When history is told, it is the stories of the bold and the victorious that we want to hear about. Enemies and invaders being thwarted, moments of struggle and adversity overcome, the rise of the nation state into a place of glory.
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And yet that discards so many rich tales of the nations and peoples who did not make it. Take Alt-Clud, or the Kingdom of the Rock. Situated on the River Clyde in what is now the United Kingdom, all that remains of a civilization from the time of the Vikings is a crumbling fortification at Strathclyde. Or the Kingdom of Burgundy, which existed in what is now France, but is usually confused with the wine region in today’s reference books.
Norman Davies, the author of Europe: A History, is comfortable with tackling complex storylines and grand historical eras. In his new book Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations, he puts the focus on these peripheral states that have all but disappeared. By doing so, he not only re-enlivens a European history we thought we knew, he also shows the impermanence of what we think of as eternal—our country, our people.
Davies was kind enough to answer some questions about the role of the historian, what kind of paper trail a vanquished people might leave behind and how long we can expect America to still be around.
Your book opens with something of a rallying cry, for historians to stop focusing only on the conquerors of the past. What are the consequences of a historical record that leaves so many peoples and events in the margins?
The effect is most damaging for the mentality of the conquerors themselves; it creates the illusion that they are invincible and eternal, even though as Vanished Kingdoms demonstrates, all political power rises and falls.
One has also to link the vanity of the powerful with their lack of empathy for less fortunate nations. Wisdom often lies in the minds of those who, despite their best efforts, have known defeat and failure. People who think of themselves only as winners are heading for disillusionment and a rude awakening. Pride precedes the fall.
Certainly the conquerors probably kept better records, or at least they were less likely to be destroyed. How was the research process for Vanished Kingdoms? Were there gaps in the paper trail you found particularly frustrating?
It’s not always true that conquerors keep better records. On the contrary, defeated nations are usually more concerned to analyze what went wrong and to preserve the memory of what was lost.
Of course, “winners’ history” dominates mainstream writing, textbooks and popular attitudes. As a result, historians who wish to learn more than the mainstream offers have to dig deeper, seek out different sources and read unfashionable languages. Scholars who think that they can understand European history by studying books in English with a smattering of say French or German can only scratch the surface.
I also decided that it was essential for me to visit as many of my bygone kingdoms as possible. It is one thing to sit in an archive or a library and to read about the past; it is far more stimulating for the imagination to see the contrast between past and present with one’s own eyes.
I wanted to ask about your affection for Poland and nearby environs, something of a marginalized place in itself. What is it about Poland that draws you back, both personally and historically?
The question is revealing; the riposte would be “Marginalized by whom?” I’m not sure that I have special affection for Poland. Like all nations, its make-up has both attractive and unattractive aspects.
But I do hope, since I have spent quite a few years there, that I have gained a better understanding of it than most. And one can’t resist a degree of sympathy for a country which in my own lifetime was targeted for annihilation by powers, whose problems are studied by everyone. It’s really a matter of sound knowledge and inclusive information.
Some people still count on the world’s ignorance to bad-mouth Poland, so it’s easy to see why someone must stand up for the underdogs. And once one knows something about the mechanisms of the information jungle, where the powerful and the unscrupulous promote themselves and beggar their neighbors, Poland and its history turns into a case study that is relevant to much else.
When you talk at the end about how states die, I kept thinking back to all of the hysterical magazine headlines and book titles I've seen in the recent past about the decline of the West, the threats to America from China or Europe or Islam or what have you. We Americans obviously have a lot of fears about our "way of life" being subsumed by some alien force. So tell us, Professor Davies, how much do we really have to fear?
The U.S.A. was the most successful superpower of the 20th century and has probably passed its peak. But that does not mean that the American way of life is somehow facing deadly and immediate danger. Uncle Sam is still relatively rich and strong, will not be overtaken soon and should be able to hold his own for generations to come.
More doubts arise around Americans’ ability to adapt gracefully to a changing world where the almighty dollar no longer rules and where military power is increasingly ineffective. If there is an imminent threat, it is that American fears and false expectations—for example in the Middle East—will drag the U.S.A. into the sort of debilitating conflicts that might otherwise be safely avoided. One thing is certain: the U.S.A. is likely to survive long after the United Kingdom has vanished.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.