Europe East and West, by Norman Davies, Jonathan Cape, 352 pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-0224069243
In 1994, in Vrhpolje in western Slovenia, some twenty-five kilometres from the Italian border, there was a rather unusual public event. On a rock just outside the village, local people erected a monument, remembering a battle that took place 1,600 years ago between the Roman (Byzantine) emperor Theodosius, and the western usurper Eugenius. Although the battle and its location may be somewhat obscure to the general reader, it is regarded as an important milestone of late antiquity and was of considerable relevance for the advance of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Theodosius being at least formally Christian while Eugenius was pagan.
The relatively high profile of the 1994 celebration – it was attended by an important Slovenian national politician – shows how even remote historical events are sometimes used by people in what is called Eastern Europe to claim the early participation of their lands (not even of their people in this case, as Slavs did not occupy the territory of modern Slovenia until at least the sixth century) in the development of Christendom, and therefore, by implication, their stake in Europe.
One may find such attempts rather desperate, especially if they involve a 1,600-year-old battle. But there is another aspect of the matter that is perhaps equally striking: how is it possible that villagers living in a place less than two hours’ drive from Venice are so desperate to prove that they really belong to Europe? What happened on the other side of the divide, in what is called Western Europe, that lands a couple of kilometres away from their borders are considered so far away, so culturally different, as to deserve a special name – Eastern Europe?
The situation is particularly striking in the case of Slovenia and Italy (although that of, say, the Czech Republic and Germany is similar). With the exception of the period immediately after the Second World War, there never really was an Iron Curtain between Italy and Slovenia. Yet in 2004, on the day of Slovenia’s accession to the European Union, Western media, hungry for “iconic” images, massively used photographs of the unthreatening fence that runs between the Italian city of Gorizia/Gorica and the Slovenian Nova Gorica, portraying a kind of mini-Berlin Wall, much to the amusement of the locals, who had been accustomed to commuting daily through a nearby crossing point even in Communist times.
The reality is that from the 1970s on, when Yugoslavia liberalised its border regime to allow for the development of its tourist industry and gain access to hard currency, Yugoslavs were free to travel anywhere they wished and as often as they wished. We were the privileged ones in the Communist world. Families would regularly go shopping across the border for items either not available at home or cheaper in Italy. Italians too would cross in the other direction, to buy petrol or fresh meat, visit the dentist or gamble in the casinos. The particular brand of right-wing politics associated with this area of northeastern Italy, however, often had the effect of keeping these shoppers, patients and gamblers rather ignorant – and even arrogant – about the country they were visiting.
Such ignorance tended to set aside centuries of shared history, as if these could be erased by a few decades of Communist rule. During this period of divided Europe it came to be seen as perfectly possible and normal that Gorizia/Gorica, or James Joyce’s Trieste/Trst, with their Slovenian ethnic minorities, could be labelled western European while their immediate hinterland was Eastern Europe.
The use of the terms Eastern Europe and Western Europe after the Second World War to denote the geopolitical divisions that accompanied the great ideological stand-off of the twentieth century was not the first time that Europe had been described in terms of East and West. The terms first appear in connection with the eastern and western Roman empires, that is with Byzantium (called Roman by the Ottomans and Greeks, and Greek by the West) and the Latin Roman Empire (later referred to as the Frankish Empire). In 285 AD, Diocletian moved the centre of the empire to the East and divided it in two, drawing the line across the province of Illyricum, today known as the western Balkans, more exactly Bosnia-Herzegovina. This delimitation (with slight changes) continued to mark political divisions – albeit by new and different polities – until the First World War.
Diocletian’s aim was certainly not to create Eastern Europe – he did not think of East and West in those terms, nor did he think of Europe. Rather he decided to divide the great empire to improve its management and above all its capacity to protect itself against various barbarians, mostly Germanic tribes and peoples – in other words, the future Europeans. Yet his choice of the demarcation line was not purely arbitrary: he drew it where Latin influence faded to give way to predominantly Greek influence. This division of East and West – although the terms were not used at the time – was to have a deeper cultural substance than, for example, the twentieth century one. The Christianity of Rome and Constantinople developed along separate lines, a separation which was formalised with the great schism of 1054. Byzantium and what came to be the Holy Roman Empire developed as quite distinct civilisations, whereas in the twentieth century many lands divided from each other by Communism were in essence part of the same civilisation.
The early medieval division concerned only Mediterranean Europe; the vast areas north of it, today’s Eastern Europe, did not matter in this regard, since these parts were out of Roman military control. The Greek half (with or without the Romans) would later have a very important role in the formation of Eastern Europe, though it was to remain of relatively little significance for Central Europe.
Europe as a political entity did not of course exist at this point, but the Roman and Greek worlds – the spiritual foundations of Europe – did. With the demise of the Western Roman Empire, it was Byzantium which took over the role of “Europe”. With Constantine, the capital of the empire moved formally to the East. From then on it was Byzantium which regarded itself as the true Rome, as the “world super-power”, and as such it continued to intervene militarily not only in the Apennine peninsula but even in the Iberian one.
Christianisation in Europe was a cultural and political, but also a technological and military process, a sort of globalisation of the early Middle Ages: the western Roman Empire did not really care about it and disappeared; the eastern empire embraced it and survived much longer. The Roman (western) legacy was taken over by the Franks, who also recognised the political value of Christianity, while the Eastern empire adopted the legacy of the ancient Greeks. In the early Middle Ages, the Frankish and the Byzantine empires stood each at its own end of the European continent, fighting to subdue – in a political and religious sense – the peoples in between, above all the Slavs, who entered Europe about that time and who were to become the central, though not the exclusive, element of Eastern Europe.
Things turned difficult for Europe in the sixth century with the arrival of the Slavs, feared by both Germanic people and Byzantines. We do not know for sure whether violence against the old settlers (Germanic peoples in Central Europe, Greeks, Romans and other Romanised native peoples) was the dominant pattern of Slav settlement. There are also suggestions that the new element – in at least some instances – integrated into existing societies culturally, while prevailing ethnically over time. In any event the Slav presence created another wedge between the Franks and Byzantium, obstructing commerce and other lines of communication between the two.
With their arrival, Slavs became the dominant element in Eastern Europe and have been so ever since. However, there are a number of non-Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe: none of the Baltic nations are Slavs; nor are the Hungarians, Romanians or Albanians. The Greeks – the ultimate Eastern Europeans – are not Slavs either. Ethnically, Eastern Europe is quite diverse. The non-Christian pagan peoples of this period, of whom the Slavs were by far the largest element, encountered the political reality of the contending Christian East and West. The politics of divided Christianity was not something that could be ignored: indeed the division offered these people distinct opportunities. For the existing Christian empires the spreading of their own brand of religious adherence meant pushing forward their political and economic interests at the expense of the rival. As the various Slav tribes did not possess the military strength to take over either Christian empire they had to find ways of using the divisions within the Christian world to ensure the maximum security and autonomy.
Two of these early “Eastern European” peoples were of major political importance: the Bulgars (early Bulgarians) and the Moravians (the ancestors of the Czechs and Slovaks), and both sought to manoeuvre between the two super-powers of the day, the Byzantine Empire and the Franks, in order to protect themselves from involuntary assimilation. Thus the Moravians first sought Christian missionaries from remote Byzantium while the Bulgars applied to the remote Franks in matching political maanoeuvres designed to build security against powerful near neighbouts.
In Moravia, the arrival of two Greek preachers, Cyril (also known as Constantine) and Methodius, challenged the plans of Frankish missionaries and politicians. Under political pressure, the disciples of these two brothers were expelled, and Moravia, as well as Caranthania to the south (a principality of the early Slovenians, roughly coterminous with today’s Austrian province of Carinthia) came under Bavarian political influence, the Bavarians themselves having been subdued by the Franks. The Christianisation process was for a while interrupted by the arrival of the Avars (one of the ancestors of the Magyars), but Frankish help to the Slavs in their defence against these new arrivals copper-fastened the Bavarian/Frankish grip. After a brief but important Irish mission in the Frankish interest (St Ferghal was bishop of Salzburg and is still regarded as the Apostle of the Caranthanians, that is the early Slovenians), Caranthanians as well as other Slavs in Central Europe came under Germanic ecclesiastical control.
Owing to both the adoption of the distinctively Slavic Cyrillic script and the less centralised structure of the Orthodox church the experience of the eastern Slavs was one of less integration with the Byzantine political order. The desire of the Bulgarians to remain independent of Constantinople meant that when the followers of Cyril and Methodius were expelled from Moravia Simeon I welcomed them into Bulgaria. Thereafter the Bulgarians became champions of Orthodox Christianity based on the Cyrillic script. Many Bulgarian missionaries were later to go north into other Slavic territories spreading both religion and script. This proved a great bulwark against assimilation, and among other things facilitated the development of modern Russia as a distinct cultural and national entity.
The early Bohemian rulers were looking westward too. Magdeburg became the centre for the Christianisation of the western Slavs. In 964, Poles acquired Christianity from the Bohemians through royal marriage. Later on, Poles and Czechs were to be among the few Slavic nations able to establish their own church provinces reporting directly to Rome, which also afforded them a fair degree of political independence, at least for a time.
The Hungarians, one of the non-Slavic nations of Eastern Europe, initially came under Greek influence, but the German clergy prevailed after AD 980. Christianity was firmly established in all of Eastern Europe by the early years of the eleventh century, with the exception of Lithuania, which formally ceased to be pagan only in 1385. Again through marriage, its rulers accepted the Roman Catholic faith from the Poles.
It is important to note that early Europe, Charlemagne’s Christendom, already included a great part of what is now popularly called Eastern Europe. By the fifteenth century, when “Europe” got an even firmer, better-defined shape in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (a union of small, mostly but not exclusively German-speaking principalities that later gave birth to what is today known as Germany), the political inclusion of the vast majority of modern Eastern Europe became even more evident.
Of course, there was no Western or Eastern Europe at the time of Charlemagne. To the Franks, the Slavs and Magyars were simply violent invaders who needed to be dealt with. Christianisation – even though in part carried out at the point of a sword – was a surprisingly civilised method of containing the Slavic (and later Magyar) menace, at least by the standards of the early Middle Ages. To Christianise Slavs also meant turning them into allies, and allies, at least Christian allies, do not fight one another. This stopped the advance of the Slav hordes, but also made the slaughter of the – once pagan, now Christian – Slavs less acceptable. These new alliances also implied that sooner or later the Slavs, operating at a lower level of political organisation, would be subdued by those, like the Franks, who had achieved a higher version of statehood. It would, of course, be premature to see in this any form of nationalism: the world of Charlemagne was not a world of ethnicities, even less so of nations.
Culturally speaking, Christianisation gave the Slavs the first written texts in their languages, facilitated access to the science and arts of the day (at least to the literate few) and generally included them in the family of Christian nations. The Freising manuscripts, from the tenth and eleventh centuries and written in early Slovenian, are the oldest written texts in the Latin alphabet in any Slavic language. To expand the kingdom of God in a faster and easier way, missionaries also made use of teaching and preaching in the vernacular, in due course giving the languages of the people more defined written forms and ultimately enabling them to survive until the present.
By around the thirteenth century, what we today call Eastern Europe was almost fully incorporated into Christendom – the Europe of the day. It is important to point out, however, that those peoples and nations who received Christianity from Constantinople adopted the Greek version of it, together with the Greek script (later developing into Cyrillic) and cultural and political influence from Byzantium. By contrast, Slovenians, Croats, Slovaks, Hungarians, Czechs and Poles received Christianity almost exclusively from the German church and consequently adopted Latin script, western thought and western forms of political organisation.
Eastern Europe was born out of the schism in the church, a split engendered in part by the political rivalry between Byzantium and the Franks over the bodies and souls of the Slavs. However, this was not the same Eastern Europe we know today; and it was certainly not called Eastern Europe then. In the high Middle Ages “Eastern Europe” was Greece, together with other nations of the Orthodox rite, like Serbs, Bulgarians and early Russians. Further west and north there was another “Eastern” Europe of the western Christian rite. These two tiers of Eastern Europe would, from this point, follow a quite distinct path until modern times. In the Middle Ages no one thought of the Czechs or Slovenians as Eastern Europeans, and they do not think of themselves as such today.
Western Slavs also did what they could to avoid political subordination as a consequence of adopting western Christianity. The larger elements naturally found this easier than the smaller, more vulnerable groupings. Those Slavs pursusing the objective of maximum autonomy were aided by the tension within western Christendom over the source of ultimate temporal authority. The Pope sought to challenge the Emperor’s assumption that his person was the seat of such authority, and to discommode him made independent arrangements with larger Slav peoples, who were granted national hierarchies wholly independent of the Holy Roman Empire’s ecclesiastical authorities.
The Czechs, Hungarians and Poles (though much less so “unhistorical” nations like the Slovenes) developed an impressive enough political structures in the Middle Ages, comparable with what existed in the West. In the Middle Ages, the Bohemian (Czech) kings were key political personalities. The reformation movement of the Czech Jan Hus preceded that of Luther and the Czechs were at the centre of the all-European political dispute that caused the Thirty Years War, after which they were finally subdued by the Habsburgs.
After Christianisation, Poles and Czechs continued with relative political autonomy. That was not the case for the Slovenians, who were soon submerged into Charlemagne’s Empire, or for the Slovaks, who came under Magyar rule. Further southeast, Serbs and Bulgarians too had their medieval states. For the southeastern Slavs, the Greeks and some other nations in this part of Europe, the end of political autonomy came with the beginning of the Ottoman conquest of Europe in the fourteenth century, which also shook the Hungarian kingdom and the lands of the Moldavians and the Walachians, the latter ancestors of the Romanians. The centuries of Ottoman rule – despite occasional uprisings these were largely peaceful times – somehow froze the history of southeastern Europe until the nineteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire began collapsing and Russia started exercising a stronger influence in the region.
With the conquest of Byzantium by the Turks in 1453, the lands that once marked the division line between the western and eastern Roman sectors (roughly speaking, today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina) became a buffer zone between the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires. Although at one point the Ottomans made it as far as Vienna they had never permanently settled beyond this East-West divide. The establishment of “Turkey-in-Europe” (as the Ottoman-occupied zones were called) and, on the other side of the divide, the rise of the Habsburg Empire in Central Europe divided Eastern Europe into three sectors: the Balkans (southeastern Europe), occupied by the Ottomans; Central Europe and the Baltic shores, the lands of Eastern Europeans within the Habsburg or German empires; and Eastern Europe “proper”, that part that remained under the more or less strong influence of Russia.
The Ottoman era in Europe is also when the term “Eastern Europe” was coined. According to Larry Wolff (1), the concept stems from the attempts of eighteenth century philosophers to find a physical location for the state of mind opposite to the Enlightenment. Though marked by their belief in the importance of reasoning and empirical evidence, the key figures of this process, Voltaire and Rousseau, seem never to have visited Eastern Europe. Further handicapped by the embryonic state of the geographical and linguistic sciences of the time, their accounts suggested a place of uniform and unvarying poverty, backwardness, ruthlessness and dullness – a vision that has in large measure persisted until the present.
Popular contemporary western writers on the Ottoman lands were often fascinated by their “oriental” elements – the exoticism and ferocity supposedly native to these territories lying behind the iron curtain of its era. The setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula tale in Transylvania stems from this source, (most recently recycled in Elizabeth Kostova’s novel The Historian, a text bristling with inaccuracies and cultural misunderstandings), while the recent horror/torture film Hostel, set in Slovakia (but not in any Slovakia we know), fishes from the same stagnant pool.
The crumbling Ottoman Empire made the Russian advance toward the Black Sea and the Mediterranean possible. This went hand in hand with the rise of several mostly, but not solely, Slavic and Orthodox Christian nations. Thus the new Eastern question, who would get the spoils of the final wars against the dying Ottoman Empire, enabled Russia to gain an even stronger influence in Eastern Europe. This was certainly facilitated by common Slavonic and common religious, that is Orthodox Christian, roots. Shared Slavic origins appealed even to Slavs of the Western tradition, like Czechs and Slovenians, who at least at certain points in their history saw in Russia a beacon of Slavic power and might and an inspiration against the rising German nationalism of the late nineteenth century.
This was true despite (or because of) the lack of direct physical contact with Russia. The Pan Slavic movement, a nineteenth century patriotic movement emphasising the unity of all Slavs, drew from even older sources: the two preachers, brothers Constantine (Cyril) and Methodius. Although the two were Greeks and not Slavs (just as St Patrick was not an Irishman), they preserved the title of the Apostles of the Slavs even in Catholic countries. The Pan Slavic movement remained more or less on the level of an idea, with little practical consequence, but even in the twentieth century various Slovenian religious and patriotic societies bore the name of the two Greek brothers and today they are still associated with the Christian ecumenical movement.
In 2003, the Slovenian government launched the initiative known as the Forum of Slavic Cultures as a framework for cultural exchange for all Slavic nations. Not all of the Slavic countries embraced the idea with the same enthusiasm, reflecting the variety of the historical experiences Eastern European countries have had with Russia, which they instinctively feared would dominate the forum. There has never been a Russian army presence on Slovenian soil, with the exception of Russian prisoners during the First World War and a brief presence of the Red Army in the formerly Hungarian-ruled northeast of the country after the Second World War
Norman Davies’s Europe East and West is a collection of essays and lectures written and delivered over more than fifteen years. The author has resisted the temptation to update them, even where they have quite evidently been superseded by recent events. Davies’s argument that such correction would be somewhat dishonest and would take his account out of the context in which it was written is a valid and even commendable one, particularly given that his predictions in some instances were not borne out by events (in Kosovo, for example, which he did not expect to turn out independent). It would be useful, nevertheless, to have information on the date of publication or presentation available with each of the essays, precisely to better place them in context.
In some ways Europe East and West seems like one of those books that great scholars like Davies can afford to publish as a sort of intermission after a major – indeed titanic – work such as his Europe was. The publishers have called it a companion to its older sister, and indeed it makes numerous references to Europe, inviting the reader to attempt the grand work. Davies begins with the idea of Europe, reminding us that the adventure originates in the East, in Lebanon that is, if we are to believe the ancient legend whose message is that the Greeks owe their roots to Cretan civilisation and the latter, in turn, to a more distant Middle Eastern one. What we today call (geographical) Europe had long been to the Greeks the utmost backwater; this was where they established their limits against the Other – emerging Europe in its very early infancy.
The world began to alter with the arrival of Christianity, itself an oriental religion. But the Christendom of the barbarians did not much impress Byzantium, which – we are reminded – was the more noble part of the civilised world. Later, the Christian world was defined against the Muslim (Arab and later Ottoman) menace, but the term “Europe” only took hold once religious divisions and bloody wars ended the notion of a united Christendom and the continent was given a new and less ambitious label – Europe, plain and simple.
Eventually, Enlightenment became a synonym for Europe and since this philosophical phenomenon took root largely in the West, the Eastern part of the continent (though not exactly coterminous with today’s Eastern Europe) began to be associated with less appealing qualities, particularly economic and social backwardness. Davies, however, warns against too sharp a dichotomy here, arguing that it “is quite false to suggest that the whole of the west was advanced while the whole of the east was backward” and that “it is simply not true that … there was no significant industrial development in Central and Eastern Europe prior to the 1930s”.
In fact the American economic historian Angus Maddison (2) has calculated – through a rather sophisticated use of the price of crops – historic GDP values for countries of the world over the last 2,000 years. And the figures reveal surprising evidence, challenging the entrenched belief that everything east of the EU15 has always been a wretched land condemned to ignorance, poverty (and bloody conflicts). Of course, geographically advantaged countries lying close to the axis connecting London, Antwerp, Cologne and Florence have from the Middle Ages enjoyed high levels of wealth and prosperity, higher than anywhere else. Lands east of this line fared less well. But so did lands to the west. It could easily be argued that the EU arrivals of 2004 had lived through a surprisingly similar economic (and even social and political) experience, at least until the advent of Communism, to that of many of their predecessors. Think of the right-wing totalitarian systems in Spain, Portugal and Greece, of the left-wing radicals of Malta, of the geographical disadvantages of Finland, living in the shadow of a mighty neighbour – or of Ireland, with its own history of poverty, its struggle with Britain and its powerful Catholicism. European countries north, south, east and west at the fringes of the axis of wealth share a very similar pattern of social and economic history.
While Eastern Europe produced Communism, Western Europe produced the other two totalitarian systems of the twentieth century, Fascism and Nazism. And while Western Europe suffered from the latter two, Eastern Europe, as Davies points out, suffered under all of them. Europe East and West warns repeatedly about the ignorance of Eastern Europe prevalent among Western European historians and social science scholars, an ignorance seen as stemming from a “deep-seated assumption about the extent and permanence of Eastern Europe’s ‘otherness’”
There is even a difference in evaluating the nationalisms that swept nineteenth century Europe, from Ireland to the lands of the “Turkey-in-Europe”. As Davies sees it: “Western or civic nationalism is allegedly constructive, progressive, peaceful and stabilising. Eastern or ethnic nationalism is presented as destructive, regressive, disruptive and destabilising, not to say murderous, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, hateful and generally nasty.”
Indeed generalisations about the distinctively bloody conflicts of war-torn Eastern Europe and its “balkanisation” into countless tiny but mutually hostile states are a staple of Western school history. Then there is Eastern Europe’s alleged weakness for xenophobia. But Davies reminds readers that throughout the early modern era the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth provided the only shelter for Europe’s Jews after they had been expelled from the West, starting with England in the thirteenth century. Contrary to received wisdom we learn that “almost all the great persecutions, the burnings of Jews and the expulsions occurred in the west”, usually as part of a larger ideological battle that also included witch-hunting. Davies – without, of course questioning the centrality of the Holocaust in European collective memory – also dares to ask whether perhaps we should change the emphasis when we talk about the Jewish imprint on European identity: “It would be a great pity if the Jewish presence in Europe were to be remembered primarily for the attempt to extinguish it rather than for its magnificent achievements.”
As the Greeks – the ultimate Eastern Europeans – made it to the EU, partly because “the mythology of Western civilisation insisted that Greece was ‘ours’”, the Cold War was responsible for copper-fastening the negative image of Eastern Europe: “Two whole generations of westerners grew up with little direct contact and still less understanding of Europe’s eastern half”, and as a result “the ephemeral political, social and economic systems imposed on Eastern Europe were made to look and to feel permanent”. As regards the perspectives of the easterners, not only was Western Europe portrayed in official discourse as the home of exploitative capitalism – and in the case of Germany of ruthless former occupiers – also the links that once existed between (mostly Slavic) Eastern Europe and the German-speaking lands were now almost completely forgotten. Those who embarked on the revival of the idea of Central Europe (Mitteleuropa) were frequently portrayed as either nostalgics for the Austro-Hungarian empire or Eastern Europeans trying to free themselves of an unfortunate label.
Even the bitter experience of the Second World War added to the store of distorted images of Eastern Europeans. In a chapter titled “Misunderstood Victory” Davies looks at the casualties of the war and also reminds us that there wasn’t always a clear dividing line between the victors, victims and perpetrators of war crimes: Luftwaffe planes above London were fuelled by Soviet oil, while the Czech Josef Frantisek was the most successful of the RAF’s pilots. The heaviest civilian casualties were inflicted by the Germans on the population of the territories annexed by the Soviet Union shortly before the war, that is in modern Belarus and Poland. In a similar fashion, seventy-five to eighty per cent of all German losses were sustained on the Eastern front, not in the fight against the Western Allies. One could add that the Eastern European nations suffered proportionally far greater losses than Western Europeans. Eastern Slavs came very close behind Jews and Roma in the Nazi list of despicable “Others”.
We also learn, challenging some deeply held views about East Europeans’ tendency to make terms with the German invaders, “how few of the forty million-plus Ukrainians actively collaborated with the Nazis, compared with, say, the Danes, the Dutch or the Belgians” (or the French, one might add). Davies asks why a more accurate account of the war was not established and finds the reason in the “marriage of convenience” of the wartime coalition, when doubts about the real nature of Soviet regime were not permissible and allied “officers caught discussing what they heard about Stalin’s crimes were threatened with courts martial”. Further and more damning accounts of Stalin and his system were made public only when the West and the Soviet Union were no longer allies, but by then the sinister side of the Soviets was of no great interest to a wide public.
Westerners are, says Davies, accustomed to thinking of the Second World War as a two-sided conflict, of good fighting evil; the same went for the Soviets, who managed to sell the West the idea of anti-fascism, when “in reality, Soviet communism was every bit as a hostile to Western democracy as it was to fascism”. Davies suggests that a new historical account of the Second World War should place the victory over Nazism and Fascism firmly in the context of the “new tyranny” imposed in Eastern Europe and should “emphasise that Stalin’s triumph had nothing to do with freedom or justice”. A tall order, he adds, in which “to date, no one has succeeded”.
The countries of Eastern Europe are engaged in their own attempts to explain sometimes complicated wartime choices, for example in circumstances where the Soviets were seen as a greater enemy than the Germans. Small Baltic nations were not the only ones pushed into making such tough decisions. The Finns too had that experience and in several other Eastern European countries the Soviet-inspired local Communist parties and their monopoly on “anti-fascism” (a form of anti-Westernism and a handy partisan tool in the grab for power) sparked civil wars.
Davies will also challenge British readers with his writings on their perception of “the Continent” and the role of the latter in British history. Another of his narratives, that of the links between history, language and literature, is also particularly thought-provoking. While the connection between history and literature is relatively obvious, the relation between language and history is probably less so – at least for an Anglophone, as Davies, the grandson of a Welshman, appears to suggest. He relates an anecdote from the period when he was working on Europe, when he decided to include in the text a poem in Finnish. One of his editors told him that including a Finnish poem in the original was “absolutely useless” and that “ninety-nine point nine, nine per cent of the readers will be unable to understand a single word”. To which he replied: “That’s the whole point. Readers must sometimes be faced with the unintelligible. They can’t be fed everything in cosy English translation. Somehow one has to convince them that there are large expanses of European culture beyond their reach, especially if all they know is English with a smattering of French or German.”
I am particularly grateful to Davies for this anecdote, because the subject here is not the kind of supposedly impenetrable East European (Slavic or Hungarian or Romanian) language that Western Europeans fuss so much about but a Nordic one (although as close linguistically to Hungarian as you can get). Of course, Finns too – not because of their language but because of their geographical position and the role that Russia has played in their history – could also be labelled an Eastern European nation. But thanks to that other dimension of their geographical position (the Nordic one), thanks to their resolute resistance against the Soviets, thanks to the success of Nokia and to membership of the European Union, Finland is generally accepted as a Western European country.
I wonder will it be possible at any time in the near future for Western Europe to think of, say, the Poles in the same way it thinks about the Finns? One can only hope so. Norman Davies as historian has definitely done his part, opening wide the windows to let the fresh air in. Nearly seventeen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is surely time for Eastern Europe and its (shared) history to again become a part of the collective memory of the European family – without the villagers of Vrhpolje needing to erect monuments to events of the late antique period.1. Inventing Eastern Europe, Stanford University Press, 1994
2. The World Economy: Historical Statistics, OECD, 2003
Leon Marc is writing in a personal capacity.
Leon Marc is a Slovenian diplomat who served at the Dublin embassy from 2002 to 2006. He is currently director of the South-East Europe Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia, Ljubljana.