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 met him in Oxford
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The Independent Culture

In one of those nuggets of serendipity that interviewers adore, a road-sign greets visitors to Wolfson College in Oxford, where the bestselling historian Norman Davies now has a base. It reads "Changed priorities ahead". You might easily press that motto into service as an epigraph to any of his books.

Davies re-frames our national pictures of the past, bringing background details to the fore and shunting many legendary features off to a distant corner of the canvas. "Myth-making is absolutely necessary to create the simplified images that people live off," he says. "It's the historian's job not to ridicule the myths, but to show the difference between myth and reality."

In 1996, his wildly successful, 1,200-page Europe: a History offered the first overall survey of the continent since HAL Fisher's in 1935. Correcting our pro-Western tilt, it taught hundreds of thousands of admirers – including John Major and Tony Blair – to treat the nations between Germany and Russia not as a remote appendage but (to quote the title of his short history of Poland) "The Heart of Europe". Three years later came his even more contentious panorama of the British lands, The Isles. With a typical blend of sweeping erudition and literary panache, Davies skewered "Britishness" as a dying identity with a beginning (in 1603), a triumphant middle (union with Ireland in 1801), and a slow decline that began with Irish autonomy in 1922. "Like all historical phenomena," he says, "it will at some point – possibly quite soon – come to an end."

Not surprisingly, this heavyweight charge of "four nations" history outraged the likes of Paul Johnson and Andrew Roberts. The provocative professor – who had by then retired from London University to write full-time – relished the book's fall-out. "I would see it as a sign of success if someone like Paul Johnson took objection to it," he says. "It was that bull-headed, English-nationalist view that I was trying to attack."

Less pugnacious in person than in print, this scourge of St George has Welsh forebears but was raised in Fifties Bolton. He studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he found a mentor in another prickly Lancastrian maverick: AJP Taylor. Now Davies's work has brought him back to central Europe, where he made his name in 1981 with an epic history of Poland's long struggles for freedom, God's Playground.

Davies has married a Polish wife – twice over. His first Polish father-in-law was tortured by invading Russians in 1945 on the same table where he had been tortured by invading Germans in 1939. A fierce personal commitment (reciprocated in Poland, where he's idolised) drives his narratives, although he stresses that he has been "combating nationalism" all his career. "I always needle a bit when people say I'm a champion of the Poles, because I've always had a very multinational view of Poland."

His new book, Microcosm (Cape, £30), is a collaboration with Roger Moorhouse, a former student who acted as chief researcher for Europe. This latest project has a tight focus, but looks likely to create big waves. Microcosm is the history of a city – Wroclaw in Silesia, western Poland – originally commissioned from Davies by the post-Communist mayor, "a typical Solidarity character who had come out of nowhere".

It sounds parochial. In fact, this is an incendiary tale. For Wroclaw, standing right in the cockpit of central Europe's warring dynasties, has had many names and many overlords down the centuries. In the early Middle Ages, the Poles did run "Wrotizla" for a spell. Later, the Bohemians of Prague took over "Vretslav", followed by the Austrian Habsburg rulers of "Presslaw". Then, in 1741, Frederick the Great of Prussia seized "Bresslau", which grew into one of the greatest of all German cities.

In 1871, Breslau ranked third in the Kaiser's new Empire behind Berlin and Hamburg. The city flourished as a centre of German industry, education, science and the arts – and home to a pantheon of august Germans from Dr Alois Alzheimer to the "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen – until Soviet forces pulverised it in 1945.

Now we reach the centre of this historical minefield. German Breslau – in common with many eastern German lands – was ethnically cleansed at the end of the war. Davies searches for a British analogy. "The expulsions in central Europe were extremely brutal and very, very short. A town the size of Manchester, which within two years, is completely emptied of its English population and repopulated by Frenchmen from Lille – you have to imagine something like that." Many of the Polish incomers to "Wroclaw" had themselves been expelled by the Soviet forces from the city of L'viv, now in Ukraine – the family home of Davies's in-laws.

Microcosm is a paradoxical performance. Much of this meticulous, evocative history of a Polish city, commissioned by a Polish mayor from a famous friend of Poland, reads like an elegy for the crushed German culture of Silesia. The account of vanished glory chimes with one of the hottest debates in European politics now. Put crudely, many Germans have begun to feel like victims again. The Red Army carved great chunks off their historic homelands in 1945. After the guilty silence of the post-Holocaust era, the millions of refugees Stalin sent packing – and their children – have found a voice. Davies wonders if our own relations with Germany might grow smoother "once the British see Germans not simply as the enemy, but also in certain circumstances as the oppressed, the victims."

As Davies plays his historical hand, the finger of accusation moves east. It settles over Moscow. All his work underlines the brutally aggressive tendencies of the Russian and Soviet empires – a pattern masked, he thinks, by a pro-Russian bias among Brits ever since Napoleon. He thinks that "the Russian myths of the Second World War are still intact", although a book he plans for the 60th anniversary of peace in 2005 will certainly do its bit to shatter them.

Not even his assaults on pro-Soviet sentimentality, however, have proved as inflammatory as some brief, taboo-breaking references to the prominent role of Jews in the Stalinist secret police of post-war Poland. One Davies fan told me that "he has a very strange knack for returning to old and deep wounds with renewed vigour".

Davies has a group of vehement enemies among New York historians. In vitriolic reviews, they come within a whisker of calling him an anti-Semite. He certainly isn't that. Yet his deep identification with the afflictions of the Poles has led a few US pundits to bracket him with historians who downplay the uniqueness of the Holocaust. The Nazis, his work reminds us, killed three million Jewish Poles, and three million non-Jewish Poles. Even that distinction can blur, he argues. The Warsaw Ghetto contained not only synagogues but churches, "where the priests and congregations were Catholic – Polish Catholics of Jewish origin".

His new book tells the exemplary story of Edith Stein. Born an Orthodox Jew in Breslau, she converted to Catholicism, became a nun, died in Auschwitz and was – against US protests – canonised by the Pope in 1998. He shows her at Breslau station in 1942, peeping from the crowded wagon that would take her to her death for a glimpse of "my beloved home town". "It's quite clear that Edith Stein herself thought that she was living her life of sacrifice as a Christian," Davies reflects, "but that didn't mean that she rejected her Jewishness."

In the end, he leads the cheers not for any single flag but for "multiple identities": the capacity to live within several skins at once. All the same, he jestingly notes that "If England was at war with Wales and I had to join the army and shoot somebody, that could become painful." Talking beside a sunlit Oxford garden in 2002, we can dismiss such dilemmas as the stuff of sitcom. Microcosm demonstrates that, for millions of central Europeans within living memory, they erupted with a tragic force.

Biography

Born in 1939, Norman Davies was brought up in Bolton, Lancashire. At Magdalen College, Oxford, he studied history with AJP Taylor. He taught in a variety of schools before joining the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at London University as a lecturer, then professor. In 1981 he published his two-volume history of Poland, God's Playground, with a shorter version in 1984, The Heart of Europe. In 1996 the bestselling Europe: a History set out to correct Western biases; it was followed in 1999 by his history of the British peoples, The Isles – which set out to correct English biases. His new book, co-written with Roger Moorhouse, is Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City (Jonathan Cape, £20). Now a senior member of Wolfson College, Oxford, Norman Davies lives in Oxford with his wife and two sons.

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