For many of us, Europe means no such thing at all. Instead, “Europe” is a byword for a small collection of mostly western nations: France, predominantly; Italy, of course, and Spain, perhaps Portugal, places that offer the allure of fine dining and sophisticated culture. Germany must be included in this list, for somewhere on its eastern flanks, this Europe ends and another one begins.
The British historian Norman Davies has spent much of his career battling such blinkered provincialism. Part of this is a legacy of the Cold War, when Europe was divided along eastern and western lines. Communist Eastern Europe fell apart after 1989, but an Iron Curtain of the mind still persists, artificially dividing Europe into two halves. There are exceptions – no one would consider Prague anything but a jewel among European cities – but we could not say the same thing about, say, Bucharest.
Davies has been a scourge of such thinking. His early work was devoted to the history of Poland, where he is something of a national hero: for Davies, Kraków has every right to be mentioned in the same breath as Paris. He stands up for the forgotten, the neglected and the marginal. Small nations such as Estonia get a sympathetic hearing from Davies, even if his advocacy, at times, leads to a certain crudeness of touch. He is a historiographical pugilist; he throws a lot of sharp elbows. His visceral anti-communism suggests that it was the Soviet Union, almost more than the Third Reich, that posed the greatest threat to the 20th century.
In his gargantuan and controversial previous work Europe: A History, Davies ripped up the map of the continent, and made over Europe into an altogether more exotic, troubled and diverse civilisation, one that ignores such truths at its peril. In many ways, his mammoth new work (he seems to write no other kind) is a continuation of his earlier tome. Vanished Kingdoms: A History of Half-Forgotten Europe, proposes an alternative vision of the past 2,000 years of European history. It is a Baedeker of kingdoms, duchies, republics and empires that once dotted the European map. With the EU in a permanent state of crisis, a book about deceased polities seems almost cruelly well timed.
Davies’ theme could be taken from a few lines of Shelley’s Ozymandias: Look upon his work and despair. Nothing beside remains. This is not a very cheerful book. Starting with Visigoths, and stopping at Burgundy, Byzantium, Prussia, the province of Galicia, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and ending with the Soviet Union, Davies, with a comparative and bold sweep, ploughs through a complex maze of cultural, political and military themes. In typically brusque, lapel-grabbing fashion, he accuses his readers of amnesia and historians of “an addiction with great powers”. Davies’ concern here is the past’s losers. His message: every nation will wind up in history’s dustbin.
“The panorama of the past is indeed studded with greatness, but it is filled in the main with lesser powers, lesser people, lesser lives and lesser emotions,” he observes gloomily. “Most importantly, students of history need to be constantly reminded of the transience of power, for transience is one of the fundamental characteristics both of the human condition and of the political order. Sooner or later, all things come to an end. Sooner or later, the centre cannot hold. All states and nations, however great, bloom for a season and are replaced.”
The history lesson Davies delivers is a sharp rebuke to anyone complacent about the current map of Europe. Powerful states such as France and Germany may seem immutable; but they are no more or less secure than the realms Davies surveys across 700 pages. In a book of such ambition and reach, there is frequently tedium to navigate. Not all of Davies’ chapters hold together. But at his best, he deepens our understanding of the evolution of Europe.