Sunday, 29 January 2012

New books: Europe’s lost states

History books are full of states which no longer exist. Now some of these states have gotten a book of their own: Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, which was published by Allen Lane last autumn.
It is, obviously, a vast subject and Davies, an historian known for books such as Europe: A History, Europe at War, The Isles: A History and God’s Playground: A History of Poland, has had to restrict his book of 830 pages to some of those vanished states. Each chapter begins with a visit to a present-day remnant of the relevant state, followed by the history of its rise and fall and an epilogue on its afterlife. The time span stretches from the fifth century to the present.
Among the states included are Aragon, the many Burgundian states, the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, Prussia, Savoy, Montenegro, Galicia, Etruria, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the USSR and Ireland. Some of the states included, such as the Byzantine Empire, existed for a very long time, others only very briefly, such as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, which lived for a single day in 1939.
Thus the book covers a wide range of European history, but it is also quite uneven. Most of it is well-written and ought to be easily accessible also for those who are not themselves historians, but some chapters are not as clear as one would wish for. It is hard to get through the chapter on the ancient Scottish “Kingdom of the Rock” and while struggling through one often wonders where the author is actually heading.
Other chapters offer clear and concise analyses of the emergence and disappearance of states, and the most successful chapters also offer some fresh perspectives. Sometimes these set the spotlight upon a lesser known part of history, such as the chapter on the Kingdom of Etruria (and the Napoleonic Grand Duchy of Tuscany), which charts the oft-overlooked history of Florence during the revolutionary and Napoleonic age.
Some of author’s choices of states to include in the book may seem surprising, but mostly one finds that there is a good reason behind it. One example is Montenegro, which does indeed exist as a state today, but which was alone among the victorious allies in disappearing from the map following World War I, something which happened in a rather dubious way.
If one wonders why Ireland is included in the book, one will eventually find that Davies considers the history of Ireland’s struggle against the British crown as simply the first part of the ongoing and, in his view, inevitable dissolution of the United Kingdom. The developments concerning a referendum on Scottish independence since the book was published have thus only made it more relevant to the present.
Its diversity is one of the book’s strengths, but also one of its weaknesses. With such a vast subject one can hardly avoid finding some mistakes, but more disturbing than this is the fact that several of the genealogical tables, which one may assume have been included to help the reader keep track of the people and relationship which have influenced the rise and fall of these states, are so flawed that they are in fact useless.
The two rival Serbian royal families, Obrenovic and Karadjordjevic, are for instance presented as one big family; King Petar I (of the House of Karadjordjevic) is in fact shown to be the son of King Aleksandar and Queen Drage (of the House of Obrenovic), whose assassination in 1903 brought him to the throne. Students of the First Empire will also be surprised to learn that Empress Joséphine’s first husband was not Alexandre de Beauharnais, but his brother, and even more astonished to find out that she and Napoléon did in fact have a son.
The book is a tour de force through some of those vanished European states which most people do not normally spare a thought for. It ends beautifully with William Wordsworth’s 1802 poem “On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic”, concluding: “Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade / Of that which once was great is passed away”.

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