Book Review: Vanished Kingdoms, by Norman Davies

I bought this book on a whim, partly because I guessed (correctly) that it would have something in it about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is a casual interest of mine.

Judging by what I’ve found on the internet, the book has had a number of subtitles:

  • The Rise and Fall of States and Nations
  • The History of Half-Forgotten Europe
  • The Lives and Afterlives of Europe’s Lost Realms

These give you a flavour of what the book is about. Davies’ starting point is the obvious but oft-forgotten point that both historians and laymen often commit the error of assuming that there is a ‘right’ way of dividing of the world into countries. (Just at the minute world leaders are debating over whether the Crimea is an inseparable part of Ukraine or whether it could be incorporated into Russia, and the history of the region is often referred to in order to back up this or that viewpoint.)

Historians usually focus their attention on the past of countries that still exist, writing hundreds and thousands of books on British history, French history, German history, Russian history, American history, Chinese history, Indian history, Brazilian history or whatever. Whether consciously or not, they are seeking the roots of the present, thereby putting themselves in danger of reading history backwards.

In fact, says Davies, there’s a large element in randomness to the way the world has been divided up into political entities, and it’s often only chance that means that one kingdom becomes established and another dies stillborn. Why is Spain Spain and Portugal Portugal? Why couldn’t there be an ‘Iberia’ instead covering the whole peninsula? Or how about an independent Catalonia, or a Basqueland straddling the Alps? None of these are unthinkable; some of them in fact existed for a while. (These are my examples for simplicity’s sake; Davies’ ones tend to be more obscure.)

Davies’ project, therefore, is to recover some of these forgotten countries, which often flourished and dominated their neighbours for centuries before being swept away by the tide of history. (Though again, the expression ‘tide of history’ implies something natural and inevitable, which is exactly not what Davies want to say.)

Davies ranges widely over European history, and rather stretches the definition of “Kingdoms” to include the USSR and what he refers to as “Éire” (now you see the relevance to this blog).

Several of the case studies deal with states that once were great. Some deal with realms that did not aspire to greatness. Others describe entities that never had a chance.

Each chapter has a teaser subheading that hints at what is to come: “Borussia: Watery land of the Prusai”, “Rusyn: The republic of one day”… They’re usually enigmatic enough to make you want to read on but the one for Éire brought me up short: “The unconscionable tempo of the crown’s retreat since 1916”.

There’s quite a lot to unpack and analyze in that. Let’s start with that word “unconscionable”. There’s a very clear value judgement there. My dictionary defines the word as “unscrupulous, excessive or shockingly unfair or unjust”. Taken together with what I read as the negative connotations of “retreat” (compared with a more neutral word such as “withdrawal”) the implication seems to me to be that if would have been more desirable, perhaps even more morally correct, for a British presence (possibly a symbolic one, hence the use of the word “Crown”) to have persisted in what has variously been called the Irish Free State, Éire, Ireland… (You can tell my first degree was in literature, can’t you?)

Does Davies explain what he means by this? Unfortunately, not really. He does mention the Crown several times throughout the chapter, and makes a few pertinent points (“The fact is that two opposing groups were obsessed with the Crown: the Irish ultra-republicans and the British establishment”) but as far as the sub-title is concerned, he never offers a justification for it.

He begins with a potted history of Ireland, pointing out that — as is often the case — the academic and popular versions do not always match up. Coming onto the period of the Home Rule bills, Ulster Unionist opposition and the Easter Rising, Davies suddenly informs the reader: “it is pertinent to ask about Irish attitudes to the Crown”. Is it? Why now? “Curiously,” he continues, “information on this subject is not readily forthcoming.” He then goes on to list some of those who omit to mention this issue (including Irish historian Roy Foster). “This must surely be an omission. For kings and queens, royal titles and the ‘Crown’ figured in political dates at the time, and have never ceased to do so.” (He seems unaware of Mary Kenny’s Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate Between Ireland and the British Monarchy, published in 2009.)

But instead of developing his point, he swerves off on a rather bizarre digression: “The years of the struggle over Home Rule were equally the years of when both Britain and America were swept by a popular craze for Irish songs.” And he then goes on to talk about and quote parts of ‘The Wearing of the Green’ and ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’. Later on we get other popular songs, both republican and unionist, as well as a totally unnecessary cameo for Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Irish-born Professor of Music at Cambridge and collector of Irish folk songs (part of one is quoted), simply to illustrate the point that there was “a deep interpenetration of English and Irish life”.

These often only vaguely relevant digressions are my first criticism of the book. At 848 pages it really could have done with some editing down. But Davies seems to want to pack in everything that he came across in the course of his research.

Ironically, a bit more research and fact-checking would have helped at times (my second criticism).

It is, for example, misleading to suggest that the 1937 constitution changed the state’s official name to “Éire”. (Article 4 states “The name of the State is Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland.” So there are two official names, depending on which language you are using, though the Irish version is in a sense prioritised as “The Irish language as the national language is the first official language” (Article 8.1.). So using “Éire” in English would be like using “Deutschland” to refer to “Germany”.)

At times, simplification risks misleading the reader. For example, Davies writes: “A hunger strike began in the Maze Prison when an IRA activist, Bobby Sands, elected to Westminster during his sentence, starved himself to death”. But this way of phrasing distorts the chronology of events: Bobby Sands’ death did not cause the hunger strikes.

Worse, there are also plain inaccuracies:

  1. Captain Boycott was not a “landowner”. (He was a ‘land agent’.)

  2. W. T. Cosgrave was not the first taoiseach. (He held the office of “President of the Executive Council”. The term taoiseach wasn’t introduced until the 1937 constitution was adopted.)

  3. And, after 1937, “the head of state’s official title in English” was not “‘president of Éire’”. (Davies gets it right earlier on, when he gives both English and Irish versions. Article 12 begins “There shall be a President of Ireland (Uachtarán na hÉireann)…”

The original text of the 1937 Constitution can be found quite easily online if you look.

It may seem pedantic of me to bring up these relatively minor points, but if you’re going to devote pages to detailing how earlier historians miscounted the number of entities that have been referred to as “Burgundy” (as Davies does), then you’d better not make any mistakes yourself.

Finally, Davies seems to want to use his discussion of Ireland as a jumping-off point to speculate on the doomed nature of the United Kingdom as an entity. While writing of the events of what is now being called the Decade of Commemorations, he tosses off another unexpected aside:

Since that time, Ireland has been a central player in a historical process that may be described without too much hyperbole or sense of anticipation as the break-up of the United Kingdom. The process, whose seeds were barely perceptible in the early twentieth century, was to surface fifteen years after Queen Victoria’s death and continued to develop for the rest of the century amid the alternating pulsations of centrifugal and centripetal forces. In the early twenty-first century it reached a significant new stage after the introduction of devolution, but was still some distance, even in Ireland, from its ultimate vanishing point.

The third and final section of this chapter is a long and to my mind unconvincing narrative of how the United Kingdom will soon break up, with Davies extrapolating from current events. These conjectures seem to me out of place in a history book. (If you’re interested in that topic, then a more considered, less dogmatic view can be found in Acts of Union and Disunion, by Linda Colley).

That’s not to say that I didn’t find the book interesting (I did), but it can be as frustrating as it is fascinating. The writing is lively (I liked the description of Northern Ireland premiers James Craig and Basil Brooke as “paragons of immobility”), and you’ll certainly learn a lot (did you know that a grandson of Queen Victoria was pushed into taking over as ruler of his grandfather Prince Albert’s Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and ended up an outcast who was exploited by the Nazis to cultivate the British establishment?), though the digressions get annoying and the mistakes in the section I already know something about make me slightly nervous about believing everything I read in the other parts.

Book Review: Vanished Kingdoms, by Norman Davies by