Not the West, but Europe [i]Europe East and West[/i] by Norman Davies - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

Not the West, but Europe [i]Europe East and West[/i] by Norman Davies

Europe East and West by Norman Davies
(London: Jonathan Cape, 2006). 560
pp.

BRIAN DOMITROVIC teaches in the Department of
History at Sam Houston State University. He received
his Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Stanford is notorious as the university that
killed off “Western Culture,” but perhaps
that reputation is undeserved. In the late
1980s, Stanford did indeed scrap a requirement
that had existed in its undergraduate
curriculum for all of eight years. What drew
national press attention was a crowd on
Stanford’s campus that had convened to
exhort the faculty on the matter. “Hey hey,
ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” welled
up from the assemblage, and a thousand
newspaper articles were born.

It now emerges that in those very years,
Stanford effectively took a mighty step to
protect the notion of Western civilization—at
least as the textbooks teach that notion—from
one of its most formidable opponents. Specifically,
the university reneged on its implicit
promise to historian Norman Davies to grant
him tenure, fighting all the way through the
California court system to get its way.

Perhaps it is easy to miss Professor Davies’
antipathy toward the notion of “Western
civilization.” After all, Davies is surely the
greatest European historian of our generation:
epic chronicler of the millennial sweep
of Polish history; brave clarifier of what
really happened in World War II; author, in
Europe: A History (1996) of a panoptic work
of literary elegance and methodological virtue
that was at once a bestseller and breaker
of new scholarly ground in subfields too
numerous to count.

Reading closely Davies’ Europe: A History,
or God’s Playground: A History of Poland
(2 vols., 1981), or Rising ’44: The Battle for
Warsaw (2003), or “The Misunderstood Victory
in Europe” essay series which is revived
with each decadal commemoration of May
1945, one could perhaps glean the argument
that Davies now puts forth in lights in his
newest work, Europe East and West: namely,
that “Western civilization” has long been
misappropriated by those who mean by it
only the civilization of Western Europe:
specifically of Britain, France, and Germany,
and of Italy in its Renaissance period.
Europe East and West argues—very convincingly—
that the tradition of “the West” is
rather the sum tradition not of these great
nations alone, but of the entire continent of
Europe, if not of the three great lands that
converge at the Mediterranean: Europe, the
Near East, and North Africa.

The arguments are fascinating, but before
going into them, a word must be said regarding
Stanford’s dissociation of itself from
Professor Davies, now going on twenty years
ago. By all accounts, Stanford did not grant
Professor Davies tenure because certain faculty
members and outside reviewers of God’s
Playground found something objectionable in
the way the book discovered a degree of
comity in Polish-Jewish relations in Poland
prior to the Holocaust. Davies, who knew his
history far better than his assessors, sued, and
the case wended its way through the California
courts until a definitive ruling came
down on Stanford’s side in 1990. Davies
thereafter made his career at European universities.

Since it is now abundantly clear that
Norman Davies is the historian par excellence
of his generation, we can draw up a brief tally
of the Stanford affair. The public and the
profession of history most certainly were not
harmed by Davies’ not getting a permanent
appointment at that elite American university.
Since 1990, Davies has gone on to
prodigious feats of historical research, with
our understanding of the high events of the
“dark continent” (Europe in the twentieth
century) vastly improved by his efforts. As
for Davies himself, one can only assume from
the self-congratulatory tone throughout Europe
East and West that the author is satisfied
that he has had a brilliant and consequential
career.

As for Stanford? That august institution
seems only to have played the role of the
provincial—the Lilliputian—in this affair.
There in its grasp the university had the
rising scholar of the day, only to let him slip
away to somebody else’s friendly confines on
account of its own poorly formed powers of
judgment. All the Stanford history students
left untutored by Davies, all the faculty
discussions not augmented by his presence:
this is the dead-weight loss to the West
Coast’s “Ivy.”

So much for Stanford. As for Professor
Davies, we should all read Europe East and
West. This of course can be said for every one
of his books, dating back to White Eagle, Red
Star (1972), the book that reintroduced the
world to the utterly forgotten, when not
mendaciously denied, Bolshevik-Polish war
of 1920, one of the most decisive contests of
modern history. It was that war, for historian
Richard Pipes (perhaps Davies’ only peer),
which actually did save Western civilization,
for it frustrated a potential takeover of all of
Europe, all the way from deepest Russia to
Britain, by Lenin.1

In Europe East and West Davies asks, quite
rightly, why in so many Great Books courses
“the content matter [has been] overwhelmingly
English, French, Greek, Latin and
German—in that order of priority.” Of
textbooks in “Western Civ.” (which he
subjects to merciless fact-checking) Davies
observes:

[I]t can be no accident that the contents pages of
the textbooks of Western civilization are remarkably
similar. Typically they include: Ancient
Greece and Rome, the Judaeo-Christian Tradition,
the Germanic Invasions, Latin Christendom,
the Italian Renaissance and the continental Reformation,
the Scientific Revolution, Absolutism
and Enlightenment, the Romantic Movement,
the French and Russian Revolutions, and Modern
Art. At first sight, this can look fair enough
until one realises what has been rejected…. On the
one hand a huge bias operates in favour of western
and southern Europe to the detriment of northern,
eastern, central, and east central Europe. Russia
is often the only eastern country to warrant a
mention, and one would have to ask why.2

Davies is at pains in Europe East and West
to demonstrate that it is eastern European
history that has at many junctures been the
heart of the experience of what we for lack of
a better term call the West. In its Christian
piety, its hospitality to science, and its uninterrupted
tradition of providing defense to
western Europe, eastern Europe must be a
sine qua non for any viable concept of
Western civilization—and yet it is almost
wholly absent from courses and textbooks on
“Western Civ.”

As in God’s Playground, and in the wonderful
digested version of the two volumes
aptly titled Heart of Europe (1984), Davies
relates how the concept of antemurale
christianitatis animated the founders of the
Noble Republic of Poland-Lithuania (the
republic, it must be remembered, that lasted
longer than any other in history, the United
States of America included, so far—from
1572-1795). That is, the founders of Poland-
Lithuania wished to set up a wall of protection
so that the locus classicus of medieval
Christianity (western Europe) could continue
on its way building cathedrals and
philosophical systems and producing saints
and great art, unperturbed by pagan invaders.
That western Europe failed to cooperate
and promptly bogged down in the Reformation
is a testament both to the West’s obtuseness
and to Poland’s possession, in Davies’
words, of “all the quiet, dotty charm of Don
Quixote.”3

In Europe East and West, Davies also tries
to defend the term “European history” as an
acceptable substitute for “Western Civ.,”
but he concedes that even this term faces
insuperable difficulties. “But where in these
[Western Civ.] textbooks was Byzantium?”
Davies finds himself asking.4 True enough:
“Western civilization” most aptly refers to
the tradition established by the fusing of
classical culture with that of Christianity in
late antique times, in Byzantium and North
Africa, and the continuance of that tradition
after the rise of Islam in those regions by
supra-montane Europeans, most notably
Charlemagne, and by the Carolingian succession
represented by the High Middle
Ages, the Renaissance, and the scientific and
industrial revolutions.

That is quite a mouthful, but history is
messy, and Davies knows it. Davies makes a
fully fair point that it is absurd to exclude or
minimize eastern European history in the
general history of Europe or in any concept
of “the West.” Yet it remains true that much
of the civilization cultivated and hammered
out over the centuries by “Europe,” especially
Europe broadly conceived as Davies
wants it, owed its origins and fundamental
ideas to other geographical regions: specifically
the eastern and southern regions of the
Roman empire, that is, Byzantium and North
Africa.

Davies mentions this point several times,
but he does not sufficiently dwell on it. Here
we would do well to recall that another
historian made it his life’s work to identify
the antique North African and Byzantine
strains in the mind and disposition of “the
West” in its formative medieval period—
and further, to see how these extra-European
influences reacted to and persisted among the
admittedly ruder traits native to Europe.
That historian was Christopher Dawson, and
it is uncanny how often, when large questions
about Western culture and the legacy of
Europe are asked, the draw of Dawson is felt.

Dawson was supremely interested in the
Christian civilization of the West, but there
certainly were non-Christian elements in the
purview of “Western Civ.,” and Davies as
usual has interesting and productive things to
say regarding them. Reading “The Jewish
Strand in European History” in Europe East
and West makes one wonder what fools they
must have been who impeached Davies for
his rendering of Polish-Jewish history back at
Stanford two decades ago. As for “The
Islamic Strand in European History,” another
essay in this volume, Davies cries out
for “European history” to realize that the
southeastern marches of Europe have for
centuries been the primary place of residence
for thousands of Muslims. He also gives us
many delectable tidbits. Italian cuisine’s
marsala sauce and wine? From the Arabic
Marsa-Allah, or port of Allah.

If there is a weakness to Europe East and
West, and to the Davies oeuvre overall, it is
that Davies has but an amateur’s understanding
of economic history. If that one weakness
is the price of being un-dismal, let it be
overlooked. Perhaps some readers will be
dismayed by other things, however, such as
a rather strident tone against things American
and Israeli. Davies is so pro-European,
and so profoundly respectful of the variety of
inhabitants the region has housed, that he
seems unable to forgo irrelevant remarks
about American foreign policy.

In the Introduction to Europe East and
West, Davies writes: “Going through my
files, I [find] that many more such essays and
lectures [as those in this volume] are waiting
to be published. Should the first selection
meet with the general approval of all concerned,
especially of readers, I shall be delighted
in due course to serve up further
helpings.”5 Readers, take note, and demand
more. Stanford, stand in line with the rest of
us: if by now you have wised up.

NOTES

  1. See Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (New York:
    Modern Library, 2001), 50-51.
  2. Davies, Europe East and
    West, (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 48-49.
  3. Ibid., 199.
    See this page for a rather insidious poem by Günter Grass
    on the Poles.
  4. Ibid., 47.
  5. Ibid., xiv.

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