Small continent with a big personality

A History of Europe - Europe
January 31, 1997

There are few things which whet the appetite of a trade publisher of history more than an anniversary. It has to be fairly recent to catch the last eye-witnesses. If the event commemorated is from the newsreel age, the possibility of a television tie-in is greatly enhanced. Accordingly, that has meant events such as the outbreak or the end of the first and second world wars, the Russian revolution, the rise of Hitler or the Spanish civil war. The bicentenary of the French revolution just crept in but was not one of the great successes. Anything earlier is likely to be monopolised by the art historians. As the really big anniversaries dwindle what an opportunity is offered to the enterprising publisher by the millennium. Already in 1996, with four years to go, there have been several attempts to catch the wave and it is well known that there are many more to come between now and the year 2000. Fortunately, the works under review are by two of the more adept of the millennial surfers.

It goes without saying that anniversaries are no guarantee of sales, let alone of quality. However, in Britain at least, authors can imply - and both John Roberts and Norman Davies do - that a knowledge of Europe's past is a quintessential requisite for the right decisions in the ongoing debates about a united Europe. Indeed, on October 5 1996, a leader in The Times declared of Davies's book "the concept of Europe is the cause of almost constant political wrangling and grief. This gripping account of the continent from prehistory to modernity deserves the greatest possible readership among all who would take part in that debate".

It is to be hoped that the leader writer was not influenced by the fact that his newspaper was about to begin a serialisation of the book. It might also be supposed that Margaret Thatcher and the majority of the Conservative party who were once enthusiasts for Europe as a single market might be among the potential readership targeted by The Times. The recent change in her personal views and the emergence of a malcontent group of so-called Eurosceptics with which she sympathises has its basis in the fact that a united Europe is about more than a single market. Their opposition derives in part from an alarming ignorance of the fact that more unites Europeans in their cultural heritage than divides them. Underlying Roberts's elegant survey is the belief that the present issues raised by the prospect of ever-tightening unity cannot be debated without an understanding of the disparate cultures and histories which make up Europe. Davies seems to think that identities lost in the kaleidoscope of the past pose no serious impediment to the quest for unity.

One wonders what Thatcher would make of Winston Churchill's ambition for Europe, broadcast in early 1948: "We are asking the nations of Europe between whom rivers of blood have flowed, to forget the feuds of a thousand years and work for the larger harmonies on which the future depends". Speaking as president of honour at the Congress of Europe held at the Hague in May 1948, Churchill declared: "We shall only save ourselves from the perils which draw near by forgetting the hatreds of the past, by letting national rancours and revenges die, by progressively effacing frontiers and barriers which aggravate and congeal our divisions, and by rejoicing together in that glorious treasure of literature, of romance, of ethics, of thought and toleration belonging to all, which is the true inheritance of Europe, the expression of its genius and honour, but which by our quarrels, our follies, by our fearful wars and the cruel and awful deeds that spring from war and tyrants, we have almost cast away." Both Roberts and Davies add flesh and footnote to Churchill's resounding words.

The perceived totalitarian threats which inspired Churchill in the late 1940s may have receded. Nevertheless, the ideals which inspired him are all the more necessary in a Europe which has known the savagery of the Balkan civil war and witnesses the instability of the ex-Soviet Union. The debate over Europe is of significance to every citizen of the European Union. It is an especially crucial debate to citizens of Great Britain, who are not sure whether the concentration of power in Brussels is a real threat to liberty or merely a device used by beleaguered governments to create a spurious national unity.

For most Europeans, the 20th century has seen levels of war and devastation far beyond anything experienced on a British soil which has escaped the scourge of German or Russian occupation. Europe as a project to absorb and channel German strength means more to the French, the Dutch and the Belgians than it does to the British who still live, falsely, on their memories of triumphs over Germany (triumphs to which, it is conveniently forgotten, American industrial might made such an important contribution). For Spaniards, neutrality in both world wars meant that they did not suffer German or Russian occupation. However, while Britain knew imperial glory between the 17th and 19th centuries, Spain has experienced a history of decline, of international humiliation culminating in the final loss of empire at the hands of the United States in 1898, and of intense domestic strife. The civil war of 1936-39 was the third within a century and Spain's modern experiences, until the rebirth of democracy in 1977, have been dominated by bloodshed and repressive dictatorship. The experience of Portugal has been comparable. Accordingly, it is hardly surprising that Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks have embraced the European idea with such enthusiasm.

In other words, as both Davies and Roberts are deeply aware, for continental Europeans, whether because of memories of world wars or of civil wars, a united Europe represents an escape from an unwanted past. In the depths of the second world war, and hoping for a better aftermath, Jean Monnet sought the nucleus of a united Europe in the quest for a lasting future peace through Franco-German collaboration. European unity represents an institutionalisation of the free society denied by Hitler, by Mussolini, by Franco, by Salazar, by the Greek colonels. It represents a prospect for peace because it signifies the taming of Germany and some renunciation of the national sovereignty that required armed forces to defend and that lay at the heart of centuries of war. Davies's justifiably gloomy section on the period from 1914 to 1945, appropriately entitled "Tenebrae", stands as a Hobbesian justification for European Union that Churchill would have understood only too well. Roberts is altogether more agnostic, finding it "tempting to think that formal changes in Europe's internal organisation will matter less than the enthusiastic and fearful think".

Indeed, Roberts's survey of thousands of years of unChristian behaviour and bloodthirsty civil wars has engendered an elegant scepticism about Europe. Davies is more of an enthusiast for Europe, or at least for Jacques Delors. Although clearly exhilarated by the revolutions in Eastern Europe, he anticipates neither the end of history nor progress towards a world of democratic consensus. Indeed, his familiarity with the history of the Slavs leads to a recommendation for dictatorial rule in Russia.

What has delighted most reviewers of Davies's book is its astonishing treasury of arcane gems about the European past in which the reasons for the grammar of Indo-European languages jostle with Pythagoras's views on beans. It can be self-indulgently complacent, as when he lists the music to which he was listening while writing or comments on the frost in his garden. The fascinating facts on cheese, music, Vlad the Impaler, codpieces, black magic, railways, kilts, condoms and much else are provided in hundreds of "capsules' of information littered about the text. Effervescently idiosyncratic and erudite, they do nothing for readability although are an enticement to browsing. However, the more inquisitive reader will be driven back with heavy losses if he sets foot in the user-unfriendly footnotes. Roberts, while not nearly so spectacular in his deployment of unexpected anecdote or personal confidences, is altogether more cogent and readable. His disarming disclaimers about speculation or ignorance are ultimately less tiring than Davies's Tayloresque pyrotechnics.

To encompass the millennia from the rise of Greek civilisation to the demise of the Soviet empire and a geography spreading from the west of Ireland to the depths of Russia and from the Arctic Circle to Gibraltar is an awesome task. Any historian who tries inevitably brings along a baggage in which prior professional specialisation will provide insights and distortions in roughly equal measure. The historian capable of writing cogently about the mayhem of the period 1914-45 is likely to be a less than competent guide to medieval Europe. In both books, the professional formation of the authors is apparent in the selection of material and the critical focus. Roberts, as a historian of the 18th century, sees Europe's past from the perspective of Graeco-Latin culture, and is steeped in a cultural admiration for France and Italy. He is an expert on 19th and 20th-century Poland and writes with an appropriately opinionated passion. He brings an unusual Slavic perception to the history of Europe. Davies is intolerant of his peers, berating them above all, for being too concerned with Western Europe to the exclusion of Poland and the East, but also for being detail-obsessed pedants and too soft on communism. However, his view that the two halves of Europe east and west of Warsaw - "the centre of Europe" - should be seen as a whole reflects the aspirations of Eastern rather than Western Europeans. His determination to correct the imbalance means that Italy and Spain get short shrift.

Both authors affirm European culture and values against those who think that to study them is to participate in a patriarchal conspiracy. Dead white males find worthy epitaphs in these books. However, Davies, in a reflection of his own American university experiences, is heavily sarcastic about postmodernist multiculturalism, commenting that "it is unfortunate that there is no known Vietnamese Virgil, no African Aquinas, no Mexican Mill for students to study". Earlier reviewers have gleefully pointed to the epic poem "Kim Van Kieu" by the Vietnamese Nguyen Du or suggested that the African, St Augustine of Hippo, was a superior theologian to Aquinas. Davies's irritation with modish political correctness takes in what he calls "the Allied scheme" of history by which he means the demonisation of Nazi Germany and the deification of antifascism, from which, it seems, it is but a short step to communist fellow-travelling. Thus, right-wing reviewers have been enthusiasts for Davies not least because of his bitter demolition of communism. For all that he rightly says of the similarities between Stalinist and Hitlerian genocide and imperialism, concentration camps and secret police, that communism and nazism are not identical. A lack of sympathy with the antifascist resistance movements is the mirror image of a readiness to excuse wartime collaboration or rightist atrocities simply on the grounds that they were anticommunist in motivation.

Both of these works are astonishing achievements for historians working more or less alone. Experts on the Black Death, the Holy Roman Empire, the Hundred Years war or the Spanish civil war might find details in Davies's account over which to carp. It is, however, absurd to criticise those who see further by standing on the shoulders of their predecessors. Liberal reviewers have tended to favour Roberts. His book is stimulating without being polemical, deploying reason and common sense without being platitudinous. Drawing on his earlier work on world history, he is always aware of Europe's position within a wider context. Perhaps for that reason, his conclusions are almost elegiac - European hegemony over the rest of the world ended in 1945; the global economy has undermined the notion of an autonomous Europe; most Europeans are not Christians. "Europe's work is done."

Paul Preston is professor of international history, London School of Economics.

A History of Europe

Author - J. M. Roberts
ISBN - 1 85986 178 4
Publisher - Helicon
Price - £25.00
Pages - 628

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