Magazine | April 30, 2012, Issue

What Lies Beneath

Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations, by Norman Davies (Viking, 830 pp., $40)

How to make a nation? In Vanished Kingdoms, his fascinating — and characteristically hefty — new book chronicling the rise and fall of 15 European states (from Visigoth Tolosa to the good-riddance empire of the Soviets), historian Norman Davies offers a number of suggestions. They include “good fortune, benevolent neighbors, and a sense of purpose.” There are nods to the power of a common language and a shared myth, and an implied recognition of the usefulness of conquest (where now are the Baltic people, the Prusai, whose land formed the core of ascendant Teutonic Prussia?), but little focus on the shared (if often exaggerated) sense of an ethnic bond that has held nations, and nations-in-waiting, together through the centuries. Perhaps the last was too obvious to need spelling out, or, in an era that sets such store in being over that sort of thing, just too embarrassing.

Making matters more complicated still is the way that history has left many Europeans with overlapping, and, not infrequently, conflicting identities: Sorb and/or German, Briton and/or Scot? But there can be few better guides to these muddled layers of nationality than Norman Davies, a combative, unusually original historian of Europe (Europe: A History) best known for his studies of Poland (God’s Playground, most famously), a nation blessed and burdened by shifts in borders and identity to an extent that stands out even in this most tangled of continents.

That said, those expecting Vanished Kingdoms to be a comprehensive guide as to how, why, and when countries fail will, despite a postscript titled “How States Die,” be left a little disappointed. Suspects, usual or otherwise, are listed: invasion, of course; artificiality (Napoleonic Etruria); stillbirth (the day-long Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine); exhaustion; merger; de-merger; and the loosely defined “implosions” that put paid to the USSR and Austria-Hungary alike. But Davies has both a romantic streak and a sharp awareness of humanity’s susceptibility to hubris, and the explanation, I suspect, that really appeals to him is the inevitability of impermanence: Nothing endures forever, Ozymandias and all that.

For the most part, we are left to draw our own conclusions from the 15 national obituaries that form the backbone of this book. So densely packed that they can be difficult to digest (the five, six, or was it seven Kingdoms of Burgundy do rather blur), they reveal their author’s romanticism in a sometimes elegiac tone, crowned with moments of unexpected beauty. In his description of a piece of ancient Britain that endured in Scotland until the 12th century, Davies includes lines from a poem written in the days of its twilight of a loveliness so vivid that a scene from 800 years ago comes close enough — almost — to touch: “Gentle meadows and plump swine, gardens pleasant beyond belief, / Nuts on the bough of hazel, and longships sailing by.”

The forgotten and the neglected attract Davies, a passionate writer drawn to history’s underdogs (thanks to this book, I am now something of a Montenegrin nationalist): “Historians usually focus . . . on the past of countries that still exist. . . . They are seeking the roots of the present, thereby putting themselves in danger of reading history backwards. . . . In [the] jungle of information about the past, [today’s] big beasts invariably win out.” Attention is sucked away from smaller states, let alone those that no longer exist. We learn more about that of which we are already aware, and “the blank spaces in our minds are reinforced.”

References to “big beasts” hint at Europe’s history of, given human nature, all too imaginable violence, a blood-drenched danse macabre that reached a ghastly apogee in the wars, genocides, and ethnic cleansings of the mid–20th century. As so often is the case, these horrors are most powerfully conveyed in miniature. Thus we learn of Ustrzyki Dolne, a small, largely Jewish sub-Carpathian town that emerged from Austro-Hungarian Galicia into the interwar Polish republic. When, after Stalin’s pact with Hitler, the Soviets arrived, the local Germans were sent off into the temporary safety of the expanded Reich, and most of the town’s ethnic Polish inhabitants were deported to the east, and, in the majority of cases, their death. Two years later Hitler’s legions arrived. Ustrzyki’s Jews were exterminated.

#page#That left the Lemkos, Ruthenians who had long farmed the surrounding countryside — and then they, too, were cleared out by the Communist authorities after the end of the war. Their replacements inherited a ghost town and ruined villages, “blank spaces” of the most literal type, and filled them with a Polishness that lacked any traces of that old awkward, butchered Galician ambiguity. Violence had done its bit for nation-building yet again, helped, as the years passed, by fading memory and the easing of inconvenient history into convenient oblivion. The annihilation of old Ustrzyki has little to tell us about Poland today: Lemkos, Germans, and Jews will never again come back to their land by the River San.

Under the circumstances, it’s unsurprising that the notes that conclude Vanished Kingdoms occasionally strike a wistful tone: “Since it cannot be fitted tidily into French, Swiss, or Italian history, Savoy is frequently overlooked. No standard survey has been published in English, either of the land of Savoy or of the House of Savoy.”

Such are the “blank spaces” that Davies is looking to fill, beginning, as he has to, with “flotsam and jetsam.” He is a beachcomber-historian, delighted by a cabinet de curiosités in Krakow’s Czartoryski Museum bursting with celebrity treasures that include Rousseau’s briefcase, Voltaire’s quill, and Queen Barbara Radziwiłł’s knife and fork. Nearby is “a half-gnawed, rock-solid, bright green chunk of moldy bread . . . allegedly cast aside by . . . Napoleon.” Allegedly: With a wink, Davies hints that, like some of the other wonders on display, Bonaparte’s bread may not be the real thing. But never mind: “Like all holy relics, genuine or fake, it has immense powers of imaginatory stimulation.” Above it hangs an inscription (“The Past in the Service of the Future”) that once crowned the entrance to a Temple of the Sibyl erected by Izabella Czartoryska (1746–1835), a Polish princess of the Enlightenment who was, splendidly, “as rich as she was patriotic as she was debauched.” But “whose past,” asks Davies, and “whose future”? The past, for Czartoryska, was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that had stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The future of which she dreamed was the reversal of the partitions that had consigned that state to history, but if that past, and its relics and its memory, mean anything now, it is as symbol of a reinvented Poland — and a Polishness — very different from the sprawling multiethnic Rzeczpospolita for which the princess so yearned.

The persistence of some sort of Poland, however changed, brings up the question that lurks just below the surface of Vanished Kingdoms: What is it that defines a nation? And identifying that question helps us detect what Davies is really up to. A Briton of Welsh descent (aha!) who has predicted the disintegration of the U.K. with somewhat unseemly relish, he clearly doubts the authenticity, and thus the pretensions, of some of the nation-states that now dominate Europe, at the expense, in his view, of the essence of the peoples that live within their borders, and, indeed, beyond.

The time of the Prusai has irrevocably passed, but including a chapter in Vanished Kingdoms on the glories of Aragon makes the point that Spain’s restless Catalans may well be on to something, an approach Davies explored at even greater length in The Isles (1999), in which he argued that the United Kingdom was, is, and will be anything but united. The road to the future apparently ran through Brussels: The EU, wrote Davies, long an over-enthusiast for the gold stars on blue, “gives a place in the sun to Europe’s smaller and middle-sized nations,” a claim that looks absurd in the era of Merkozy and that was, even a decade or so ago, at best willfully naïve. It is true that Scots and Fleming nationalists (and, doubtless, others too) maintain that the EU provides a framework within which they can “safely” claim their independence, but this independence would be one stripped of all meaning by a European project profoundly opposed to popular sovereignty and the assertion of national identity.

But as the bitter, distinctly un-communautaire feuding over the euro-zone crisis reminds us, notions of nationhood have a way of climbing out of the footnotes to which they have been banished. Rousseau warned the Poles of the doomed Rzeczpospolita that they were “likely to be swallowed whole” but must “ensure that [they were] not digested.” They did. The Baltic States were not fully “digested” by their Soviet occupiers either, but, as Davies (in a typically striking image) notes, “fifty years later, like the Biblical Jonah, they re-emerged from the belly of the whale, gasping, but intact.”

Should they so choose, the nations of the EU will now face a subtler challenge: how to escape from a trap they (or their politicians) set for themselves. Were they to succeed, and were Davies to write about it, the results would be well worth reading, but they would differ from Vanished Kingdoms in at least one crucial respect: Telling that story would not be a labor of love.

– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.

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