Friday, 19 October 2012

From The Catholic Herald, October 19, 2012

The great states that faded from the map of Europe
By Patrick West

Review of 'Vanished Kingdoms', by Norman Davies, Allen Lane (£30)

Tales of the decline and fall of empires have always fascinated writers and readers, whether it be of the Romans, Byzantines or Ottomans, the ancién regimes of France and Russia sleepwalking towards catastrophe, or the squalid last days of the Third Reich. We all remember the “downfall” of Nazi Germany, as the film by that name attests. But as Norman Davies relates in this collection of essays, there are many other states that have faded from history, disappearing not only from the maps of Europe but from the pages of its history books. For these, posterity has not so much been unkind as amnesiac.

There is nothing inevitable about the course of history, the author reminds us. Countries are born and die, just like people, and none are immune to the capricious hand of fate. There were empires that once looked too grandiose, too imprinted on the world’s consciousness, ever to expire. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War regarded the Soviet Union as an monolith seemingly outside time itself. Then, in 1991, it practically abolished itself overnight. The Byzantine and Ottoman empires had been sick for much longer periods, but few really contemplated that their maladies would be terminal. They seemed too much part of the mental furniture.

Conversely, others that had looked doomed managed to escape extinction. Sweden in the 18th century and Spain in the 19th were both frail and degenerate states, vulnerable to conquest by a foreign aggressor. Yet neither had one. The union of Poland and Lithuania, for centuries one of the largest and most powerful polities in Europe, famously did have its predators, to the degree that Poland was wiped off the map in 1795. Yet Prussia, one of Poland’s executioners, had owed its survival to a stroke of good fortune. In January 1762, as the Russians laid siege to Berlin, with Frederick II on the point of suicide after having lost half his troops, Empress Catherine the Great suddenly died. She was succeeded by her nephew, Peter III, a Prussophile who called off the offensive and offered an honourable peace. Without Prussia, there might not have been a united German, and, later, no European Union.

Like Prussia, Aragon and Savoy played a role in uniting the countries that are today part of the natural order of things: Spain and Italy. Like Prussia, Aragon and Savoy were subsumed by the nation states they had helped to create. Others proved to be ephemeral: the old British Alt Clud, the Kingdom of the Rock; Etruria, a Napoleonic puppet state established in Tuscany; the multitude of states that went by the name of Burgundy; and Carpatho-Ukraine, independent for one day in 1939. 

This often rich and fascinating work will certainly appeal to readers who, such as myself, wiled away childhood Saturday afternoons leafing through The Times Illustrated History of the World, intrigued by the way the European landscape looked so exotic and, well, Byzantine. Likewise, Vanished Kingdoms is a compendium that invokes images of heroic battles, dynastic squabbles, the shifting of allegiances and tales of the valiant and the vanquished. “All the best-known polities in history have passed through ... infancy, and many have lived to a grand old age,” writes Davies. “Those which failed have perished without making their mark. In the chronicles of bodies, as in the human condition in general, this has been the way of the world since time immemorial.” There is a pervasive mystical and mythical element, reminiscent of The Old Testament or J R R Tolkien’s epic The Silmarillion, of man’s struggle with destiny and the sometimes cruel hand of providence. 

Yet, like The Silmarillion, it is too long, and has pedantic passages mired in dynastic inventories. Of the Visigothic Kingdom of Tolosa, the author explains: “They were to be ruled for the rest of the century by five kings: Theodoric I, Thorismund, Theodoric II, Euric and Alaric II. Theodoric I and Alaric II would both be killed in battle. Thorismund and Theodoric II were both murdered. Euric, the younger brother of both Thorismund and of the second Theodoric, brought the kingdom to the peak of its wealth and power.” This is interesting if you’re really into Visigoths, but many of us are not. 

Neither will the general reader be much concerned as to how other authors and websites have got the history of Burgundy wrong, which Davies addresses for several pages. Yet the next chapter, on Aragon, opens: “Perpignan is the chef-lieu of France’s most southerly department, the Pyrénées-Orientales.” France’s most southernly department is actually Corse-du-Sud. One can only assume that the editors and proofreaders were afraid to interfere with the Professor’s copy, which is a shame, as some pruning and cleaning would have made this an excellent read.

There are further problems. Some of the “vanished kingdoms” in Vanished Kingdoms don’t warrant the appellation. Galacia was never truly an independent state and neither was Ruthenia. Montenegro is hardly past recall, and has been a sovereign state since 2006. The last two chapters, on Éire and the USSR, are particularly unnecessary. The former has not vanished and the latter, not “half-forgotten” by any description, still exists in spirit under Putin’s Russian imperium, which still considers Georgia and Ukraine within its sphere of influence. 

Perhaps this is the fault of the publishers, eager to put a spurious common theme to an otherwise interesting collection of historical essays. Still, the chapter on Ireland resembles more a newspaper feature, speculating about the collapse of the United Kingdom, in which, in the spirit of documentaries about asteroids collisions or earthquakes, Davies says that it is not a matter of if the union falls, but “only the ‘how’ and the ‘when’”. This is diverting conjecture, but it is not history. Indeed, watching events in the EU – surely a candidate for a future vanished kingdom – I don’t think it’s even true.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

in Culture Wars, October 17, 2012

‘It was either us or them’

Review of 'Unpatriotic History of The Second World War, by James Heartfield' (Zero Books, 2012)

in The Catholic Herald, October 12, 2012

The British public is eager to be offended.
By Patrick West

There is something about "Muslim anger" that many in the West find difficult to comprehend. How can representations of Mohammed in a YouTube video, a film that barely anyone saw, or cartoons in French or Danish publications, which hardly anyone read, generate such a violent reaction? As Kenan Malik, author of From Fatwa to Jihad, wrote after the events: "The extraordinary violence unleashed across the Muslim world by Innocence of Muslims, an obscure US-made video, has left many bewildered and perplexed."

This perplexity, however, is often combined with a feeling of superiority. The ostensibly touchy and childish behaviour of some Muslims is depicted in contrast to our open, secular society, which is sufficiently mature to deal with offensive images and films. Many Christians, for instance, objected to
The Life of Brian, but the Monty Python team didn't go into hiding for two decades as a consequence. But such smugness is unwarranted, as we in the West have our own form of secular blasphemy. It¹s called "being offensive".

Last year two Christians in Brighton were arrested for displaying a giant banner of a 10-week-old aborted child outside an abortion clinic. After receiving complaints from the public, police asked the protesters to take down the "offensive" banner. They refused and late last month the pair were put on trial but cleared on the grounds of "lack of evidence".

You may disagree with the pair¹s actions. Such photographs could upset children or women about to undergo an abortion. On the other hand, graphic images on cigarette packets aren't very nice either. But society isn't in denial about smoking. The issue here is that (as I saw on the local news) one police officer had reportedly informed the couple: "I find these images offensive." It's not the job of the police to have opinions, of course, but it's not surprising that even they have become sensitive souls these days.

Consider the furore concerning the chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, who allegedly called a police officer a "----ing pleb" after refusing to dismount his bicycle at the gates to Downing Street. The chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation responded that there was an "inbuilt dislike of the police service in general", while the Surrey Police Federation called
Mitchell "a bully". Some suggested that the police are trying to play the victim card in the wake of the Hillsborough report. And I imagine that policemen have been called worse names than "pleb".

Being "offensive" is increasingly a wider police matter. Earlier this year a Welsh student was imprisoned for two months for sending offensive messages on Twitter to a seriously ill footballer, while another "troll" was arrested in a dawn raid for typing nasty things about the diver Tom Daley. Twitter can certainly bring out the worst in people, leading them to hurl disgusting abuse from the safety of their keyboards, but it's concurrently an avenue to censor people who are "offensive". Last year a group of writers launched a campaign against "misogynistic trolling" on the internet, including everything from "threats of rape" to comments that are "strongly and
personally antagonistic towards feminism"  thereby conflating threats of violence with expressing a political opinion: two very different things.

The comedian Frankie Boyle landed himself in trouble last month for making jokes about the Paralympics on Twitter, provoking a Mencap spokesman to say it would be disappointing if Channel 4's coverage of the Paralympics was
"undermined by providing a comedian who has repeatedly caused profound offence to disabled people opportunities to do so again". A statement from the station replied: "Frankie Boyle was tweeting from his personal account and not on behalf of Channel 4. He is not under contract and there are no
shows planned with him."

Frankie Boyle isn't Alan Titchmarsh or Pam Ayres. You don't expect sweetness and light from him. Being offensive is what Frankie Boyle does. Still, members of the public are eager to be offended, because being offended permits one to be a victim, as victimhood bequeaths righteousness. The
emotive, subjective argument that used to be confined to traumatised guests on the Kilroy show years ago  "How would you like it if happened to you!?" has become the unspoken mantra for a society in which personal feeling counts for expertise.

Twitter is a perfect avenue for the lonely and unhappy to give meaning to their lives. It gives the powerless the illusion of power. This is what causes people to get "outraged" about silly articles in the Daily Mail they haven't read, Page 3 girls in a newspaper they never buy or pictures of topless royalty they haven't seen.

Recently Gerry Adams described as "deeply hurtful" allegations that he sanctioned the 1973 Old Bailey bombing, which I imagine is an invitation to "feel his pain". Back then in the 1970s football fans were caged behind perimeter fences to stop them misbehaving. Now they are micromanaged, facing arrest for swearing or "indecent chanting". Such is the insidious nature of our "You can't say that" culture.

It is often remarked that profanities and jokes are signifiers of society's taboos. You aren't going to cause a stir in polite society today if you take the Lord's name in vain, but you will if you use a coarse description of female genitalia. You will certainly get into trouble if you make the kind of jokes Bernard Manning did 40 years ago non-ironically. Andrew Mitchell's sin was not in using the F-word, but the P-word - pleb - as class snobbery is taboo but the usage of vulgar Anglo-Saxon isn't.

In our current climate of censoriousness and fear of causing offence, I bet The Satanic Versus wouldn't get published if it were written today - not for being blasphemous, but for "hurting people's feelings". This is to say, all societies have taboos and associated transgressions. Anyone who thinks a
nominally liberal and secular society is consequently free of intolerance must be joking. 

Patrick West is a columnist for