Norman Davies’s new book is an expedition along the byways of European history. It is in part a traveller’s tale, as Davies tours his half-forgotten realms, describing people and landscape, searching for memories and physical remains of these vanished kingdoms. Combined with this are the ruminations of a historian about the states and societies that are this book’s heroes and the reasons why they vanished from the map. Very much in evidence are Davies’s sympathy for history’s “losers”, his quirky but often revealing vignettes of people and events, and his subtle grasp of the complexities of language and identity. Though he is famous as a historian of Poland and eastern Europe, Vanished Kingdoms is nicely balanced between the continent’s west, east and south.
The book is stronger in its parts than as a coherent whole. This is almost inevitable, given the enormous range and diversity of the kingdoms Davies discusses. The first chapter covers the Visigoths of southern France in the 5th century AD. The final chapter is devoted to the Soviet Union. The vanished kingdoms include great powers and minute statelets such as Saxe-Coburg. One of the realms he describes – Galicia in what is now western Ukraine – was never actually an independent state. Most of Davies’s kingdoms fell victim to war and geopolitics but by no means all of them. In the cases of Savoy and Prussia, for example, realms disappeared because of their success in creating larger and more powerful countries in which their own Savoyard and Prussian identities dissolved over time.
Perhaps Davies’s saddest case is that of the Rusyns, a small east Slav people squeezed between Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. Rusyn identity is often defined in negative terms – they are not Russian, Polish or even Ukrainian. Left adrift by the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1939, their independent statehood lasted for just one day before their former Hungarian masters re-asserted their power. On the surface there is not much in common between the Rusyn statelet of one day and the Soviet superpower that had such a huge impact on the international relations of an era. But Davies’s story is really a medieval morality play. Great and small, rich man and beggar all end up in a common grave. Davies looks at the USSR through the prism of Estonia’s experience under Soviet rule. He focuses in part on disputes between Estonians and Russians since 1991 about historical memory, above all about the second world war. But his overall conclusion about the collapse of the USSR follows closely that of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: the Soviet regime and ideology was based on a lie and both disintegrated when the country’s rulers began to allow the truth to be told.
The only general conclusions to be drawn from the book are that no state is eternal and that we would be unwise to assume that the world of contemporary states and governments is deeply rooted or immutable. That is certainly true. In today’s Europe Ukraine is an independent state, though whether it will remain one within its present borders is a moot point. Scotland could well soon become independent (Davies believes this is more or less inevitable) but the idea of an independent Bavaria seems fantastic. Go back 150 years to the 1860s and Bavaria was an independent state: a contemporary onlooker would have been justifiably sceptical whether Catholic Bavarians would ever live at peace in a Germany run by northern Protestants. The same observer would probably not have questioned the existence of a Scottish nation but would undoubtedly have been amazed by the thought that it might one day seek independent statehood. As for Ukraine, few Europeans conceived it as a nation, let alone a possible sovereign nation-state.
The irony that Vanished Kingdoms is published at a time when many speculate about the survival of the European Union will not be lost on Davies; indeed, this might be taken as proving his point. It was generally accepted by 1900 that only states of continental scale would be great powers in the coming century. That was the geopolitical logic underpinning the age of imperialism. Both history and geography make it difficult to create continental-scale empires in Europe, a reality rammed home at terrible cost by two world wars. So after 1945 European elites attempted to achieve empire’s benefits by constructing a continental-scale confederation that many of them hoped would one day evolve almost unnoticed into a federal state. One of the great achievements of the EU was to integrate what had previously been Europe’s “Second World” southern and western periphery (Ireland, Iberia, Italy) into the continent’s “First World” core. Now this achievement threatens to unravel, possibly pulling the whole EU down in its wake. If indeed we return to anything like the 1930s world of competitive devaluations and regional trading blocs then the need for a European Union will be clear. European integration was born out of the crisis of 1939-45 and maybe requires renewed crisis if it is to progress further. But such crises inflict a terrible price. Nor is there any guarantee that politicians or their electorates will respond to crisis in rational and constructive fashion.
Davies’s key lesson about the mutability of states and borders is probably even more relevant and important when applied outside Europe. Of all the examples of “nation-killing” in modern times few were more bloody or more beneficial to the world than the violent demise of the Southern Confederacy of 1861-65. The leading states in contemporary Asia are (with the exception of Japan) more like empires than European-style nations. The Habsburg Empire appears an extraordinary anachronism in 20th-century Europe but has revealing parallels with contemporary India. By 1900 the rulers of many empires believed that survival required the consolidation of as much as possible of their multi-ethnic population into a core nation united by common language, identity and political loyalty. The Chinese have come closest to achieving this goal. Nevertheless potential flashpoints remain in Xinjiang, Tibet and, above all, Taiwan. The golden age of European economic growth was brought to a halt by the combination of geopolitical rivalries, nationalism and the complex domestic politics of empire that led to the first world war. Whether one looks at India and Pakistan, or at China and Taiwan, similar disasters cannot be ruled out. Given the already enormous range of Norman Davies’s book, however, one can hardly reproach him for not having travelled beyond the European continent.
Dominic Lieven is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge
Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, by Norman Davies, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 848 pages