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History as Fantasy

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

There is a well-worn story that is told in one form or another in all European history textbooks. In 824, ten years after the death of Charlemagne, Agobard, Archbishop of Lyon, hailed a new Christian imperial ambition to unite all the peoples and lands of the Western Holy Roman Empire by reformulating Galatians 3:28: “There is now neither Gentile nor Jew, Scythian nor Aquitanian, nor Lombard, nor Burgundian, nor Alaman, nor bond, nor free. All are one in Christ.” But the dream did not come true. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, followed the Frankish laws of inheritance, dividing Charlemagne’s empire among his three sons. He bequeathed the western kingdom of Aquitaine (roughly France) to Pepin. Louis the German received the Kingdom of the Eastern Franks. And ruling over them, in the middle, was the eldest son, Lothar, who retained the title of Holy Roman Emperor, but direct control only over his middle kingdom, which stretched from Utrecht and the Imperial city of Aachen through the Burgundian kingdoms and into the Mediterranean lands of Provence. When Louis the Pious died in 840, the imperial pact collapsed, the brothers went to war, and the ideal of a Christian Pax Romana vanished into the foggy forests of early feudalism.

Lothar’s middle kingdom would endure in one form or another, but mainly under the title of the Kingdom of Burgundy. Wedged in between what is today France and Germany, wealthy Burgundy was the backbone of Charlemagne’s Holy Frankish Roman Empire. With its verdant forests, its vineyards, its rich cities and fantastically rich monasteries, it was linked to Flanders and the Baltic in the north with its fairs and sea trade, and to the Alps and Savoy, and via the Rhône river to the kingdom of Provence and the Mediterranean sea. This coveted wealth would grow over time, and by the nineteenth century coal spilled from the hills of Lorraine and helped cause three wars between France and Germany. It is no accident that the European parliament now stands in Strasbourg, in Alsace-Lorraine, a point of contention between Franks, Bourbons, Hapsburgs, Bonapartes, Hohenzöllerns, free Republics, Nazis, and the U.S. Army.

In his new book, Norman Davies repackages the old story of Burgundy as a model of what he calls a “vanished kingdom”—a shadow of a chivalric world that once existed in Europe, populated by “those whom historians tend to forget.” Davies’s vanished kingdoms include the Visigoth realm, ancient Britannia, the Burgundian kingdoms and dukedoms, Aragon, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Byzantium, Belarus, Savoy, Napoleonic Tuscany, Thuringia, Montenegro, the one-day republic of Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, Ireland, and Estonia under the Soviet Union. It is hard to understand what holds this group together aside from the map of Easy Jet flights from London. But their history, Davies conspiratorially claims, is shrouded in mystery. Like a magician about to perform a historical hat trick, he announces that “appearances” shroud “reality” and “things never are quite like they seem.” Defying his own expectations, however, Davies makes no revelations. Instead he presents a mix of poorly documented high-Tory historiettes about kingdoms and places that have not vanished, along with a litany of platitudes about the worlds lost to World War II and a disturbing series of omissions about Muslim and Jews in European history.

In Davies’s Europe, valiant tribes and knights roam across forgotten borders speaking lost languages like British, Angle, Old Welsh, Aragonese, and Byzantine Greek. They inexorably vanished or fell, Davies claims. Following them, hundreds of years later, good Poles, Estonians, Belarusians, some Jews (whose national status is never established), and even the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (the subject of his own inexplicable chapter) fell victim to the decline of monarchy, and to “vengeful” Nazis and Soviets. But never to each other: it seems that most of the vanished kingdoms are good.

Davies calls for a “typology” of “vanished kingdoms.” He declares himself an heir of Gibbon, and cites Hobbes on the “internall diseases” that lead to the “dissolution of the Commonwealth.” He cites the Old Testament, Augustine, Luther, and Marx. While he insists that the “vocabulary” used to define vanished states is “important,” he weirdly cites Monty Python: “One is reminded of the parrot which was ‘demised,’ ‘passed on,’ ‘expired,’ ‘stiff,’ ‘deceased,’ ‘bereft of life,’ ‘off the twig,’ ‘gone to the bleedin’ choir invisible,’ ‘in fact, an ex-parrot.’” In the end, he settles for his own typology of vanishings: “implosion, conquest, merger, liquidation, and ‘infant mortality.’”

WHAT, THEN, is a vanished kingdom for Davies? He harks to his preferred subject, Poland, which he claims has undergone so much “bullying and assault” that it has “ended with the murder of a battered invalid.” Poland has died a “death by unnatural causes.” The problem with Davies’s typology of disappeared states such as Poland, Belarus, Montenegro, and regions like Burgundy is that they are, quite obviously, still here. With a population of more than 38 million citizens, Poland is a member of NATO and the largest and strongest of the former eastern bloc Soviet satellites. Vanished Kingdoms illustrates not how states vanish or “die” in Europe, but how countries such as Poland, which have undergone both internal and external massacres and mutilations, persist and survive.

Savoy and Tuscany (two of Italy’s richest and most culturally vibrant regions) make similarly odd choices for vanished kingdoms. True, there is no king of Italy (its current pretender and claimant to the kingdom of Jerusalem, the former Crown Prince Vittorio Emanuele, was arrested and charged with exploiting prostitutes in 2006), but Savoy, which Davies calls by its Roman name Sabaudia, was the center of the Risorgimento, which was rather the opposite of a vanishing. The palaces, libraries, churches, public squares, and theaters of the House of Savoy are constant reminders that this dishonored dynasty nonetheless grew from a well-administered duchy into a kingdom that unified Italy.

The chapter on Tuscany, luridly titled “Etruria: French Snake in the Tuscan Grass,” focuses on the Napoleonic Tuscan puppet state that lasted from 1801 to 1807, reviving the ancient regional name. What seems to fascinate Davies is that Etrurian Tuscany was briefly ruled by Louis de Bourbon, the only ruling Bourbon in Napoleonic Europe. Otherwise there is little that distinguishes this brief period. And Davies admits that the “incoming Etrurian management would be hard pressed to match its predecessors,” the Hapsburg-Lorraine grand dukes who made Tuscany a model of Enlightened Europe through administrative reforms and the abolition of torture and capital punishment. Napoleonic Etruria was never a real kingdom. It was a puppet state placed on the complex apparatus created by Medici and Lorenese grand dukes. It vanished because it never really existed.

Davies is often less interested in the political history of states than in the romanticized sovereigns who rule them. The German archdukedom of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha makes for its own chapter named after the ducal castle Rosenau. Davies is careful to cite the castle’s website, which describes it as a “medieval structure [which] had been rebuilt from 1808 to 1817 in the neo-Gothic style.” The most famous member of this family is Franz Albrecht Karl August Immanuel von Sachsen Coburg und Gotha, otherwise known as Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Prince Consort, who, according to his letters to his wife, quoted by Davies, noted that Rosenau castle was a youthful “paradise.”

It is from the high perch of Prince Albert’s life that Davies examines the fortunes of this duchy rich in religious history—Luther gave his first sermons in Gotha—and in treasure houses and famous libraries. What interests Davies most here is that a German prince from Rosenau left for England, from where his second son, born an English-speaking prince at Windsor Castle, came back to Rosenau to rule again as a German. It is an anecdote made in Oxbridge high table heaven. While he never tells us which castle was a happier site of childhood, this insight is the basis for Davies’s revelations about the fate of the dukedom (not kingdom) and monarchy in general: “When the duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was founded in 1826, European monarchy was at its peak.... By 1919, when the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was abolished, monarchy was in serious decline.” The chapter concludes by mentioning that a branch of the family, now headed by former Bulgarian czar and prime minister Simeon is called the “Sakskoburggostki.”

Davies treats all his subjects with the same wry simplicity. It often leads him to repeat hackneyed theses, or entirely to miss the point. In his chapter about the Soviet Union and Estonia, he notes that “Nineteen eighty-seven was the year when Soviet watchers noticed that Moscow’s grip on the Soviet republics was slipping.” In another moment of high table mirth, he likens Gorbachev and perestroika to a story about a man “who flushed his toilet at the exact moment of the Tashkent earthquake. ‘If I’d have known what was going to happen,’ the old man exclaimed, as he climbed from the rubble, ‘I would never have pulled the chain.’” Yet again Davies fails to point out that his vanished kingdom, this time Estonia, is now a free state, and that the Soviet Union still, like a zombie whose severed organs keep pulsing, lives on in the Russian Republic. Putin’s state apparatus shows again and again that the CCCP might be gone, but Russia is still a KGB state.

DAVIES DOES NOT LIKE to analyze the complexity of events or sources. In his chapter on Byzantium, he makes no real effort to dig deep into the reasons behind the fall of Constantinople, which he claims is Europe’s greatest vanished kingdom. Again invoking Gibbon, he cites Byzantine bigotry and bad emperors for its fall. But aside from that there is little historical explanation. He mentions only in passing the fact that Christian Crusaders and the treason of the Venetians precipitated Byzantium’s collapse. He echoes the romantic legèreté of a Walter Scott novel in his description of the sack of the city, with a well-known anecdote: “The [166th] Emperor dismounted from his white Arabian mare, plunged into the fray, and disappeared.” Davies concludes by lamenting that the fall of Byzantium is “too much to contemplate,” and claims that historians “struggle with the enormity of their task.” Really? Byzantine studies is a flourishing field, and no one would claim that it is impossible to understand the reasons behind Byzantium’s collapse.

Had Davies really wanted to emulate Gibbon, as he claims, serious scholarship would have been an effective approach. More than just a great narrator, Gibbon was dedicated to archival research, the traces of which are still found in libraries across Europe. Historians admire him to this day for the clarity of his argument and the finesse of his research. But Davies is not very interested in his sources. He makes regular use of restaurant websites, “,” Wikipedia, and the Cadogan guide, as well as unscholarly pop-history books. He claims that they are often more revealing than accepted authorities.

As part of his analysis of Byzantine decadence, Davies invokes the woolly and somewhat disturbing notion of “imaginative sympathy.” By this method of historical understanding, some vanished kingdoms are victims (who can blame the Galicians?) and others are deserving of their fate (no good person could want a return of the Soviet Union). Imaginative sympathy has dangerous implications for historians, and it scars this book. Davies makes important—and tendentious—historical omissions. If one were to take the historical question of European political decline and fall seriously, with an eye on Gibbon’s model, the most grand entities aside from the Roman Empire that come to mind are certainly the Muslim caliphates and empires that once reached into Europe but are now truly gone, leaving no political trace.

IF ONE SEEKS TO match the drama of imperial decline and fall, whether it be Roman or British, surely the most dramatic and even romantic European example is Al-Andalus, the Emirate of Córdoba, or the Kingdom of Granada, which, in one form or another, lasted from 711 to 1492. It has left the greatest European monuments of any ethnic political entity that has vanished from European tradition. Washington Irving memorably evoked the high drama and great stakes of the fall of this kingdom washed away by the Reconquista: “The Alhambra is an ancient fortress or castellated palace of the Moorish kings of Granada, where they held dominion over this their boasted terrestrial paradise, and made their last stand for empire in Spain.” With the surrender of Mohamed XII, or Boabdil, the last emir, to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Alhambra’s “beautiful halls became desolate, and some of them fell to ruin; the gardens were destroyed, and the fountains ceased to play.” But Davies, without sympathy or curiosity, misses the chance so simply offered by Irving.

And yet, as evocative as the Andalucían example is, the idea of vanishing in Europe is not well suited to states. Even the Roman Empire still remains in some institutional vestiges of the Catholic Church. The idea of vanishing is much better suited to peoples and cultures. The descriptions of the rich worlds that have been forgotten, or wiped away, are the strongest stuff of European history. Historians have told them well, most recently and eloquently Mark Mazower in Salonica: City of Ghosts. The idea of ghost cities or ghost cultures is also suited for memoirs, like those of Nabokov, or the novels of Sándor Márai. The Austrian writer Gregor von Rezzori presented the idea most clearly, in his facetiously titled Diary of an Anti-Semite. For von Rezzori, the lost world of central Europe, Davies’s favorite subject, was not to be understood by kingdoms, rights, or lost chivalry, but rather by a sort of Ubu-esque absurdity about claims and national fantasies played out in a burlesque of ethnic complexity.

For instance, the German yearning, the yearning for the Reich, the sunken Roman Empire of the German Nation, of Charlemagne, or Karl the Great, as he is known in German, the empire over which Emperor Barbarossa fell asleep so profoundly in the Kyffhäuser mountains that his beard grew through the stone tabletop he leaned on ... to restore this Reich, to reunite it afresh, to revive it in all its mystical power and glory ... yes indeed!

Von Rezzori’s problem was that he was an Austrian aristocrat without money in Bucharest, raised as an anti-Semite but married only to Jewish women. The absurdity of his own existence is what he associated with the kingdoms and the peoples which Davies tries to resurrect as clear and pure. For von Rezzori, the idea of putting kingdoms onto the collage of peoples of Europe is an act of absurdist imagination counter to his own project: 

I sense a German yearning here, in the mother country of Rumanian voivodes, between the Prut and the Seret rivers, surrounded by Rumanians, Ruthenians, Poles, and Galician Jews. And one is proudly heedless of any possibility that one might look ridiculous in a disguise suggesting Puss in Boots—how beautiful too, this fidelity to the folk wealth of German fairy tales! ... No, no, one need not be ashamed; one is right in every respect. Even this Kingdom of Rumania in which one lives today is still a slip and a shoot of the Great Reich—after all, this realm is ruled by a monarch from the house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a German prince ... Permit me to utter my unqualified admiration for such a candid expression of belief, one that sweeps aside any petty qualms of political tact!

Von Rezzori’s complex and self-contradicting identity serves as an antidote to the very idea of kingdoms, so much more imagined than real. A bit player in the partially beautiful but ultimately grotesque history of central Europe, von Rezzori’s George Grosz-like scenes are in stark contrast to Davies’s romantic panoramas, exposing the very project of trying to rescue kingdoms from obscurity as essentially flawed. 

VANISHING HAS deep meaning for Norman Davies’s career as a historian, for he has his own demon, and he cannot help but submit to it. For years he has made it a personal mission to equate Polish deaths in World War II with the Holocaust. Now, no one can deny that both Germans and Russians murdered Poles (and each other, for that matter). Poland was crippled by the double German-Russian blows during World War II, and by the slaughter of the Polish elite in Katyn, which wounded the country for a generation. But mass death and mass vanishing are two different things, and Davies struggles with the two concepts incoherently and dubiously. At every point where he mentions the deaths of Jews, he meticulously mentions the deaths of Poles as equally important.

This trope of equal suffering is an old relativist claim against the idea of the Holocaust, a term that Davies mentions only in passing. He refers to it only when discussing the Jewish Museum of Galicia, which he pettily notes is “a tribute to Jewish life in the former Galicia, not to Galician life as a whole.” He decries the “lamentable tendency to bypass the age-old Jewish presence,” but also warns that “it too presents something short of the full story.”

What is that full story, according to Davies? He cryptically complains that “the rich, multi-layered legacy of Galicia remains in the shadows. The Kingdom ‘as it really was’ remains at best half-forgotten and half-remembered.” This may be true. But Davies clearly struggles with the question, returning to the inescapable traces of the 502,000 Galician Jews who were destroyed by the Final Solution. He cannot keep from reenacting his own role in the denial of Polish culpability in anti-Jewish pogroms: “The Jews did encounter a certain measure of discrimination, especially during the Polish-Soviet War. But stories of widespread pogroms, though oft-repeated, were dismissed by successive international inquiries.” To deny the fact that Jews in Poland, Belarus, the Baltic states, and Russia were subject to hundreds of years of pogroms is pure and foul revisionism. But this, alas, is a refrain in Davies’ work: when he claims that Poland was not anti-Semitic, or that Poles suffered in pogroms (which makes no sense), Davies cites his own writing of forty years ago, an article from 1973 in which he insists that pogroms were invented by British Zionist Jews bent on separating Polish Jews from their Polish brothers. He claims that the findings of the Morgenthau Report of 1919 on Polish pogroms did not take into account the counter-views of Morgenthau’s “non-Jewish colleagues” and is therefore “inconclusive.” He further claims that “the actual record of anti-Semitic events in ethnic Poland is therefore unexpectedly mild.” Russians and Germans were responsible for pogroms and the Holocaust. Information about Polish pogroms was supplied by Jewish “agencies,” “organizations,” and “Zionist publicity.”

The Galicia Museum in Krakow, much like the former Jewish quarter, is so haunting because, like the Jewish museum in Budapest, it shows an enormous Jewish world and a vast Jewish population which are gone. The fact is that Poland, one of the largest countries in Europe, had the largest Jewish population, many of whom left Poland before World War II due to pogroms. The rest are dead. Vanished.

In the end, Davies himself provides the best characterization of his own project. He cites “Ozymandias,” rather tritely, to describe the decline and fall of his imagined kingdoms.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. 

But Shelley’s lyric is less fitted to describe places such as Burgundy than this colossal wreck of a book.

Jacob Soll is the author, most recently, of The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System (University of Michigan Press). This article appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of the magazine.