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VINE VOICEon May 20, 2006
In the preface to the first edition published in 1984, Norman Davies writes, "No history book which sets out to relate the past to the present is written at the right time." Davies For Davies, the time he chose was 1983 - a few years into Jaruzelski's military coup and what appeared to be a definite lull in the historical action. 1983, as it turns out was also on the cusp of the great changes that the fall of communism had in store for the world by the end of the 1980's.

This is also where the book begins and then proceeds in a reverse chronological fashion to cover 5 separate periods of history including first, the period of the People's Republic (1944-1983), second, the period encompassing World War II (1939-1947), third, World War I and the interwar period (1914-1939), fourth, history during the Partitions (1795-1918) and fifth, historic Poland (history prior to 1795).

Davies then returns to 1983 to demonstrate the "past in Poland's present" or as Davies more eloquently puts it, "Such is the burden of History in Polish consciousness, that any full appreciation of the Polish crisis requires a full examination of the way in which the chief actors on the political scene perceived their roles in relation to the nations traditions." The next chapter is (now) a misnomer entitled "Beyond History" in which Davies reflects on the state of affairs in 1983 and is looking forward to the not-to-distant future. This chapter was the last chapter of the First and Second Editions and, as it turned out, Davies did not have to wait long before the not-to-distant future arrived in 1989 in which the People's Republic melted away. This inspired a new chapter for the 3rd edition entitled "Liberation" and covers the period from 1983 to roughly 2000.

Davies' work has a two-fold purpose. The first purpose is to demonstrate that one who has recourse to history can more fully understand and appreciate the significance of present day events. That is not to say that the past predetermines the present, but it is to say the present loses its meaning and significance without its relation to the past.

The second purpose was to show that although much of Poland's past lies at the intersection of East and West (or to use Samuel Huntington's formulation, between the Western Civilization and the Orthodox Civilization), Poland's proper place is in the West and it was Davies' hope when he first published that Poland would move out of the Soviet orbit and back into the Western world. Those hopes were realized when Poland joined NATO and the EU.

Davies' work is not so much history as it is historical argument and, as such, is a fine historical argument. If one is looking for a more traditional history, I would recommend M.B. Biskupski's "The History of Poland" (short), or Adam Zamoyski's "The Polish Way" (medium) or Norman Davies' "God's Playground" (long).
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on December 13, 1998
Davies ruffled feathers of academics especially with his perspective on the fate of Jews in Poland during WW II. Poles often are presumed guilty of "not doing enough" to help Jews escape the Nazis. Davies argues that Poles were also in need of help and not in any position to offer others much help. His argument conflicted with views generally held by Jewish intellectuals and others and he had claimed that their influence had him removed from a proposed teaching position at a university. In any case, the book should be read as a serious contribution to understanding Polish history, and not as a polemical threat to anybody's "ironclad" notions.
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on November 8, 1997
This a very well researched, comprehensive piece of work that discusses the salient features of Polish history. It's worth reading just as a fairly short and very readable version of the Polish history that is written by a non-Pole. In addition, the author takes on the difficult task of trying to provide a historical perspective on the frustration of Poles put under the Soviet-imposed communist rule and, more specifically, on the historical roots of the Solidarity freedom movement. The original, inverted structure of the book (the most recent events first) serves these goals well but it may be frustrating for readers accustomed to the traditional chronological approach to history. Nevertheless, I liked this structure. I would recommend this book to any Pole and people interested in the history of Poland and Central Europe. In addition, this is a great reading for people of any nationality interested in the Soviet imperialism and in the historical reasons for its ultimate failure.
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on January 27, 2005
Well written book, takes a very comprehensive look at the history of not just Poland, but the entire region, and the forces that shaped it. The narration is reverse-chronological, starting with the most recent events, and tracing them back in history. It's worth reading just for his thesis about Poland's history bein characterized by cycles of great idealism and great pragmatism - a paradoxical merger, but one that works to this day.
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on November 13, 1998
I learned more about history of Poland then from any history lessons. Especially I apreciate history of Polish Jews and origins of Polish Nation.
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on November 22, 2011
The book arrived in time and in very good condition indeed. I had borrowed a neighbors book, but found that the writer wrote in such an interesting fashion that I had to have a similar book for my library. It is full of detail, almost a reference book on the topic. It is a treasured part of my library. I am very pleased at the delivery and the book itself.
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on February 4, 2016
Norman Davies has written a number of books about Poland and Eastern Europe. His opus, God's Playground, is used in teaching history in Poland. This book is easier to manage and gives a glimpse of the terror that was laid onto Eastern Europe in general and Poland in particular by both the Nazis and the Soviets. Sometimes dry but always meaty, it is well worth the effort to read it cover to cover. But then I lived that era and had family murdered both by the Nazis and Soviets as well as sent to the Gulags.
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on September 6, 2014
The book offers a lot of information and is sweeping and in-depth. However, what seems to take too much of Davies' effort is an overly nuanced portrait of various political organizations headed by obscure figures with even more obscure second and three-in-command characters which drags on for pages. Many times his venture into political history leaves you in a maze of acronyms whose significance to the wider narrative you doubt whenever you sense a tiny vein in your head bursting from exhaustion. On page 82 of the Oxford 2001 edition there are, by my count, eight unique organizations discussed. All short-handed to acronyms (be prepared to continually reshuffle through previous pages). On page 83 he introduces two new ones.

I am deeply interested in Polish history and maybe a little more keen on this subject than the casual reader (I've lived, and studied in Krakow for over a year thus far). However, Heart of Europe is written in a way which assumes you have read, and absorbed, both volumes of Davies' God's Playground (what I'm told is the definitive history of Poland). Davies will 'explain' (what seems like an important event) with two or three sentences in a tone which assumes you know know all about it already. Here is an example from page 142 dealing with the November Rising of 1830-31: “Of course, the attempted assassination of the Tsar's brother was a serious matter; but the subsequent dethronement of the Tsar by an infuriated Diet might well have been avoided if Nicholas had taken the advice of his loyal Polish minister.” Who tried to assassinate the Tsar's brother, where, for what purpose, who was the Diet? None of it is discussed beyond that one awkward sentence. Not even a suggestion to “See Norman Davies, God's Playground...” It reads like he's four beers deep talking shop with a colleague.

And this is how the book largely operates. It is sweeping, but frequently sweeping aside what most readers of history would probably think important. It is in-depth as well, but often at the expense of the broader argument's lucidity. It is fascinating at times but more often frustrating. If you do find yourself reading it, be prepared to do some research on your own at various intervals. But if I could do it all over again I would hunker down for a few months with both volumes of God's Playground.
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on September 12, 2010
Not just bones and flesh on a telling of the history of a brave but battered European nation. Davies captures the soul of the nation and its struggle to survive
for its third millenium.
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on May 27, 2014
This book does not go chronologically. It jumps around history in a way that makes even more sense than going chronologically. The world is lucky to have such an avid English writer studying the history of such a fascinating country. Thank you so much.
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