2013 Heinz – Nixdorf Erasmus Lecture: Norman Davies „Centuries of change: Wroclaw – Breslau – Vratislavia”#
His special interest in Central and Eastern Europe was unusual among contemporaries. It started in 1958 when four school-leavers drove from Lancashire to Istanbul and back in an ex-US Army Jeep. It was consolidated by further adventurous travels: by intensive Russian courses and by post-doctoral study at the Jagiellonian University, where he obtained a Ph.D.
Unlike most academics, Norman Davies began his career as a school teacher. During a four-year spell, he worked at every level from primary to Sixth Form, at a girls’ school and then at St. Paul’s. These experiences honed his skills as a lecturer and educator, and primed the arts of simple narrative and clear analysis.
As a pupil of AJP Taylor and the nephew of a well-known Lancastrian sportsman and broadcaster, Davies was always familiar with the worlds of publishing and the media. He emerged as a historical author with White Eagle, Red Star (1972) which was written during a research fellowship at St. Antony’s College. he found his way into radio and later TV via the BBC World Service to which he made contributions relative to current affairs in the Soviet Block.
Davies’ academic career centred on the School of Slavonic Studies, University of London, where he was successively Lecturer, Reader and Professor. A quarter of a century in London was supplemented by regular assignments abroad at Columbia, Mc Gill, Hokkaido, Stanford, Harvard, Adelaide and the ANU in Canberra. He was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1997.
The stay at Stanford was particularly eventful. It started with the prospective offer of an endowed chair and ended when the offer was mysteriously cancelled before it could be formalised by Board of Trustees. Stanford’s decision, which contradicted the unanimous recommendation of it’s own Search Committee, remained unsubstantiated for months, and since all grievance procedures were refused, became the subject of a lengthy but inconclusive law suit. It eventually emerged that an unnamed group of critics had taken offense at one chapter in Davies’ prize-winning history of Poland, God’s Playground (1981). Davies remembers the episode stoically – as evidence of academic small-mindedness and of fate awaiting anyone who confronts entrenched opinions and prejudices.
Nonetheless, the budding author surged ahead. After the collapse of Communism, God’s Playground was adopted by Poland’s Ministry of Education as compulsory reading for all history students in state schools and universities. Europe: A History (OUP, 1996) became a Number 1 best-seller in Britain and The Isles: A History (1999) confirmed Davies’ reputation as an iconoclast. Microcosm (2000) written with Roger Moorhouse, presents the little known history of a Central European city, Wroclaw / Beslau; whilst Rising ’44 (2003) has eclipsed all previous studies of the Warsaw Rising. According to the the author, Europe At War is bound to encounter turbulence.
Over the years, Norman Davies has received many honours. He was awarded the CMG in 2001 for ‚services to history’, and has collected several Polish distinctions including the Order of Merit. He is an honorary citizen of several cities, including Wroclaw: and the holder of numerous honorary degrees, most recently a D. Litt from Sussex.
Though formally retired from his academic post in 1996, Norman Davies continues to write and publish. He lives in Oxford and Cracow with his wife Maria, and has two sons. From 2000 – 2006 he was a Supernumerary Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford: and is now a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge.