The English/Welsh historian, Norman Davies, first became widely known with his God’s Playground, a history of Poland, and then shot to wide acclaim with Europe, in 1998, perhaps the first popular history book to consider Central and Eastern Europe as very important parts of the narrative of that place. Up until then, Europe was loosely thought of as the western part, at least by westerners.
What was ground-breaking in Davies was further enlarged upon by the late Tony Judt in Postwar in 2005, and more recently by the brilliant Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder in 2010. In other words, the idea of Europe became bigger through these books and the story of the east became important, or in the case of Snyder’s book, central to the story being told.
Norman Davies’s latest book, Vanished Kingdoms, is dedicated to “those whom historians tend to forget”, namely the peoples of kingdoms that have vanished from the earth. He says we should study them as well, for not to do so betrays a bias toward victors, while the stories of victors tell only one part of history.
Among the kingdoms he writes about, two stand out for me with my interest in Eastern Europe.
The first is a place he calls “Litva”, which at various times included Lithuania, Belorussia, Ukraine and even Poland. While the story of the rise and fall and reappearance of Lithuania has been told widely, Davies brings many new elements into the story. He writes vividly, for example, of the melancholy of the last Jagiellonian king, Zygmunt August (ruled 1548-72) who believed that after him would come the deluge (and it did, eventually). Davies writes interestingly about the scattering of the Metryka Litevska, the archive of the empire that was dispersed across Poland, Sweden, and Russia and made reconstruction of the history of that region so difficult.
The chapter on Prussia struck me as particularly fresh, because Davies, never one to accept western clichés, sets out to demolish the story of a militaristic, jackboot iron kingdom that got what it deserved. He points out that the Prussians were no more aggressive than the Russians in the first world war, and he goes into some detail about the annihilation of Prussia during and after WW2. Then, 2.2 million East Prussians were killed or deported, and more were forced out of West Prussia. Their melancholy fate, he says, was like that of Carthage – “They create a desert and call it peace.”
Timothy Snyder, in a review of this book in the Guardian, called it “romantic”. The story of vanished kingdoms does indeed smack of romantic melancholy, but sometimes that is just the right reaction to have.