Norman Davies' 'Vanished Kingdoms': a lively look at why nations go away

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Norman Davies' "Vanished Kingdoms," while close to 800 pages -- including copious notes for each chapter -- doesn't even delve into the years BC (or CE, depending upon which label you prefer). He begins with Tolosa, a kingdom coming in on the heels of the crumbling Roman Empire in the fifth century, and he ends with the former Soviet Union and its own crumbling empire in the late 20th century.

"Vanished Kingdoms"
By Norman Davies
Viking ($40).

He covers lost nations we may not have heard of, such as Alt Clud, Borussia, Rosenau and Tsernagora, and some that may sound familiar, such as Aragon, Burgundia, Galicia and Eire. Each section is informative, nicely paced and illustrated with detailed charts showing royal family trees or throne lineages.

There are also some sharply reproduced period prints and contemporary illustrations, along with two glossy color photo sections allowing for even more stunning examples of portraiture, engravings, and photos of pertinent people and places.

Mr. Davies' chapters, while detailed, also bring points of reference into each nation's history. When writing of the Rusyns (Carpatho-Ukraine peoples of the border areas of Ukraine, Hungary and Romania) for instance, he writes of names known to the modern age such as Andy Warhol, whose parents came from the same Rusyn village as Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount Pictures.

As a professor of history (University of London as well as Harvard and a few others), Mr. Davies has picked interesting topic states and nations of the past. Interesting because they are, in many instances, tied in with longer-lasting nations and peoples and in one way or another have had lasting influences on them.

One example of this, as detailed by Mr. Davies, is Czechoslovakia, whose history in the 20th century involved precariously aligned autonomy with the aforementioned Rusyn state, along with Slovakia. As Nazi Germany asserted its will over neighbors, the Slovaks went for independence, thus throwing that autonomy into chaos. The Rusyn peoples' decision to follow suit and seek their own independence was as badly timed as anything could be in mid-20th century Europe: it happened early in 1939 and on March 15 the Nazis occupied Prague and not surprisingly didn't consult a single Rusyn on what they might desire in the ensuing German "protection" of the region.

Another example is Ireland (Eire), whose "troubles" throughout its history, but especially the period since 1916 that Mr. Davies covers here, resonate to this day.

His last chapter in the book, "How States Die," is a short but informative section detailing the fundamental failings of governments from Babylon to Yugoslavia, from religious underpinnings to the failure of despots to hold their disparate peoples together.

Norman Davies, whose previous works include histories of Poland and Europe, has, in this new work, written short histories of 15 nations/states in a substantive volume that shows how so many past peoples have intertwined with the larger world and shaped it even after they are forgotten in the sands of time. "Vanished Kingdoms" should really be a "Volume 1" in my opinion. Mr. Davies should write about all of them, even though that would obviously be impossible for one person to pull off.

If he could, I would read them all. But I'll probably have to be happy with the pivotal periods he does cover in this efficient, lively and important work, an outstanding addition to the histories of the human race.


Perry Munyon is a writer living in Monroeville.


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