Traveling Through Europe's Centuries : EUROPE: A History by Norman Davies; Oxford University Press $39.95, 1,365 pages


The many excellent maps in this book often show Europe with the west, not the north, at the top of the page. This eccentricity may stand as a metaphor for the book itself.

"Europe" is an individualistic attempt to encompass the whole history of the peninsula from the Stone Age to the present through one man's eyes. A professor of Slavonic studies at the University of London, Davies tries to pay attention to the Eastern parts of Europe he says other historians have neglected.

He writes with a strong narrative line on which the reader easily rides through the complexities of the many centuries of tangled European history.

Along the way he stops off to discuss aspects of the European past that illuminate both it and the present. ("It is impossible," Davies approvingly quotes the French contemporary historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie as writing, "to explain the present by the present.")

His device for his wayside visits is 300 inserts spaced throughout the book that examine particular topics, such as the Inquisition, the Prado, condoms (the Romans used them), alchemy, the Madonna, perspective in painting, masonry, Potemkin villages, the battle of Verdun, brie cheese. The device is engaging and instructive.

In his book, Davies delivers two strong messages of great relevance to the present generation. The first is that no single nation or group has the exclusive rights to a definition of European history and "Western civilization."

The second is that true European unity may now be becoming possible and is certainly desirable.

Especially if Europe's next few thousands years are to avoid the cruelty and slaughter of the last few thousand.

Davies quotes and more than amply supports Edward Gibbon's observation that "history is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind."

With regret he acknowledges that over the last 1,700 years, many of those crimes were committed in the name of the Christian religion, which was both the ruler of Europe and the measure against which its opponents defined themselves. He is quite good on defining the quarrels that divided Christendom from the beginning to the present, and persuasive on their importance.


There is so much good about this book that I regret having to report on its flaws.

First, factual errors:

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower did not postpone D-day twice but once.

It is not true that the United States "has never known the lash of war on its own face."

Felix Frankfurter was not chief justice of the United States, but associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Astonishingly, Davies writes:

" . . . The U.S. government was obliged to adopt an official national culture to replace those of its variegated immigrants. During the Civil War the U.S. Congress voted for the compulsory adoption of English rather than German by the margin of one vote."

A preposterous assertion. There was no such vote. Everyone assumed the American language was English. Neither German nor any other language was a contender for the national language.

In a more contemporary example, Davies presents a longish account of Stanford University's 1989 basic curriculum reform, which he has gotten quite garbled to the severe disadvantage of Stanford.

Second, at times Davies seems surprisingly credulous. He recommends as "obligatory reading for anyone pondering the ambiguities of glasnost and perestroika" the 1984 book "New Lies for Old: The Communist Strategy of Deception and Disinformation," by Anatoly Golitsyn, a KGB agent who defected to the United States in 1961.

Golitsyn claimed these events as masterminded by the KGB to deceive the West: the Sino-Soviet split, Romania's disagreements with the Soviet Union, "the Prague Spring," Eurocommunism and Poland's Solidarity itself.

These claims have been thoroughly discussed and by now thoroughly discredited. And, for an American reader like me, his apparent resentment of Americans can rub the wrong way. He is the author of a couple of histories of Poland, and this book seems only just to take pride in Poles and their deeds.

But it's a bit much to write this way: "In the West, the Second Front was finally opened on 6 June 1944, when British, Canadian, Polish and American troops landed on the beaches of Normandy."

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