Davies, Norman 1939–

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Davies, Norman 1939–


Born June 8, 1939, in Bolton, England; son of Richard and Elizabeth Davies; married Maria Zielinska (a physician), December 26, 1966; children: two sons. Education: Attended University of Grenoble, 1957-58; Magdalen College, Oxford, B.A. (honors), 1962; University of Sussex, M.A., 1966; Jagiellonian University, D.Phil., 1968.


Home—Oxford, England, and Cracow, Poland. Office—School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, Senate House, Malet St., London WC1, England. Agent—David Godwin Associates (GDA), 55 Monmonth St., Covent Garden, London WC2H 9DG, England.


Oxford University, St. Antony's College, Oxford, England, research fellow, 1969-70; University of London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London, England, lecturer in history, professor, senior professor, then emeritus, 1970—.


Royal Historical Society (fellow).


Order of Merit (Poland); CMG, 2001, for services to history; numerous honorary degrees; honorary citizen of several cities, including Wroclaw, Poland.


White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920, foreword by A.J.P. Taylor, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1972.

Poland Past and Present: A Select Bibliography of Works in English on Polish History, Oriental Research Partners (Newtonville, MA), 1976, reprinted as Poland Past and Present: A Select Bibliography of Works in English, Oriental Research Partners, 1977.

God's Playground: A History of Poland, Volume 1: The Origins to 1795, Volume 2: 1795 to Present, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1981, revised edition, 2005.

Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1984, revised edition published as Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland's Present, 2001.

(Editor, with Antony Polonsky) Jews in Eastern Poland and the USSR, 1939-46 (portions previously presented at the International Conference on the History and Culture of Polish Jews held in Jerusalem in February 1988), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Europe: A History, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1996.

Auschwitz and the Second World War in Poland: A Lecture Given at the Representations of Auschwitz International Conference at the Jagiellonian University, July 1995 = Auschwitz i druga wojna s'wiatowa w Polsce: Odczyt wygłoszony na Uniwersytecie Jagiellon'skim podczas międzynarodowejkonferencji Representations of Auschwitz w lipcu 1995 roku (published in English and Polish), Universitas (Krakow, Poland), 1997.

Orzeł biały, czerwona gwiazda: Wojna polskobolszewicka 1919-1920, ZNAK (Krakow, Poland), 1997.

The Isles: A History, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999.

(With Roger Moorhouse) Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 2002.

Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw, Macmillan (London, England), 2003, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.

Wielka Koalicja: Raport = The Grand Coalition: A Report, Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego (Warsaw, Poland), 2005.

Europe at War, 1939-1945: No Simple Victory, Macmillan (London, UK), 2006, American edition published as No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945, Viking (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to Historical Journal, Journal of Contemporary History, Times, European Studies Review, Slavonic Review, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, and other journals and newspapers.


Norman Davies' interest in Poland began when a railroad train transporting him to Russia broke down in Warsaw. The accidental stopover inspired him to return to Poland, where he learned the language, married a Polish woman, and developed a strong attachment to the country. The longtime Oxford University professor has since become a noted scholar in Polish history. God's Playground: A History of Poland (Volume 1: The Origins to 1795, Volume 2: 1795 to Present), Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland, and Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw are among his best works on the country he has, in some sense, adopted.

God's Playground, a massive two-volume chronicle of all of Polish history, is "the standard work on the subject in English," according to Atlantic Monthly reviewer Benjamin Schwarz. In addition to the standard, straightforward chronological history, Davies includes a number of chapter-length essays covering specialized topics such as Judaism and Catholicism in Poland, the Polish constitution, and Polish emigres. Although Davies's pro-Polish bias is clear, Schwarz continued, Davies's "scholarly honesty and comprehensiveness" mean that his biases do not compromise the work.

Rising '44 discusses one of the lesser-known stories from World War II: the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. This battle is often confused with the better-known Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, in which Jews who had been imprisoned in that ghetto rose up against the Nazis who kept them there. The 1944 uprising, in contrast, was carried out by Polish partisans who, sensing that the Nazis' defeat was near, hoped to liberate Poland's capital city themselves before the Soviet Red Army arrived. As Davies explains, the Polish government-in-exile in London believed that their American and British allies would support this uprising, as well as the Poles' dream of an independent country. In both cases the Poles were sorely disappointed. Although Britain and the United States tried to airdrop supplies to the Poles, the Soviet Army shot at these airplanes and refused to allow them to land and refuel behind the Soviet lines. The Soviets wished to install a Communist government loyal to them in Poland after the war, and, Davies believes, they were happy to see the Nazis wipe out any Poles who might resist this plan before they arrived. Because of this the Soviet Army, although only a few miles from Warsaw when the uprising began, refused to advance any further and relieve the Polish fighters until after the Nazis had put down the uprising and razed the city to rubble.

The story of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising is a "saga of heroism, betrayal, and tragedy," declared Booklist reviewer Jay Freeman, and Davies chronicles it "with passion, compassion, and a justifiable sense of outrage." The author tells the sixty-three-day story of "the uprising itself in close and enthralling detail," David Pryce-Jones wrote in National Review. He continued: "Davies quotes from diaries, letters, poems, and memoirs, mostly Polish but some German, to personalize this epic of courage, folly, and cruelty…. This is history at its best." Rising '44 "is the definitive history to date of the '44 Warsaw insurrection," Richard M. Watt concluded in the World and I.

Davies partnered with Roger Moorhouse to write Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City, a history of the Polish city of Wroclaw. As the title suggests, the history of this ancient city is in many ways a microcosm of the history of Eastern Europe. Like the rest of Poland, Wroclaw changed hands many times over the centuries. It spent many years as major, largely German-inhabited, city called Breslau; under that name, it belonged variously to Austria, Prussia, and later Germany. After World War II Wroclaw was given to Poland, but without inhabitants: the city's pre-war Jewish population had been killed, and its German inhabitants had been expelled and sent to Germany. Only then did Poles move in and become the city's predominant ethnic group. Davies and Moorhouse do not ignore this history of "ethnic hatred and folly," noted a reviewer for the Economist, yet still "the book is a hymn to diversity and cultural achievement."

Davies has also written the histories of other areas beyond his beloved Poland. In The Isles: A History Davies looks at Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England from the Stone Age to his prediction of their future, portraying their independence and their dynamic relations with each other and Europe. In contrast to an English-dominated history of the region, Davies portrays each entity "on equal footing," related Booklist reviewer Brad Hooper. According to Davies, Britain has had neither "a continuous, let alone homogeneous, national identity" nor "national self-containment," related a reviewer for Economist. Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England each have an independent identity and history and have served as an "integral part of Europe" across time, recounted Hooper. "Davies concentrates on statecraft, culture and language as the makers of collective identity. Economics and social history are pushed to the margins," asserted the Economist contributor, adding, however, that "few are likely to regret this one-sidedness." In the second half of the book Davies enthusiastically argues that the United Kingdom will be dissolved in the future. Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England will regain individual status and restore their place within the European, rather than British, community.

A Publishers Weekly critic praised The Isles, calling the "bestseller in the UK" a "wondrous, landmark chronicle … a superb book." "Bursting with fresh insights on nearly every page, this magisterial narrative, scholarly yet down-to-earth and engrossing, reveals Davies at his iconoclastic best," proclaimed the Publishers Weekly critic. Similarly, the Nation contributor commended of The Isles: "For all its great length, it miraculously retains the pace and exhilaration of an iconoclastic essay." Through place and time, asserted Hooper, the author displays an even and knowledgeable grip of his subject, "mak[ing] readers at home on every page." Hooper also recognized Davies's "remarkable fluidity" in The Isles and well as its predecessor, Europe: A History.

In Europe, which Booklist contributor Brad Hooper described as "Davies' copious unfolding of the entire course of European history," the historian tackles a subject of considerable breadth. The strategies that Davies uses to overcome the challenges inherent in a work with such enormous breadth included the use of "capsules" and "snapshots." "The snapshot … freezes in time a moment of symbolic importance. These are small masterpieces in which history comes to life as individuals wrestle with insoluble problems on imperfect information, often to be overwhelmed by accident," wrote Raymond Carr in the Economist.

"In Europe, [Davies] delivers an ambitious work, writing from the ‘heart’ outward to a comprehensive narrative history of the European past, ranging from prehistoric geological ages to the present. In his passionate introduction, Davies condemns the besetting sin of overspecialization in today's historical profession," wrote Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius in American Scholar. "Davies' introduction is more than a catalogue of the pits in which professional historians have buried themselves," wrote Carr, elaborating: "They are guilty men, he thinks, in that by neglect they have cut of Western Europe from the Europe to the east, excising Poland, Bohemia and Hungary from the history of the Renaissance. By their manipulation of the ambiguous concept of western civilization to exclude the barbarian Slavs, they have accepted a frontier frozen by the cold war. With its end, Mr. Davies implies, the breach can be healed and the excised nations brought into an enlarged Europe."

"[Davies] intends [Europe] as a work of synthesis," related Liulevicius, continuing: "Disregarding Kipling's fiat that ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,’ Davies charts the relations and interactions of the regions of Europe and its peoples, looking below the level of states and power politics to chart the depths of changing manners, national consciousness, and ideas of Europe…. This is unapologetically narrative history." Liulevicius added that Europe "stands in a venerable tradition but provides its compelling account of the past in a new framework, assaulting many pieties of European historiography, to a comprehensively new panorama."

Though the book provoked some controversy, particularly among critics who accused Davies of factual inaccuracy and polemicism, recommendations for Europe abound, such as those given by Carr and Liulevicius. "Norm Davies' large history of Europe charts a common past, traditions, and experience and goes a long way toward realizing important expectations of our present day," stated Liulevicius, who contended: "Davies' account of the coherent whole of Europe is the best possible argument against new lines of division and another round of falsified, incomplete definitions of a Europe limited to the rich and satisfied, leaving out a portion of its heart and soul." Library Journal contributor David Keymer called Europe "highly recommended," believing that it "rests firmly on solid scholarship and exhibits wisdom and literary elegance." "A master of broad-brushstroke synthesis, Davies navigates through the larger historical currents with the detail necessary to a well-written engaging narrative," commented a Publishers Weekly critic of the 1996 release.

Europe at War, 1939-1945: No Simple Victory, published in the United States as No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945, aims to correct misleading views of that war that overstate the role of the western powers and understate the role of the Soviet Union. As Davies shows, western depictions of the war highlight such matters as the German bombing of London (the Blitz) and the sacrifice and victory of D-Day. Important as these events were, however, events directly involving the Soviets were more significant. Russia, Davies writes, lost at least nine million military personnel (compared to Britain's 200,000) and was the site of most of the war's combat. Furthermore, the suffering of civilian populations in the east was staggering in its brutality and reach. In some parts of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, Ukraine, and Byelorussia, as many as twenty-five percent of the civilian population perished; in Britain, civilian casualties totaled less than 0.1 percent.

While citing the central role played by the Soviets in winning the war, however, Davies also emphasizes the murderously imperialist aims of Stalin's regime, which he claims, in the words of Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor, were "as expansionist and unmercifully inhumane as the Nazi tyranny over which it was the principal victor." As a critic for the Economist summarized Davies's argument: "The biggest and bloodiest struggle by far of the European war was between two gangster regimes whose awful treatment of their own people and neighbours is unmatched before or since. That, argues Mr. Davies, makes it hard if not impossible to say that the war was any kind of struggle between a good and evil side."

Reviewing No Simple Victory in the Times Literary Supplement, Adam Tooze felt that the book is not entirely fair in its treatment of the Soviet Union. "The problem is that Davies is in two minds," observed the critic. "He wants to prioritize the Eastern Front and yet at the same time he wishes to avoid making heroes of the Red Army, which he struggles to see as anything more than an instrument of Stalinist dictatorship." But, added Tooze, "we have no hope of understanding the central facts of the Second World War if we spend more time lamenting the perfidy of the Katyn forest [in which Soviet commanders summarily executed approximately 20,000 Polish officers and civilians and tried to disguise the crime as a Nazi atrocity] than we do analysing the extraordinary performance of the Soviet home front."

The Economist writer found much in No Simple Victory affecting and convincing, including starkly juxtaposed data that demonstrate proportions that many western readers might find shocking: that the Soviet gulag killed more people than Hitler's concentration camps, or that the Warsaw uprising in 1944 resulted in casualties equivalent to the deaths from the 9/11 attacks "every day for two months." Yet the reviewer felt that, as a whole, the book sometimes lacks "a sense of fairness and proportion." Spectator contributor Victor Sebestyen made a similar point, concluding that Davies's "interpretation is not always entirely balanced" and that the historian "tilts at windmills that fell into disuse some years ago."

For London Observer critic Jan Morris, as for Sebestyen, Davies's thesis is hardly new. "There may be people still unaware of these fundamental truths about the Second World War," Morris wrote, "but I doubt many of them will be readers of this book." In his Booklist review, however, Taylor noted that many readers might find Davies's information startling. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly made a similar point, calling No Simple Victory a "scathing reappraisal" that "cuts against the grain of popular war histories" while being founded on "solid scholarly work."



American Scholar, fall, 1997, Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, review of Europe: A History, p. 624.

Atlantic Monthly, December, 2002, Benjamin Schwarz, review of God's Playground: A History of Poland, p. 127.

Booklist, December 15, 1997, Gilbert Taylor, "A History of Europe," p. 682; February 1, 2000, Brad Hooper, review of The Isles: A History, p. 1006; May 1, 2004, Jay Freeman, review of Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw, p. 1538; August 1, 2007, Gilbert Taylor, review of No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945, p. 29.

Bulletin with Newsweek, March 13, 2007, Patrick Cook, review of Europe at War, 1939-1945: No Simple Victory, p. 60.

Contemporary Review, September 22, 2007, review of Europe at War, 1939-1945, p. 400.

Economist, November 16, 1996, Raymond Carr, p. S3; April 27, 2002, "What's in a Name: Central European History"; November 11, 2006, "The Madness of Myths; Rewriting History," p. 95.

English Historical Review, June, 2007, Adrian Gregory, review of Europe at War, 1939-1945, p. 795.

Foreign Affairs, March-April, 2007, Philip H. Gordon, review of Europe at War, 1939-1945, p. 173.

History Today, March, 2000, Robert Pearce, "The Isles: A History," p. 55.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2004, review of Rising '44, p. 256; July 1, 2007, review of No Simple Victory.

Library Journal, February 1, 2000, David Keymer, review of Europe, p. 100.

National Review, June 5, 2000, John Derbyshire, "Disunited Kingdom"; May 17, 2004, David Pryce-Jones, "Remember Them," p. 46.

New Statesman & Society, December 20, 1996, Norman Davies, "How I Conquered Europe," pp. 36-38; October 17, 1997, David Herman, review of Europe, pp. 30-32; May 15, 1998, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, "The Hunted, Not the Hunters," p. 35. November 15, 1999, Alistair Moffat, "Jobs and Foxes Will Flee to England," p. 35; December 13, 1999, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "Forging Our History," p. 57.

New York Times Book Review, July 25, 2004, Carlo D'Este, review of Rising '44; September 9, 2007, Susan Rubin Suleiman, review of Europe at War, 1939-1945.

Observer (London, England), October 10, 1999, Andrew Marr, "A History Lesson for Wee Willie," p. 29; December 3, 2006, Jan Morris, "All Trite on the Western Front."

Publishers Weekly, November 24, 1997, "A History of Europe," p. 64; January 24, 2000, review of The Isles, p. 301; June 25, 2007, review of No Simple Victory, p. 47.

Spectator, December 30, 2006, "The Clash of the Armoured Megalosaurs."

Sunday Times (London, England), October 17, 1999, Niall Ferguson, "Breaking up Is Hard to Do if You're British," p. NR4.

Times (London, England), October 30, 1999, Richard Morrison, "Britain Dies as Mr. Tough Rewrites the Past," p. 21.

Times Literary Supplement, November, 16, 2007, Adam Tooze, "Look East."

World and I, August, 2004, Richard M. Watt, "The Warsaw Insurrection: How Polish Capital Ferociously Resisted World War II Occupiers."


BBC Web site,http://www.bbc.co.uk/ (June 4, 2008), John Tusa, interview with Norman Davies.

Norman Davies Home Page,http://www.normandavies.com (June 4, 2008).

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