Five Possible Ways to Kill a State

Neal Ascherson

  • Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies
    Allen Lane, 830 pp, £30.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 1 84614 338 0

‘Don’t you come that stuff, Jim Garland. We always were English and we’ll always be English, and it’s just because we are English that we’re sticking up for our right to be Burgundians!’ Those were famous lines, from a half-forgotten film made in a vanished kingdom. The Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico was shown in 1949, in a battered, dirty, rationed Britain which was nonetheless confident that the old United Kingdom had a happy and glorious future. Why, the war had just shown that Britain was invincible, with a little help from Uncle Joe and the Yanks. And indestructible, for all the Luftwaffe’s efforts. Unlike some other ropey foreign places which had vanished or come to bits under the strain.

In the movie, a bomb unearths a long-buried charter revealing that the London district of Pimlico was detached from England in medieval times and ceded to the Duchy of Burgundy. The locals (Pimlico was a shabby, ungentrified place in those days) decide to take the charter at its word. They barricade their streets into a foreign enclave, where everything is off-ration and Tube trains jerk to a halt for Burgundian customs inspections. But it’s too good to last. Black marketeers and spivs flood into Pimlico, and the British government places the enclave under siege. The last straw is moral, when the new Burgundians are accused of lack of patriotism and disloyalty to England. Then something snaps. ‘Don’t you come that stuff!’

On the face of it, this film is about a revolt against the restrictions of postwar Britain. But to read Norman Davies’s new book is to see many other ideas, some conscious and others perhaps unrecognised by the scriptwriters, stamped on the pages of Passport to Pimlico. Burgundy, as it happens, is one of the vanished kingdoms he visits. England is not, and yet reflections on the nature of political Englishness and the increasing frailty of the British state recur in chapter after chapter, from ‘Alt Clud’ (the post-Roman kingdom of Strathclyde) through ‘Rosenau’ (the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty) to ‘Eire’. Back in 1949, it was still possible to talk about ‘English’ virtues – in this case, a defiant and imaginative spirit of independence – without nervously vacuum-packing them as ‘British’. Those fictional Pimliconians understood themselves as part of a nation they knew as England. And that was an understanding which allowed them to grasp the difference between nation and state, and to rebel fearlessly against a government whose ‘Britishness’ was part of its distance from ordinary people. Might it not be more English to become ‘foreign’ rather than to accept stupid regulations made in Whitehall?

As a historian, Davies made his name with studies of Eastern and Central Europe, Poland in particular. Especially during the Cold War, he grew aware of the ignorance and condescension of ‘the West’ about the nations and polities east of the strategic divide. To his very great honour, he confronted a lazy, established historiography which had come to assume that Europe’s navel had always been located in Strasbourg or Frankfurt, and – not quite single-handed – shifted that centre to somewhere between Prague and Kraków. The same experiences taught him how effectively powerful and stable states can bury the past of less fortunate kingdoms, empires and republics. The general sense of Vanished Kingdoms is that all ‘earth’s proud empires pass away’, as the hymn has it, and that the greatest principality is no more than an artefact with its ultimate decay built into it. But some states are much less aware of transience than others. ‘Imperial nations, and ex-imperial nations, are particularly reluctant to recognise how quickly reality moves on.’

He cites the case of Britain. ‘Having led a charmed life in the mid-20th century, and having held out against the odds in our “Finest Hour”, the British risk falling into a state of self-delusion which tells them that their institutions are above compare, that their country is somehow eternal.’ The English ‘in particular are blissfully unaware that the disintegration of the United Kingdom began in 1922, and will probably continue’. Davies is right to notice the distinction between countries which assume themselves to be immortal and others, smaller and weaker, with a sense of their own mortality. That’s not just a matter of statehood. There are nations which can envisage their own cultural extinction: a Czech or Welsh novelist, or an Estonian poet, can imagine an approaching century when nobody in the world will still speak Czech or Welsh or Estonian. But other, more firmly founded, bossier nations simply can’t make that imaginative leap. Here, too, Passport to Pimlico has resonance. Those ingenious cockneys are so confident of their ‘eternal’ English identity that they can declare themselves politically Burgundian without the slightest fear that anything fundamental will change. Vanished Kingdoms returns to Europe’s past and shows how mistaken that sort of confidence has often been.

A mixture of motives propelled Davies into writing this huge book. One, as he says, was the suddenness of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Although he had studied and written about the place for years, he was as surprised as anyone else. What, he wondered, were the causes of ‘state death’, and could some sort of aetiology of its symptoms be built up by a fresh look at European history? Another motive, he admits, was his own mulish inclination to walk in the opposite direction to the crowd. ‘When a few events in the past are remembered pervasively, to the exclusion of equally deserving subjects, there is a need for determined explorers to stray from the beaten track and to recover some of the less fashionable memory sites.’ In other words, a duty to be inquisitive. He uses the metaphor of dodos and dinosaurs, whose study builds up ‘a true picture both of our planet’s condition and of its prospects. The present exploration of a selection of extinct realms has been pursued with a similar sense of curiosity.’

Not all his realms are in fact extinct. Estonia and the Irish Republic have risen from the grave, while the empires which once entombed them have fallen apart. Beyond that experience of obliteration, temporary or final, Davies’s chosen places may seem at first sight to have little in common. Their dates range from the Roman period to the 20th century. Some, like Byzantium, endured for a thousand years, while Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia’s independence lasted for less than two days. Some were gigantic in expanse, like the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was a microstate. Some were genuine kingdoms for all or part of their life; some were pretend kingdoms effectively run from somewhere else, and some were duchies, ‘grand’ or less grand. One or two were or became republics. Quite a few of them stumbled through all those forms in turn before expiring. Almost all of them, from Tolosa (the Visigoth kingdom north of the Pyrenees) to ‘CCCP’ (Davies’s jokey way of referring to the Soviet Union, in a chapter which is almost exclusively about Estonia), are shown to be memorable. The Davies technique is to divide each chapter into three: a lively journal of his own explorations in the territory where the ‘realm’ once existed; an account of its historic rise and fall; finally, a summing-up of what memories survive and – most often – of how the truth about the past has been buried under lies and silences. And from that method emerges another factor which does connect most of the ‘vanished kingdoms’. In the second millennium they usually fell victim to the empires: Prussian-German, Russian, Ottoman, Habsburg and French.

Davies is often described as a Polonophile. This is only partly true. He certainly shares some traditional Polish attitudes and one of them, as this book constantly shows, is an absolute mistrust of Russia past, present and future. Why not? Politicians who lack that mistrust can be found but are better avoided. All the same, his attributing of the worst possible motives to all Russian actions for the past five centuries can grow monotonous. It’s misleading, too. Davies is often critical of Poland and Polish behaviour, and there’s a better way to describe his link with that country. He is a Jagiellonian.

That refers to the great polity which arose from the marriage in 1385 of Jogaila, the pagan Grand Duke of Lithuania, to the Christian princess Jadwiga, heiress to the Kingdom of Poland. Like the convergence of England and Scotland, but more slowly, this union of crowns developed into a royal and parliamentary union in which each partner – kingdom and grand duchy – kept much of its identity. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth dominated East-Central Europe for four centuries, from the Baltic almost to the shores of the Black Sea, from the Oder in the west almost to Smolensk in modern Russia. The jealous imperial neighbours, Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire, tore it to pieces and partitioned it at the end of the 18th century.

The Jagiellonian realm was a pre-modern state. Fussy-minded historians used to call it ‘ramshackle’; it’s better called ‘dispersed’, and that’s what attracts Davies. It contained Balts and Slavs of many varieties, Germans, Jews, Armenians, some Tatars and even some Scots. Their religions might be Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Calvinist, Lutheran, Jewish or Muslim. But, with lapses, they got on with one another, perhaps because little was required of them beyond loyalty to the king and grand duke. The commonwealth’s boundaries were fluid; its constitution (kings elected by acclamation, parliament subject to the veto of a single member) was a controlled chaos. To its swarming nobility, it felt like a sort of democracy – ‘golden freedom’.

The shadow which darkened over the commonwealth is the same shadow which hung over several other ‘vanished kingdoms’ in the book: the rise of ‘modern’ despotism. Either side of Poland-Lithuania, grim, authoritarian, centralised states, culturally backward compared to the commonwealth but obsessed with their vast armies, began to drill their subjects. For their kings and emperors, diversity and toleration were contagious diseases to be stamped out. They cauterised the Jagiellonian spirit in their own times, and their successors – Hitler and Stalin – completed the job.

Davies visited the town of Ustrzyki Dolne, once part of the multinational province of Galicia (the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, in Austro-Hungarian times). Its Poles were deported to Siberia by the Soviet invaders after 1939; its German minority was removed and sent heim ins Reich to the annexed Pozna´n region; its Jews, once the town’s majority, were murdered at Sobibór in 1942; the local Ruthenian Lemko population was rounded up and expelled after the war by Polish Communist forces. Ustrzyki became a ghost town. But the ghosts, wandering among ruined synagogues, charred wooden churches and weed-hidden Catholic graves, had Jagiellonian features.

Few people, even in Poland, remember Galicia. Even fewer remember Carpatho-Ukraine, capital Khust, which in March 1939 experienced three regimes in 36 hours: a Czechoslovak region (Podkarpatsko) until breakfast time, an independent republic proclaimed later that morning, invasion and occupation by Hungary the following afternoon. But here, before the reader has a chance to start a patronising smile, Davies attacks the forming thought. Ruritanian? ‘A squabbling mix of obscure ethnic groups; a mass of near unpronounceable names in unfamiliar languages; a brew of “fanatical nationalisms”, and a tragi-comic outcome for which the Ruritanians alone need be blamed?’ This is typical of the way Western intellectuals think about Eastern Europe, Davies says: ‘a widespread, but often unspoken assumption about Western superiority’. He is particularly annoyed by the late John Plamenatz, who contrasted ‘the healthy “civic nationalism” of Western countries with the supposedly unhealthy nationalism of their Eastern counterparts’. Annoyed not least because Professor Plamenatz of All Souls was actually a Montenegrin. Given the fate of his own tiny country after the First World War, Davies thinks he should have grasped sooner than anyone the way great powers push small nations aside – and then invite the world to dismiss their victims as backward and comical. He uses most of a chapter (‘Tsernagora’) to explain how the Versailles diplomats allowed Montenegro to be gagged and bundled into Serbia, and then into the new Yugoslavia, for the next 87 years.

As a writer, Davies’s attraction is that he gives us the music of the past, and not just the narrative libretto. That became clear in God’s Playground (1981), the two-volume history of Poland which was his first major work; stanzas of poetry and verses of song helped his complicated story forward. Vanished Kingdoms uses the same tactic much more liberally. Just as pages of dynastic marriages and tortuous feudal relationships begin to grow dull, the music brings relief. His ‘Aragon’ chapter, which contains some heavy going of that kind, gives the reader a break with – among dozens of other quotations – beautiful troubadour verses in Occitan, a gorgeous description of the coronation of Alfonso el Benigno from the 14th-century Chronicle of Muntaner, the Andorran national song, the Chanson de Roland, the Catalan ‘Els Segadors’ and the Barcelona anti-Franco hymn ‘L’Estaca’ (given in Polish, because it somehow became a Solidarity anthem in 1980). His ‘Tsernagora’ section includes a solemn ode to King Nikola of Montenegro by none other than Don Marquis, author of Archy and Mehitabel. (How on earth did he come across that?)

And Davies is always willing to stop to pick up a promising hitchhiker. It was worth giving a lift to Theodoric II, King of the Visigoths, if only for the sake of his inch by inch physical description by the yearning bishop Sidonius Apollinaris: ‘The nose is finely aquiline, the lips are thin and not unduly enlarged … Every day the hair springing from his nostrils is cut back.’ Nor will the reader regret giving a lift to Count Wilfred the Hairy, and certainly not to Leopold Weiss, born a Galician Jew, who went to Palestine as a Zionist, converted to Islam, moved to Saudi Arabia and ended up as Pakistan’s first ambassador to the United Nations. Nor to Jacques-François de Menou, Napoleon’s butcher of the Vendée, who also became a Muslim and then governor-general of Tuscany, and his crony General Radet, who kidnapped the pope.

Davies also has a cunning habit of slipping into big palaces by a small side door. You see more that way. In ‘CCCP’, the story of tiny Estonia sets out to be more eloquent about the realities of the Soviet Union than a full-frontal treatment. ‘Etruria’, the tale of the erratic little kingdom set up in Tuscany by Napoleon, reveals more vividly than anything I have read how staggeringly transgressive and imaginative the Bonaparte dominion over Europe really was. In only 12 years, this bunch of Corsican siblings deleted millennia of history, invented gaudy principalities from Warsaw to Madrid, crowned themselves as kings and dukes and generally played the continent like a nation-building computer game (‘Civilisation 6’?). If it hadn’t been for the oceans of blood they spilled, Europe would never have been able to take itself seriously again.

A third example is ‘Rosenau’, the chapter on Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and its dynasty, which gradually turns out to be a way of talking about Britain and its Windsors. Here Davies grows irritable. Pretence about the past annoys him, and he uses most of a page to list more than fifty titled German families, double or triple-barrelled, to whom the royals are more closely connected than to any Plantagenets or Stuarts. ‘Most of their subjects do not know that Lady Diana Spencer (1961-97) was the very first person of primarily English descent who ever came near the British throne in the whole of its 300-year history.’

His view, anyway, is that old ‘Ukania’ is rapidly veering towards history’s landfill. ‘That the United Kingdom will collapse is a foregone conclusion … Only the “how” and the “when” are mysteries of the future.’ He goes on to quote from ‘an exhaustive study of the many pillars on which British power and prestige were built … [which] indicated that all without exception were in decline; some were already defunct, others seriously diminished or debilitated; it suggests that the last act may come sooner rather than later.’ That ‘study’ turns out to be his own earlier book The Isles: A History (1996). He has clearly held this opinion for some time, but events in the intervening 15 years have only hardened it.

In an essay titled ‘Will-o’-the-Wisps of the Dead’, Andrzej Stasiuk – who comes from what was once Galicia – writes about nostalgia. Unusually, it’s not the small, drowned kingdoms Stasiuk misses but the Austro-Hungarian Empire which once enclosed them. ‘Who knows if the fondness for those times … doesn’t arise out of nostalgia for a period in which a person’s own individual identity was, quite naturally, a part of a larger universal reality?’ He goes on to suggest that the empire, with all its imperfections, may one day be seen as the prototype of a united Europe.

Nobody could charge Davies with that sort of sentiment. The Austrians, as he repeats, were much less brutal to their conquests than the Prussians or the Russians. The horrific atrocities that took place in 19th-century Galicia after the partitions were wreaked not by foreign tyrannies but by its inhabitants on one another. But he has no soft-focus regrets for the Danubian monarchy. All empires, like all states, have to die; what matters is that justice be done to them by historians, and the reasons for their death disentangled from the lies of posterity.

Playing the academic coroner, Davies lays out some ‘scientific’ categories of state death. The older binary division – voluntary or involuntary extinction – is hopelessly crude, as his book demonstrates. Instead, he suggests at least five possible ‘mechanisms’. These are implosion, conquest, merger, liquidation and ‘infant mortality’. The Soviet Union imploded, and so – less obviously – did Austria-Hungary. Conquest, much the most frequent cause of death, did for Tolosa, Burgundy, the Byzantine Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Prussia. Merger with other polities brought an end to Aragon, which became part of Spain, and to Savoy, dissolved into France and Italy, but not all mergers have been total (witness England and Scotland after 1707). Liquidation is another slippery category. Davies suggests that it’s ‘a concept well understood in company law; and there is no good reason why it should not be applied by analogy to the particular circumstances in which a state entity or “political company” is deliberately suppressed.’ But, as he says, some liquidations are more consensual than others. The Velvet Divorce which wound up Czechoslovakia in 1993 was consensual, at least among the politicians: nobody asked the people whether they wanted it until well afterwards. The dummy Grand National Assembly which consented to Montenegro’s liquidation in 1918 did not represent the population, cowed by Serbian thuggery. There were referenda to legitimise the liquidation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union in 1940, but they were mere exercises in police terror and fraud.

Then there is infant mortality. Some polities are stillborn, without developed organs, like Carpatho-Ukraine. Others die as soon as parental nourishment is withdrawn: Davies points to the kingdom of Etruria and all the other Napoleonic creations. Some are strangled soon after birth, like the range of independent republics around Russia – Ukraine, Belarus, the nations of the Caucasus – which arose during the Civil War and survived until the victorious Bolsheviks turned their bayonets towards them. The Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, in contrast, never really existed even as an embryo. Its institutions amounted to little more than a handsome cut-flower arrangement by a conqueror, lacking the power of decision or movement on their own.

States have to die, then, but the truth about them and their subjects does not have to share their graves. One of the strengths of Vanished Kingdoms is the author’s awareness that ‘state death’ is just that; human life carries vigorously on under the walls of the fallen city, endlessly adapting. Physical genes survive intact, but cultural genes mutate under pressure. ‘The capacity of human societies both to absorb and to discard cultures is much underestimated. In reality … a stationary population, if subjected to a changed linguistic and cultural environment, can quite easily be persuaded to follow suit.’ (The Picts seem to vanish suddenly from history, as if exterminated by the Dalriadan Scots. In reality, the Picts probably survived by abandoning their language and their culture, and learning to speak Gaelic in public places.) So there is no teleology in this book, no advance to higher, better statehoods. In Europe’s past and present, as in the rest of the world, everything flows but nothing is washed away without trace.