Continental shift

By Gideon Rachman
Published: December 2 2006 02:00 | Last updated: December 2 2006 02:00
Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory
by Norman Davies
Macmillan 25, 456 pages
FT bookshop price: 20
Europe East And West
by Norman Davies
Jonathan Cape 20, 352 pages
FT bookshop price: 16
Eminent historians enjoy certain benefits denied to more obscure scholars. They get asked to publish collections of their lectures and musings. And they get commissioned to write big books on popular themes.
Norman Davies currently has an example of both genres on the market. Europe East and West is a collection of essays. And Europe at War - available at all good airports - is a new history of the second world war.
Davies deserves his renown. His Europe: A History, published a decade ago, is full of life and erudition, and has achieved classic status. His two latest books are both ordered around the theme that has defined Davies's career as a historian: the passionate belief that the history of central and eastern Europe has been unfairly neglected, in comparison to western Europe. A deep love of Poland, in particular, also suffuses his work.
Writing a history of the second world war from an eastern- European perspective is both a legitimate and a revealing exercise. As Davies demonstrates, the most decisive and bloody battles of the war were fought overwhelmingly on the Russian front. It was the invasion of Poland which marked the beginning of the second world war. And many of the conflict's defining episodes - in particular, the Holocaust - took place in Poland and central Europe.
Seeing the war through Polish eyes also ensures that Davies departs from the conventional Anglo-American perspective that the second world war was, above all, a story of the triumph of good over evil. Poland and most of central Europe ended the war under the sway of Stalin - hardly a happy ending. Again and again in Europe at War, Davies emphasises the moral ambiguities of the conflict, arguing that the "war in Europe was dominated by two evil monsters, not by one". And - more controversially - that the west's alliance with Stalin meant that: "Victory was achieved. Moral and political principles were deserted."
But while the Davies view of the war is a corrective to the western triumphalism of, for example, the late American historian Stephen Ambrose, there are occasions when Davies over-corrects. For example, there are more references in his index to the Katyn massacres - the Soviet Union's murder of 250,000 Polish soldiers - than to D-Day.
There are times also when Davies' iconoclasm seems excessive. Is it really necessary to use his introduction to criticise the new Holocaust memorial in Berlin and its "American architect" for being "invasive" and "making no reference to the millions of the Nazis' non-Jewish victims"? And while it is fair enough to point out that the western allies left Poland in the lurch after the war, it is not clear what Davies expected them to do. His suggestion that the US and Britain might have changed the ultimate outcome if they had pressed harder to "define what a sphere of influence actually implied", is not very persuasive.
Europe at War also suffers from an unsatisfactory structure. Perhaps because he knows how much has already been written on the subject, Davies largely eschews a conventional narrative in favour of interpretive essays on such topics as "civilians" and "portrayals". That makes the book seem disjointed; and the single chapter that Davies devotes to a narrative history of the fighting comes across as slightly perfunctory. The most gripping passages turn out to be excerpts from Antony Beevor's book on Stalingrad.
Inevitably, Davies's collection of essays is patchy in quality. Some are fairly tedious - like a score-settling with someone who reviewed his history of Europe badly. But the collection ends with a truly impressive document entitled "The Rise of New Global Powers", which was prepared as a memorandum for Britain's Cabinet Office in December 2000 - in other words before September 11 2001. (Another benefit of being an eminent historian is that powerful people take you seriously.)
In a section on Iraq and Iran, Davies pointed out that there were influential members of the Republican Party pushing for an invasion of Iraq. He argued that this would be a mistake since the removal of Saddam Hussein "would open up the possibility of a takeover by Shia Islamicists and of a new anti-American Iraqi-Iranian axis". Blair cannot say he wasn't warned.
Gideon Rachman is the FT's chief foreign affairs columnist.