At one point last week, as I was developing the Aeon article, a process that required multiple ‘back-and-forths’ between me and the editor Ed Lake, Ed asked me whether I could provide an example of a state without Sacred Lands, to illustrate the idea that such states are at a competitive disadvantage in the “ruthless and dangerous business” of international politics. I went mentally through all the modern states I have some knowledge of, and I just couldn’t think of one that did not hold some core territory as sacred.
In most states, their capitals are certainly not negotiable. It’s inconceivable that the United States, for example, would give up Washington D.C. in exchange for some other piece of real estate, no matter how large and how well-appointed. Anybody who has stood in the middle of the National Mall in Washington D.C., with its memorials, monuments, statues, and government buildings (most notably, the Capitol) must realize that one is on hallowed grounds. Paris, Moscow, and Beijing are similarly sacred to France, Russia, and China, respectively.
So, for a moment, I was stumped by Ed’s question. I then started going through historical states I know, and I immediately realized that I could, indeed, come up with a number of examples of states without Sacred Lands. In the end, this resulted in just a single phrase in this paragraph:
States and populations that are willing to escalate conflict as far as necessary in defense of their sacred lands are more likely to persist in the international arena. Those that treat their core territory in a rational manner – forfeiting it in accordance with strategic imperatives, as, for example, several Germanic tribes did repeatedly during the Migration Period – get wiped out.
But since I am not as severely limited by the word count in my blog, I can expand on this example here at some length.
The specific ethnic group I was thinking was the Goths. The early history of the Goths is rather obscure, but both historical and archaeological evidence suggest that they originated in southern Sweden (which is still called Götaland, or the land of the Goths). At some point in the middle of the first millennium BC they moved to Pomerania on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea (in modern Poland). A few centuries later they began migrating further south, and by 200 AD they established themselves on the northern shores of the Black Sea.
The Goths created a large kingdom stretching from modern Hungary to southern Ukraine. They raided the Roman Empire, but also served in the Roman army and fought in the Roman-Persian wars.
All this came to an end in the 370s AD, when a powerful nomadic confederation, known to us as the Huns, appeared on the eastern frontier of the Goths. And here comes the puzzling part. Instead of fighting the Huns, the Goths (or, at least, the majority of them) decided to move – again. Previous migrations can be understood by the lure of better lands (if you had a choice, would you live in the gloomy and cold Baltic, or on the warm shores of the Black Sea?). But now the Goths decided to give up the lands where they lived for two centuries – that’s eight generations – and move into the Roman Empire.
The Goths were quite fearsome warriors. Later, they were instrumental in defeating the Huns (the Battle of Bassianae in 468, in which Ostrogoths defeated Huns). So why did they decide to give up without struggle in 376?
The only explanation is that none of their lands that they controlled in the Pontic (Black Sea) region were considered as sacred. Their territorial possessions were not something for which they were willing to fight to the death. So the Pontic Gothia of the fourth century AD is a credible example of a state without sacred lands.
In the subsequent history the Goths seem to have followed the same rational strategy. They grabbed land when they could, and gave it up when it was too much trouble to hold. One of the two main Gothic branches, the Visigoths, left the Balkans and invaded Italy, where they sacked Rome in 410. Then they made a treaty with the Roman government, which gave them Aquitania (southwestern France), if they could expel another Germanic tribe, the Vandals, from it. The Visigoths were successful and settled in southern France, establishing their capital in Toulouse. Then they saw an opportunity to conquer most of Spain, which they did. But when they were pressed by the Franks, they gave up Toulouse and moved the capital first to Barcelona, then to Toledo. In other words, they continued to stick to their rational strategy of not being attached to any particular piece of real estate.
It all ended poorly for them. In 711 the Visigothic kingdom was defeated by the Umayyad Muslims, and the Visigoths disappeared from history. The second Gothic branch, the Ostrogoths, had a similar fate, although their demise came much faster. They created a large kingdom that encompassed Italy and the Balkans, but were defeated by the brilliant Byzantine general Belisarius in 540, and within a generation they also disappeared from history.
It seems to be the rule. All those Germanic tribes that easily gave up territory did not last for very long. The Vandals gave up southwestern France, then Spain to Visigoths and moved to northern Africa. Their kingdom was destroyed by the same Belisarius in 534. In 568 the Longobards, yet another Germanic tribe from Scandinavia – abandoned their kingdom in Pannonia (modern Hungary) – according to some historians, they gave it to the Avars. The Longobards conquered most of Italy, where their kingdom lasted for two centuries, before succumbing to the Franks.
In contrast, during the same period (Age of Migrations, or Völkerwanderung) those Germanic tribes that never abandoned their ancestral lands thrived and left a lasting imprint on the European history. Of course, the most successful group was the Franks. Apart from their influence on France and the German province of Franconia, the Franks are still with us, under the guise of the Flemish.
The Saxons are another highly successful ethnic group. They established the medieval German Empire (known as the Holy Roman Empire, which as Voltaire famously quipped was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor Empire). Basically, the Saxons are responsible for the ethnic core of the modern Germany. The Bavarians were another long-lasting group, which survived as an independent kingdom all the way to the German unification, and still persist as one of the most influential Länder of Germany.
In summary, those Germanic groups that treated territory in a rational manner disappeared without leaving any traces (well, there is an Italian province called Lombardy, but that’s all that’s left of the Longobards). Those groups that build states in which the elites and the population were committed to defending Sacred Lands until death, in contrast, persisted. Which is probably why today we don’t see any countries that lack Sacred Lands. It’s a result of a long evolutionary process.