Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Historical sin.


In Bucharest there is a graveyard with two rows of graves whose tombstones are the same size and shape. The dates on the stones are all the same, too: January 21 - 23, 1941. Almost all of Bucharest's Jewish inhabitants were murdered in the Bucharest pogrom, including a group of Jews who were kidnapped by the ultra-nationalist fascist League of the Archangel Michael, taken to Bucharest's slaughterhouse, and killed on the same equipment used to kill cattle. Their mutilated bodies, some stamped with meat inspection stamps, were hung from the slaughterhouse meat hooks.

There are not many memorials to the murdered Jews of Romania. After World War II, Romania descended behind the 'iron curtain' of the USSR. Romania and its neighbors remained isolated, shadowy countries as Western Europe rebuilt. After the USSR began to collapse, the Balkans emerged as some of the most deprived, poor, and broken countries in the world, only to explode again in violence in the mid-1990s as the rest of the world scrambled to figure out what the hell was happening in countries that were only a few hours by car from Germany and France but seemed a world away.

In the wake of any genocide there is inevitably a chorus of how the world misunderstood, misread, misanalyzed the situation, didn't have the right information, couldn't get a handle on the history, thought they were seeing something other than what was there. And the Balkans is probably more confusing than most countries. Hidden in the sphere of the USSR for years, with a muddy, medieval history punctuated by the conquest by the Ottoman Turks, a polyglot and multi-religious population, and shifting boundaries, the neatly colored blocks that make up European maps start to get blurry when you head east and south of Poland and Austria.

Robert Kaplan's elegy to the Balkans, Balkan Ghosts, is not so much an attempt to unravel the Balkans' snarled history - a Sisyphean task - as an attempt to follow the strands. Part travelogue, part history primer, Balkan Ghosts is also a farewell to a country as it staggers under the weight of its history and the bitterness of its past.

Balkan Ghosts is divided into four parts: Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. Following the route that Rebecca West took in Black Lamb, Gray Falcon, Kaplan set out from Austria, the cradle of Nazism, and traveled to Croatia. As West was traveling ahead of a calamity - the Croatian king had just been murdered by the Ustashe, one of the harbingers of World War II - so Kaplan was traveling to Yugoslavia before its dissolution.

What he found was a country mired in history. Unlike Western Europe, which had picked itself up, scrubbed itself off, and carefully exorcised its demons by building memorials and holding ceremonies, Croatia, Serbia, and Albania had never healed, and not only from the wounds of the two World Wars. Their anger went back much further and the injuries of the distant past were felt just as keenly. The injustices of the conquest by the Ottoman Turks and the brutal rule that followed, the steady loss of territory, and the veneration of the doomed martyrs in the struggle against Turkish rule combined to create a feeling of destiny thwarted. As a Serbian nun bitterly told Kaplan, "we would have been even greater than the Italians, were it not for the Turks."

In Bucharest, Moldavia, Bucovina, and Transylvania, the same bitterness pervaded. The repression of history under the Communist leaders seems to have led to a sort of scabbing over, underneath which an infection continued to rage. Unlike Germany, the Balkans was not rejoining the rest of the world, and did not have to atone for its sins or face its own atrocities, and so the accepted version of history was one that allowed the Balkans to find itself blameless. Caught between two powers, Germany and Russia, the Balkans went from one form of fascism to another.

Kaplan's inclusion of Greece in Balkan Ghosts may be considered unorthodox, but he views Greece as a "western mistress, eastern bride" - although Greece flirted with the West, in practice it remained aligned with the repression of the East, culimating in the rule of Andreas Papanadreou - perhaps the penultimate irony, given Greece's now-cliched moniker as the birthplace of democracy.

As a Westerner, an American, a journalist, Kaplan never found a shortage of people desperate to talk to him, to tell him their version of history, to alternately excoriate and excuse their country. His conversations with people as varied as author Slavenka Drakulic, a Saxon family from Transylvania (descendants of the Saxons who settled in former Hungary under the Magyar king, Geza II), and one of Bucharest's few surviving Jews provide the human legacy of the history that Kaplan relates. By not following a chronological model, Kaplan succeeds in showing how the machinations of kings and armies resulted in the morass of the twentieth-century Balkans.

Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts may not be able to unravel Balkan history, but it does something much more valuable - it shows the human price behind the historic events that shaped the Balkans.

Author, historian, and columnist Anne Applebaum's "Real-Life Look at the Gulag" is in today's Washington Post. Applebaum, the author of Gulag, served as a historical consultant for filmmaker Peter Weir's new movie, The Way Back. Starring Ed Harris, Colin Firth, and Saiorse Ronan, The Way Back is based on the true story of a group of prisoners who walk nearly 4,000 from Siberia to India to escape from a gulag.

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