Europe: A History by Norman Davies
At 1500 pages this is a mammoth tome – one that took me several months to get through. The fact that I persevered should tell you that I thought it was well worth it. This is a good general survey of European history, but to say that is all it is would be to belittle it. Primarily this book places the well known elements of European history in a different context, and gives a proper weight to Central and Eastern European history within the overall sweep of European history. Norman Davies strength is not in narrative history – he doesn’t write thrilling stories. Instead he makes you think – he highlights rather than downplays those details that unravel the simplistic plots that other popular historians sometimes favour. And this is what makes his histories so valuable. Because of this we learn how the first casualty of the French Revolution was Poland (repressed by Russia frightened by the French example). We learn of the marginal/marginalised relationship that Russia had to the rest of Europe – at times thought of as Asian by Western Europe and as European by Asia – feared as a route for Asian influence on Europe or acclaimed as Europeanising influence on Asia in turn.
Another central concern of Davies’ is to avoid “Whiggish history” reading back current terms into the past. In this sense Europe: A History is a history not just of the physical region, but also of the very idea of “Europe”. He traces the beginnings of the idea and its relationship to the Roman Empire and the ideas of Christendom.
Necessarily due to the breadth of its scope Europe: A History treats most subjects only briefly and to s certain extent superficially. However, it is that very great breadth that makes it such a stunning and impressive volume. One of the more interesting features is the use of “capsules” to explore certain side-concerns in more depth than they can be treated in the central texts. These are a sort of side-bar or analogue hyperlink to a brief encapsulated discussion. These might discuss the history of a particular city, region or idea in more detail. Many of these were fascinating in their own right, and help to break up the somewhat monolithic impression of the main text.
If you only read one telephone sized book this year – this should be it. If you only read one book on European history – this should be it.