Of Principalities That Are, and Nations That Never Were…

Needless to say I’m really enjoying Liechtenstein, one of the world’s smallest countries, but a case where small really is beautiful; spectacular landscapes, fine people, and even some great wines are to be found in the principality, in addition to the famous financial riches. So much so that I can’t help but wonder why it’s about the only place of its kind; indeed, the first thing that struck me when the Alps rose before me as I crossed through Austria by train is that the geography is rather formidable.

Granted, these German sections of the Alps aren’t exactly the Hindu Kush, but it does seem odd that out of god-knows-how-many “little Germanies” only Liechtenstein truly managed to make it into the modern era as a sovereign state, rising from poverty (as late as the 1960s the royal family had to sell a da Vinci painting to the United States to raise money) to being perhaps the richest country in the world.

Yes, there’s Luxembourg as a fellow remnant micro-state of the Holy Roman Empire, but it was always at the border of the Latin sphere; although essentially German (Luxembourgish, though its own language, is on the same continuum as German dialects), French holds large sway there. And, uh…that’s about it.

One might think that in these remote alpine valleys a lot more little backward, conservative, weird, and wonderful places would have peeled off by this or that means and have managed to avoid being subsumed into another bigger power until now, but apparently not. Though a collection of 26 of these is essentially what Switzerland is, with the cantons still enjoying a great deal of autonomy. Though Switzerland includes not only German but also French, Italian, and Romansh domains, all united by a desire to be left alone.

Still, just one state that managed this feat? It strikes me there really ought to be dozens of these places in each of Europe’s more formidable mountain ranges. Perhaps in some alternate timeline there are, and wouldn’t that be a fascinating scenario to explore?

Though frankly I like better the scenarios where Germany and Italy never unified in the first place. Honestly, considering the godawful results for both countries’ national projects they would have been better off if they didn’t! Especially when you contrast Germany to the much better-kept Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Luxembourg (heck, even the Netherlands; Dutch is the variety of Low German that got away…), and contrast Italy to Monaco, Malta, Switzerland, and San Marino (not to mention the Vatican).

To say nothing of how peculiar it was that the Holy Roman Empire’s German parts experienced “feudal fragmentation” whereas the French parts didn’t (both France and Germany were part of it originally under Charlemagne and his immediate successors). One might have expected that in addition to the hundreds of little Germanies there would have been hundreds of little Frances too, but whereas the nobles managed to nigh-totally disempower the king in Germany the opposite development took place in France, which ended up pioneering the modern centralized state apparatus.

The absence of that as an example would certainly have made things very interesting. My first thought is that as the modern capitalistic economy emerged the merchant republics of Italy and the Hanseatic League would have led the way (to a greater extent than they actually did). Would that have led to a world of Venices? Or would we have been stuck with a world of Liechtensteins? Or even both? Or neither?

Geography is destiny, they say, but geography often works at cross-purposes. Features that unite can just as easily divide. And even if nationalism was inevitable (and as the examples of Austria and Liechtenstein attest, it can be resisted more easily than people think)…who’s to say our world’s national lines are the right and proper ones?

The Netherlands could just as easily have become part of Germany in some other universe, our “Dutch” considered just another Low German dialect on the brink of extinction (god, how sad that would be…), or via the ties of the Hansa a lot more of what we think of now as lower Germany could have become Dutch, a collection of autonomous cities and provinces that gradually federated into a greatly enlarged Netherlands that stretched clear into the Baltic.

At the extremes one could even imagine the German domains in Latvia and Estonia becoming part of the Dutch sphere of influence, these easternmost Netherlands closely linked to Novgorod further inland, the Russian city perhaps still an independent republic, or having formed the core of this timeline’s version of the Russian Empire, with Moscow being just another backwater (the capital of this most northern and largest of countries being even further north sure would have been interesting; Novgorod was even considerably more democratic and merchant-minded than Muscovy, which introduces even more intrigue…).

Alternatively, the uppermost varieties of German perhaps could have detached altogether as they formed their own standards; the German dialects of the North Sea coast and South Tyrol are not really mutually intelligible, they just all identified as German and so coalesced around an intermediate variety (based more on central German) as the standard for their respective speech patterns. Sociolinguistics 101, that is.

The upshot is that these Germanic dialects could have segmented themselves in a variety of ways that differed from the real-life pattern, with considerable implications for when the age of the nation-state came along. The same is true, by the way, for the Romance languages; they form a dialect continuum as well.

The lenga d’òc have about as much in common with Catalan or Ligurian as they do with Parisian French, yet French became the standard, largely just because they were part of the French kingdom which was ruled from Paris. That was far from inevitable; indeed, it’s slightly odd they were linked to northern France at all, considering the Massif Central is such a formidable barrier even now that relatively few transportation links exist through it and it’s considered remote. The French state had a hard time exerting its will there deep into the modern era.

One could easily imagine another collection of independent micro-states in this area, perhaps coalescing into what would essentially be a second and more French Switzerland, with the Riviera emerging as a separate power, perhaps, if one wishes to imagine a France-sized state there, instead encompassing Catalonia, Genoa, Lombardy, and Valencia. Yes, we think of the Pyrenees as being this formidable barrier but the Mediterranean profoundly links all of these areas (see the Roman Empire, or even the later Spanish kingdoms which crept out from Castille to Valencia and then just sped across to absorb southern Italy). A stable polity there, perhaps based in Marseilles, could have encouraged the adoption of a lenga d’òc as standard across all these areas, at least as easily as Lombardy adopted Tuscan (i.e. Standard Italian) and Occitania adopted Parisian (Catalonia didn’t so easily accept Castilian, i.e. Standard Spanish, but nevertheless it did make some headway…).

Just think about it: wouldn’t this be such a nice country…

One can certainly imagine all manner of possibilities, with our world perhaps being one of the more boring ones out there (by dint of its very familiarity, even if not its intrinsic features). Our nations didn’t have to shake out the way they did, and in the shake-out a lot more Switzerlands and even Liechtensteins might have been left behind. It’s not a possibility you hear much about, but if you’re imaginative and at all into history, the winds of a more regal time sweeping down from the snowy alps whisper “what if”…what if…

2 Replies to “Of Principalities That Are, and Nations That Never Were…”

  1. I know nothing of Europes history like this. I find it so appealing, maybe because of my Anglo origins. And I’ve traveled my share but more Asia, pacific, Central Am, and Eastern Africa.

    Will you merry me?
    Oh wait, I’m already married.

    But what if? A guy can dream can’t he.

  2. Wasn’t Austria more “unified” than Germany with Italy? In the early modern era, the Holy Roman Emperor was based in Vienna most of the time, and after the empire’s breakup, Austria dominated Italy, retaining direct control over some key Italian states and strong influence over others.

    Prussia was the most aggressive of the German states, shifting the balance of power from south to north. In a different world, Hamburg might have become not just a trade center but a political center. Or if Gustavus Adolphus had lived longer, Sweden might have expended into what we call modern Germany.

    In _The Magic Battery_, I hinted at an alternate history in which Germany was a bedrock of peace in the 20th Century. There are many options to explore.

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