by the Carolingian successionrepresented by the High MiddleAges, the Renaissance, and the scientific andindustrial revolutions.

That is quite a mouthful, but history ismessy, and Davies knows it. Davies makes afully fair point that it is absurd to exclude orminimize eastern European history in thegeneral history of Europe or in any conceptof "the West." Yet it remains true that muchof the civilization cultivated and hammeredout over the centuries by "Europe," especiallyEurope broadly conceived as Davieswants it, owed its origins and fundamentalideas to other geographical regions: specificallythe eastern and southern regions of theRoman empire, that is, Byzantium and NorthAfrica.

Davies mentions this point several times,but he does not sufficiently dwell on it. Herewe would do well to recall that anotherhistorian made it his life's work to identifythe antique North African and Byzantinestrains in the mind and disposition of "theWest" in its formative medieval period—and further, to see how these extra-Europeaninfluences reacted to and persisted among theadmittedly ruder traits native to Europe.That historian was Christopher Dawson, andit is uncanny how often, when large questionsabout Western culture and the legacy ofEurope are asked, the draw of Dawson is felt.

Dawson was supremely interested in theChristian civilization of the West, but therecertainly were non-Christian elements in thepurview of "Western Civ.," and Davies asusual has interesting and productive things tosay regarding them. Reading "The JewishStrand in European History" in Europe Eastand West makes one wonder what fools theymust have been who impeached Davies forhis rendering of Polish-Jewish history back atStanford two decades ago. As for "TheIslamic Strand in European History," anotheressay in this volume, Davies cries outfor "European history" to realize that thesoutheastern marches of Europe have forcenturies been the primary place of residencefor thousands of Muslims. He also gives usmany delectable tidbits. Italian cuisine'smarsala sauce and wine? From the ArabicMarsa-Allah, or port of Allah.

If there is a weakness to Europe East andWest, and to the Davies oeuvre overall, it isthat Davies has but an amateur's understandingof economic history. If that one weaknessis the price of being un-dismal, let it beoverlooked. Perhaps some readers will bedismayed by other things, however, such asa rather strident tone against things Americanand Israeli. Davies is so pro-European,and so profoundly respectful of the variety ofinhabitants the region has housed, that heseems unable to forgo irrelevant remarksabout American foreign policy.

In the Introduction to Europe East andWest, Davies writes: "Going through myfiles, I [find] that many more such essays andlectures [as those in this volume] are waitingto be published. Should the first selectionmeet with the general approval of all concerned,especially of readers, I shall be delightedin due course to serve up furtherhelpings."5 Readers, take note, and demandmore. Stanford, stand in line with the rest ofus: if by now you have wised up.

NOTES

  1. See Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (New York:Modern Library, 2001), 50-51.
  2. Davies, Europe East andWest, (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 48-49.
  3. Ibid., 199.See this page for a rather insidious poem by Günter Grasson the Poles.
  4. Ibid., 47.
  5. Ibid., xiv.