Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations
by Norman Davies
Review published in The New York Review of Books, December 6, 2012
The publication of the British historian Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms fits this moment of widely proclaimed European decline. He is interested in how nations begin, but also with how they disappear -- although one may ask why European “decline,” since for sixty-six years, led by Western Europe, the Europeans have been constructing a community of peaceful cooperation and improving living conditions in states that before were better acquainted with war than peace -- as since has been the case for Americans. That this progress today is arrested is due not so much to European factors as to economic doctrine and practice credulously imported from Wall Street and the University of Chicago Department of Economics.
The case for decline was recently stated by the distinguished Walter Laqueur in a book asking whether “nationalism in Europe will wither sufficiently to make a united Europe possible” despite its economic, social, demographic, and military weaknesses. It is not clear, however, that more unification is the need, or that European success must be defined according to American criteria. By GNP and social standards Europe already surpasses the U.S.
Davies’ book describes another Europe: as it was when European civilization assumed form. He says that power, empire, “greatness” all are transient, and that the future is often worse than what has already passed, and only sometimes better, which is not as commonly assumed. History only promises change, not progress. The author’s account imposes humility before the antiquity and constancy of humanity, and the ultimate irrelevance of state ambition and state pride in the development of human civilization -- to which Western Europe was a relatively late arrival.
During the thirty-five centuries separating the Neolithic from the classical age, Egypt, and its Old and Middle Kingdom predecessors, the Euphrates valley civilizations, the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations anticipating classical Greece (to take the most familiar examples) all preceded Western Europe in humanity’s emergence from the Bronze Age. We contemporaries are mere twigs in a vast human forest, rooted in a prehistoric past of which we still have very incomplete knowledge -- a warning of how ephemeral we and our institutions and events really are -- soon, in our turn, to be tipped into a human past mostly already forgotten, or rarely acknowledged, but which this book painstakingly recounts. Davies’ is an exercise in realism, whose effect is to undermine those ideologies of human perfectibility by which Europe and its intellectual descendants have lived since the Enlightenment.
Davies’ chosen “vanished” kingdoms include Alt Clud, kingdom of the Rock (Scotland, fifth to twelfth centuries AD), Burgundia (411-1795), Aragon (1137-1714), Litva (modern Belarus, 1253-1793), Byzantion (the Eastern Roman or Greek Christian Empire, 330-1453), Borussia (modern Prussia, 1230-1945), Sabaudia (Savoy and Piedmont, 1033-1946), Galicia (1773-1918), Etruria (historic Florence, 1801-1814), Rosenau (Thuringia, 1826-1918), Tsernagora (Montenegro 1910-1918), and Rusyn (Carpatho-Ukraine, 15 March 1939). After a chapter devoted to a republic lasting one tragic day, the ambitious author goes on two states too far, in my opinion: to Éire and the U.S.S.R., which do not belong in this book, being contemporary affairs, about which we already know a great deal, but even Norman Davies perhaps less than he thinks. )
He starts with northwestern European events at the very edge of the known past, the end of the Ice Age and the migrations of ‘Barbarian’ Celtic and Visigoth tribes into northern and western Europe, the latter sacking Rome in 410 AD. Arian heretics, their victory broke the political spell cast by Rome. The Ostrogoths followed, while Picts and Hibernians invaded Britain, and Germanic tribes the “Saxon shore” of southeastern Britain and the northwestern shores of Frankish Gaul.
One of the invaders’ earliest implantations became the Alt Clud, the Kingdom of the Rock, in what today is lowland Scotland, the earliest in Davies’ chapters describing the states that once were great – or not, as he says; or who never had a chance of greatness. The Alt Clud was part of that layer of North European history from which not much more than names, tradition, and material traces of human society survive (3rd to 5th centuries AD). The Celtic tribe of the Damnonii formed this kingdom in the region of today’s Strathclyde (hence “Alt Clud” – Rock of the Clyde), “one of the four kingdoms of ancient Scotland”. Its claim to greatness is that it was never conquered by Romans, Normans, or English. Yet it is no longer there.
Before becoming a great power, Burgundy was also in the north, supposedly on the Danish island of Bornholm (from which its name), located in the Baltic, between Sweden and Poland. Then as now the island has twenty hours of sunlight in high summer, congenial to the Scandinavian nudists who frequent it today, who would have been an embarrassment to the Knights Templar who held the island in the late Middle Ages. The claim that prehistoric Burgundians lived here is not implausible since as Davies says, the earliest inhabitants of Europe were nearly all migrants on the way to somewhere, and why not some of the northern peoples southward, where the summer sun is less generous, but the winters warmer.
Which Burgundy, though, since there are held to have been ten, the original kingdom of the 5th-6th centuries, located in what now is Germany, including Cologne, Worms, and Strasbourg; the Merovingian, which followed; then the version of the kingdom that incorporated Provence (or vice-versa); the kingdom of Jura (or trans-Turane Burgundy), then extended to Arles; a tenth century kingdom that incorporated the previous two; and so on, including for a time modern Switzerland, and then extended to the Mediterranean at Antibes, while including Lyon, Avignon, and Arles. A Gallo-Roman witness to their arrival in today’s Lyon described the Burgundians as “hairy giants, seven feet tall, and gabbling in an incomprehensible tongue.” When in its Merovingian incarnation, Burgundy adjoined the realm of Clovis and the Gauls, and subsequently the Carolingian kingdom that, incorporating Germans, was to become the Holy Roman Empire, successor to pagan Rome – as confirmed by Pope Leo III’s coronation of the German King Otto as Emperor of the Christianized Roman Empire in 962.
Historical memory is short. It tends to dim as it passes the sequence of events responsible for the condition in which an individual lives, and which provides his or her cultural vocabulary. In France that probably would be the Revolution or Enlightenment. In Britain, the Napoleonic Wars, or more likely the First World War; and in the United States, the Second World War (although at the time the Second World War began, it probably would have been the Civil War, at least in the South). For Germans, as Germans, it can’t go back beyond unification and proclamation of the Second Reich in 1871. Although there were Germans from antiquity, there was no German nation, only a nineteenth century confederation of the North German states with Prussia, and otherwise individual imperial polities surviving from the late Middle Ages. United Germany’s operative memory is two World Wars, with inflation between, partition, and the Soviet occupation that followed 1945. Hapsburg Austria’s imperial memories were amputated by war, exile and nationalism.
Davies’ is an unfashionable subject, the history beyond history; his purpose, and accomplishment, to rescue us from the contemporary. How to deal intelligently with contemporary Europe if one is not aware of where it ultimately came from, which may offer a guide to where it is going? The European Union is only the latest attempt to unify Europe, beginning with the Romans -- although a uniquely peaceful one. If it fails for other than economic reasons, one may argue that it is the victim of its own, or the European Commission’s, unrealistic ambitions with respect to expansion and federalism; and one might argue that it has been useful but crippling to be an American client system. Expansion in the 1990s and after, with the door left open, was a generous ambition: to incorporate the Eastern European countries and beyond, victims of the cold war, and to seal the Union with a common currency and central bank, despite the grave disparities and contradictory needs among the member states who joined the currency union.
The monetary union today is also the victim of crime on Wall Street, in an America that, while it sponsored and supported Jean Monnet, has also been wary of Europe as a potential competitor and political rival. Future tension with the United States could cement the EU in its present dimensions, although collectively autonomous, conceivably excluding England as incapable of detaching itself from dependence on Washington, which London considers, possibly erroneously, the assurance of its security. This is the reason why Britain has always blocked West European attempts to create an independent military headquarters and staff, most recently in the Libyan affair. France and Britain initiated the Libyan intervention but Britain would not proceed without American endorsement, and the United States, while reluctant to join the military operation, insisted that it be identified with NATO with nominal command given to an American, even though combat air operations remained exclusively French and British.
If history could be stopped at will, perpetuating the “greatness” of the early great powers when they were at their peak, we could see medieval Europe as an edge of Eurasia where the successors to Roman power included Burgundy and Aragon: nearly all of modern Spain, shed of Berber occupation thanks to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (the Arab architectural and cultural legacy lingering). Spain’s and Portugal’s impact upon the Americas, and destruction of the Americas’ astonishing pre-Colombian civilizations, was to come. Eastward were the German-Gaullish Holy Roman Empire, reaching by way of independent but allied Venice and Malta to Constantinople; Burgundy (which through marriage with the Hapsburgs would eventually extend from Spain to Vienna and acquire the North Sea Coast from Picardy to Holland). Spain’s Empire was eventually to be annexed by the United States because Captain Alfred Mahan wrote a book saying that great nations required empires for coaling stations, resources and markets. The Hapsburg Empire was finished off by the First World War. Aragon and Burgundy are today tourist destinations, but Portugal remained a world empire until 1975, following nearly 500 years existence. (An elderly Portuguese acquaintance once remarked to me on how difficult he had found it to think of his country as a small European state. His education had been that Portugal was a world civilization whose influence and power extended to China, tropical Africa and Brazil, which was true.)
The great power of Central and Eastern Europe in this temporally elastic reconstruction would have been the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, whose frontiers in the sixteenth century extended from Riga on the Baltic, in formerly Teutonic Livonia (Latvia), to modern Danzig-Gdansk, and Konigsberg, also on the Baltic, to Smolensk in the East, Odessa on the Black Sea, and north-eastward from there to near the Bohemian and Hungarian borders, incorporating the modern nations of Ukraine, Belorus, Latvia, and a large piece of Russia, as well as Poland and Lithuania. Beyond Lithuania lay Muscovy, under its first sovereign ruler – Ivan III (“the Great,”) not yet crowned a Tsar (“Caesar” in the Russian language) – but already thinking of itself as the “Third Rome,” successor to Rome itself and Constantinople. To the Southeast was “The Great Horde,” Tatar remnant of the Golden Horde. England until the fifteenth century was still waging its Hundred Years War with France (1337-1453), recovering Normandy at Agincourt (in 1415) with its longbow-men; burning Joan of Arc in 1435; pursuing its war against France’s ally, Scotland; but in mid-15th century succumbing itself to civil war (the War of the Roses).
Davies’ lesson is that the contemporary is always ephemeral. The world now is a European world, thanks to postwar America – but not part of western civilization, other than trivially. From the 1920s forward the most dynamic political and social force in China was western, a nineteenth century British and French secular adaptation of a theory reflecting German Jewish millenarian thought. The same thing was true of much or most of Asia throughout the late twentieth century. Asian resistance to the West, including its revolutionary movements, were versions of European revolutionary doctrines, Communist or sometimes Fascist, efforts to overtake and surpass the West in western terms, sometimes liberal, sometimes anti-imperial or revolutionary, but never their own. India’s last effort to resist Europe, before Gandhi introduced non-violence in the mid-twentieth century, was the Great Rebellion of 1857-58, a desperate effort by the dispossessed ruling classes – nominally led by the last Mogul Emperor. It took fifteen months to suppress; the historian of Western dominance in Asia, K.M. Panikkar, writes that India lacked “the idealism, organization or strength to build up and sustain a State that could at that time have taken over from the British.” From its defeat, there was no threat or challenge to Britain in India until 1947.
In China resistance to European imperialism was by syncretic versions of western missionary teachings (the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions) in the mid- and late nineteenth century, and then Sun Yat-sen’s (Christian) republicanism, and finally the New Tide movement after 1917 in Bejing, a reaction against Western missionary efforts and a great effort at intellectual liberation, from which, among other things, unfortunately came the Chinese Communist Party. Japan, never a colony, set out to appropriate from the West whatever would turn Japan into an equivalent to the Western powers, even to acquiring an equivalent empire.
No one I know has made much of this extraordinary change, that today and for the last twenty or more years resistance to Western (and specifically American) world domination has originated in an indigenous and autonomous source, independent of direct European influences and ideologies. Emulation of Europe ended with the First World War. America’s reputation ended with defeat by Vietnamese and Cambodian Communism. The death of Mao Tse-tung was followed by hysteria. The Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four were the death spasm of Maoist Communism. Since then China’s Communism has been a husk, China’s leaders unable to solve the problem that this is the only source of legitimacy they possess, albeit empty. However radical and Integrist Islamic movements lead a fight to expel western influence from the Islamic world and convert Muslims to a more intense and literal version of Qur’anic religion, purged of what is seen as the corruption and heresy of foreign religion and foreign secular thought and morals.
Thus political ideology has been replaced by religion. The wish is to construct a new society populated by totally committed Muslims. The phenomenon is not new. Movements of reformed and purified religion were recurrent in the past – as in Christianity, from Therese of Avila, Francis Assisi, Savonarola and the Inquisition, to Luther, Calvin – and Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Israel experiences social and religious conflict initiated by Jewish fundamentalists who consider the contemporary Jewish state blasphemous or sinfully secularized (the End will come when God wills it, not the Zionists).
The true ancestor of al-Qaeda is the “Mad Mullah” of Sudan, Muhammad Ahmaad, defeated by Anglo-Egyptian forces at Omdurman in 1898. Sudan in the nineteenth century was convulsed (and the Western powers greatly alarmed) by the anti-western struggle he inspired. Today’s Islamist movement seems no more likely than his followers to succeed. Armed Islamic radicals can certainly expel, at heavy cost, western invasions, as they are now successfully doing in Afghanistan, but their strength is exclusively defensive and negative, in view of the international industrial and military balance. Such fear of them as has been whipped up in the West – “a new Caliphate,” or Terrorists in our hometowns – is the product of magical thinking among Muslims and induced hysteria in the United States. They want to rule themselves on their own terms, but why should they want to rule infidels?
Davies’ book is encyclopedic but indigestible, lacking the chronology and narrative of conventional history. Davies also had a problem of where to stop. Everything is past once it has happened, and the two World Wars began a period the modern West doesn’t need to have recalled. He gives the reader Yugoslavia after 1945, including Serbia’s attempt to impose its own solution by aggression; the melancholy story of Carpathian Ruthenia, which we perhaps do not wish to know – part of the death struggle of the Czechoslovakian Republic, but Davies stops in 1938 although Czechoslovakia lived on, enduring crises of one kind or another to the Soviet intervention of 1968, the liberation of 1989, and the “Velvet Divorce” of 1993.
As he approaches the end he confronts the question of why he is telling us all this in such abundance and intrinsically fascinating detail; what are we to do with it? Having supplied a volume of knowledge few except Davies himself can be expected to assimilate, even he seems to have a problem with why he has done so. What can be said about it except Harold Macmillan’s description of history as “events, dear boy, events.” -30-
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