Vanished Kingdoms: drubbing European national myths

Historian Norman Davies challenges conventional notions about the nature of the continent and its evolution with alternative perspectives.

Vanished Kingdoms
Norman Davies
Allen Lane
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For many of us, Europe means no such thing at all. Instead, “Europe” is a byword for a small collection of mostly western nations: France, predominantly; Italy, of course, and Spain, perhaps Portugal, places that offer the allure of fine dining and sophisticated culture. Germany must be included in this list, for somewhere on its eastern flanks, this Europe ends and another one begins.

The British historian Norman Davies has spent much of his career battling such blinkered provincialism. Part of this is a legacy of the Cold War, when Europe was divided along eastern and western lines. Communist Eastern Europe fell apart after 1989, but an Iron Curtain of the mind still persists, artificially dividing Europe into two halves. There are exceptions – no one would consider Prague anything but a jewel among European cities – but we could not say the same thing about, say, Bucharest.

Davies has been a scourge of such thinking. His early work was devoted to the history of Poland, where he is something of a national hero: for Davies, Kraków has every right to be mentioned in the same breath as Paris. He stands up for the forgotten, the neglected and the marginal. Small nations such as Estonia get a sympathetic hearing from Davies, even if his advocacy, at times, leads to a certain crudeness of touch. He is a historiographical pugilist; he throws a lot of sharp elbows. His visceral anti-communism suggests that it was the Soviet Union, almost more than the Third Reich, that posed the greatest threat to the 20th century.

In his gargantuan and controversial previous work Europe: A History, Davies ripped up the map of the continent, and made over Europe into an altogether more exotic, troubled and diverse civilisation, one that ignores such truths at its peril. In many ways, his mammoth new work (he seems to write no other kind) is a continuation of his earlier tome. Vanished Kingdoms: A History of Half-Forgotten Europe, proposes an alternative vision of the past 2,000 years of European history. It is a Baedeker of kingdoms, duchies, republics and empires that once dotted the European map. With the EU in a permanent state of crisis, a book about deceased polities seems almost cruelly well timed.

Davies' theme could be taken from a few lines of Shelley's Ozymandias: Look upon his work and despair. Nothing beside remains. This is not a very cheerful book. Starting with Visigoths, and stopping at Burgundy, Byzantium, Prussia, the province of Galicia, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and ending with the Soviet Union, Davies, with a comparative and bold sweep, ploughs through a complex maze of cultural, political and military themes. In typically brusque, lapel-grabbing fashion, he accuses his readers of amnesia and historians of "an addiction with great powers". Davies' concern here is the past's losers. His message: every nation will wind up in history's dustbin.

“The panorama of the past is indeed studded with greatness, but it is filled in the main with lesser powers, lesser people, lesser lives and lesser emotions,” he observes gloomily. “Most importantly, students of history need to be constantly reminded of the transience of power, for transience is one of the fundamental characteristics both of the human condition and of the political order. Sooner or later, all things come to an end. Sooner or later, the centre cannot hold. All states and nations, however great, bloom for a season and are replaced.”

The history lesson Davies delivers is a sharp rebuke to anyone complacent about the current map of Europe. Powerful states such as France and Germany may seem immutable; but they are no more or less secure than the realms Davies surveys across 700 pages. In a book of such ambition and reach, there is frequently tedium to navigate. Not all of Davies’ chapters hold together. But at his best, he deepens our understanding of the evolution of Europe.

Take the instance of Burgundy, perhaps the most complex of the polities Davies surveys. Once a vast entity, Burgundy in its early version was roughly divided into French and German-speaking sections. But, as Davies explains, even this distinction is inaccurate. If one tries to pinpoint Burgundy to a specific – usually French – location, that is to miss “the key feature, namely that Burgundy was a moveable feast”. Burgundy was an ever-shifting, mutating kingdom.

At its apogee, in the mid-15th century, Burgundy stretched from the south of France all the way to the Flemish plains, and included Dijon, Luxembourg, Bruges, Ghent, Grenoble, Geneva, Brussels and Amsterdam. Through a combination of strategic marriages, bequests, dowries and conquest, Burgundy flourished. So complex was its organisation that one of the illustrious duke-counts, Charles le Temeraire (“The Rash”), who ruled from 1467-77, held nothing less than 15 titles: count of Artois, duke of Limburg, duke of Brabant, duke of Lothier, duke of Burgundy, duke of Luxembourg, count-palatine of Burgundy, margrave of Namur, count of Charolais, count of Zeeland, count of Flanders, count of Zutphen, duke of Guelders, count of Hainault and count of Holland.

Davies delights in such dynastic minutiae, but the going can get monotonous. He stays close to high politics and royal squabbles, the old-fashioned stuff of an A-level syllabus. But he often deploys clever tricks of historical perspective to upset conventional notions about European history.

The mighty Prussia, motor of the modern German state, is often associated with authoritarianism and martial values that led to two world wars in the 20th century. But there is more to the story. “Prussia” was actually divided into two halves, Ducal Prussia and Royal Prussia. The latter fell into Polish orbit, and was eventually incorporated into the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania in 1569 and was “the source of a separate political ideology and culture, based on concepts of freedom and liberty”. Davies writes: “Though the population was ethnically mixed, Polish and German ... the corporate identity and fierce local patriotism of Royal Prussia digressed markedly from the values with which the name of ‘Prussia’ is usually associated.”

Later German histories, Davies notes, omitted such facts: to German nationalists, Prussia could never be subservient to Poland.

National myths come in for a drubbing from Davies. And he doesn’t let Great Britain off the hook, either. In a mordant chapter on the duchy of Saxe-CoburgGotha, Davies mercilessly dissects the German provenance of the House of Windsor. Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, it will be remembered, was Prince Albert, born Franz Albrecht, who hailed from the house of Saxe-Coburg. There is much German blood in royal bloodlines from various Hanovers, Tecks and Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburgs, but these roots have been downplayed. Britain’s royal family may be held up as national monuments but, as Davies jibes, “they decided to pretend that it was something it wasn’t, and isn’t”.

He isn’t much more charitable about the future of the United Kingdom, whose days are numbered. That Scotland will break away is, he thinks, a matter of “when”, not “if”. Thus the United Kingdom will become yet another Vanished Kingdom; but such, Davies suggests, is the way of history.

Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.