A History
By Norman Davies
Oxford 1,365pp $39.95

Ever hear of Slavkov? Odds are you haven't. The Moravian town is one of the many places, people, and things Norman Davies pulls out of the main story--in often quirky ''time capsules''--to highlight in his one-volume saga, Europe: A History. Why Slavkov? It's the site of one of Napoleon's victories, better known by its German name, Austerlitz. This name game plays to Davies' revisionist goal: to give proper recognition to East and Central European cultures slighted by Western historians.

Davies, of the University of London's School of Slavonic & Eastern European Studies, cautions that Western biases toward the East have led to grave ''miscalculations of diplomats, businesspeople, and academics.'' And with Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic prime candidates to join NATO and the European Union, the time is ripe to ask: ''What is Europe?'' and ''Where does Europe end?''

Racing across the centuries, from prehistory to the fall of communism, Davies compresses vast amounts of material. He excels at delineating the distinctive nations and cultures of East Europe. But too often, he reduces Europe's story to a series of battles royal, with relatively little space for economic analysis. It's a pace that almost invites missteps, which can range from oddly dropping birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger into a discussion of Britain in 1814 to dismissing decades of fruitful debate about the French Revolution to overstating the role of accounting in the growth of capitalism.

In Davies' hands, does Europe's center seem to shift eastward? Eventually. A few episodes, such as the stories of Hungary's Renaissance King, Matthias Hunyadi Corvinus, and Poland's abortive revolution in 1789, whet the reader's appetite. But the crux of Davies' work comes near the end, in what he sees as the great calamity of European history: Stalinism. The West's disregard for Eastern nations' aspirations turns tragic as twin vultures, Hitler and Stalin, ravage the region. Yet even now, only Hitler is suitably demonized, Davies claims. Raging against the ''Allied scheme of history,'' Davies accuses the West of ignoring many of Stalin's crimes--such as the ''genocide'' of Poles and Byelorussians--to preserve the anti-Nazi coalition's myth of moral superiority. Here, Stalin replaces Hitler as the most criminal European leader ever.

Some of Davies' theories and moral distinctions are debatable, not the least his liberal use of the term ''genocide.'' But then, he is no stranger to controversy. In the 1980s, claiming violation of his right to free expression, he sued Stanford University, unsuccessfully, after its history faculty denied him a post. One reason for the rebuff: Some thought an earlier book, God's Playground: A History of Poland, had grossly understated Polish anti-Semitism in the 1930s and '40s. Critics will find Davies' views little changed: While conceding Poles' ''petty harassment'' of Jews, he insists on basic Polish tolerance and chafes at the notion that the Holocaust was unique.

Even so, Davies contributes to the debate about Europe's identity. But has he brought new balance or simply substituted one slant for another? As Davies says about a different topic: ''...passions still rage. The last word has still to be spoken.''

By Joseph Mandel


Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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