|"Distribution of Races in Austria-Hungary" |
Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1911
It’s no doubt the influence of the anniversary of the beginning of WWI, but I’ve been reading a lot about the history of Central Europe and the Balkans recently. As always I’ve been profoundly embarrassed by my own ignorance (though I’m getting used to that), but also fascinated by the complex interplay of personality and event, the scramblings for power and identity that have made Europe what it is, and will undoubtedly continue to influence what Europe will become.
Has everyone seen this? For those who do not feel like clicking off into the internet multiverse its an animation of the shifting boundaries of Europe from about 1000AD up to the present day. Look at the British Isles - in comparison with Central Europe we are just so stable, protected by the seas around us while vast tracts of land in the centre of the map are taken, claimed and reclaimed by competing empires and ideologies. You can see why the idea of steady historical progress found fertile ground over here, while those in central Europe were whirled round by one historical hurricane after another. Where can one find a guide to lead one over this terrain?
Step forward Simon Winder. I read his brilliant book Germania on the lands of the Holy Roman Empire that became (sort of) modern Germany some years ago, indeed it provided the inspiration for the fourth Westerman and Crowther novel, Circle of Shadows. He’s followed up the success of that book with the equally brilliant and picaresque Danubia which takes a similarly gossipy but informed approach to the history and landscape of the lands ruled by the Habsburgs from the middle ages until WWI.
Winder is a witty writer and a curious traveller, but I think what I enjoy most about his approach to history, as opposed to say the rather academic and austere studies of Tim Blanning, is his very human perspective on such a broad sweep of territory and time. What also comes across is his love of these lands and the past they preserve. He delights in absurdity, but treats his subject with careful respect. Reading the book is to travel through these countries with the best of guides. We pound the streets of the ancient capitals beside him finding the revealing anecdotes in the architecture, and handle illuminating fragments of history contained in tiny forgotten museums in medieval side streets. It makes for a personal history in the best sense.
The other book I’d recommend is also a combination of travelogue and history and picks up where Winder leaves off. As a result it is a darker volume, but one we should all read. It is The Trigger by Tim Butcher. It concentrates on the short life of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 thus striking the match which set Europe ablaze.
Butcher travels the route Princip took from rural Bosnia to the city of Sarajevo, both then under Hasburg rule, and from there to Belgrade in Serbia. The Kingdom of Serbia at that time was a beacon of hope to all Slavic peoples who wanted to shake off their imperial rulers. In Belgrade Princip formed his plan to kill Franz Ferdinand, got hold of the weapons he needed then returned to Sarajevo to wait for the Archduke.
On his journey Butcher finds Princip’s relatives still living in Bosnia, and his school records in the Sarajevo archives, but Butcher is also on a more personal pilgrimage. He reported on the Balkan wars of the 90s and interweaves the story of his experiences then with Gavrilo’s story and what he sees today. It makes for an account both poignant and illuminating, personal and universal. He sympathises with Princip’s romantic, pan-Slavic nationalism, but himself witnessed the toxic extremes to which nationalism can lead. His account of a commemorative walk along the route taken by those fleeing the horrors of Srebrenica is especially compelling, and his discussion of the different wordings used on the plaque which marked the place of the assassination reveals as much about the last 100 years of Balkan history as anything I’ve ever read.
|View of the Danube / Sava in Belgrade|
I should declare an interest here. My eldest brother has been living in Belgrade for over twenty years so I’ve been a frequent visitor to the Balkans for many years. I have friends in London who fled the siege of Sarajevo and have a picture on my bedroom wall that was painted while Nato bombs fell on Belgrade. I’ve had dozens of careful late night conversations with Serbs resentful of their depiction in the West and with war reporters who saw the horrors at first hand, even so I've never known enough about the history of Central Europe and the Balkans and without knowing the history, you can’t begin to understand the place.
In England particularly history seems like a safe subject, something colourful to paint on boxes of fudge, and it seems one can study even the most troubling elements of it from a comfortable distance. History in the Balkans is a living, dangerous creature.
One image from Butcher’s book stands out. After Princip’s co-conspirator made a first attempt on the Archduke which injured some of the officials travelling with him, the Archduke and his wife continued on to the official reception in Sarajevo town hall. The Archduke was seen to pause as he gave his official speech of thanks for his welcome in the city. The text of his remarks had been in the possession of one of the injured men, and the papers from which he read were already stained in blood.