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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 March 2014
Walter Kaufmann's translation of Nietzsche's declaration that `There are no facts, only interpretation' is singularly the most apt description of historical works. We are attracted to history because we hold the belief that by understanding the past, we can understand the present, and thus plot our path to a happier future. Our folly lies in the concurrent belief that history renders an unerring account of the past. But history can never be `an objective compilation of facts', as E H Carr tells us in `What is History' (2001 Palgrave). This causes as much trouble to the historian as it does to his readers.

To make the venture of reading history not just rewarding but pleasurable, the history reader ought first to select the area of his interest before he selects his book. He can choose specific countries, or the entire continent of Europe, or just specific epochs. A comprehensive survey of the history of Europe may be found in several works but they all comprise so many volumes that only the very serious history scholars consult them. `Europe' by Norman Davies is not a small book. At 1335 pages long (excluding the index) Davies' book presents a formidable challenge to the prospective reader, but once he finds the courage or curiosity to turn to the first pages, he will not put it down till he has absorbed every page, every cross-reference (tucked neatly in boxed lines near the general point), and every map and appendix.

Many historical interpretations carry a mix of stories, legends, and reactions, but there is no confusion in Davies' account. He tells the story of Europe with the ambitious aim of giving his reader a deep understanding of the reasons and causes of the political boundaries of the countries that make Europe today and that story begins from the beginning in which Davies begins by telling us, `In the beginning, there was no Europe'.

Davies swiftly takes the reader from there to the Barbarians' crossing of the frozen Rhine and crashing through the gates of embryonic Europe, to the internecine clashes of the Christians - among themselves as well as the never-ending battles with the Muslims, and from there to the major wars of the twentieth century. The story grinds down to the effect and consequences those wars had on the major powers in Europe. `Post-war British politics had to cope with a country whose traditional identity was quietly disintegrating. They were governed by the swings of the two-party Westminster system, by the stop-go performance of the economy, and above all, by Britain's long search for a post-imperial role.'

In the final chapter, `Europe Divided and Undivided', Davies takes the reader to the rise of the Single Europe Act (`SEA') and the European Economic Community, the efforts of Jacques Delors and how SEA is portrayed as a Trojan horse; and Mikhail Gorbachev's contrasting role in the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Scholars - historians, military experts, and political analysts (to name a few) - might have fresh perspectives of the current Russian-Ukrainian crisis just from Davies' account of the history of Europe. That might be one reason why this book, first published 18 years ago in 1996 is reissued this year under Bodley Head.

One way of getting the most out of a book like this is to begin by reading the Preface and Introduction, and then skim through small portions of each chapter before reading the book from the start. In this way, the reader will be made aware of the connections that dot each page and appreciate how Davies weaved them into his general theme of presenting Europe in her grand ballroom gown and peasant shoes. Davies sought from the start to disabuse his readers of any notion that the history of Europe is the history of the West, or that the history of Western Civilization is the history of civilization.
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60 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on 24 July 2002
A history book as comprehensive as this one is obviously subject to thousands of criticisms from the different territorial, cultural, political,... perspectives. However, and I think here lays the tremendous value of the volume, I had never learnt so much about European history and the origins of Western civilization while at the same time enjoying thoroughly the style, the anecdotes, and continuous flow of events which are never isolated but shown as causes and effects of each other. If more of History could be told in such an entertaining tone, I think our overall education would be far superior.
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158 of 164 people found the following review helpful
on 21 March 1999
In a word? Superb. If you dont have time to read this review, and are in any way interested in the history of one of the most historically complex parts of the world, just go and buy it. Trust me...
If you have a bit more time, let me firstly present one point. If you are solely interested in the history of the dictators of the twentieth centuary, or the rise and fall of the Roman empire, dont buy this book. Because, as the author states in the introduction, it isnt attempting to give a highly specialised view of every section of european history. What it attemps to do, and suceeds admirably, is to provide the interested reader with a superb general overview of europe from the ice ages, right up to the present day. Dont for a second assume, however, that this book is a lightweight. It weighs in at over 1300 pages of small type, with lengthy appendices. Being only 15, (although I am keenly interested in history and reading), I was slightly unnerved by the appearance of this at my birthday. Could I remain interested for 1300+ pages? That night, I opened the first page and was hooked. The book is written in a clear, concise, engaging and genuinely interesting fasion, and it is obvious that the author has a genuine interest and passion for his subject, as im sure a lot of readers will have after completing this book. Simply, it is a classic. I will have it on my bookshelf for years, and hopefully for the rest of my life.
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48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on 28 March 2006
An enormous tome which I plodded through a few pages at a time and use to beat off muggers; a survey so surface-level that it leaves you gasping for more; a thoroughly enjoyable read. These statements seem contradictory but all apply to this book. This is as comprehensive as a single-volume history of Europe can manage to be, and yet it still but skims the surface of the story of this magnificently diverse and dynamic continent in which we are blessed to live.
Davies is a Poland specialist and he uses his knowledge of the country's intricacies to illuminate the experience of the whole continent; as indeed he does also with his native Oxfordshire. To my mind, this is a strength, rather than a weakness as long as one remembers that the specific often serves as an exemplar for the general. The contributions of small, historically peripheral and often forgotten parts of Europe are woven seamlessly into the weft of Davies' narrative - Ireland, Sicily, Latvia, Ukraine. Nor is the story of ideas, of economies and of science is not lost among the dreary procession of wars and dynasties.
There is also a useful set of maps and raw data contained in the appendices.
As for criticism, while any work of this sweep is going to have difficulty separating people and concepts in the minds of its readers, I find the procession of minor royal figures and complex webs of intermarriage in medieval times particularly difficult. Perhaps Davies could have set out more clearly who ruled where and when, and what the relationships between them.
Also, Davies finishes weakly after a strong book. Speculation is, naturally, mere speculation but Davies predictions for the future read too much like a senior common room conversation after a few glasses of wine. They also seem peculiarly anti-Russian and have dated quite rapidly.
I'm not quite sure if the capsule idea works. In 1992 it must have seemed very cutting edge, a harbinger of an internet still unknown to the general public. Now they seem a bit dated, and while they contain much of interest they sometimes distract from the flow of the narrative.
Still, one of the telling tests of a work such as this is how it wears. After more than a decade, this still reads very well.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 18 January 2012
For those who don't know, Davies' book is organised into reasonably long narrative chapters (eg Greece, Rome, etc) interspersed with smaller 'capsules' on specific people, places or contexts dotted around the text. I assume this works in the print editions with a different font or some other typographical element to mark them out as different. But ... the scanning for the Kindle edition is such that all such subtleties are lost. The capsules are spliced into the page in exactly the same sized font whenever they appear on the printed page.

In short, you're reading about Bulgaria under Ottoman rule, there is a capsule on the arrival of the Gypsies and then, without warning, we're back in the Balkans with the sentence "Serbia suffered the same fate". Click back a few pages and it makes sense, the same fate as Bulgaria, not the Gypsies - but this is no way to read a book of this length. On one occasion a numbered list from a medieval pope on how he should conduct himself is split in two by a capsule on the Hanseatic League (the numbered list resumes several pages later on point 22) while Shakespeare's "This scept'red isle" serves as two slices of bread to a sandwich with a capsule on quantitive history as its filling. I'm sure its not what either Davies or Shakespeare would have wanted. There are also numerous scanning-introduced typos such as 'poUtical' for 'political' and Louis XTV for Louis XIV. It's clearly not been proofread.

It's a shame because there is nothing wrong with the capsules, someone just needs to fix how they work in an ebook. The irony is that Davies, writing in the early 1990s, was clearly taken with ideas of hypertext that were to emerge through the world wide web and wrote the capsules with links to each other and from the narrative text. You could imagine an electronic version that allowed such behaviour, but this is not it.

I've found Europe hard to read so I won't give a review for the book itself, other than to say ... I actually much preferred Davies' Vanished Kingdoms. He writes in the introduction about how histories of Europe deal with the rise of a few western powers but that is (largely) this book too. I wonder if Vanished Kingdoms was the European history he wanted to write - in the spaces between tales of Visigoths, Ruthenians and Burgundians a history of Europe emerges from a fresh perspective.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 14 April 1999
This book kept me entertained for the whole of last summer. An epic history of Europe from the stone age to (nearly) the present day, it manages to deal with both broad themes and small details to give a great impression of the shaping of a continent. Small "capsules" of a few pages are scattered within the main text, each dealing with an individual, or a monument, or an idea which help one see how many small stories go towards making history. A refreshing change, compared to other European history books, is that this book deals with the whole of Europe, not just the west. Anyone trying to unravel the present crisis in the Balkans will find just how far back the troubles go. I would recomend anyone with even the sightest interest in history to give this book a go.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on 30 October 2003
This was deeply educational in a way no other history book has been for me. It got me interested in each stage and theatre of European history. I am now hungry for more on religion in the Balkans under the Ottomans, the differing legal systems of pre-revolutionary France, trade and diplomacy in the Hanseatic league and countless other subjects that I previously knew nothing of or thought of as deadly boring and unimportant. The point about Poland being over represented may be true but it does not take away from this brilliant book. I will definately read more from this man.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 25 August 2011
The print edition is 1300 pages of pure gold but its size and scope make it possible to spend half a day getting lost in it whilst trying to look something up! The Kindle edition is all but a one-book argument for buying a Kindle: keyword searches make using the book much more efficient and the citations are live, which vastly eases things if you want to see where he quotes from. It's also much more comfortable to read this on the kindle than in print.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 8 December 2006
I read this on the bus to and from work. School kids see this weighty tome and must assume that i am a schoolmaster as they desist form sitting next to me with their annoying zzzzz things in thier ears. Almost worth the chore of lugging it about for that alone. But it puts it all in context with a bird's eye view centred approximactely over Hungary. Seeing the interlacing of invasions, tribal movements, the Roman Empire and religion all intermeshed.

It looks at all the interests in the growth of power and the power competitions without national hubris and interest - oh that every flag waving nationalist in every part of the World could see some of their treasured myths so analysed.
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on 31 August 2003
I've spent the best part of forty years reading European histories. This is the most comprehensive, one-volume work I've come across.
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Customers who viewed this item also viewed
The Shortest History of Europe
The Shortest History of Europe by John Hirst (Paperback - 4 Sept. 2012)

Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe
Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies (Paperback - 4 Oct. 2012)

The Penguin History of Europe
The Penguin History of Europe by J. M. Roberts (Paperback - 4 Sept. 1997)

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