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The History Beyond History

Mary Evans Picture Library
King Nikola and his family at the time of the proclamation of the Kingdom of Montenegro, 1910. In the foreground, reclining, is the king’s grandson, Crown Prince Aleksandar of Serbia, who later became the first king of Yugoslavia.

The publication of the British historian Norman Davies’s account of the “vanished kingdoms” of Europe fits this moment of concern about American political decline, plutocracy, and installation of permanent war, as well as pervasive skepticism about the European Union’s future. He is interested in how nations begin, but also in how they disappear. He describes Europe as it was when European civilization took its original form and American civilization was unimaginable. He illustrates the reality that history promises only change, not progress. All is passage, and the future can be worse than what has already gone, and is only sometimes better, which is not as commonly assumed.

Davies’s account of Europe’s origins teaches humility before the constancy of humanity, and the ultimate transience, or even irrelevance, of power, empire, state ambition and pride, and “greatness”—including the transience of “our” civilization, Western civilization, to which Europe was a relatively late arrival. Some thirty-five centuries separate the Neolithic period from the Bronze Age empires of the Euphrates valley that existed some four thousand years ago, from which we derive. Pharaonic Egypt and its Old and Middle Kingdom predecessors, and our own Mediterranean and classical ages—the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations anticipating classical Greece (to take the most familiar examples)—all preceded Europe in Western humanity’s emergence into history.

We today are mere twigs atop a vast human forest, whose roots are in a prehistoric past of which we still have very incomplete knowledge. This is a warning of how ephemeral we and our institutions and events today really are, soon in our turn to be tipped into the humus of a human past mostly already forgotten, or rarely acknowledged, but that Vanished Kingdoms explores. Davies’s book is an exercise in historical realism whose effect is to undermine the ideologies of human progress and perfectibility by which Europe and its intellectual offspring have lived since the Enlightenment.

The author’s chosen “vanished kingdoms” include Alt Clud, Kingdom of the Rock (Scotland, fifth to twelfth centuries AD), Burgundia (411–1795), Aragon (1137–1714), Litva (modern Belarus, 1253–1795), Byzantion (Byzantium—the Eastern Roman or Greek Christian Empire, 330–1453), Borussia (modern Prussia, 1230–1945), Sabaudia (Savoy and Piedmont, 1033–1946), Galicia (1773–1918), Etruria (historic Florence, 1801–1814), Rosenau (Thuringia, 1826–1918), Tsernagora (Montenegro, 1910–1918),1 and Rusyn (Carpatho–Ukraine, March 15, 1939). After a chapter devoted to this republic, which lasted a single tragic day in the lifetime of many who are still alive, the author goes two states too far, in my opinion: to Éire and the USSR, which do not belong in this book, also being contemporary affairs, about which we already know a great deal (while even Norman Davies errs2).

Davies begins in 410 AD when a Visigoth army—a Germanic tribe of Arian heretics, thought to be of Scandinavian origin—sacked Rome, thereby breaking the political spell cast by the Roman Empire and ending an era. Not long after, Picts and Hibernians invaded Britain, and Germanic tribes arrived at the “Saxon shore” of southeastern Britain and the northwestern shores of Frankish Gaul.

One of the invaders’ earliest implantations became the Alt Clud, the Kingdom of the Rock, in what today is lowland Scotland, the first of Davies’s chapters describing states that once were thought great—or not, as he says; or which never had a chance of greatness. The Alt Clud originated in that largely unknown layer of North European history from which not much more than names, tradition, and material traces of human society survive (third to fifth centuries AD). The Celtic tribe of the Damnonii formed this kingdom in the region of today’s Strathclyde (hence “Alt Clud”—Rock of the Clyde), “one of the four kingdoms of ancient Scotland.”3 Its claim to greatness is to have never been conquered by Romans, Normans, or English. It perished on its own.

Before becoming a great power, Burgundy was also in the north, supposedly on the Danish island of Bornholm (from which its name), located in the Baltic, between Sweden and Poland. Then as now the island has twenty hours of sunlight in high summer, congenial to the Scandinavian nudists who frequent it today, who would have been an embarrassment to the Knights Templar who held the island in the late Middle Ages. As Davies says, the earliest inhabitants of Northern Europe were all post–Ice Age immigrants on the way to somewhere, and why not southward, where the summer sun is less generous, but the winters warmer?

Burgundia describes many political entities—some ten to fifteen, depending on how discriminately the word is assigned. They include the original kingdom of the fifth to sixth centuries, located in what now is Germany, including Cologne, Worms, and Strasbourg; Merovingian Burgundy (sixth–eighth centuries) under French kings, beginning with Clovis; then the version of the Burgundian kingdom that incorporated Provence (or vice versa); the kingdom of Jura (or trans-Jurane Burgundy), then extended to Arles; a tenth-century Burgundian kingdom that incorporated the previous two; and so on, including for a time modern Switzerland, and then extending to the Mediterranean at Antibes, while including Lyon, Avignon, and Arles. A Gallo-Roman witness to their arrival in Lyon described the Burgundians as “hairy giants…all seven feet tall,” who “gabble in an incomprehensible tongue.”

In its Merovingian incarnation, Burgundy adjoined the Carolingian kingdom incorporating Germans that was to become the Holy Roman Empire, successor to pagan Rome, with Charlemagne presiding as first Holy Roman Emperor, so crowned by Pope Leo III in Rome in 800. In its ultimate Habsburg-Lorraine succession the title was held until 1918.

Historical memory is short. It tends to dim as people leave behind the decisive events shaping the condition of individual lives and providing the cultural vocabulary of an era. In modern France that would be the Revolution or the Enlightenment, or more recently Vichy and de Gaulle.4 In Britain, it would be the Napoleonic Wars, or more likely World War I; and in the United States, World War II (although at the time that World War II began for America, in 1941, the era ended would probably have been identified as post–Civil War, at least in the South).

For Germans, as Germans, it can be identified with Frederick the Great and the consolidation of Prussia in the eighteenth century, and the regeneration of the Austrian monarchy under Joseph II (1780–1790), but modern Germany as we know it follows unification and the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871. United Germany’s operative memory today is two world wars, with high inflation between the two (still responsible for the economic policy of Angela Merkel’s government in 2011–2012), partition, and the Soviet occupation that followed 1945. Habsburg Austria’s imperial memories were amputated by war, exile, and nationalism, and by Woodrow Wilson.

Davies’s is a largely unexplored subject, the history beyond history; his accomplishment is to rescue us from the shallow contemporary. How can we deal intelligently with contemporary Europe (or the United States) if we are not aware of where it ultimately came from, which may offer some guide to where it is going—if indeed a trajectory exists? The European Union is only the latest attempt to unify Europe, a venture begun by the Romans—although the EU is unique in being peaceful. If it fails, as eventually it may, falling again into disarray, one would argue that it is the victim of its own (or the European Commission’s) unrealistic ambitions with respect to expansion and federalism; and also that the EU has not been well served by remaining an American client. Expansion in the 1990s and after, with the door left open, was a generous decision on Brussels’s part: to incorporate the Central and Eastern European countries and beyond, victims of the cold war, and to seal the Union with a common currency and central bank, but alas not with a common economy or single budget.

The unification of Western and Central Europe enjoyed the support of the United States, which, while sponsoring the projects of Jean Monnet, has always been wary of Europe as a potential competitor and political rival. Future tension with the United States could cement the EU within its present dimensions, conceivably excluding England if the latter is incapable of detaching itself from dependence on Washington, which London considers, possibly erroneously, the assurance of its security. This is the reason Britain has consistently blocked Western European attempts to create an independent military command and staff, most recently in the Libyan affair.5

Suppose Europe’s history could be stopped at will—a frozen moment in which its history is viewed laterally rather than vertically, perpetuating the “greatness” of the early great powers and those that followed, all at points when they were at their peak. We would then have the England of Elizabeth; Norman (and again Napoleonic) France; Burgundy and Aragon and Catalonia: nearly all of modern Spain, shed both of Berber occupation and most of its Jews by the time of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (the Arab architectural and cultural legacy lingering), but with Spanish and Portuguese world empire (and the destruction of America’s astonishing pre-Columbian civilizations) yet to come.

Eastward would be the German-Gaulish Holy Roman Empire, temporarily extended by way of independent but allied Venice and Malta to Constantinople and Jerusalem during the time of the Crusades. Burgundy, through marriage with the Habsburgs, would eventually reach Vienna and acquire the North Sea coast from Picardy to Holland; and finally there would be an East-Central European and Balkan empire, a mighty Sweden, and a reduced Spanish Empire that would eventually be virtually annexed by the United States because Captain Alfred Mahan wrote a book saying that great nations required empires for coaling stations, raw materials, and markets. The Habsburg and Ottoman empires were finished off by World War I. Only the British Empire was left intact after that war—ironically enough, at its very peak of territorial extent, uninterrupted from Cairo to Rangoon: all of it gone forty years later.

Aragon, Burgundy, and the great Italian city-civilizations are today tourist destinations, but Portugal remained a world empire until 1975, following nearly five hundred years of existence. (An elderly Portuguese acquaintance once remarked to me on how difficult he had found it to think of his country as a small European state. He had been educated to think that Portugal was a world actor whose civilization and power extended to China, tropical Africa, and Brazil, which was true.)

The great power of North-Central and Eastern Europe in this temporally elastic reconstruction would have been the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, which lasted for 409 years and whose frontiers in the sixteenth century extended from Riga on the Baltic, in formerly Teutonic Livonia (Latvia), to modern Danzig-Gdansk and Königsberg, also on the Baltic, to Smolensk in the East, Odessa on the Black Sea, and northeastward from there along the Bohemian and Hungarian borders. The empire thus incorporated the modern nations of Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, and a large piece of Russia, as well as Poland and Lithuania. It lasted longer than has the United States, together with its predecessor colonial settlements; Jamestown in Virginia was settled in 1607, 405 years ago.

  1. 1

    This period refers only to the dates when Montenegro formally “took its place among the kingdoms of Europe” and when the kingdom “lost its statehood” at the end of World War I. As Davies shows, the royal family established its rights of hereditary succession in 1696. 

  2. 2

    He chooses to describe Mikhail Gorbachev as naive, ignorant of his own country’s history, and incompetent. Few are likely to agree. Andrei Grachev’s Gorbachev’s Gamble: Soviet Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War (Polity, 2008), by an important adviser to Gorbachev and his final official spokesman, is undoubtedly the best (but not uncritical) account of Gorbachev’s assumptions and policy decisions during the final period of the USSR’s existence. 

  3. 3

    The Oxford History of England: Roman Conquest

  4. 4

    The Enlightenment was undoubtedly the decisive cultural event in Western Europe’s relationship with the Ottoman and Arab worlds and Asia: stopping the latter where they stood, delaying the effects of the Enlightenment until the twentieth century. 

  5. 5

    This in part explains European reluctance to invest more in armies and advanced military equipment, about which NATO ’s leaders constantly complain (as do most American commentators). NATO today is no more than an auxiliary to the United States in military operations exclusively American in conception and purpose. Since the cold war ended, there has been no threat from which Europe has needed to be defended. 

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