Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies

Penguin, 830pp

The battle for Scotland is at last firing up. It was skewed for far too long as being not much more than ‘a war of the wallet’. A single survey from a long time back was parroted again and again to the effect that it was all about five hundred quid. Five hundred quid a year better off and Alex would be the Man. It took the Magus of Dolgellau, in the form of Simon Jenkins, to inject a little historical perspective. Until then the broadsheets were notable for indolence, lack of enquiry and pack mentality. ‘The fledgling USA in 1776? The 1918 break-up of three European empires? Ireland? Kosovo? Slovakia?’ wondered Jenkins. To think that all it needed was the equivalent of five hundred quid and all might have swung the other way. The vote is about hope, feeling, allegiance, identity.’

Norman DaviesThe Editor at Newsnight London prefers ratings-raising barracking to enquiry. The real political meat is to be found over on Channel 970. Newsnight Scotland is good, strong, illuminating stuff. The unbundling of the Union is fearsomely complicated. A Newsnight Scotland feature last month tackled the cross-subsidy on wind power, the payment of levies by English and Welsh consumers for turbines on Scots territory. Labour’s Caroline Flint was up against the Scots Minister. He got a trouncing from Ms Flint, finally falling back on a wet argument that the English and Welsh will buy higher-priced energy from Scotland over France on the grounds of feelings of comradeship. Labour has its incentive, of course, to win the argument. Without Scotland, Labour never holds power again in Westminster. 

Radio 4 put together in February a sharp half-hour on Scotland joining a Nordic cluster – the conclusion was that the Nordics have yet to show much interest. John Curtice, master psephologist, has punctured the notion of the Scots being different from any other grouping in Britain. Fifty-two percent of Scots think that benefits for the unemployed are too high. Curtice also reports on the don’t-knows. It does not look good for the Union. Those still undecided are split disproportionately highly by circumstances. The majority is poorer, more left-wing in sympathy and more hostile to conservatism. 

A nifty publisher secured Linda Colley to write Acts of Union and Disunion. Her central conceit is of Britain as a synthetic construct. The Union in her view is about idea: ‘In order to succeed and flourish, states and nations need an attractive idea of what they are.’ Norman Davies, in a series of mammoth books, has already shown himself as a historian with a distinct perspective. As a PhD student his wish to study in Russia was denied by refusal of a visa. He switched to Krakow to research the war between Poland and the USSR of 1919-1920. It was a provocative choice as both countries at the time denied that the war had even taken place.

Davies’ stance is particular on two counts. He knows Europe’s eastern side in depth. In Minsk he notes the ‘grandiose public buildings for officialdom, and shoddy, decaying tower blocks for the populace’. The birthplace of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the murderous creator of Lenin’s indispensable CHEKA, has been lovingly renovated and ‘says much about Lukashenko’s views and tastes’. Belarus, Davies adds, features at number one hundred and fifty in the Corruption Index. Its place in the Quality of Life Index makes it a few rungs better than Zimbabwe.  

The dedication of Vanished Kingdoms is revealing: ‘I’r anghofiedig: for those whom historians tend to forget’. His view of the United Kingdom lacks a sense of Anglo-centrism. He remembers as a child on a hilltop village above Bethesda being given a copy of T Gwynn Jones’ Geiriadur. The word ‘Aeron’, he tells us, is an old word for Ayrshire. The name ‘Wallace’ derives from ‘Uallas’, the Gaelic for ‘Welshman’. In the chapter entitled ‘Alt Clud’ he goes to Dumbarton Rock, the great volcanic plug in the Firth of Clyde, that was the capital of the ‘Kingdom of the Rock’, a stronghold of the Welsh Britons for centuries.

On the later-to-be United Kingdom Davies has one over-arching view. It is that it has as small a claim to longevity as Biblical Ziklag, Edom or Zoboh. Its disintegration began in 1922 and will probably continue for a simple reason. The English ‘are less aware of complex identities than are the Welsh, the Scots or the Irish. Hence, if the end does come it will come as a surprise.’ He mentions the imbalance, England’s devotion to conservation of its political structures. The Prescottian schemes for out-of-London devolution collapsed. Virtually all Mayoral initiatives have been rejected. Bristol gained one but the Mayor’s territorial jurisdiction is absurdly out of kilter with the boundaries of the urban area.    

It is probably a rare reader who will savour every page of the monumental Vanished Kingdoms. The history of the twelfth-century monarchs of Aragon is recounted in exhausting detail. Of the Teutonic Knights even the author admits that ‘the Order’s wars with Poland are too extensive, and perhaps too tedious to recount in detail’. But when the subject matter moves to the twentieth century Davies writes much of interest. The occasional episode is familiar – De Valera is here visiting the German Embassy in April 1945 to present his condolences on the death of their country’s leader. Roosevelt’s death not long after receives no such gesture. Davies recalls the ‘Baltic Chain’ of 23 August 1989 when two million hands joined from Tallinn to Vilnius.

The violent ethnic separations of Eastern Europe in 1945 have been revisited by several historians in recent years, led by Anne Applebaum and Keith Lowe. Massacre upon massacre accompanied the fixing of the new Poland-Ukraine border. Kaliningrad is, in Davies’ reporting, a truly dismal place with Europe’s highest rates of tuberculosis, diphtheria and HIV. Back in 1945 not all the population were able to flee. One hundred and ninety-three thousand were trapped. Fifty thousand ‘were eventually sent to Germany in 1949 after four years of forced labour. The rest just vanished.’

No historian exits a book without a swipe at a colleague or two. Here it is the claim of John Plamenatz that ‘Western European countries have a healthy “civic nationalism” compared with the unhealthy nationalism of the Eastern European countries.’ Davies is harsh on historians’ bias against Russia: ‘young scholars who challenge the German-centred consensus can expect a roasting’. Against the grain he views Pamuk on Istanbul as ‘surprisingly blinkered’.

In a last chapter ‘How States Die’ a mere eleven pages take in Hobbes, Rousseau, Augustine, Aquinas, Proudhon and Bakunin. Among the multitude of states that Europe has formed and re-formed over two millennia, the strangest must be Carpatho-Ukraine. Declared a republic on 15th March 1939 it lasted one day. On 16th March Hungary invaded and annexed the country. The last mountain resistance was stamped out two days later.

Returning closer to home, a figure appeared on BBC Scotland last week guaranteed to rattle the nerves of the ‘Better Together’ campaign. ‘Yeah, give it a try,’ said this particular vox pop interviewee. ‘Polls,’ declares Davies, ‘are poor long-term predictors.’