(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Europe: A History is an ambitious, contentious, and massive history of the continent which appropriately begins with the myth of Europa, who was seduced by Zeus in the guise of a white bull and carried on his back from Phoenicia in the Middle East to the Aegean islands where she became the mother of Minos of Crete, the founder of European civilization. Norman Davies is a professor of history at the University of London and is the author of a highly acclaimed two-volume history of Poland, God’s Playground (1981). The history of eastern Europe plays a prominent part in this work as well, and its often superficial treatment in many other studies of Europe is one of the criticisms Davies directs at his fellow historians, past and present.

In an almost fifty-page introduction to this extremely long history, Davies discusses his aims in writing Europe. He points out that only in the eighteenth century, the era of the Enlightenment, did the term “Europe” begin to replace “Christendom” as the general designation of the continent, this at a time when religion was becoming the bane of such writers as Voltaire. The problems with using the term “Europe” are numerous. Does it include Great Britain? The British have often been reluctant to identify themselves with the Continent and its tribulations. Does it include Russia, or is Russia largely part of Asia? The Russians have often been divided on the wisdom of being part of European civilization. The sea borders of Europe are readily apparent, but where should the line be drawn in the east—is there geographically something called Europe rather than Eurasia?

Davies attacks the general use of the term “Western civilization,” claiming, with considerable validity, that too often “Western civilization” is merely a cover for discussing the history and culture of western Europe, especially France, Britain, Italy through the Renaissance, and certain periods of German history. Eastern Europe is largely ignored except to contrast its economic paucity and tyrannical rapacity with the supposedly more civilized west. This, he argues, has been prevalent even throughout the twentieth century, and especially during the Cold War. Much of Europe is thus devoted to reasserting the balance between western and eastern Europe, and in choosing to do so Davies has inevitably opened up new areas, persons, and events for many readers of his work. It might even be claimed that Davies’ Europe is symbolically a reflection of the demise of the post-World War II conflict and the beginning of the reunification and reintegration of the continent.

He is also critical of many of the claims of cultural pluralism. Although he agrees that traditional Eurocentrism—the belief that Europe and its accomplishments are the focus of civilized progress—can be fallacious, Davies argues that European history, culture, and civilization form the significant roots of the United States in its commitment to individual rights, freedom of thought, and toleration. He scorns the supposed bias against dead white European males. Davies admits that the so-called great books lists have always included mostly Europeans—too often limited to western Europeans in Davies’ opinion—but to replace those figures merely because they are politically incorrect to a later generation because of ethnicity and gender is unconscionable, as Davies notes that there is no African Aquinas, Mexican Mill, or Vietnamese Virgil.

Following his argumentative introduction, Davies divides his work into twelve chronological chapters, divisions which generally correspond to those of most histories of Europe. A chapter on environment and prehistory is followed by chapters on the Greeks, the Romans, the birth of Europe during the era of the barbarian invasions, the Middle Ages, and its decline at the time of the Black Death, the renaissances and religious reformations, absolutism and the enlightenment, the eighteenth century revolutions, the nineteenth century when Europe reached its pinnacle of power, and two chapters covering the twentieth century, divided at 1945 with the end of World War II.

Europe as a shared culture came into existence toward the end of antiquity with the mingling of Roman civilization, the barbarian invasions, and the emergence of Christian civilization. Yet, Davies states, there is no single Europe either. There is, he claims, a European culture and shared historical experiences, but there also have been historic divisions across the continent such as the division between Roman and non-Roman Europe, the later split in Christendom between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and most recently Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain of the Cold War. In the author’s opinion, commonality but pluralism, unity but divergence have been the history of Europe. If Davies’ chronological approach and chapter divisions are traditional, what is more unusual is that at the end of each chapter is...

(The entire section is 2038 words.)