Europe – A History
By Norman Davies
The Bodley Head – £25.00
At the dawn of European history, the known world lay to the east. The unknown world waited in the west, it destinations still to be discovered. Europa’s curiosity may have been her undoing. But it led to the founding of a new civilization that would eventually bear her name and would spread to the whole peninsula.
There is no one Truth, but as many truths as there are sensitivities.
Having already read Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw, I can honestly say that Norman Davies is one of the finest and most thorough of writers when it comes to Europe and its history. Polish history especially, which may partially explain why he is Professor at the Jagiellonian University in the wonderful city of Krakow.
It should therefore, come as no surprise that Europe – A History, is an altogether expansive and outstanding work that warrants every commendation there is.
Painstakingly put together and assiduously well researched, this veritable tomb of work is surely a milestone with regards almost any writing on the European continent. In fact, I could well have done with this most marvellous and informative of books, whilst spending the best part of a year dissecting and questioning the very idea of ‘What Is Europe,’ as a student with The Open University. There are after all: ”solid historic reasons for regarding Europe not only as a mosaic of cultures but as an organic whole.”
Moreover, the second opening quote bequeaths a great deal of Truth in as much that all things are open to varying strands of idealistic, ideological interpretation. It all depends on the degree to which said interpretation is assailable and believable. Reason being, one man’s idea of Europe could well be another man’s warped interpretation, wherein borders ultimately count for nothing.
The current migrant crisis, substantiating this didactic and inflammatory thesis wholeheartedly (”Movement caused uncertainty and insecurity”); the transient, fluidity of which, Davies touches on in the book’s Introduction: ”[…] the impossible task of the historian has been likened to that of a photographer, whose static two-dimensional picture can never deliver an accurate representation of the mobile, three-dimensional world. ‘The historian, like the camera, always lies.”’
In and of itself, it can rightly be assumed that Europe – A History, really is so much more than its mere three-word title might suggest.
At 1,136 pages, each of the expansive twelve chapters traverses so much more than that which might initially be expected. This doesn’t include the book’s selection of black & white photographs, nor the List of Maps and Legend of Europa at the book’s outset. Nor Notes to Chapters, Notes to Capsules, List of Capsules, Notes on Plates and Acknowledgements, Historical Compendium, not to mention a more than comprehensive Appendix and Index.
Davies writes thus, not only of European history, but European economics, philosophy, politics and sociology. For instance, he assertively opens chapter ten (‘Dynamo – Powerhouse of the World, 1815-1914’) with: ”There is a dynamism about nineteenth-century Europe that far exceeds anything previously known. Europe vibrated with power as never before: with technical power, economic power, cultural power, intercontinental power. Its prime symbols were its engines – the locomotives, the gasworks, the electric dynamos. Raw power appeared to be made a virtue in itself, whether in popular views of evolution, which preached ‘the survival of the fittest,’ in the philosophy of historical materialism, which preached the triumph of the strongest class, in the cult of the Superman, or in the theory and practice of imperialism.”
So while digesting each and every tenet of European history, the (quietly unsuspecting) reader is also led through many a prism of varying subject matter. All of which is relative and compelling. None of which is superfluous flam-flam that needn’t be addressed.
A.C. Grayling of The Financial Times has said, this is ”a brilliant achievement – a book everyone should read.” I absolutely couldn’t agree more. It is a brilliant achievement. And it is very much a book everyone should read.
I’d go as far as to say Europa – A History, is quite possibly the best book I’ve ever read on the subject.