We live and breathe book titles in our offices, and when we discovered Gideon Defoe’s An Atlas of Extinct Countries, one thought came to mind: What a “brilliant” title! No one should be surprised that he’s a comedy writer.
Then it occurred to us that he might want to take a guest zookeeper position at the Zoo of Extinct Animals. His good humor would certainly cheer the place up. All those empty cages and descriptions of majestic animals like the saber toothed tiger and wooly mammoths long disappeared can be depressing. Gideon, we’ll help if you need a reference.
Let’s get to the task at hand—but before you dive into the interview, check out Eileen Gonzalez’s starred review of Gideon’s Atlas which appeared in Foreword’s July/August issue.
An Atlas of Extinct Countries is very informative but also a lot of fun. It uses plenty of humor to spice up what could have been a dry, even grim text. Why did you decide that this approach would be the most effective?
It mostly just came from the fact that I’m a comedy writer and very much not a legitimate academic historian. As a weird nerd kid who really liked maps, I was into extinct countries the way slightly less weird nerd kids are into dinosaurs, and then as an adult I found myself collecting these odd little stories. Half the appeal of those stories was that inevitably they’re about failure and stupid schemes and things messing up, and that stuff tends to be funny—though like you say, also sometimes a little grim. I hope the book is informative and perhaps introduces people to strange corners of world history they might not have known about, but its main objective is to be entertaining. It’s definitely not a comprehensive treatise on the nature of failed nation states.
Countries are formed in many different ways, but there are a few running themes. For example, arrogance pervades the stories in this book: a sense of entitlement that people (mostly white men) seem to have when it comes to taking land and establishing rule over people, whether those people want them there or not. What patterns did you notice as you researched this book? How did those patterns affect your perception of world history?
I didn’t really have a pre-existing expectation of any “running theme” when I started properly researching the book. I thought that maybe self-determination and a sense of national identity would be behind more of these places getting going in the first place and was surprised at how rarely that seemed to play much of a role. Generally, people just want to be left alone to get on with their lives.
What did seem to play a big role were, as you say, all these dubious Victorian chancers. Today they’d be running tech companies and building vanity space rockets. Some of them—like the brief King Of Corsica, Theodore von Neuhoff, a gambler thief who deserted from the army, ran off with a nun, and told people he could predict lottery numbers—I grudgingly found quite appealing characters. Others, like Italian poet and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio in the Free State of Fiume, were obviously out-and-out reprehensible bastards. All of them seemed to have the needs and wishes of the people very far down their priority list, and personal gain and designing themselves a fancy crown pretty high up. In terms of how it affected my perception of world history, I think it mostly just reinforced my view that everything is ridiculous and that a lot of problems in the world start with bored rich guys looking for something to do.
Your book also highlights the major role that chance plays in a country’s formation and/or longevity. Some countries are formed by clerical errors, while others are quickly extinguished by the same forces that allowed them to exist in the first place. What do you think that says about nation builders and/or the concept of nation building?
The clerical errors, the ones that are accidents of cartography where Great Powers tend to be redrawing a map after their latest war, are probably the doomed countries I was most rooting for. You’ve got a place like Neutral Moresnet, created simply because Prussia and the Netherlands couldn’t agree which one of them should own a zinc mine. They decide that the mine and the land around it would belong to nobody, and a whole lot of people suddenly find themselves officially stateless, because again, the needs and wishes of the locals don’t get a look-in.
Or the Republic of Cospaia, where the Pope and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany are divvying up some territory and drawing a new border, but they accidently leave out a small strip of land, creating a would-be anarchist utopia that lasts for four hundred years. I found this nation building by mistake eye opening—not so much because I was surprised at how governments didn’t care about their citizens any more than the Victorian chancers did, but the sheer, slap-dash, back of an envelope approach to geopolitics seems remarkable.
Obviously, a lot of the planet has issues today that can be traced back to European colonial ideas about ethnic identity and an obsession with drawing lines based on racial divisions that were basically made-up, and which didn’t reflect local realities in the slightest. That’s always seemed studied and sinister—but we shouldn’t ignore the role played by good old-fashioned incompetence.
What do you think is the most important extinct country, the one that had the biggest impact on world history (or would have had the biggest impact had it stuck around)?
This one is impossible to answer. For a start, it depends on how you define a country, which is a term nobody can agree on. In the book I argue that it’s a bit pointless to talk about nation states before the concept itself existed, so I confine myself to more recent history, the last few hundred years. And I don’t count empires. But then I break those rules and include the Kingdom of Axum (roughly where Ethiopia and Eritrea are today), which lasted for the best part of a thousand years and which at one point was one of the four greatest powers in the world. Even if it didn’t claim to have the Ark of the Covenant, Axum would certainly have a shot at being one of the most important extinct countries, and had things worked out differently, a history where a dominant Africa carved up Europe would have resulted in a very different book. Though I suspect that alt-timeline would probably still have involved a lot of bored rich people doing terrible things.
Are there lessons that you think modern governments—whether brand-new or well-established—should take from the failed or defeated states in your book?
A lot of the dead nations were tiny, because inevitably they’re easier to swallow up. The ones that made a decent fist of it tended to keep themselves to themselves and not appear to be having too good a time. So one piece of advice, if you’re geographically challenged, would be to keep a low profile and stay off the radar of the bigger kids. Another good lesson is avoid Napoleon. But I think the main lesson, not just for governments but for everyone, is to maybe not take your flags and your anthems and your national identities too seriously; everything is daft, and none of the shapes on the map are particularly permanent. Except maybe Portugal.