Events & News


European History: What Non-Europeans Don’t Always Know

Professor Norman Davies

23 Apr 2012

National University of Singapore LT 14, Kent Ridge campus

1.00 – 3.00pm


The renowned historian Prof Norman Davies prefaced his lecture with references from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Iqbal Ahmed’s Empire of the Mind. Starting from the premise that external perceptions tend to hinder a complete understanding of things, Prof Davies launched into an examination of the European history of colonialism, both within and without the continent.

Throughout the centuries, various strands of imperialism in Europe have frequently subjected other Europeans to their rule as they did to other continents. For instance, the Ottoman Empire ruled a quarter of the territories of Europe for 500 years. Also, the four nations of the British Isles (the English, Welsh, Scots and the Irish) were essentially ‘colonised’ by the “English” kingdoms, which was itself displaced by the invading Normans.

Colonial settlement started within Europe long before it did overseas. A striking example is the expansion of German/Teutonic territory into Eastern Europe, the best known of which is Prussia, its lands originally inhabited by Baltic peoples and whose language, unlike related Latvian and Lithuanian, has long since died out. A country like Poland is not generally thought of as a colonial power today. But it had in the past made incursions into present-day Ukraine, and had joined with Lithuania to create the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569, which was at one time the largest country in Europe.

The export of culture and, in particular, of language was a necessary and essential part of European colonialism overseas. But it was also part of the internal European story. For Prof Davies, there are some striking similarities of how Ireland and Singapore were “anglicised” by the British, despite their obvious geographical distance apart and cultural differences.

The majority of European countries were never colonial powers – only 8 or 9 were, out of the 40 or so countries usually considered to constitute Europe. The great powers like Britain and France were not typical of the situation of European states. To Prof Davies, it is ‘lamentable’ that certain historiographies have largely chronicled the great powers and has neglected large swathes of the continent which are nevertheless an integral partof European history. A consideration of historiography, the history of how history has been recorded and promulgated, acted as a summary point of his lecture. Since Western European historians have tended to dominate the field, there has sometimes been a concomitant tendency to overlook certain aspects of the eastern side of the continent, especially during the “Cold War” period. In a sense, a form of “Orientalism” also operated within Europe itself – Western Europe had ‘othered’ Eastern Europe as much as it had ‘othered’ the Near East and other parts of the world.

Prof Davies seemed to be attempting to deconstruct the exceptionalism of European colonialism, both in its presumed merits and accusations of evils. He was certainly no apologist for the record of European colonialism around the world. On the one hand, he did charge that non-European empires were as brutal, if not more brutal, than the European powers were as colonisers – here, the Mongol Empire comes to mind. On the other hand, he emphatically decried any ‘black-or-white’ value judgments of the evils of imperialism by one empire or civilisation over another. He also declined to be drawn into the realms of counterfactual history of “what if”.

Another concept that Prof Davies dislikes is that of European history as a ‘rag-bag of all nationalities’. With such a fixation on national histories, one is left only to talk about diplomacy between European states. Any venture beyond that leaves one only with a parochial view of the continent’s history.

One of Prof Davies’ concluding notes perhaps illustrates how well academic debates have been reflected in reality. Much as it has been hard for historians to agree on a unified narrative of the history of Europe, the project of the Museum of European History in Brussels has consistently run into controversies concerning its contents, always threatening to derail the entire endeavour.