I like Norman Davies

27 Apr

I have just finished the collection of essays Europe East & West (Jonathan Cape 2006) and found it fascinating.

Equally hilarious, though possibly more awesome, is ‘Western Civilisation versus European History’, based on a lecture given at Harvard in 1992. Here, Davies analyses the university course known as ‘Western civ.’ taken by hundreds of thousands of students in the United States, which provides a highly selective and doctored ‘history’ of European civilisation that excludes, for instance, the entire Orthodox world from ‘Christendom’ as well as all the unpleasant aspects of Western Christianity, such as the persecution of heretics, the wars of religion and the Crusades. Davies sees in this course a sinister attempt to create what he calls ‘a power cult’, in that it includes everything that might make white Americans take pride in their supposed heritage and therefore feel good about themselves and distinctly superior to anyone not embraced by its selective parameters.

In ‘The Politics of History’, Davies takes happy swipes at E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm as well as Andrew Roberts and Norman Stone as he explains that all writing of history is necessarily political — he might have slipped in a word here about a certain doughty Welsh historian’s crusade against various ‘English’ bugbears. He does go on to make the deeper point that while history distorted for propaganda reasons was bad, the total absence of any sense of history among modern politicians is worse. Witness to this is provided by the next piece, originally a memorandum submitted to the Cabinet Office in December 2000. One of its well-argued conclusions is that ‘a military attack by the USA or its allies on a Muslim country would be folly…

I have written about Davies before, most notably in January 2004:

I am thoroughly enjoying having my knowledge of British History (a segment of which I once studied at the university in the company of the rather hideous Philip Ruddock) turned inside out by Professor Norman Davies.

The British historian Norman Davies has spent most of his career fighting the distortions of nationalistic views of history. ‘The multi-national character of European history is obvious,” he asserts. However, until recently this aspect was sidelined in favour of (often-conflicting) national histories. “Obviously nations, national communities, do have their histories,” says Davies. “The trouble is that for quite a long period, I would think from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century, national histories almost had a monopoly. Everybody was writing through a national prism. I think Europeans in particular, looking back at the catastrophe of the 20th century, in part regretted the way that their history had been written.”

Not everyone is as enthusiastic. In the Green Man Review, Maria Nutick, after noting that she is not herself a professional historian, writes:

I found Professor Davies’ work to be overwhelmingly biased. In his introduction, he plainly admits that The Isles “necessarily presents a very personal view of history.”…Professor Davies clearly states his Celtic ancestry, and goes on to lament that most previous history books about the Isles have been skewed to the Anglo-centric point of view and ignored the Celtic contributions. He positively gloats over the achievements of the Welsh in maintaining their separatist culture and language … and of course “Davies” is a Welsh surname.

…Davies devotes less than one full page to the causes of the American Revolution and no space whatsoever to the effects of the loss of “the colonies” on the English economy, politics, or morale. His analysis of the Revolutionary War is limited to the statement that “From start to finish, the birth of the USA was the product of incompetence and culpable stupidity. It need never have happened.” Apparently the loss of the colonies was far less important than the development of sports, because Davies examines football, rugby, tennis, and golf in minute detail. Indeed, he unnecessarily devotes more than four dull pages exclusively to cricket!… criticisms aside, I did enjoy reading The Isles.

The Old Left hate him. On the World Socialist Web Site Ann Talbot writes:

Historian Norman Davies’s latest book claims to offer an approach to the history of the British Isles that challenges traditional nationalist readings of British history by “integrating” the British Isles into Europe. What the reader actually gets is a deconstruction, not just of British history, but also of the discipline of history itself, as Davies dispenses with all of the concepts that have been developed by historians in the last two centuries.

Since its inception, modern history has been concerned with the nation-state — its origins, external relations and internal workings, the social classes that comprise it and the way in which their differing interests impacted on events. Davies supposedly deals with this tradition by simply drawing a line through the words British and Britain…

For all his pretensions to write a history that gives due weight to all the nations and cultures that inhabit the British Isles, Davies has written an entirely Anglo-centric book in which the Welsh, Scots and Irish get walk on parts. He pays merely a ritual deference to the most socially traumatic events?the Highland clearances and the Irish famine in the 19th century-but he does not explain why these things happened. His account of them remains superficial. He never considers what the historical significance of depopulating vast tracts of the British Isles was, what its causes were, whose interests it served, and what its social, political and economic consequences were.

The Irish famine (in which two million people died and another two million emigrated) and the Highland clearances (in which the landlords replaced their tenants with sheep) are dealt with in little more than a page, compared with the four pages Davies devotes to cricket. “Cricket,” we are informed, “was always an archetypal English game.” Davies traces the English passion for it back to the Hundred Years War during the 14th century. This ignores obvious anomalies. Jane Austen, a quintessentially English writer if ever there was one, played baseball. But there is neither nuance, subtlety nor depth to Davies’s portrait of the English. His view of them is no less stereotyped and hackneyed than his view of the Celts. Even his account of cricket is superficial. Not once does he find it necessary to mention one of the best writers on cricket in the 20th century – C.L.R. James.

No doubt James’s brief association with Trotskyism was enough to exclude him from consideration. Marxism, revolution and social class have no place in Davies’s Britain…

In New Labour terms, Davies’s book is clearly already out-of-date. The one benefit of the book is that it reveals how far the intellectual level has sunk among those like Davies, who claim to be leading international academics. Essentially Davies’s book is a form of the same attack on history, science and knowledge that has been launched by the French Postmodernists Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard and Baudrillard but expressed with the crude anti-intellectualism prevalent inside the British ruling class. Davies gives us deconstructionism shorn of all its intellectual pretensions and revealed for what it is — a wholesale rejection of reason and human progress.

I am afraid I think that last paragraph really is nonsense; in fact I would rather say The Isles is a wholesale rejection of centuries of propaganda, national myth-making and invented tradition. It is also a rejection of the particular dogmas of old-fashioned Marxists. On the other hand there is little in the book to cheer those of a Tory or Howardite mindset. It is refreshing, challenging, entertaining and thoroughly appropriate for a 21st century reader. I am amazed that someone can take such a well-worked topic as British History and make it sing again, even if in many new voices.

Read it if you can. In the meantime, get a taste by visiting “Britain and Australia: holding together or falling apart,” a transcript of a lecture Davies gave at The City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney on 21 August 2001 12.30pm.

I relate quite strongly to his approach to historiography.

I do think it is possible for apolitical historians to write apolitical studies, especially on backwater subjects. At the same time I agree that complete objectivity is unattainable, and that the search for absolute truth about the past can never end. These postulates present the historian with two duties. The first is to be humble and to recognise one’s limitations. The second is to distinguish clearly between uncontested facts and contestable opinions.

See two other reviews:

1. Philip H. Gordon, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2007:

The British-born historian Davies — author of a best-selling history of Europe and several respected works on Poland — has written two books to help compensate for what he sees as a parochial, Western view of European history. “Europe at War” is not just another survey but an opinionated, iconoclastic reassessment that relentlessly drives home the point that the greatest and most decisive developments of World War II took place on the Eastern Front. Davies hardly denies the importance of D-day or the Battle of El Alamein, but he wants his readers to know that the war’s center of gravity was farther east — and that Stalin’s version of totalitarianism was no less evil than Hitler’s. Davies’ notion that most Americans and most British are unaware of this is a bit of a straw man. His own footnotes, after all, refer to widely read works by writers such as Anne Applebaum, Antony Beevor, Alan Bullock, Robert Conquest, and Richard Overy that address the horrors of the Eastern Front and shine a bright light on Stalin’s crimes. But the evidence Davies amasses to justify focusing on the East is compelling. The German-Soviet war accounted for 406 million “man-months,” compared with 16.5 million for the Western Front and 5 million for the North Africa campaign. The Soviet Union lost an estimated 11 million soldiers in the European theater, while the United States and the United Kingdom combined lost fewer than 300,000 there. Battle deaths in Operation Barbarossa (Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941) were over 1.5 million, compared with 132,000 for Operation Overlord (the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944). And Stalin’s concentration camps killed more people than Hitler’s. Davies’ facts and opinions on everything from technology to wartime movies are stimulating, and even his hobbyhorses are entertaining…

2. Carmen Callil reviews Europe East & West by Norman Davies

Europe East & West collects Davies’s essays and speeches of the past 15 years, but these are vividly reworked so the book reads like a seamless work of history. Davies has always resisted the traditional division of Europe into East and West, and “the nefarious concept of Western Civilisation, which provides one of the most serious obstacles to a proper understanding of the full content of European achievements and European failings”. In doing so he has been accused of an over-obsession with Poland. There is some truth in this – but by placing his feet firmly in the earth of this central European state, he is much better equipped to look to right and left, up and down, and get a proper perspective on the whole continent, and on the world.

This hostility to Anglo or Western European synthetic history gives Davies the opportunity to make comparisons that are always worth making. Was Russian communism as bad as Nazism? Davies asserts that, comparing the murders of Stalin and Hitler, the answer is yes. Was the Jewish Holocaust “not only unique, but incomparable”? Davies would say yes to the former and no to the latter, thus offending many. His emphasis is always on commonsensical facts. This is particularly clear in his account of the long story of the Islamic empires and the Jewish people as he threads these through the warp and weft of European “Christendom”. Christendom is no longer the Protestant and Catholic Churches, in his judgment, but takes in the Christendoms of the east, Orthodox, Greek, and more, so that the bonds connecting Islam with Europe are firmly established. Terrorism and fundamentalism become human, not solely Arab or Muslim, proclivities…

It is also clear that Davies could annoy the politically correct, or indeed the librarians into whose buildings he pops to ensure his book is on their shelves. We learn of his inadequacy at skiing and of the eager little schoolboy who taught himself so many languages (“I never got a proper grip on Welsh…”). Throughout, this eagerness is shown in his love of lists. “There are five such assumptions”, he will say, or “one can start with seven headings”. Also revealed is his “breathtaking delight” in literature and language, for to Davies poets and writers are also historians. He lectures the citizens of Adelaide on the complex history of Siberia. We learn of a bishop who baptised a cat.

Davies keeps his best joke – and his best chapters – for last. In “The Politics of History”, the many strands of his encyclopaedic mind coalesce to demonstrate how current world problems, notably the Iraq war and its results, have their roots in the past. “A couple of pages of historical notes would have sufficed to avoid some of the grosser miscalculations,” he states. The last chapter, “The Rise of the New Global Powers”, was written as a Cabinet Office memo in December 2000. In it, Davies ranged through world circumstances, speculating on possible dangers and eventualities for the benefit of our Government. Davies advised Blair et al against the removal of “the unpleasant” – but secular – “tyrant” Saddam Hussein, on the basis of his likely replacement by Islamic extremists, and to “resist the temptation to act outside the remit of the United Nations”.

Of course, they probably never read it, and Davies was whistling in the dark. “Leading politicians show little sense of embarrassment at their historical illiteracy,” he remarks…

That chapter comparing transportation to Australia with the travails of those sent to Siberia in Tsarist times (and later) is quite brilliant.

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One response to “I like Norman Davies

  1. Jim Belshaw

    April 27, 2008 at 11:38 am

    I rather like Davies, Neil, and am still working my way through the Isles. It’s a big book!

    I picked up the Western Eurocentric theme in Saturday Morning Musings – Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian –

    To my mind, one of the marks of a good historian lies in his/her ability to challenge, to get us to think in new ways.

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