Illustration by Seb Jarnot of Norman Davies
© Seb Jarnot

To the left, across the Baltic Sea, shrouded in autumn clouds, lies the port of Gdynia. To the right is Gdansk, known as the Free City of Danzig when a German gunship fired the opening shots of the second world war on September 1 1939 at the Polish outpost of Westerplatte.

In these early years of the 21st century, all is once again not well with Europe. But at least a war of racial annihilation is not on the horizon. I am taking a seafront stroll in the Polish resort of Sopot with a man who boasts a clearer perspective than most on such matters: Professor Norman Davies, the eminent British-born historian of Europe.

Davies, who taught for 25 years at London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, made his name in the 1970s as a scholar of Polish history. He enjoys such a high reputation in Poland that the nation’s educators use his translated works as textbooks. Yet over the past two decades his writings have touched on the history of all corners of Europe, including Britain, and have ranged up and down the centuries. For some specialists, he paints on too broad a canvas. Yet he displays an impressive feel for the texture of historical change and for the fragility of man-made institutions.

The ice breaks nicely when Davies and I discover, to our surprise, that we have met before. It was in the back of a car in Warsaw in November 1984. Davies, basking in praise for his two-volume God’s Playground: A History of Poland (1981), had a seat. I, a young Warsaw-based foreign correspondent for Reuters, was on the floor. The car belonged to the British embassy and was taking Malcolm Rifkind, a UK foreign office minister, to the grave of Jerzy Popieluszko, a pro-Solidarity priest murdered in October 1984 by the secret police. This was the Soviet-backed regime’s most abominable crime of the late communist period, and it was my job to report what Rifkind would say at the graveside. But the only way to get there was to beg for a spot in the embassy car, which was certainly no limousine, and then take my place at Davies’s feet.

Twenty-eight years on, the slightly built professor wears a genial smile as he climbs with me into a taxi to Donna Marzia, the Tuscan restaurant in Sopot he has booked for lunch. We had planned to meet in Florence but Davies remarks that it is just as well we didn’t. Someone stole his wallet at the Uffizi gallery and he wouldn’t have been in the best of moods. Sopot, where he has been invited to the resort for a conference labelled the European Forum for New Ideas, was the next choice.

“Buongiorno, professore!” Giorgio Cozzolino, the amiable restaurant manager, greets Davies like an old friend. The historian confides to me later that, until today, he has never eaten at Donna Marzia in his life.

We are swept upstairs into a private room and, in that familiar Italian way, each handed a glass of Prosecco before we have thought of asking for anything. This sets a pattern for the rest of the meal. We are never shown a menu, just presented with a succession of exquisite dishes of indeterminate price.

As the FT’s former man in Rome, I find nothing strange about this. Indeed, it is a wicked pleasure to see Italian informalities migrate so naturally to Poland. Two of my strongest memories from my assignment to Warsaw in the 1980s are food rationing and the phrase “nie ma”– “there isn’t any”. In any case, some foreign-language menus in post-communist Poland confuse as much as they enlighten. I once faced a choice between a steak and “Old Polish Yuk Saddlebag”.

It turns out that Davies, after his Oxford University studies, worked in the early 1960s not as a historian but as a teacher of French and a football coach at St Paul’s, a London private school. He tells me that his uncle Donny Davies, a footballer turned sports writer, died in the 1958 Munich air crash that killed eight Manchester United players.

The cold war was the dominant geopolitical fact of this era. But there were east-west cultural exchanges too. A visit to Manchester, near Davies’s home town of Bolton in northwest England, by the Soviet Union’s Red Army choir stimulated his already keen interest in the communist bloc.

“I wasn’t politically won over. I was never in the category of those who were tempted to believe that stuff,” he says. By implication, some historians were. We each recall with a shudder Christopher Hill, a historian who was also a communist party member and master of Balliol College, Oxford. “He was seriously dangerous, ideologically,” says Davies.

As a young man, Davies was “collecting languages” and one of them was Russian. At a Polish-Soviet border crossing, however, he was refused entry in the 1960s into the Soviet Union. He stayed in Poland and soon began the research that led, during the next two decades, to White Eagle, Red Star (1972), a history of the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-20, and to God’s Playground.

It takes a while for the first course to arrive but I interpret that as a good omen. Sure enough, it is a feast of Parma ham, mozzarella, beef carpaccio, bruschetta and grilled vegetables, all sprinkled with shavings of Parmesan. Giorgio pours two glasses of Sister Moon, an intense blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot produced in the Tuscan hills.

I ask Davies about Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2011), his most recent book, whose paperback edition is just out. It ranges from the Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa, in what historians used to term “the Dark Ages”, to places such as Borussia, Etruria and sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, a region that now forms part of Ukraine but enjoyed a flash of self-proclaimed independence in March 1939.

“It’s about the life and death of states. Even the most powerful states reach their term at some point. All political institutions will end sooner or later. The question is when and how. It’s our vanity that makes us think that what forms part of our world today must be stable and secure,” Davies says.

“Our mental maps are distorted by who are the ‘winners’ of history and who are the powers of today. This book is a gentle essay against writing history backwards. At the same time, history is much more varied today. The idea that historians write the definitive version of something that will last for all time is less current than it used to be.”

True enough. But a scholarly work is supposed to restrict itself to historical facts and analysis, not predict the future, right? In his chapter on the evolution of Irish independence in the 20th century, why does he forecast, with what some might consider a certain glee, Scotland’s secession and the break-up of the UK? “It’s the only chapter where I applied my argument to the future,” he says, without a hint of defensiveness.

I suggest that the troubles besetting Europe’s monetary union may bear out his historical conception of the inevitable rise and fall of institutions. “The politics of the European Union have to be completely rethought. But I can’t see any great willingness on the part of the elites. They talk in a general sense about integration, but how and where is put a long way into the future,” Davies says.

“The roots of the crisis are the political barriers to getting the economic and financial issues sorted out. There is a peculiar absence of dynamic politicians in Europe today. Ten or 15 years ago, I said that Europe would need a really serious crisis for things to be put on the right track. I don’t know how bad it’s got to get before people are driven into changing things.”

He does not sound wholly pessimistic, though. “If nothing is done, then disintegration could follow. But I suspect that things will deteriorate, and then some sort of solution will be thought of, and then the European momentum will begin to grow again – after a crisis of several years.”

The UK risks being at the margins, thanks largely to militant English anti-Europeanism, Davies warns. “In the UK, the good cause of Europeans working together is stalling. Eurosceptics are getting the microphone more and more. If there is a really big crisis, the stage will be set for a major push by the eurosceptics for renegotiation of the EU relationship or even exit.”

In comes the second course: a saffron-flavoured risotto to which Giorgio has added some crunchy jumbo prawns. Our plates are colourful and loaded. “When people eat, they don’t make war,” Giorgio tells us, pouring two more glasses of Sister Moon.

Davies returns, with some warmth, to the theme of the rotten old English. “They are appallingly confused about who they are. They use the [UK] national anthem for the England football team. They should play ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ instead.”

He lists various examples of English insensitivity or chauvinism towards the UK’s other nationalities (he himself is of Welsh stock). The name of Scotland was once suppressed in favour of “north Britain”. As for Thomas Babington Macaulay, the Victorian author and one of the English-speaking world’s most renowned historians, “his History of England is actually about the British Isles. Only in the mid-20th century did people begin to question this.”

The UK is unlikely to last, Davies thinks, because the historical pillars on which the state was founded – the British empire, the Royal Navy, Protestant ideology and the monarchy – are either vanished or eroded. “Historical change is like an avalanche. The starting point is a snow-covered mountainside that looks solid. All the changes take place under the surface and are rather invisible. But something is coming. What is impossible is to say when.”

It seems impossible that Giorgio is going to arrive with more food, but he does. There’s a green salad, followed by fish – handsome slices of sea bass and bream, and more of those chunky jumbo prawns. “The older you get, the more large meals become something of an ordeal,” Davies observes.

He tucks in, anyway, remarking that in Kraków, Poland’s second city, where he and his Polish wife have an apartment, his local shop offers 32 varieties of bread.

Next to God’s Playground, Davies is probably best known for Europe: A History, a bestselling 1996 work that spans the continent’s entire history. What caught the reading public’s imagination, among other devices, was the author’s use of “capsules”, self-standing one-page passages in which he described events or themes for which the main text had no space. “Ah, the capsule. I ought to have patented it. I’d be very well off,” he says.

Then his brow darkens. “The interesting thing about Europe: A History is that it’s extremely well-known everywhere except Oxford. I’ve never been asked to talk about it at Oxford. Probably because it’s a popular history book, beneath their dignity.”

In the most controversial episode of his academic career, Davies sued Stanford University for damages in 1986 on the grounds that he had been unfairly denied a faculty post because of his defence of Polish behaviour towards Jews under the Nazi occupation. He lost his case in a California appeals court but his reputation for combativeness lived on.

It is intriguing to learn that he has written all his books by hand. “I tend to spend a lot of time thinking and then writing fast. I don’t like staring at a screen. On a computer I’m eternally tempted to cross out. You lose the flow.”

Hello, what’s this? Giorgio is back with two types of tiramisù and some panna cotta. I silently count my blessings that I gave up desserts 40 years ago. Davies, the hungriest historian I have ever met, is up for the challenge.

The clock is ticking: I have a flight to catch. Davies tells me he has just persuaded Leszek Czarnecki, a Polish businessman, to set up a £10m fund for a Polish modern studies programme at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

We share some thoughts about the declining knowledge of modern languages in the UK, and then I must go. Davies comes downstairs with me and waves goodbye. As my taxi speeds to the airport, he lingers at the restaurant entrance. Like me, perhaps, he knows that no Italian blowout is complete without coffee and a grappa.

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor


Donna Marzia

Sopot, Poland

Parma ham, mozzarella, beef carpaccio, bruschetta, grilled vegetables, Parmesan cheese x 2

Saffron risotto with jumbo shrimps x 2

Green salad x 2

Sea bass, bream, jumbo shrimps x 2

Tiramisù classico, tiramisù with limoncello, panna cotta with a cherry x 1

Glasses of Prosecco x 2

Glasses of Sister Moon 2007 x 4

Total (incl service) 900 zlotys (£179)

Get alerts on Oxford when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section