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152 of 159 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars TO TEACH US ABOUT OURSELVES, 18 Nov. 2011
This review is from: Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (Kindle Edition)
Although he was the first critic of `Whig history', the late Herbert Butterfield thought it was more or less inevitable that modern historians should write some version of it. By this he meant history which was written from a modern point of view and showed the growth of some institution or idea which we approve of now (for example, Parliamentary sovereignty, or modern science, or religious toleration). Norman Davies shows that it is possible to write about countries which no longer exist in a way that is entirely lacking in Whiggery.

Davies made his name with a history of Poland, where he is currently professor. He is used to seeing things from a European, and specifically an Eastern European, point of view. He was always going to be less sanguine about the idea of progress than most traditional historians of England and the British Isles. We have been much more fortunate. The tragedies which have afflicted the countries which we now think of as Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Germany make it difficult to be Whiggish, or even optimistic about Mankind as a whole.

Davies has no grand theory as to why states vanish. He is not Marx or Toynbee, nor a determinist of any kind, though he believes that all states have the seeds of decay within them. History is infinitely unpredictable. He does, however, have some prejudices. For example, he thinks that it is almost inevitable that Scotland will vote for independence and that the United Kingdom will vanish as a state; and he is a great fan of the European Union.

Davies has pointed out that there have been as many as 250 `vanished kingdoms'. This book deals with fifteen, drawing examples from various periods and different parts of Europe. In fact, he works his way from West to East, weaving travelogues into the history as he goes. This worked for me, although others may find it too personal. Overall, the book is a fascinating introduction to the history of many strange lands and peoples, some of them not far so removed from us in space and time, others very remote indeed. The late J.H. Hexter wrote that the purpose and pleasure of history was not that it explained the present, but that it taught us about ourselves. Norman Davies has succeeded brilliantly in doing that.

One warning though. The maps do not reproduce very well in the Kindle edition (2011); and Davies's maps are an essential part of the story.

Stephen Cooper
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 4 Mar 2014 12:24:27 GMT
Lulu says:
I had been considering whether to abandon my attachment to print, so thank you so much for the warning about the map reproduction in the Kindle version.
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