Monday 21 July 2014

Personal Histories by Imogen Robertson

"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.


Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks very much for these recommendations, Imogen. I'm also very interested in the contrast between the kind of history we as an island have, and the kind that central and eastern Europe has - have read more recent histories, but these sound fascinating!

Penny Dolan said...

A good thing, I feel, about the WWI anniversary is an increased interest in the history of Europe (the "Why?" factor) that gives room for the publication of books like these, especially when the subject is so complex, and suddenly so alive.

Imogen said...

Thanks, guys. They really are both excellent sources for a more subtle understanding of the history.

Leslie Wilson said...

Franz Ferdinand and his wife were, of course on their way to visit the injured when Princip shot them - perhaps they might have escaped otherwise, who know? I am no fan of the Archduke, but one must say that for him. Also, had he lived, and Austria wanted retaliation for an attempted assassination, he might well have argued for peace, perhaps successfully, since he had done so on previous occasions.
The Balkans is enormously complex, as you say, and I certainly know little about it. I agree with you that it is vital not to demonise the Serbian people - or any other group, come to that, but I gather that the Bosnians have a quite different perspective on the assassination and on the role of the Dual Monarchy, which they felt added to their prosperity.. I guess it was inevitable, though, that Austria-Hungary should fall apart; Austrians knew that at the time, really, and the sense of an ending, of decay, is implicit in the literature of the immediate pre-war period. Then I have read that there was enormous and justified resentment that nobody took up the cause of other groups the way the Empress Elizabeth took up the Hungarian cause.
It is a deep tragedy that the aspirations and desires of the national groups couldn't be realised without the cataclysm that followed.
I look forward to reading your new book,Imogen - I am a great fan of your work and have been devouring Crowther and Westerman. I loved the last one about the slave trade.

Lisbeth said...

Very interesting post. Thank you for the tips on Simon Winder. His books sounds very interesting and I will look for them. I am reading 'The Sleepwalkers' by Christopher Clark for the moment which it is very interesting. The map of Europe has changed so many times and it was always turbulent. Just the difference between me and my husband; I am Swedish and he is Austrian. Although we are born in the end of the 50s, we have a whole different view on the history of Europe. Of course, Austria being in the middle of Europe was always more prone to attacks from outside, than, for example, Sweden in the north.
I think the more we know of the backgrounds and the different peoples the more we will have an understanding for each other.

Imogen said...

So glad you liked Theft of Life, Leslie! Yes, it is incredibly complex. Indeed the Archduke was on his way to visit the injured, but no one had told the driver, which meant he had to slow down and turn the car just where Princip was waiting. Some of the 1912 commentaries I've read about Franz Ferdinand thought he would be a deeply repressive ruler and feared the day the would take power. Impossible to know what would have happened if things had played out differently that day.

Sleepwalkers is very interesting, isn't it? And I think that's so interesting what you say Lisbeth about you and your husband having such different takes on European History. When I told one of my (younger) Serbian nephews the other day that Britain fought against the Nazis in WWII, he wouldn't believe me at first. He thought it was just Russia and Serbia who defeated them.

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, I'm sure FF would have been repressive! He was anti-Semitic and anti-democracy and deeply prejudiced against Slavs, and refused to go out of the back door of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna after a really rather magnificent modern building was put up there (shades of Prince Charles there.) But apparently he wasn't keen on war, possibly his one redeeming feature - apart from having defied his family to marry for love, so that poor emotionally-challenged old Franz Josef said the assassination was God's judgement on him.

Ruan Peat said...

My step mother in law is a Serb, in the early 90's no male member of her family over 7 and under 70 was spared, so her family consists of vast numbers of women spread all over the world, with now a group of young men growing up with the outside view and the family view at odds. You wonder if it hadn't happened if something else would have kicked the war off.

Carol Drinkwater said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carol Drinkwater said...

I passed your blog to Tim Butcher, Imogen. It is always so satisfying to find one's work spoken of in unexpected sources. He said he would have missed it so I was pleased to have flagged it.
Fascinating post, thank you.

Imogen said...

Very interesting, Leslie! I'm looking forward to learning more about him. And thank you Ruan, it shows just how different our perceptions of history can be.
Thank you, Carol. I was wondering about telling him about the piece (we have friends in common) but got all shy, but he emailed me to say he'd seen it which was lovely.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Terrific, Imogen. I am so glad he responded. It is always fun to introduce writers to one another and to meet others we admire.

Clare Mulley said...

What a great post Imogen, thank you. Sorry I missed it earlier. I heard about the Butcher/Princip book before and thought it sounded good, but it and the other are now on the Xmas list. I have been enjoying listening to radio 4's 'Germany: Memories of a Nation' recently too - downloaded, late as usual - and recommend these too.

Leslie Wilson said...

I went to the exhibition yesterday, of 'Germany, Memories of a Nation' and shall be blogging about it this month. I missed the Radio 4 series, but have the Book of it and the exhibition (weighs a ton). I can recommend the exhibition, and I suspect that having listened to the radio series would give one more depth on it. I was glad I'd read about half the book before I went - it did tell me many things I didn't know, though in other areas I thought it didn't go far enough. I guess that would be inevitable. I got Danubia when I was there, and began to read it on the way home. It's a good read, and very interesting, and like the exhibition, focuses on the 'Germany' beyond the bounds of the political state, which of course is where my family comes from.