Davies, 72, is best known for his work on the history of Europe and Poland. He provocatively challenges the idea of Lithuanian exclusivity in his latest book, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, where a chapter on the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania opens with a photo of Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko.
In an interview to BNS, the historian proposed learning from the English and Welsh history in settling relations between national minorities, emphasizing that a better-balanced attitude from Lithuanians and Poles towards their shared history would help today's relations.
Davies gave an optimistic outlook of Lithuania's future – in his words, Lithuania is now safer than it has ever been in the past, better prepared for challenges than Western Europeans who are used to live comfortably. He said Russia should not be a threat, as China and Caucasus are much greater nuisance for the big neighbour.
- Your decision to illustrate a chapter about the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with a picture of Alexander Lukashenko astonished some in Lithuania. What was the reason for your choice?
- Every chapter starts with a sketch about the present and aims to show how the present is very different from the past. Present-day Belarus made up a large part of the territory of the Grand Duchy. But I did it, of course, to provoke people to think. Nowadays, people hear the name, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. They know there is a country called Lithuania and they think it's the same thing. I was provoking them into reflecting that the old Grand Duchy of Lithuania was rather different from the present-day Republic of Lithuania. That's the reason.
I would say that Belarus today is very confused, it does not have a clear identity.
- Do you think that the current Lukashenko regime is keen on looking back to the heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania? How important is it for Belarus' identity?
- I don't know enough to give you a definite answer. I know that the Lukashenko regime has very contradictory views on the past. Occasionally the Grand Duchy is mentioned, sometimes it is missed out, sometimes they emphasize their links with Russia. I would say that Belarus today is very confused, it does not have a clear identity.
- Can this heritage encourage Minsk to eventually choose a European direction?
- I think it's possible. One of the interesting things is that Lukashenko, although he is clearly a dictator and runs a regime that is similar - in some ways - to that of Putin's Russia, he is nonetheless keeping Belarus separate from Russia. It's difficult to know which way he will go.
It looks to me that Lukashenko is – in spite of everything – defending a separate identity of Belarus. We don't know what will happen after he goes. But it could be that the country would open up to the West. It is also possible that it will, in some ways, link up with the East. Certainly, the Western option is still there.
- Your book tells stories about extinct states. What Lithuanians and Poles could learn today from the rise and fall of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Lithuanian-Polish Republic?
- The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is a prime example of a state which lost its ability to defend itself and was swallowed up by its neighbours. The obvious lesson for modern Poles and Lithuanians is to have good relations with your neighbours and, whatever you do, you must not be on bad terms with all of your neighbours.
I think, in a way, Lithuanians and Poles are better prepared than some of the Western nations who had forgotten that states can be destroyed.
It's very difficult to have truly good relations with Putin's Russia, but Poland and Lithuania are members of the EU, members of NATO, and they are much more secure now than they have ever been. That doesn't mean they are 100-percent safe. But both Lithuania and Poland resurrected in the 20th century, in the 1920s and 1930s, and both were again destroyed by their neighbors.
I think, in a way, Lithuanians and Poles are better prepared than some of the Western nations who had forgotten that states can be destroyed. Life has been very comfortable in the West for a long time and people have forgotten that systems collapse, that politics can lead in extremely unfortunate directions.
So I think Poles and Lithuanians will be prominent in voicing advice to make preparations for bad times. They are probably more conscious of the possibility of catastrophes than the Westerners are.
- Bilateral relations between Lithuania and Poland have recently deteriorated. Do you think that a different approach towards the shared history and historical wounds play important role in today's bilateral relations?
- Yes, I think that a balanced view of history is an important guide to the present condition. For example, Poles think of the Constitution of 3 May as a Polish constitution. But it wasn't. It was a Constitution of Poland and Lithuania. Equally, Lithuanians, I think, have lately forgotten that they have a long common history with Poles. This shared history – if it is taught at schools and so on – will help create a feeling that Poles and Lithuanians can exist together.
In the same way, Poles forget that Warsaw was a Russian city, that there was a huge Russian orthodox cathedral in the middle of the city.
I had a meeting in London where I, two Lithuanian historians and a Belorussian expert spoke. The Lithuanians spoke exclusively about the early history, the 13th or 14th centuries, origins of the Grand Duchy, Mindaugas and all that. The Belorussian expert spoke exclusively about the present situation. And nobody touched the 500-600 years in between. It is something that is missing. Obviously, one should know something about all periods of history. Consciousness of the shared history is very important.
Present-day Lithuanians should understand that they are not the only successors to the historic Lithuania. Vilnius was largely a Polish city until 1945-1946. There was a very big Jewish community. It is all part of your history.
In the same way, Poles forget that Warsaw was a Russian city, that there was a huge Russian orthodox cathedral in the middle of the city, which has completely disappeared, that there was a very large Jewish community.
These things are forgotten. I think remembering some of the differences between the past and the present helps people understand each other.
I know there have been demonstrations in Vilnius recently. My family comes from Wales. Wales has a language, which is different from English as Lithuanian is different from languages of its neighbours. There has been a conflict for 700-800 years, ever since Englishmen invaded Wales. But the problem has largely been solved by the policy of bilingualism which was introduced in the 1960s. Crisis started with the coming of television. The BBC refused to create a Welsh-language channel, and there followed protests, demonstrations in Wales, demanding equality between English and Welsh.
Because of the crisis, the British government reconsidered its policy and since then, the policy is one that every school, every child should aim to be bilingual. No longer is English regarded as the dominant language and Welsh as a local language – the two are equal and educated people are perfectly capable of speaking two languages. I think this is a good model for Lithuanians to follow. If any government introduces a policy which says that there is just one official language and every other language is secondary, then there will be conflict. That is a very short-sighted policy, in my view.
- Do you think that an imperial mindset in Russia's ruling circles should be a worry for the Baltic states?
- I think imperial mindset is always a danger to its neighbors. Poland has the same concerns as Lithuania, although Poland is quite a lot bigger. But fears and anxieties are similar in all the states bordering Russia.
It was clear that Putin was trying to mend Polish attitudes towards Russia. Not because he is a friendly person but because he calculates that it is not in Russia's interest to cause trouble with Western neighbours.
But, I would say, today Russia has a very peculiar economy, one which is very largely dependent on sales of oil, especially to the European Union. Because of this, Russians are not going to risk their economic future by causing trouble in Europe.
I actually met Mr Putin in April 2010 when he came to Katyn. I was in the prime minister's delegation. It was clear that he was trying to mend Polish attitudes towards Russia. Not because he is a friendly person but because he calculates that it is not in Russia's interest to cause trouble with Western neighbours.
The biggest problems for Putin and Russia lie in the East – the rise of China, the continuing problems in the Caucasus – these are problems that imperial Russia will have to worry about and not the relations with the Baltic states or Poland.
- My last question concerns Europe. Euro crisis has stoked many speculations about the future of Europe. Do you think the EU could itself become a "vanished kingdom"?
- I wrote an article about this. As soon as my book was published, the Financial Times asked me to write an article about the eurozone as a vanished kingdom. My provocative scenario was that there was indeed a big crisis but the eurozone will survive, while the United Kingdom will break up because of the problems between England as Scotland. Scots are very pro-European, Englishmen are not. I could foresee that a referendum in Scotland in two years time could vote for an independence, exactly because of the European issue.
The European Union is too valuable for many countries, especially for Germany. They will do everything possible to save it. It will be a very difficult crisis and some countries may get into deep trouble. Greece, obviously, may have to leave. Portugal is next, and Spain possibly too. But, essentially, the European Union will survive and – because of the crisis – start paying much more attention to the problems of governance. The European Union has been too complacent about politics. Their assumption has been that if you get the economics right, then everyone will just learn to be good Europeans. I don't think that's true.