Norman Davies on Europe’s Vanished States
FiveBooks interviews asks writers, academics, and experts to list recommended books on a given topic.
The rise of China means the study of its history is suddenly in vogue. But, says the historian, there’s as much to learn, if not more, from looking at states that have disappeared.
Will you begin by telling us about your new book, and what these “vanished kingdoms” are?
The topic is Europe’s extinct states. Not just kingdoms but empires, republics – polities of any sort which have ceased to exist. Which is a normal phenomenon. States always collapse and disappear, sometimes very quickly, sometimes after centuries or millennia, but they have a finite term in any part of the world. It’s just a given of human institutions. Sooner or later they fall apart and are replaced by something else. The key quotation is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He says, “The body politic, like the body of a man, begins to die as soon as it is born. It contains the seeds of its own destruction.” Brilliant. Absolutely spot on.
People who have their eye on short-term, contemporary events and the world around us tend to forget this. I sometimes think they imagine the world politic to be a chessboard, where you play games, have a crisis, and then you put all the pieces back and have another game. Well it’s not like that. You can have a chessboard, you have players who are either pawns or kings or whatever, but the players themselves are always changing.
In the last 20 years, four or five European states have vanished, depending on how you deal with Yugoslavia. The German Democratic Republic was merged into Germany. The Soviet Union – the biggest state in the world, with the biggest nuclear arsenal – went up in smoke. Czechoslovakia dissolved by mutual consent – the two parties decided to have a velvet divorce. And then the Federation of Yugoslavia exploded in slow motion – bits flew off and continued to fly off until there was nothing left, apart from Serbia.
My book traces the phenomenon from fifth century Visigoths in Aquitaine to the Soviet Union. I didn’t go back to the Roman Empire, although it is obviously one of them. So there’s a big spread of time. I deliberately chose case studies from each end of Europe – north, south, west, centre – including smaller examples which tend to get left behind in general narratives.
Why do they get left behind? Why are they forgotten?
This is a crucial question. You’ve heard the saying that “history is written by the victors”. It is very true. My very first chapter is about the Visigoths in Gaul, an even bigger kingdom than the Franks. It looked, objectively, at the beginning of the sixth century, that the Visigoths would be the dominant power in post-Roman Gaul. But there was a battle, and Clovis the Frank killed Alaric the Visigoth. And the history of post-Roman Gaul has been written by post-Roman Franks, and most recently by the French, who identify with the Franks. Nobody identifies with the Visigoths. Clovis has a great mausoleum in Saint Denis, and nobody even knows where the tomb of Alaric the Visigoth may be. Apart from all sorts of legends and echoes which surface, of the Dan Brown variety, there’s very little to show for a century of the Visigoths being the very first barbarian kingdom in the Western Roman Empire.
If these kingdoms are swept under the rug of history, what can we learn by going back and remembering them, researching their history as you do?
The main thing is that mainstream history – the subjects which we concentrate on in schools, in television programmes and influential books – is driven by a number of factors, one of which is power politics. The powers of today wish to trace their rise and the origins of their influence. But also, historians are drawn to power. China, which was neglected for ages, becomes a major player on the world stage, and everybody now wants to learn about the history of China. When I was a student at Oxford – a long time ago – there was no course on Chinese history. It didn’t exist. And it’s not just powerful states, it’s powerful issues. It might be feminism or slavery – things which were missing but are now contemporary issues. They drive a lot of history writing.
Are you disparaging this tendency? Because that seems to suggest that if a polity has vanished it has less merit for the present day.
Well, I complain about the American style that nothing succeeds like success. That’s a very primitive way of looking at history, as between winners and losers. Sure, there are crackpot rickety states, but who’s interested in them? What they are really interested in is the successful cultures, the big civilisations, the mighty powers and so on. That gives a very false view of the panorama of the past. The past is full of everything. Great powers, obscure powers – which may have other achievements to their name. There are powers which last for centuries, but I found a republic which lasted for one day.
Goodness me. Which day?
March 15, 1939. The republic of Subcarpathian Ruthenia. It was the day that Hitler marched into Prague. The Germans swallowed Bohemia and Moravia, formed a protectorate and Slovakia became a client statelet of the Reich. And the third part of Czechoslovakia, this Subcarpathian Ruthenia, was left with nobody to tell it what to do. So it declared its independence at around 10 o’clock in the morning. And by the evening the Hungarian army arrived and swallowed it up. Fortunately there was a British travel writer – or someone posing as such – there at the time who described all this.
What do we learn from the losers, to simplify my original question?
Well, what do we mean by the losers? Even the mightiest of states eventually decline and die, like human beings. There are some states which are powerful, mighty and impressive for a time. Prussia was, of course, one of the biggest beasts. Or Poland-Lithuania is a key example – it was the biggest state in Europe for a period. And then it develops internal diseases and is swallowed up by its neighbours. The kingdom of Poland was certainly a loser by the end, but you can’t define it as a loser state.
So we should think of it in terms of ebb and flow, not winner and loser?
Precisely. Rise and fall. These are biographies, life stories, of states. There’s always a birth, a struggle for existence. Some candidates fall by the wayside before they really establish themselves, some flourish, some go on for millennia. But they all come to an end.
The classic book on all this, which isn’t on my list, is Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This was the guidebook, if you like, to long-term history – that there are these enormously powerful, extensive empires which exude an air of immortality and yet which all, sooner or later, come to an end. At the end of the Roman Empire, in the Byzantine period, the empire shrinks and shrinks until it consists of one city, Constantinople, and the Ottoman Turks can encircle it. There’s a final siege and the Turks go over the wall. The last emperor – number 156 or whatever – disappears in the fray, is killed, and that’s the end of the empire. This is, if you like, the guidebook to this story, to exactly what Rousseau is saying. No matter how powerful they may look, the time will come, as in the lives of men and women, when they die. It’s not a topic that people are eagerly looking at.
… [After The Last King of Poland by Adam Zamoyski], what’s next on your list?
The next one is Prussia, which is another huge topic. Prussia is not one of the forgotten countries. It’s one of the kingdoms which was so powerful in its final phase, in the late 18th century to 1918, that memory of Hohenzollern Prussia, Bismarck and the creation of the German Empire is so recent and powerful that the memory of the earlier Prussia has all but been obliterated.
The book I recommend, Chris Clark’s Iron Kingdom, a history of Prussia, is an extremely good book about modern Prussia. But it doesn’t give any indication of the many things that came before it. Namely, that the original Prussians were not Germans – they were Balts like the Lithuanians. The medieval history of Prussia that brings them into recorded history is when the German Teutonic knights lead a crusade to Christianise Prussia. And they are so successful that they eradicate the local people, the local language and culture. It did survive long enough to be recorded.
The Teutonic state is 1224 until 1525. Then in come the Poles. The last Grand Master of the Teutonic knights, Albert, accepts Lutheranism. He’s been the Grand Master of a Catholic crusading order, and he sets himself up as secular Duke of Prussia and recognises the King of Poland as his suzerain. You’ve got quite a long period of Prussia and Poland being closely involved. Albert, of the House of Hohenzollern, the great German hero – his mother was Polish! And because he had rejected Catholicism (the Hohenzollern relatives in Brandenburg and Berlin were Catholics at the time) he was a black sheep, and he was much closer to his Polish relatives than he was to his German relatives. But all this is, as it were, forgotten history.