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.

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