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The Warsaw Voice » Society » November 30, 2010
Vanished Kingdoms: Lessons From History
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Historian Norman Davies talks to Grzegorz Chlasta.
November 30, 2010   
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What prompted you to write your book Vanished Kingdoms?
My impression is that historians write too much about the history of existing countries, such as France, Germany, Poland and Russia. My book shows that every country comes to an end and vanishes.

Did you do your research in archives?
I’m not a historian who spends hours on end tunneling away in archives. I’m dependent on the work of other historians. I am a grand simplificateur, which is to say I map out a new, general pattern using hundreds of documents which uncover thousands of details from the past.

Do you think Europe is a vanishing kingdom amid the contemporary, changing world?
That would be going too far. We are living in a period during which peace has lasted a very long time. Europe does have some problems, but things are quiet for now. And it is still the richest continent in the world (...).

What do you think of recent developments in Poland?
Now that’s a specific problem. It is a tidal wave of, pardon the expression, political vomit. A certain percentage of people—I estimate at 30 percent—are not satisfied with all these changes. These people frequently have ideals and expect things in Poland to be just the way they want them to be. Such people stir up trouble and sometimes, others overreact and things get unpleasant. But this will pass, I believe. It’s a matter of time. In summer, I wrote the bubble would burst. But when? Probably sooner than later.

What about the EU?
I think the EU got lost at some point in the past several years. There were the problems with the constitution, the Treaty of Lisbon. But the Europe we live in is not in crisis. There are no external dangers. An economic crisis perhaps, but if my memory serves me well, recession has never killed anyone. There are no dangers like wars in which millions of people died.

What about vanished kingdoms in the EU of today?
Imagine that in a couple of years, the country which is home to the capital of the EU will cease to exist. All Eurodeputies will be keenly watching further developments. As long as the EU is alive, it will take in new states. If Belgium splits, the EU will accept the Flemish Republic as a new member state. Or the Netherlands will take in the Flemish through a plebiscite and France will take in the Walloons the same way.

What about Britain?
Britain is not eternal either. It is another potential vanished-kingdom-to-be. It won’t be a tragedy if Scotland splits off, provided it does so peacefully, which is indeed possible. It will then become a 31st or 32nd EU member state and that’s perfectly normal.

Is that what your book is about?
The decline of some states and the birth of others is normal. Europe is not a sturdy table at which the same kings have been feasting ever since the partitions of Poland. A famous caricature depicts the king of Prussia, the Russian tsar and the empress of Austria cutting a cake—the Republic of Poland—and dividing the whole of it among themselves. That’s a huge piece of Europe. It is inconceivable for the same rulers to sit and eat the same cake over and over again. Change has to be an acceptable option.

A party for a larger group of people?
For the sake of everybody. Dominion by ruling states is not in the interest of Europe, because it is not democratic. The founding fathers of the European Community after World War II were quite skeptical about sovereign states and they were right. They knew what that could lead to. After all, where did all the 20th-century wars come from? There have to be better ways of co-existence than in those nation states and such ways need to be found now. It is important to decrease the role of governments and give more power to ordinary people.

Vanished kingdoms also include Galicia, the Free City of Danzig and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. What lessons should we learn from history?
What used to be the Grand Duchy of Lithuania on the map of Europe has now been replaced by Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine. Until recently, these belonged to the Soviet Union and before that, the Russian Empire. The western parts of it used to part of the Second Republic of Poland. This shows that maps change and borders are not fixed forever. Everything is fluid and this has to be understood. Poland’s neighbors in the east are Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania and not Russia. This is a new situation.

Should we start learning Chinese?
China is a land far away. The Russians should take that into consideration. One of the zones of future conflicts does not cut across Europe, but runs between Siberia and China. Siberia, the most uninhabited area which at the same time abounds in minerals and oil, borders the most overpopulated country in the world. Sooner or later, things may get nasty over there. From Russia’s point of view, this is a hundred times more important than Russia’s relations with Poland or Germany, as that’s the past.

Is Russia changing?
It is, because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It used to be a huge empire with 15 republics and Russia is one of those republics. The largest one, but still just one of 15. It is very weakened and Moscow feels intimidated. It is the very same complex that Poland has. “The Romanians are a threat! Those dangerous Estonians have no respect for a great superpower!” That is nonsense, but that’s the way they feel and so it’s only natural they tend to treat their neighbors as subjects. For years, English people used to look that way at Ireland, a country which regained independence in 1920. Newspapers in London until recently covered Ireland in their domestic rather than international sections. That’s ridiculous.

Is that the way Russians think of their neighbors?
Not about Poland. It’s paranoid that some Poles think they are in the same league as Belarus, Georgia or even Ukraine. Poland has left Russia for good. Polish people should start respecting themselves in order not to feel under constant threat any more. Poland is a medium-sized country and as such, it can achieve a lot with its partners. Russia is not the easiest of partners and everybody knows that, but what do we do? Go to war? Do as the Russians do? That’s nonsense. We need to have better relations with our neighbors. But if our starting point is the belief that we are in danger, then from a psychological point of view we will be weaker.

What can Poland learn from the history of other vanished kingdoms like Aragon, Savoy, Burgundy?
Savoy, now a province of France, had close ties with Italy and Sardinia for centuries. Some locals do not feel French to this day. The same is true of Aragon.

Did you travel a lot collecting materials for your book?
My wife and I traveled to different corners of Europe. For example, we went to Perpignan, France. It is a French city with a Catalan minority, except you never get to see the word “Aragon” there. There is a large and beautiful castle which until recently went by the French name of Chateau du Roi, the castle of the French king. Still, Perpignan used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Majorca, a part of the Aragon Empire. French was not spoken there.

Is diversity the key to the future?
It absolutely is. Pluralism. The world is pluralistic. Even reality is. Europe is like a washing machine which jumbles things around, but slowly. Everything gets stirred up, but history works slower than a washing machine. When you take a step back and take a look, you can see how the machine throws people, governments and countries around. That is perfectly normal, but people refuse to see it.

Norman Davies, born in 1939, studied history at Magdalen College, Oxford University, and then in Grenoble, Perugia and the University of Sussex. He obtained his Ph.D. degree at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow in 1973. His doctoral thesis was entitled British Foreign Policy Towards Poland, 1919-1920.

In 1971, Davies started teaching at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, where he became a professor in 1985. He is also a member of the Polish Academy of Learning in Cracow.

Davies has written a number of best-selling books on the history of Poland and Central Europe, including God’s Playground, Heart of Europe, White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920, Europe: A History, Microcosm (history of Wroc³aw), The Isles and Rising ’44. His latest book on European history is entitled Vanished Kingdoms.
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