Here I am in the midst of the Italian election campaign, possibly one of the most important for the country since 1948, featuring the spectres (I use the word advisedly) or Silvio Berlusconi, back from the grave to save his skin with his usual mix of candour and self.sacrifice, and the equally undead Mario Monti, most certainly not the representative of international finance, nor the asset strippers and wage cutters of Fiat Chrysler, and most assuredly not the man helicoptered in by the European Central Bank and the IMF to ensure that Deutsche Bank continue to get their pound of flesh, thereby sinking the Italian economy and all who sail in it.
But I digress...
While all this is going on, I’m enjoying Norman Davies’ excellent tome Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, a work which takes a series of nations that have now vanished from maps, and sometimes from consciousness too, and tells their story: places like Savoy, Burgundy, Aragon, Byzantium, to name some of the best-known. As always, Davies’ contrary and almost pigheaded desire to see the world differently, turn things upside-down or view them from the other end of the telescope, is pleasing and offers unexpected insights. Most often, these come in the shape of an assortment of situation that demonstrate unequivocally that national identity is an historical construct, a changeable, transient thing. La donna è mobile, it might almost be said.
So much, so banal, perhaps. The world changes and so do we: and so, it was never inevitable that we would find ourselves in a world populated by Germany, France, Koreas north or south, China or Tibet. For example. For we are often guilty, I think, of imagining that above and beyond these political affairs, there is such a thing as an immutable National Consciousness led inexorably to the world as we know it. Davies makes it clear that this is simply not the case.
But he also implies much more.
Take this on the Kingdom of Galicia, for example, a land located between present-day Poland and Ukraine and, during its existence, generally ruled from Vienna as part of the Austro-Hungarian thing that was very big at the time. “The peasantry, in contrast, were as indigent as their masters were affluent [...]”, “ Polish and Ruthenian peasants in Galicia had much more in common with each other than with the rest of society.”
Davies goes on to describe the great Peasant Rising led by Jakub Szela in 1846, during which bands of rebel serfs murdered around 1500 people, mainly nobles. Of course, eventually the army waded in and these things ended as they always do, with the victory of the aristos against the poor and severed heads on pikes aplenty. But Davies ends with this admonition: “Everyone who had thought that the social order was God-given and immutable was obliged to think again.”
Which brings me back to what is going on in Europe at present. I wonder to what extent the oligarchies that are currently taking command of our Western economies realise that there is nothing natural and eternal about the national identities that they claim to have in common with us; by running the world entirely to their own design, but especially with so little concern for the social coherence that derives from a commonality of interest and direction, by reducing us all to the role of mere consumers and tax-fodder they undermine not just their own legitimacy but also start to plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of those who believe they are part of the same nation. It isn’t hard to see how dangerous this game might turn out to be in a country like Italy with such a fragile sense of national identity. Perhaps they too will be surprised to wake up one say and find a Jakub Szela at the gate.