Political diagnosis gone awry

February 14, 1997

IT WAS disappointing to see how many of Paul Preston's judgements in his review of Europe: A History (THES, January 31) were based on misguided political pigeon-holing.

Any sound commentator should know that "a bitter demolition of communism" gives insufficient cause for a historian to be classed with the political "rightwing".

In my view the most effective and knowledgeable critics of Soviet communism came from the left, not least from the ranks of repentant ex-communists. It is their lead that I have been most inclined to follow. It strikes me as unlikely, as Professor Preston suggests, that The Times may have serialised extracts of the book in order to "target Margaret Thatcher and the majority of the Conservative party". But there is no reason to associate my book with the internal affairs of a party which I have never supported. Nor is it fair to identify "the enthusiasts" for my book with "rightwing reviewers".

The attempts to explain his authors' interpretations by reference to their "professional formation" is similarly inadequate. He says I bring "an unusual Slavic perspective to the history of Europe". The most casual enquiry could have established that my own professional formation was steeped in France and Italy until it broadened out into Russia and Poland. In any case, what is so unusual about a view of Europe which pays attention to Europe's largest group of peoples?

Professor Preston's complacency probably explains the long string of untenable assertions about Europe: A History. Nowhere, for example, do I hint that national identities pose "no serious impediment to the quest for (European) unity". A couple of pages contrasting the success of Jacques Delors with the failures of Mikhail Gorbachev do not qualify me for the label of a Delors "enthusiast". More importantly, I categorically do not "make a recommendation for dictatorial rule in Russia". My stated preference was for democratic devolution and regional automony.

Most seriously of all, however, there is no way that Preston could substantiate his odd accusations about me "not sympathising with anti-fascist resistance movements or excusing wartime collaboration and rightist atrocities". Even a cursory reading of my chapter on the second world war would show how I lionise Europe's largest, most heroic and most tragic anti-fascist resistance movement (pp 1032-3).

Equally I pull no punches in my description of the appalling campaign of mass ethnic cleansing undertaken by one of Europe's most unambiguously anti-communist outfits (pp 1034-5).

On collaboration, as on resistance, I urge caution over the "facile definitions" of such issues that prevail in western circles. The full picture must embrace episodes which lie beyond all western experience. Those of us who have never faced such choices do not excuse when we do not rush too officiously to condemn.

Professor Preston's remarks expose a basic weakness in the prevailing British approach to European studies. The great majority of our so-called Europeanists, like Neville Chamberlain, give little thought to "far-away countries" and "people of whom we know nothing", while most scholars working on central or eastern Europe are routinely familiar with western languages and cultures. For this reason surveys of all Europe can only be attempted by members of the latter camp.

Norman Davies Oxford

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