The Vanishing Countries of Middle Europe

This is something I wrote originally as an exercise in ‘Patahistory but which developed into a story. It also allowed me to link together the two LIPs – the version of the real London Institute of ‘Pataphysics which features in four stories in my collection The Cat Factory and other stories and the London Institute of Parapsychology from my projected series of urban fantasies.

In keeping with the spirit of the piece there is an imaginary prize for anyone who knows all of the sources for imaginary countries mentioned.

The Vanishing Countries of Middle Europe

“Poland – that is to say no-where”

Jarry’s setting of Ubu Roi in Poland was designed to indicate a neverwhere which at the same time was everywhere. Poland was chosen because its position between the superpowers of Russia, the expanding Prussian state and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had meant that for centuries its existence as a sovereign state was both uncertain and unstable.

Obeying the law of the excluded middle, the buffers between empires ceased to have an existence outside of disputes between political structures and ideologies and then vanished from reality completely.

This is true for many countries in central Europe and the Balkans who have been ruled and occupied by larger imperialist nations and empires – the Ottoman empire as well as Russia and the German states. In a significant number of cases this has resulted in those countries not only changing their allegiance and name, but even having their very existence expunged from the atlas and the history of Europe. Ruritania, the countries of the Scythia Trans Balkanian Empire, Orsinia, Freedonia, and more now only exist in references in works of fiction and their past has been erased from our collective memories even more effectively than Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia have been replaced by smaller ethnic based states after having been assembled by superpowers in the turmoil after the first and second world wars.

In a process which is the mirror image of the emergence of Uqbar or Egnaro, these nations have been airbrushed out of the globe by conquerors intent on redrawing the maps to their own design and their culture and history remodelled even more effectively than Pol Pot or Daiesh removed any traces of civilisations that did not accord with their own beliefs. This is particularly the case where the ethos of the country concerned is at odds with that of the conquering nation.

There is an example where both the process of internal and external occlusion of a country has occurred, in the case of Nihilon. Alan Sillitoe’s useful guide provides a view of the country before it disappeared as an independent state but it is clear that its earlier pre Nihilist existence – as described in Rex Warner’s A Wild Goose Chase – has been expunged by President Nil before his rule in turn was wiped from the face of history by Communist Russia so that it seems to conventional history that it never existed at all and its bicycle friendly culture was deemed never to have existed. We should be grateful that even though the earlier regime and its name were airbrushed to such an extent that it is not even mentioned in Warner’s book at least we have Sillitoe’s guidebook to explore and understand its unique vanished political system. We can only speculate that Nil had also changed his name and was originally George in Warner’s book before he attained leadership.

There are complexities in the archaeological search for written remnants of these now vanished countries – not least that many of the traces are found in works which many now assume to be fiction. In some cases the real life former states have been fictionalised by authors based on the assumption that the originals never existed outside the heads of other authors.

A specific case is the existence of Ruritania. The place referred to in the works of Anthony Hope was, of course, a real place. However the land of Graustark in the novels of George Barr McCutcheon is a fictional representation of the real land of Ruritania and the events of those novels are based on the real history of the country detailed in Hope’s histories. There are those who have claimed that the Bohemia mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes Canon is actually Ruritania and the consensus erasure of that country by the great powers after it was absorbed into the Russian Empire caused the Doyle reference to be altered to take the name of the Duchy of Moravia which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and forms part of the present day Czech republic.

There are similar claims that Florin was also a fictional name for Ruritania, but this seems unlikely given the very different details of its politics and economics detailed in the unabridged version of S. Morgenstern’s narration of one of the episodes from its history. It is far more likely that Florin – if it was not a separate country – changed its name in the aftermath of the First World War to Zembla and that has created confusion with the town of Zenda in Ruritania. The castle in Florin also seems to have been the location for the eponymous story by Kafka, after the country’s conquest by Communist Russia in the immediate aftermath of WW1.

There are some disappearances that are understandable – a number of countries simply faded away over a period of centuries, like Poictesme in France with its historic Abbey Theleme– and others were swallowed up by the jungles of Africa, South America or Asia like Second City (probably the unnamed city besieged by Dr Hoffman), the Kingdom of Prester John, or British Hidalgo. However it is shocking that in a continent like Europe we can lose such a rich part of collective history represented by these vanished places.

There are also, of course, countries of whom no trace exists outside of text references because they have deliberately chosen to hide themselves. The underground nations in particular work hard to make sure there are no definitive references to them and they are considered legends. The warring states of Agartha and Shambala. Shangri La and the smaller countries of the Green Land, Pearl, and Venusberg.

The textbook history of a redacted country is Orsinia. An independent state until it was annexed by Austro Hungary it was then swallowed up by the Eastern Bloc before disappearing completely from history and geography. If it were not for references in the works of Ursula le Guin we would know nothing of its proud traditions and people, who have now been dispersed in a deliberate diaspora to become assimilated amongst the foreigners they have been settled with. In just 60 years their heritage has vanished.

Even more extreme is the case of Scythia Trans Balkania – an entire Balkan empire (albeit a small one) which has been consigned to the dustbin of history – only referenced due to the indefatigable scholarship of Avram Davidson who managed to piece together some details of its last flowering before it was dismembered following the First World War and its constituent countries enjoying a brief independence (some as part of similar ethnic nations with whom the Peace Conference amalgamated them) before disappearing into the USSR. Its history was already partially abnegated during the inter war period by populations eager to subsume their identity into that of the larger groups with which they had been shoehorned as part of a desire for tidy boundaries on the map of the world and then completely expunged by the Communist regime. Only a few exiles in USA managed to hold onto the identity of “the old country” until their children and grandchildren sold their birthright for the American Dream. The last Slovo stove of the Huzzak people was dismantled and broken up a few dozen years ago and replaced by a modern electric oven and range that would itself only last a dozen years before the demands of built in obsolescence led to it also being consigned to landfill.

In my fascinated research on the subject I was fortunate enough to find a copy of Sir Milton Mandeville’s Guidebook to the Historic Nations of Mitteleurope – published privately in 1946. Sir Milton – a descendant on his father’s side of Sir John Mandeville and of Baron Munchausen in the distaff line – had carried out extensive research into the history and geography of these expunged states.

It was in the closing down sale in the Scientific Anglian in Norwich. The owner – Norman Peake – had finally decided to retire (or had been pushed into it by the increasing pressure of health and safety watchdogs who believed the crowded and seemingly chaotic shelving was a danger to the public and Norman himself) and some of the items from his private collection in the equally stuffed shelving of his flat and cellar were on sale alongside the thousands of volumes which were regularly on display in the shop.

As one of the regular customers who actually bought books in the shop rather than simply lollygagging at the eclectic stock (whose prices bore little relation to market value and whose condition ranged from slightly foxed to completely fucked) and passing time with one of the acknowledged characters of the City) I had been privileged to see some of Norman’s other collection on a few occasions. I was still unsure whether they were excluded from the books on sale because he prized them for some particular reason or had simply not found shelf space in the main shop after the Fire Brigade told him the other floors were unsafe for public access. In any case I had never seen this particular volume before and was delighted to see it stacked in one of the many piles which made the final sale in the dilapidated shop even more hazardous to health than its normal opening. It was marked in Norman’s spidery writing as costing £3 which I thought was a bargain.

It was only one of a dozen or so books I bought that day and as I had a number of other projects on hand I put it aside to read later. It was the title that had intrigued me, and at that stage I knew nothing of it or its contents beyond what that title told me. When I finally got round to reading it some months later I was immediately excited and attempted to find out more. Unfortunately Norman had moved away to a retirement home in his native Essex and no-one seemed to know where he was or how he could be contacted as he had no living relatives and no-one close enough to have been given a forwarding address.

My first thought was to Google the book but all of the results my searches returned were only partial matches of the terms I had entered. There seemed nothing online about the book or its author and the only clue I found was to the printers who had published the volume for him, who had gone out of business in 1967. All I was able to glean about the book was found in an article in the local paper for the town Mandeville’s country home was based near which gave the scant details I noted in a previous paragraph along with a quote from the author about how important he felt the volume was and a now faded halftone picture which could as easily have been King Zog of Albania. My suspicion was that the reporter had written the story because Mandeville’s family had been of some importance in the area rather than any intrinsic interest in the book or the current incumbent of the name. In fact there was no mention of what the book may contain and an overall impression that Sir Milton was considered a wealthy eccentric who was to be placated rather than celebrated. His ancestral home of Brinkley Court had since, I discovered, burned down, with suspicion of arson in attempt to prevent it being taken over by the National Trust.

The only other information I could glean was provided by the bibliophile Nicholas Lane who was at first reluctant to even acknowledge his cognisance of the book’s existence, but when plied with alcohol let slip that all copies of the book were thought to have been destroyed. He hinted heavily that there was some kind of bounty on tracking down any surviving copies from “the authorities” but that he and most of his colleagues would not want to claim the reward as the powers that be were reputed to have consigned not only the book to their Farenheit 451 bonfires, but also anyone who had knowledge of its existence. Lane, however, was notoriously prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy and was forever pursuing elusive tomes containing secrets and may have been outlining imaginary dangers as the opening gambit in a bid to get it off my hands cheaply, I felt.

The book itself was a revelation. Mandeville’s family on both paternal and maternal lines had all been great travellers and had written detailed accounts of their peregrinations. The author himself had travelled widely before and during the Second World War as a private individual and a soldier. The exact nature of his war service is not detailed but it is easy to read between the lines and assume he was a member of the Secret Intelligence Service, operating both in the counterintelligence service alongside Ian Fleming and Dennis Wheatley ( and possibly before that with Aleister Crowley) and in the field supporting resistance movements.

This detailed knowledge of countries in the Baltic, Balkans and central Europe, together with the extensive geographic and ethnographic descriptions compiled by his family placed him in a unique position to assist the Allies in understanding the byzantine local politics of the areas with their centuries old grievances and ever shifting national allegiances and control. This meant they could work with local groups without falling on the wrong side of vendettas that persisted despite the common cause of defeating the Axis powers. It also enabled them to know which of the refugee grandees from these countries had real influence on their people and which were simply posers or imposters.

Most of the book simply details the pre – war nature of the countries, together with some personal anecdotes about his travels. However it ends with a diatribe against the post war consensus amongst the winning powers to allow many of these nations to be consigned to the dustbin of history – either via annexation by Russia or by forced amalgamation with other states which the western allies felt would provide a more stable buffer against communism. To protect their redrawing of the map they conspired to expunge all references to the existence of the former independent principalities and support work by their new rulers to clamp down on the native cultures by destruction or rewriting and retitling of books, works of art, and even places of worship and other historic landmarks.

Using the expert skills of counterintelligence officers like Wheatley and Fleming, works about these nations which had impinged too strongly on the collective unconscious were subtly altered and/or reclassified as fiction to persuade people that these places had never existed outside the imaginations of authors. Both sides in the Cold War had a vested interest in preserving the status quo from any challenge by small nations which could swing the balance in favour of one side or the other. A straight capitalist vs communist narrative was simple and easy to manage and the glamour which many of these countries exhibited could excite the imagination of the public to rally round the cause of independence and freedom and destabilise the new world order.

This may at first seem farfetched, but there are a number of things that make it completely plausible. It had been six years since many outsiders had travelled to these countries except as part of the armed forces, and while you are engaged in a battle you have little time to probe the history of the battlefield. Before the war, foreign travel was the domain of the few, rather than the many, and those few were largely members of the elite who were happy to be bound retrospectively by the Official Secrets Act as so much of their activities during the war years were. The doctrine that Loose Lips Sink Ships – or launch atomic missiles – was firmly ingrained in their consciousness.

The second thing which supported it was the impact of the War on the countries themselves – tens of thousands of their citizens had been killed – either as soldiers or civilian casualties of one side or the other. Towns and cities had been razed and could be rebuilt with new identities, and as minor players with few resources of their own they were not important enough to be represented in discussions about the redrawing of maps and power.

Finally, of course, is the lesson the SIS and other intelligence services had learned. Most people have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction if both are equally realistic and plausible. Think of those millions who believe the lies of politicians and newspapers or the people who think characters in television programmes are real. It is as simple to pass off truth as fiction as it is the other way round. If the message is repeated consistently and regularly, within a generation it will become accepted. Earlier annexations were political, this new takeover was psychological.

Mandeville was, of course, a romantic and as such deplored the loss of beauty and difference in the world. The vanished nations had an aura of mystery and magic missing from much of the austere, utilitarian forties and fifties. Their appeal was precisely that they were not “grown up” lands and peoples. They clung to many outmoded ideals and traditions that were at odds with the pursuit of modernisation and money. Hereditary monarchs had to become constitutional and subject to the tyranny of self elected dictators or the voice of the majority expressed via the ballot box. Those who sought to preserve the quaint were Quislings.

These sentiments chimed with my own and my own theories and researches were validated by this powerful evidence. I redoubled my efforts to fill in parts of the jigsaw of lost countries as Mandeville’s book had given me at least a partial view of the picture on the box.

I admit I had some fears about whether I too would be erased if I ever tried to present my findings, so was struck with sudden terror when I had an unexpected ring on my doorbell and on peering through the security spyhole saw a person I did not recognise. His demeanour and body language was not that of a political or religious canvasser or the representative of some company or petty bureaucracy. Despite his obvious advanced years he had a stiff military bearing and innate authority that were obvious despite the goldfish bowl view my peephole afforded. He obviously knew I was at home and running seemed futile so I opened the door and was brushed aside as he entered the house with a sense of complete entitlement.

“My name is Hemmingford Grey,” he said, as he sat in my usual armchair. “I believe you are in possession of the last copy of Sir Milton Mandeville’s book?”

I would have assumed the name was an alias even if I had not been aware it was a village in Cambridgeshire. Now my view was not distorted by the lens of the security viewer, I estimated his age at mid sixties because of the lined face, visible neck tendons and white hair. However there was something about him that hinted he was significantly older than that despite his obvious vitality. His navy blazer and trousers were clearly made to measure by a good tailor but it was impossible to guess where or by whom, and his tie was plain red. He had the air of an inhabitant of one of London’s more exclusive gentleman’s clubs but no badge or other clue to which one.

It seemed in vain to deny it.

“I do – and if the rumours I have heard and what the book itself says is true, I assume you are here to seize and destroy it,” I said with an air that was supposed to represent defiance but probably hinted at resignation.

He smiled with an expression that suggested the contentment of power rather than amusement.

“I’m afraid so. Its a matter of tying up loose ends.”

I felt a shiver of fear. Was I a loose end as well? Did I know too much to be allowed to live in freedom, or at all?

He had obviously guessed my thoughts.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I have no intention or desire to remove you with extreme prejudice, as the thrillers say. My preference would be to leave the book itself in existence, but there is a long standing order signed at the highest level which has never been rescinded and carrying it out requires much less paperwork than trying to reverse it. The world, and my department’s techniques, have moved on a long way since the 1940s.

“In the wrong hands,” he continued, “ideas can be deadly, as we see from the way ideology is used by terrorists and freedom fighters, but thoughts are not dangerous in themselves. By allowing memes the freedom to spread across the world we can track them and see who takes an interest in them. Those whose investigations are motivated by academic or simple curiosity are of little concern. As Woody Allen wrote, academics are like the Mafia – they only kill their own.

“It is so much simpler to drown inconvenient truths in a torrent of misinformation, propaganda, fake news, and basic lies. A needle of truth can be hidden in a haystack of bogus theories and paranoid fantasies. The more wild speculation there is about the assassination of JFK, the fewer people would credit the truth about the real conspiracy that killed the Sun King.

“Truth is an art, not a science – or rather as your hero Jarry implied, it is the intersection of art and science and resides in the specific rather than the general. However the world has been persuaded to look for universal laws rather than beautiful exceptions and the existence of what are now supposed to be imaginary lands would never be believed. Publish and be doubted.”

Although his manner was calm and friendly I could sense the steel determination behind the smile, so I handed over the book without resistance. I am not a brave man, although I can be a stubborn one, and I could recognise a lost cause.

I know that these countries and the richness of their past is real and their removal from the world is the result of the exercise of power which deplores inconvenient truths. History is not only written but rewritten by the victors. We each carry a map of the world inside our heads as well as on globes and atlases and these places no longer fit except in the autopoetic representations of a few dreamers. At least their persistent existence within works of supposed fiction gives hope that their richness can live on. Ruritania may rise again!

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