Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review - Vanished Kingdoms : The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies (Allen Lane 2011)

When I was a child in the 1970's, the map of the Europe seemed immutable. Ongoing decolonialisation granted statehood to pre-existing territories of the major European powers, and new states had sprung forth from violent conflict in far-flung corners of the globe, but Europe's boundaries, fixed in the aftermath of the Second World War, were constant. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the break-up of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovia. Europe's states suddenly became fragile entities, as centrifugal forces started to impinge on even long-established Western states like Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom. The old certainties had vanished, history had not ended.

Yet this is no new phenomenon - thirty years of post-war stability is the exception in European history, not the rule. The map of Europe has been like a kaleidoscope, borders shifting as the wheel of time turns. Yet when we analyse these patterns, so often our perspective is shaped through the prism of contemporary states, so when we look at Prussia, it is through the context of modern Germany, or Burgundy through that of modern France. What Norman Davies has done in this brilliantly conceived and executed book is to look at snapshots of European history from the perspective of those states which have failed to survive the test of time.

The result is a startling series of cameos.What is the relationship between medieval Aragon and modern Catalonia? How did a remote region of what is now Poland and Russia give its name to the State from which modern Germany sprang (and why does its name no longer exist)? Why are there two separate Galicias in Europe, and are they linked? (No, they aren't). Why did the mayfly state of Carpatho-Ukraine exist for just one day?

The fortunes of states ebb and flow. Who in the early 1980s could have envisaged that by 1991 the Soviet Union would have imploded? Yet its demise is no more surprising than that of medieval Byzantium, or of the mighty Dukedom of Burgundy. We are left with faint traces, palimpsests of what went before - Byzantine complexity, Prussian blue (which would have been Brandenburg Blue if it had been synthesised in Berlin five years earlier).

Fifteen vanished kingdoms are analysed, each in three parts. The first gives a contemporary context in the form of a short travelogue (necessary for some of the more obscure parts of Eastern Europe). Then the rise and fall of the state in historical terms is described, followed by the memory sites, the cultural traces of the vanished kingdoms which resonate to this day. We progress according to a rough chronology, and in the earlier chapters there is a slight tendency for the historical sections to resolve down to unfamiliar names of kings, places and battles, but the broader contexts largely offset this. By the time we come to more familiar historical territory (for me anyway) this is no longer an issue.

Davies attempts to analyse the reasons why kingdoms vanish. Some are absorbed or destroyed by bigger neighbours, some disintegrate from within. Others merge together to make a greater whole. Looking at the examples of Piedmont-Savoy, Aragon and the Soviet Union, he puts forward the case that Kingdoms which come together from distinct constituent parts have a greater tendency to split apart over time. Small nations such as Estonia can exist successfully under the umbrellas of Nato and the European Union, so he believes that the separatist forces acting on the United Kingdom will one day win through, forcing Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales down the path trodden early last century by Ireland. Whether you agree with this analysis or not, this compelling, beautifully written book is vital reading for all with an interest in European history or contemporary politics alike.

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