An interview which Acemoglu/Robinson duo would really like. It is by Norman Davies a British historian. His latest book, Vanished Kingdoms, traces Europe’s extinct polities from the Visigoths to the Soviet Union. The interview is quite a read.
He says kingdoms come and go. It is not about success or failure really. Just ups and downs and (reemergence in some cases):
Will you begin by telling us about your new book, and what these “vanished kingdoms” are?
The topic is Europe’s extinct states. Not just kingdoms but empires, republics – polities of any sort which have ceased to exist. Which is a normal phenomenon. States always collapse and disappear, sometimes very quickly, sometimes after centuries or millennia, but they have a finite term in any part of the world. It’s just a given of human institutions. Sooner or later they fall apart and are replaced by something else. The key quotation is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He says, “The body politic, like the body of a man, begins to die as soon as it is born. It contains the seeds of its own destruction.” Brilliant. Absolutely spot on.
People who have their eye on short-term, contemporary events and the world around us tend to forget this. I sometimes think they imagine the world politic to be a chessboard, where you play games, have a crisis, and then you put all the pieces back and have another game. Well it’s not like that. You can have a chessboard, you have players who are either pawns or kings or whatever, but the players themselves are always changing.
In the last 20 years, four or five European states have vanished, depending on how you deal with Yugoslavia. The German Democratic Republic was merged into Germany. The Soviet Union – the biggest state in the world, with the biggest nuclear arsenal – went up in smoke. Czechoslovakia dissolved by mutual consent – the two parties decided to have a velvet divorce. And then the Federation of Yugoslavia exploded in slow motion – bits flew off and continued to fly off until there was nothing left, apart from Serbia.
My book traces the phenomenon from fifth century Visigoths in Aquitaine to the Soviet Union. I didn’t go back to the Roman Empire, although it is obviously one of them. So there’s a big spread of time. I deliberately chose case studies from each end of Europe – north, south, west, centre – including smaller examples which tend to get left behind in general narratives.
Usually history is written by victors which makes this debate one sided:
Why do they get left behind? Why are they forgotten?
This is a crucial question. You’ve heard the saying that “history is written by the victors”. It is very true. My very first chapter is about the Visigoths in Gaul, an even bigger kingdom than the Franks. It looked, objectively, at the beginning of the sixth century, that the Visigoths would be the dominant power in post-Roman Gaul. But there was a battle, and Clovis the Frank killed Alaric the Visigoth. And the history of post-Roman Gaul has been written by post-Roman Franks, and most recently by the French, who identify with the Franks. Nobody identifies with the Visigoths. Clovis has a great mausoleum in Saint Denis, and nobody even knows where the tomb of Alaric the Visigoth may be. Apart from all sorts of legends and echoes which surface, of the Dan Brown variety, there’s very little to show for a century of the Visigoths being the very first barbarian kingdom in the Western Roman Empire.
If these kingdoms are swept under the rug of history, what can we learn by going back and remembering them, researching their history as you do?
The main thing is that mainstream history – the subjects which we concentrate on in schools, in television programmes and influential books – is driven by a number of factors, one of which is power politics. The powers of today wish to trace their rise and the origins of their influence. But also, historians are drawn to power. China, which was neglected for ages, becomes a major player on the world stage, and everybody now wants to learn about the history of China. When I was a student at Oxford – a long time ago – there was no course on Chinese history. It didn’t exist. And it’s not just powerful states, it’s powerful issues. It might be feminism or slavery – things which were missing but are now contemporary issues. They drive a lot of history writing.
A biased view of such history tells you about the rise and fall of kingomes/republics. For instance, there was a republic which lasted a day:
Are you disparaging this tendency? Because that seems to suggest that if a polity has vanished it has less merit for the present day.
Well, I complain about the American style that nothing succeeds like success. That’s a very primitive way of looking at history, as between winners and losers. Sure, there are crackpot rickety states, but who’s interested in them? What they are really interested in is the successful cultures, the big civilisations, the mighty powers and so on. That gives a very false view of the panorama of the past. The past is full of everything. Great powers, obscure powers – which may have other achievements to their name. There are powers which last for centuries, but I found a republic which lasted for one day.
Goodness me. Which day?
March 15, 1939. The republic of Subcarpathian Ruthenia. It was the day that Hitler marched into Prague. The Germans swallowed Bohemia and Moravia, formed a protectorate and Slovakia became a client statelet of the Reich. And the third part of Czechoslovakia, this Subcarpathian Ruthenia, was left with nobody to tell it what to do. So it declared its independence at around 10 o’clock in the morning. And by the evening the Hungarian army arrived and swallowed it up. Fortunately there was a British travel writer – or someone posing as such – there at the time who described all this.
There is nothing like losers and winners in this:
What do we learn from the losers, to simplify my original question?
Well, what do we mean by the losers? Even the mightiest of states eventually decline and die, like human beings. There are some states which are powerful, mighty and impressive for a time. Prussia was, of course, one of the biggest beasts. Or Poland-Lithuania is a key example – it was the biggest state in Europe for a period. And then it develops internal diseases and is swallowed up by its neighbours. The kingdom of Poland was certainly a loser by the end, but you can’t define it as a loser state.
So we should think of it in terms of ebb and flow, not winner and loser?
Precisely. Rise and fall. These are biographies, life stories, of states. There’s always a birth, a struggle for existence. Some candidates fall by the wayside before they really establish themselves, some flourish, some go on for millennia. But they all come to an end.
The classic book on all this, which isn’t on my list, is Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This was the guidebook, if you like, to long-term history – that there are these enormously powerful, extensive empires which exude an air of immortality and yet which all, sooner or later, come to an end. At the end of the Roman Empire, in the Byzantine period, the empire shrinks and shrinks until it consists of one city, Constantinople, and the Ottoman Turks can encircle it. There’s a final siege and the Turks go over the wall. The last emperor – number 156 or whatever – disappears in the fray, is killed, and that’s the end of the empire. This is, if you like, the guidebook to this story, to exactly what Rousseau is saying. No matter how powerful they may look, the time will come, as in the lives of men and women, when they die. It’s not a topic that people are eagerly looking at.
Hmmm..He picks five books on the topic. Each one looks like a good read..And most would interest the A/R duo…Why did they vanish? Was it mainly political institutions? Looks like it..
In the end, what about current European crisis? Will Eurozone also be a case a vanished state?
My final question – a counterpoint of sorts – is about the European experiment today. Europe has been at war with itself for millennia. Now we have the EU. Do you think that the EU will put an end to this history of conflict, that there will be no more redrawn borders?
It’s an absolutely key question. I think that a crisis such as we see developing now makes it absolutely essential for Europe to refocus itself, to weigh up what its aims and perspectives are. The changes that happened in 1989 and afterwards were unprepared for. Nobody saw it coming, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and all these countries dying to join the union. Enlargement took place without any real change of governance. Systems which were designed to rule six countries of similar economic and political development simply don’t work with 27.
Enlargement took place, and the eurozone was created without any due recognition of basic facts. Basically, no enforcement. You set up a common currency, and you lay down rules that you’re not allowed to increase your debt to more than whatever it was. The first country to break them was Germany. Then the French broke it. And then along come the Greeks, who say, “Ah, well if the big boys can get away with it, who’s going to control us?” It’s got completely out of hand, because the eurozone was set up without enforceable rules, without the political mechanisms for governing this currency area. I think it’s obvious now that they either have to transform the eurozone quickly and make it workable – give it rules which can be observed and for which there are penalties – or it really is going to fall apart.
And behind that is the European Union. Is there a European identity strong enough to overcome the national identities of its member states? It’s touch and go. But I’m an optimist. I think there will be one hell of a crisis. I doubt if the EU will disappear, but it will be severely chastened. And it will have to put its house in order. Otherwise it will become one of the vanished kingdoms. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for that to happen.
Superb…The political lens to this formation of Eurzone is far more fascinating than the econ lens..