Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Brilliant Eccentric Historian Norman Davies on "Half-Forgotten Europe"

Norman Davies lost an historian's chair at Stanford due to his over enthusiasm for Poland, which he exalted to the point of deeply discounting their anti-Semitism during World War II.

Davies' thick tome on Europe, named appropriately Europe is a delightful excursion through the dozens of dusty corridors of that cramped little continent. It is one of my favorite reading materials for when I am at stool. Here is a bit of the excellent review of Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe
Sometimes the most compelling history is the kind that falls between the cracks of the chronicles and subverts fondly-held foundational myths. The ‘official’ history of Europe is variegated enough to give any number of historians lifetimes of employment, but now the 72 year old Slavonic specialist Davies has produced fifteen case studies dating from the fifth to the twentieth centuries to suggest that a great deal of what we take for granted about Europe’s past is “narrative colonization” which ought to be unlearned. He ends with a short chapter, “How states die”, which seeks to formulate “a typology of vanished kingdoms”.

This all makes for an engrossing, evocative and original contribution to European historiography. There will be few who will not unearth some new insight to challenge conventional, convenient versions of events—the flattering histories which Napoleon famously dismissed as “a fable agreed upon”. The “Europe of a hundred flags” wished for by the Breton nationalist Yann Fouéré is more like a Europe of a thousand flags. “The past is not only a foreign country that we half-knew existed” Davies observes—“it is hiding another concealed country behind it, and behind that one, another, and another, like a set of Russian dolls”.

Davies is a melancholic and romantic, and his intellectual interests have been influenced by his Welshness, chapel-going and early encounters with Heraclitus and Gibbon. He also possesses a Polonism so pronounced that he has (unjustly) been accused of understating historical Polish anti-Semitism and downplaying Jewish suffering during World War Two. This may have cost him a tenured position at Stanford in 1986, something he clearly still broods upon, despite claiming on his (typo-full) website that

. . . he remembers the episode stoically—as evidence of academic small-mindedness and of [the] fate awaiting anyone who confronts entrenched opinions and prejudices.

It cannot have helped that he is strongly anti-communist. His website entry on his 2006 book Europe at War explains his view that communism was the moral equivalent of nazism:

[T]he war in Europe was dominated by two evil monsters, not by one . . . The liberators of Auschwitz were servants of a regime that ran still larger concentration camps than those they liberated . . . The outcome of the [war] was at best ambiguous. The victory of the West was only partial, its moral reputation was severely tarnished and, for the greater part of the continent of Europe, ‘liberation’ was only the beginning of more than fifty years of further totalitarian oppression.

The most recent of his shipwrecks of history is the Soviet Union itself. There were many factors responsible for the USSR’s dissolution, but the problems were fundamental:

[T]he Soviet system was based on extreme force and extreme fraud. Practically everything that Lenin and the Leninists did was accompanied by killing; practically everything they said was based on half-baked theories, a total lack of integrity and bare-faced lies.

He maintains that Gorbachev was probably taken by surprise by the events he expedited—and observes that glasnost, which was invariably rendered in the Western press as “openness”, actually means “publicity”. The subsequent inglorious events traumatized all Russians, and even now feed nationalistic dislike of the oligarchs and the Balt, Turkic, and Chechen separatists of Russia’s near abroad—and of course America. Putin’s rhetoric about the alleged glories of the USSR is coloured by “a strong sense of bafflement” and “pangs of corporate guilt” that he and other insiders did not forestall this degrading dissolution

Davies' account of the USSR closely follows Conquest, Pipes, Solzhenitsyn, Martin Amis, and other brave opponents of the Leftist Leviathan threatening civilization even to this day.

UPDATE Here is a Wall Street Journal article three weeks later on Davies' latest chef d'oeuvre,

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