Dressed by Genoese, throttled by Croats

EUROPE: A History by Norman Davies Oxford University Press pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
When Napoleon invoked the term once too often, Tsar Alexander I is supposed to have sniffed "Europe, what's that?", adding: "Europe is us." Readers seeking a more demotic answer should rush to Norman Davies's comprehensive, irreverent, and immensely stimulating narrative account. His winning style soon belies the book's enormous bulk, as he covers the millennia separating Homo erectus from that miracle of modern science, Leonid Brezhnev.

Davies includes vast areas of the peninsula, notably to the East, that are routinely excluded from many histories of "western" civilisation, despite the fact that, for example, Poland-Lithuania was the largest state in Latin Christendom, with a recent history that in most respects resembles Ireland's rather than neighbouring Prussia or Russia which devoured it. His maps try to aid this perceptual reorientation, by up-ending the Atlantic seaboard so that Portugal is in the north and Muscovy in the south. Since old perceptions die hard, many readers will require splints, having rotated the book in search of Britain or Italy. He is trying to tell us something.

The book's irreverence is reflected in 300 "time capsules": discussing brie cheese (Charlemagne liked his from the abbey of Meaux, washed down with Aloxe Corton) or neck ties (the Croats, to whom Europeans owe the word "cravate", literally have us all by the throat). Modern foodies eager to cross the final frontier will find a recipe for a neolithic meal of marrow-bones and samphire, resembling what is on offer in modern British restaurants. Apart from bringing to life the smells and tastes of the past, Davies delights in paradox in the manner of A J P Taylor, that earlier Lancastrian cheeky-chappy. Those who unreflectingly elide "Graeco-Roman" civilisation are invited to consider the fate of Archimedes, the Greek engineer, done to death by Roman legionaries for his ingenuity in resisting their long siege of Syracuse. Like a wandering prehistoric hunter, Davies brings down the Marxist mammoths, hitherto free to roam the plains of comparative history. He brings an empirical armoury to bear on their glib generalities about "feudalism", "absolutism", "imperialism", while scorning their weasel apologias for Communism. This sometimes tips over into a surprising indulgence towards, for example, wartime Axis collaborators.

So what is Europe? Its high civilisation stems from ancient Greece, as mediated by Rome - republican, imperial, Christian and still pulling the faithful to St Peter's. Being culturally if not politically correct, Davies pays due deference to Celtic squiggles, Viking runes and such tired academic fads as alchemy, gender and witchcraft. Europe's ethnic composition stems from various barbarous tribes - Celts, Germans, Magyars and Slavs - shunted along at the rate of two kilometres a year in response to wars deep in Asia. Any semblance of commonality among the major and minor strongmen who offered protection across the continent in succeeding centuries was due to the Church and such external menaces as Almoravids, Norsemen or Mongols, who thus indirectly contributed to the utopia called Christendom. The embarrassment of a crusade in 1204 which sacked Christian Constantinople on behalf of greedy Venetians, or the grim religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries (whose earnest spirit is alive and well in Ulster) added impetus to the competing utopia of Europe since Christendom was so scandalous. As Soren Kierkegaard wrote later: "The history of Christendom is the history of the subtle disregarding of Christianity."

Europe becomes agreeably familiar with the glories of Bernini's Rome, Lully's Versailles and Mozart's Prague; familiarly repulsive with the French Revolution. Politics polarised into Left and Right; decent reformers were edged aside by puritanical fanatics; while the Jacobins solved the problem of how to commit mass murder by drowning counter-revolutionary Brelon peasants by night in submersible hulks in Nantes harbour. But it was not all loss.

The five Great Powers of 1915 conserved peace, before conceding controlled reform in the wake of the failed 1848 revolutions. In the 19th century much of Europe experienced an economic miracle, transforming peasants into city-dwellers, harnessing new forms of power, and moving people at greater speed. Bismarck created and restrained a united Germany excluding Austria. Public opinion, sanitation and science curbed infant mortality and epidemics, while charity and social legislation ameliorated the lot of the poor. Europe's competitive ventures overseas were more mixed: in 1904 Samoan women were still "exhibited" in a corner of Hamburg's zoo. The consequences of Russia's devouring of an average of 55 square kilometres a day between 1683 and 1914 still haunt us, as Chechens make it clear they do not want to be ruled by Boris Yeltsin.

If imperialism contributed to international tensions, other potentially sinister forces were evident closer to home: "The educated, multilingual, cosmopolitan elite of Europe grew weaker, the half-educated national masses, who thought of themselves only as Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen or Russians grew stronger." In the Balkans, the Habsburgs - erratically supported by a Germany seeking the fool's gold of "World power, but no war" - determined that Serbia would not follow Piedmont or Prussia in prising apart its imperial heritage. Local conflict escalated into a regional, a European and finally a global war, as the statesmen of Europe took decisions analogous to those of the captain of the Titanic, "So it's all up?" asked Asquith's wife. "Yes, it's all up," replied the Prime Minister, as they wept in unison, in one the best of the affecting vignettes with which Davies concludes each chapter. British and Italian boys, including a Flight Lieutenant Norman Davies from Bolton, were killed in equal numbers.

The 1914-18 war developed into a renewed Thirty Years War, as the combatants (two of them fanaticised by collectivist totalitarian ideologies) settled their unfinished business. As Anna Akhmatova put it, death chalked crosses on the doors and the ravens flew in. Davies's penultimate chapter, "Tenebrae", is the most original (and horrible), virtually constituting a book in its own right. Its argument is a sustained refutation of what he calls the Allied view of history: the obsessional demonisation of Nazi Germany coupled with indulgence towards the Soviets.

In his version, a fanatical sect seized power in Russia, promising soldiers peace and peasants land, but delivering neither. More Russians were killed in the ensuing so-called Civil War and Leninist terror than in the First World War, while after liberation from serfdom in 1861, the peasants were re-enslaved at gunpoint. Attempts to spread this noxious creed westwards were stopped by a Right-wing reaction in Hungary and the heroism of 20,000 Polish uhlans who smashed the Red Army on the Vistula.

Resigned to building "socialism" in "one" country, Stalin used the novel device of starving seven million Ukrainians to destroy national autonomy and peasant capitalism. Other millions vanished into the two thousand odd concentration camps of the gulag archipelago, with the slogan above the gates of Kolyma - "Labour is a matter of honour, courage and heroism" - echoing Auschwitz.

In Britain, the creepy Webbs wrote books entitled Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, heralding an apologetic line on totalitarianism still alive and well in some corners of (western) academia. Davies's check-list of characteristics shared by Communism and Nazism includes: collectivism, coercion and genocide, gangsterism, moral nihilism, militarism and universalism. These commonalities outweigh such gigantic discoveries of modern scholarship as the idea that Hitler was a "weak" dictator. Clearly exasperated by the West's peculiar obsession with Nazi Germany, Davies highlights the depredations of Soviet forces in the Baltic, Byelorussia and the western Ukraine, with an NKVD liaison officer attached to SS headquarters in Cracow until the eve of Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union.

For many eastern Europeans, World War Two was a complex triangular struggle against Nazis and Communists, a fact the Red Army overcame by sunbathing on one bank of the Vistula, while the Germans obliterated the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. The victorious West perpetuated this process by repatriating Soviet citizens who wore German uniforms, or who simply had the misfortune to be German captives, to their deaths in Stalin's gulags. Other historical inconveniences, like Russian authorship of the Katyn massacre, were ruled out of order at the Nuremberg tribunal, whose prosecutors included Vyshinsky, star of the Moscow show-trials.

While western Europe underwent rapid recovery from rubble to rock music, Stalin imposed his placemen - Gottwald, Rakosi, Ulbricht, Zhivkov, Hoxha - on eastern Europe. As Davies remarks, "To call them puppets was to flatter." These men aligned their client states with the Soviet nomenklatura system, in which "ministers qua ministers did not really run their ministries, army commanders did not command their units, managers did not manage their firms" without the say-so of parallel party committees or in-house cells. Their independent-minded brethren included Ceausescu, knighted by the British for practicing socialism in one family.

After 70 years, the USSR spent 30 per cent of GNP on the military and nuclear sectors, was a net importer of grain, and had not managed to construct even one all-weather road linking east and west. The cost of populating the place with doughty miners and steel-workers was a landscape of lunar desolation. The reactor explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 bathed Berliners' lettuce and Welsh sheep in radioactive fall-out. Credit for bringing the Soviet bloc to its knees is correctly ascribed to the Catholic workers of Solidarity, the resolution of Reagan and Thatcher, and Gorbachev's recognition that the dam would burst if the locks were not opened. The cosmonaut Sergei Krikalyev was launched by a superpower, but landed in the independent republic of Kazakhstan.

Inevitably, a book of this scope sometimes reveals flaws. Covering enormous periods of time sometimes leads to a certain mono-dimensionality, so that we learn the names of Greek or Roman gods, but nothing about the nature of belief, ethical codes, or the shifting social functions of religion. His account of some of the 18th-century wars degenerates into the banalities of rising and declining powers. Economic history is not his strong point. Lists of great men and women come and go, with no pause for reflection as to why Goethe, Poussin, Rembrandt, Rubens, Schiller or Tolstoy were so remarkable. The account of Nietzsche is sophomoric, and ironically, in view of the book's thesis, so very redolent of the Allied view of (German) intellectual history.

Indeed, Davies seems ill at ease with Germany in general, in convast to the assurance with which he writes about eastern Europe and Russia. More seriously, the sympathy he shows towards eastern Europeans caught between Hitler and Stalin tips over into a remarkable naivite towards Petain and his kind, whose domestic political agendas were not exhausted by anti-Communism. Nor are we told why some of those nice Latvians and Ukrainians joined the Nazis in killing their Jewish fellow-citizens. Passionate advocacy should never degenerate into sour partisanship, even when one knows how "anti-fascism" has been milked for all it is worth by Communist gangsters from the Spanish Civil War to the German Democratic Republic. Eurosceptics will choke on his enthusiasm for Jacques Delors, whose practising Catholicism apparently excuses much else. But this does not impair enjoyment of a remarkable intellectual achievement. If there is one book which should offered to any teenager interested in how history is being written in the last years of this millennium (or just curious about why their legs are clad in Genoese sailcloth), or read by anyone who wishes to be reliably informed about the geopolitical space they inhabit, then Davies's Europe is it.

! Michael Burleigh is Distinguished Research Professor in Modern European History at University of Wales, Cardiff

"The coldest I have ever known in Britain / able to work ... as never before / started early / worked all day / reconstructed icicles / around a tree / finished late afternoon / catching the sunlight." Andy Goldsworthy's notes in Wood (Viking pounds 40) resemble Zen poems - and weather reports: "raining heavily"; "intermittently calm and windy". The elements are his collaborators, an ancient oak tree near his Scottish home his favourite model. Goldsworthy makes magic from the ephemeral: here he uses natural objects (leaves pinned with thorns, twigs welded together with ice) in open-air settings, the moment captured by exquisite photography. The fragile icicle spiral above was created in Dumfriesshire in December 1995, but these pictures take him as far afield as Mallorca, Japan, Alaska and even the British Museum. Some works are on show 11 Oct - 22 Nov at 21 Cork St, London W1X 1HB