“Shadow Prince” – Henner Henkel: From The French Open Champion To Stalingrad

He was born during the First World War and would die fighting in the Second. During his short, eventful life he rose to tennis stardom becoming the number three player in the world. Yet a little over five years after winning his first and only Grand Slam singles title he found himself trapped along with an entire German Army in the frozen wasteland around Stalingrad. There he would die on a brutally cold, mid-January day, one of millions of German soldiers who lost their lives on the Eastern Front. The only difference between him and so many others whose names have been lost to history was that his name has been etched into the tennis history books forever as a victor of the French Open. That man’s name, Heinrich “Henner” Henkel deserves to be remembered.

Heinrich "Henner" Henkel

Heinrich “Henner” Henkel (Credit Alex Nieuwland)

Best Of The Next Best – The Unexpected Champion
If asked to name the most famous German men’s tennis player of all time, most tennis experts would say Boris Becker. As a teenage wunderkind with a booming serve he took the tennis world by storm. By the age of 21 Becker had won three Wimbledon titles. In a long and notable career he won 49 titles, but none of these came on red clay. Clay was Becker’s kryptonite, especially at the French Open where he only made it as far as the semifinals twice. Because Becker and his countryman Michael Stich (runner-up 1996 French Open) failed to win in Paris, this left a forgotten man with a funny name as the last German to win the Grand Slam tournament. In 1937 the best German tennis player in the world was Gottfried von Cramm. Von Cramm played in three consecutive French Open finals from 1934-1936 winning two of them, but in 1937 the Nazi government would now allow him to play the event. He refused to comply with Nazi ideology and act as a tool for their propaganda. Von Cramm’s absence removed a major obstacle for Heinrich Henkel.

Dubbed “The Shadow Prince” because he played in the shadow of the more famous Von Cramm, the handsome, blond haired Henkel looked the part of a matinee idol. Born in Posen (present day Poznan, Poland), Henkel grew up in a family that loved tennis. Both his mother and father were avid players. When he started to show a keen interest in football, Henkel’s parents discouraged him from further pursuing the game. Instead they told him to focus on tennis. That he did, with fantastic results.  By the time he turned 19 Henkel was a two time German junior champion and had become a member of the David Cup squad. His game was solid and sometimes spectacular. A blistering first serve won him many points easily. Many tennis experts rated him a greater talent than Von Cramm, but he seemed to lack the same drive and focus that had propelled his countryman to the top of tennis. Henkel was light hearted, enjoying life to a much greater degree than other world class players.

A Shadow Prince and The Baron - Henner Henkel and Gottfried von Cramm

A Shadow Prince and The Baron – Henner Henkel and Gottfried von Cramm (Credit: State Library of New South Wales)

A Decisive Performance – A Devastating Fate
A better doubles than singles player, Henkel attained his greatest results playing with a partner. He made the finals of every Grand Slam tournament, winning both the French and U.S. Open titles with Von Cramm in 1937. Also in that year Henkel achieved his greatest feat in singles play on the red clay of the French Open. He started his title run in the second round. In those days, the French Open gave higher seeded players first round byes. Thus, to win the title Henkel would have to win six rather than seven matches. He cruised through the first three rounds against unseeded competition, losing only the 2nd set in a match against Raymond Tuckey of Great Britain. As the tournament went on Henkel’s play became even more impressive. Starting in the quarterfinals he defeated three consecutive seeded players, all without the loss of a single set. In the semifinals and final he destroyed the #2 and #1 seeds respectively, ceding only eight games to each of his opponents. It was one of the most decisive performances in Grand Slam history and one that Henkel would never repeat again in a Grand Slam singles tournament. He never played another match at the French Open. His best results from that point forward were a couple of semifinal finishes at Wimbledon.

As Germany became further and further engulfed by war, Henkel’s play at international tournaments was increasingly limited. He played his last major tournament abroad in Spain during the latter part of 1941. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the war increasingly began to hit home in the form of draft notices as the Third Reich required more and more manpower to sustain an army suffering massive casualties on the Eastern Front. Sporting heroes could not escape the grasp of military necessity. A total war meant mass mobilization.  In 1942 while playing at a tournament in the spa resort town of Bad Pyrmont, messengers from the telegraph office brought news from the military recruiting office that Henkel had been drafted. He made it all the way to the final in what was to be his last tournament.

How he will be remembered - Henkel in all his glory

How he will be remembered – Henkel in all his glory

Always Known & Rarely Mentioned – A Famous Footnote
Later that same year Henkel received his baptism of fire in the fighting around Stalingrad. During battle he was seriously wounded in the upper thigh by a bullet. With the German Army surrounded on all sides there was no chance at evacuation. His condition soon worsened. The bitterly cold weather did not help matters. In mid-January 1943, Henner Henkel died from his wound in Rossosh, Soviet Union.  He was just 27 years old. Three weeks later the German 6th Army surrendered. Henkel’s death was just one of an estimated 734,000 killed, wounded or missing German casualties. In a strange way death allowed Henkel to escape what would have proved an even harsher fate. If he had been one of the 108,000 Germans captured, it is almost certain that he would have been subjected to forced labor. Instead he was able to die with at least some dignity. Today Henner Henkel is little more than an answer to trivia questions, a footnote in French Open tennis history. His name is rarely mentioned, but at least it is known. He rightfully earned himself a place in the record books with his magnificent play at the 1937 French Open. For that he will always be known as a champion, a title that war can never take away from him.


An Age That Lives Forever – The Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque In Pecs (Ottoman Hungary #3)

The Mosque of Geza Kasim Pasha seems to have it all, a central location in Pecs’ Szechenyi ter at one of the highest points in the Belvaros (inner city), an original structure that is largely intact with a fascinating history of conflict and conservation. One thing it does not have is a minaret. Two and a half centuries ago it was pulled down. I would never have noticed this omission if not for a second visit to Pecs. After arriving at the train station on a cold and rainy spring day I had to walk through an intermittent downpour to my accommodation southwest of the city center. There are few things worse than dragging a suitcase through puddles while being pelted by raindrops. I clung to the sidewalk along Rakoczi utca while passing by shops, banks, small scale residences and apartments. Quickening my pace I lamented the weather, my baggage and a strange adherence to an odd personal superstition that does not allow me to use umbrellas.

I kept my head down for long stretches, as if not looking up would somehow keep me dry. This trek would have been an altogether miserable one if not for a startling sight that caused me to pause. On the south side of the street, sandwiched between an ochre colored building that housed a medical clinic and a cream colored four story structure, was a mosque. A minaret pierced the sky just behind it. It is hard to imagine a stranger setting for a mosque. Centuries of development had remade Rakoczi utca time and again, but the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque was still standing. The mosque looked to be smaller than its counterpart in  Szechenyi ter, but it did have the characteristic minaret from where in the 16th and 17th centuries a muezzin sounded the call to prayer five times each day. I made a mental note to visit the mosque before I left Pecs.

Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque in Pecs

Side by side – Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque in Pecs (Credit: Peter Lóránd)

“Caravans of camels laden with the merchandise” – Ottoman Pecs
It is rare that a person comes into contact with another world, but seeing the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque made the distant past suddenly seem close at hand. The building transcended space and time, acting as a portal to Ottoman Hungary. It made me wonder just what Pecs was like during the Turkish occupation. The remains of that time lie scattered in and around the city center offering a few disparate clues, two mosques and a Muslim burial chapel hinted at the role of Islam in Ottoman society. Not long after the Bishop of Pecs handed over the keys to the city in 1543, Ottoman administrators ordered that most of the Christian churches be converted into mosques. The two still standing in present-day Pecs were subsequently converted back to churches soon after the Habsburg conquest. The idea was to eradicate the physical, spiritual and cultural symbols of Ottoman rule. This had been done to the point where a curious visitor has no other recourse but to rely on historical information to gain any idea of what the Ottoman period in Pecs that lasted from 1543-1686 had actually been like.

Prior to the mid-16th century Pecs had been a town organized by its streets. The Ottoman system was fundamentally different, arranging towns around neighborhoods. The Muslim administrators, soldiers and settlers took over the center as well as the area within the city walls. Very few Muslims lived outside the walls. The exceptions were those who lived near the gates that led to roads out of the city towards Buda, Szigetvar and other important cities. The Christian population was pushed into the suburbs. Each of their neighborhoods was centered on a specific congregation with a church in the center. Christians were still free to practice their religion. The Ottomans brought in their own emigrants from the northern Balkans. These settlers transformed the streets, roofing them over and selling goods from stalls.

The inner part of the city center underwent radical change. What is today the heart of Pecs, Szechenyi ter, had been a marketplace prior to Ottoman rule. It was now turned into a bazaar. One historical account described a scene with “caravans of camels laden with the merchandise from India and the Yemen.”  The orient had arrived in Hungary. The Muslim emigrants were usually much poorer than the Christian inhabitants. They lived in ramshackle structures of haphazard construction and made their living trading an assortment of goods. The ephemeral quality of their humble homes and market stalls is one of the main reasons why Pecs and the rest of Hungary have so few remnants of the Ottoman presence.

Prayer hall of Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque

Prayer hall of Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque (Credit: Zairon)

From Conversion To Transformation – Bringing In The Balkans
The most radical transformation of Pecs was in the religious sphere. The centrality of Islam was on full display in the city. Charitable foundations supported educational institutions. There were five madrasah (Islamic religious schools) and at least twice as many mektebs (elementary schools).  Pecs was the major Muslim educational center in southern Hungary. Mosques matched schools in both number and importance.  In 1663 the Ottoman traveler and scribe Evliya Celebi visited Pecs. His work lists seven large mosques and ten small ones. Several of these had been converted from existing Christian churches. The city’s cathedral was converted to a mosque named after Sultan Suleiman who had led the conquest. Another one, the mosque of Memi Pasha, was built on the site of a medieval Franciscan monastery. The former monastery provided the scaffolding around which the mosque was built.

Both of these would eventually disappear, but the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque which I discovered on that rainy day managed to survive. Its namesake was the great-grandson of Memi Pasha who had established both a mosque and Turkish bath in Pecs. Hassan ordered his mosque built right next to that of his illustrious ancestor. Visiting the mosque brought me as close physically as one can now get to the era of Ottoman Hungary. The exterior of the building is rather simple in design, square shaped, lacking decoration, with two stone bordered windows close to ground level and a round arched window further up. Atop the structure sits a round dome. From the street side this dome hides much of the minaret on the mosque’s southwestern corner. The exit door onto the minaret’s balcony faces mecca.

The lone minaret in Pecs

The lone minaret in Pecs – Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque (Credit: Alesha)

The Essence Of An Era – A Deeply Spirtual Place
Inside I saw what was left of the original interior that had escaped the mosque’s conversion to a Christian chapel. It had been restored back to an approximation of its former glory in the 1960’s. There were painted verses from the Koran, floral decoration and three stalactite arches. It was a deeply spiritual place that seemed far removed from the busy street just outside its walls. I felt a pervasive stillness, a quiet reverence. This was a space that transcended the present, transporting me to an eternal past, the essence of an age that in this space could live on forever. The past was no longer just a part of history, it was also alive. I could feel it within these walls. I could feel it within me.

A Miracle of History – Fusion of Faith: The Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim In Pecs (Ottoman Hungary #2)

One of the more remarkable experiences of my Eastern European travels came in Pecs, the second largest city in southern Hungary. On an early spring Sunday afternoon I disembarked at the eclectic masterpiece which has acted as the city’s railway station since 1900. My objective was an overnight stay in the city’s Belvaros (inner city). It was early afternoon and the wind was blowing hard. I walked up the Jokai Mor utca (Mor Jokai Street) dragging my luggage behind me while trying to shield my eyes from swirls of dust. My only knowledge of the city was what little I had read. Pecs was known for its jewel box of a Belvaros, a magnificent cathedral and an early Christian Necropolis that had been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. The mid-sized city certainly sounded like a nice stopover to break up a train trip between Sarajevo and Budapest. At least that is what I thought until I entered Szechenyi ter (Szechenyi square). My expectations were immediately exceeded.

It was right then and there that the magic of Pecs materialized before my very eyes. To my right was the baroque façade of Saint Sebastian’s Church, in front of which stood the pyrogranite, Art Nouveau Zsolnay Well. Further up was the neo-baroque Town Hall with its grand tower surging into a clear blue sky. Next I saw the colorful confectionary façade of the Nandor Hotel. Further up there was a brass statue of the great Hungarian leader Janos Hunyadi on horseback, adding an element of glorious pageantry. Could this really be just a provincial city, there was something positively royal about it. The square slanted upward as it proceeded to the north where a large column of the Holy Trinity was situated. Behind it was the most stunning sight of all, at the highest point of the square stood what had formerly been the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim and now is the Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The structure was positively magnetic to the eyes. It looked like it had come from another world and truth be told it had.

Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim looking northward from the center of Szechenyi ter

Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim looking northward from the center of Szechenyi ter (Credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor)

If You Build It, They Will Come – The Conquest Of The Conquerors
Most miracles are created by the imagination and based on a belief system, but there are other miracles that can be seen and touched, these are the miracles of history. The fact that there is anything left of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim can rightly be considered a miracle of history. Following the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Pecs, Pasha (Governor) Gazi Kasim ordered the building of the mosque. It took four years to construct and used stones from what had been the Gothic Saint Bartholomew Church which had stood on the city’s main square.

As impressive as the structure looks today, it was even more stunning during the era of Ottoman rule. The famous Ottoman traveler and literary scribe Evilya Celebi commented on the majestic view of the mosque. He compared its size and grandeur to the mosque of Sultan Selim in Istanbul. Celebi was lucky to visit Pecs right before Turkish rule in Hungary suffered a series of devastating setbacks.

The threats to the mosque’s existence began even before the Turks were forced out of Pecs. In 1664 an army under the command of nobleman Miklos Zrinyi besieged and then occupied Pecs. They carried out acts of wanton destruction, pillaging and burning for several days. Yet the Mosque of Pasha Qasim was one of three in the city that survived this rampage. A little over two decades later the Turks were cast out of the city for good. They burnt much of the city, but left the mosque untouched before the conquering Habsburg Army entered Pecs on October 14, 1686. After the Habsburgs took control they held a Thanksgiving dinner inside the mosque to celebrate their conquest. Their initial plan for the city, as well as the mosque, was to destroy it. The Habsburg court in Vienna changed its mind after deciding they needed Pecs to act as a rival to nearby Ottoman held Szigetvar.

Flowers in Szechenyi ter with Saint Sebastian's Church in the backgrounnd

Flowers in Szechenyi ter with Saint Sebastian’s Church in the backgrounnd

Conversions – Spiritual & Physical
The peace and prosperity that Habsburg rule brought to southern Hungary meant something quite different for the mosque. It would survive, but undergo a major transformation in the process. Six years after the Habsburg conquest it was converted into a church. The mosque’s minaret was struck by lightning in the 18th century, before finally being pulled down by the Jesuits in 1766. Then in the 19th century the interior was rebuilt. After 1868 only Christian worship services could be held there. This spiritual conversion was done in parallel with an overhaul of the interior. Such features as the containers for holy water that today stand beside the vestries were taken from the Turkish baths which were once adjacent to the mosque.

A few Islamic details did escape the transformation, such as verses of poetry from the Koran that can still be seen on the interior walls. The exterior, with the exception of the minaret, stayed almost exactly the same as it looked during Ottoman rule. The building that stands today is still the most impressive example of Turkish architecture in Hungary. It consists of an octagonal drum crowned with a dome. On top of the dome is a crescent moon, symbol of Islam, connected to a Christian cross. The duality of the symbolism is not lost on the historically minded viewer.

Interior of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim/Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Interior of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim/Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

The Will To Change – Pattern Of The Past
I was lucky enough to be one of those viewers on that beautiful sunlit, spring day. Walking up to and then around the church/mosque I felt as though I were in an outdoor museum studying an artifact from the past that had been shaped by centuries of spiritual history. A steady succession of beliefs had produced this synthesis of Christian and Islamic sacred architecture, fused together as one now, but still with distinct patterns of the past, imposed one atop another. Here was a lasting remnant of how the world was built, from foundations and fusions, changes and challenges. The will to create and restore, defeating the will to destroy.  Only a miracle of history could have created such a structure.


The Father Of Roses In Buda – Afterlife: The Tomb Of Gul Baba (Ottoman Hungary #1)

You have to really take your turban off to Gul Baba. For a man who spent only a small part of his life in Buda he sure has staying power there. For nearly five centuries his tomb has retained a place among the city’s attractions. Despite sweeping changes in empires, rulers, religions and ideologies the tomb remains. Known as “The Father of Roses”, legend has it that Gul Baba was the first to introduce roses to the area. Not by coincidence the tomb is located in the 2nd District (Roszadomb – Hill of Roses) about a thousand feet west of the Danube in Buda. It is one of a very select few Ottoman Turkish sites left in Buda today.

The cobbled way up Gul Baba utca in Rozsadomb

The cobbled way up Gul Baba utca in Rozsadomb (Credit: Dguendel)

Getting to the site requires a steep climb up the cobbled, broken Gul Baba utca followed by a short walk along Turban utca. Suddenly and quite improbably the visitor arrives at the tomb. To find the shrine of an Ottoman Bektshi Dervish tucked within the quiet back streets of the Hungarian capital is surprising to say the least. On a visit to the tomb, I got the distinct feeling that I was in Anatolia rather than Eastern Europe. The Orient felt very near. Such a fascinating slice of eastern exotica left me with questions. Just who was Gul Baba and why does he still have a presence in a city that is two thousand kilometers from his birthplace? From what I discovered Gul Baba exerted a powerful spiritual influence. Much the same effect can be felt by those who visit his tomb today.

A Sultan’s Spiritual Sage – The Rise Of Gul Baba
Gul Baba died in the Carpathian Basin, but his life began far, far away on a plain in northern Anatolia. He was born sometime in the late 15th century at the fortified trading city of Merzifon. He would eventually make his way to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul where he would come to the attention of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Legend has it that Suleiman came upon him while hunting. At the time Gul Baba was tending and praying for roses he had planted. He certainly made a lasting impression on the Sultan as he had on many others. Gul Baba was a member of an Islamic movement known as the Bektashi dervish order that flourished throughout the Ottoman Empire. They practiced Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. In the Bektashi order, baba denotes an experienced spiritual guide. A baba ranks above a dervish and one below the highest rank in the order. The order was closely affiliated with the Sultan’s Janissary corps, elite infantrymen who were the heart and soul of the Ottoman war machine.

Statue of Gul Baba outside his tomb in Buda

Statue of Gul Baba outside his tomb in Buda (Credit: Thaler)

Gul Baba became a close companion of Suleiman, offering him spiritual guidance during his many military campaigns. He was also a warrior, known to carry a large wooden sword in his hand during battle. He was with Suleiman when the Ottoman Turks occupied Buda. Gul Baba was going to start a religious center in the city, but he suddenly died. The death of Gul Baba, like so much of his life, is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Two possible dates are given for his death. The first, August 21, 1541, also happens to be the final day of the siege of Buda, when the Habsburg army was finally defeated after three and half months. Gul Baba may have perished in the fighting below the city walls. The second and more common date of death given is ten days later on September 1st. In this case Gul Baba is said to have collapsed and died after giving the first prayer during a Muslim ceremony held in the Church of Our Lady (current Matthias Church), which had instantly been converted into the Great Mosque. The funeral that followed shows Gul Baba’s popularity, likely stimulated from the great emotion felt by the Sultan. It is said that thousands took part, with Suleiman himself acting as one of the pall bearers.

Restoration & Resurrection – A Spiritual Revival
Suleiman’s affinity for this holy warrior and deeply spiritual figure likely had much to do with Gul Baba becoming the Patron Saint of Ottoman Buda. He was memorialized for the sake of posterity when his tomb was constructed from 1543-48 on orders of the third pasha of Buda. It was to become a holy shrine with a dervish cloister and a site of pilgrimage for the Bektashi order during Ottoman rule in Hungary. The tomb survived the retaking of Buda by the Habsburgs in 1686, but afterwards was converted to a Jesuit chapel. Only after the Jesuit Order was dissolved did the tomb start to be restored through local efforts. A landowner, Janos Wagner, allowed Muslim pilgrims access to the site. The first of two major restorations by the Turkish government took place in the late 19th century. Another restoration was done at the end of the 20th century, giving the complex its current form. The area around the tomb includes a colonnade, decorative fountains and gardens planted with roses. There is also a statue of Gul Baba. The tomb itself is located in a hexagonal shaped building, made from limestone and mounted with a gold crescent.

The casket of Gil Baba

The casket of Gil Baba (Credit: Thaler)

The day I visited the tomb there was only a single family of Turks at the site. The eldest of which was a grandmotherly type who was overcome with emotion during their visit. She spent many minutes deep in prayer as her family looked on. All around the tomb’s interior, the walls contained tiles with verses from the Koran. Gul Baba’s coffin was of traditional Ottoman design, covered with Oriental carpets featuring elaborate patterns. I marveled at the lady’s devotion. To travel all the way from Turkey into the heart of Europe, just to visit this obscure site made a great impression upon me. The tomb of Gul Baba is the most far flung pilgrimage site for Muslims in Europe. The opportunity to see the tomb and pray on-site must have been a lifelong dream for this lady. I had no way of communicating with her through language, but her expressive emotion told me all I really needed to know. Gul Baba was more than just a historical personage, he was that rarest of Holy Men, one whose mysterious power could speak across the ages, both to believer and observer.



History Almost Repeats Itself – Marton Fucsovics & Hungary’s Davis Cup Defeat Of Slovakia

In 1980, led by the rocket forehand of Ivan Lendl, Czechoslovakia became the first Eastern European nation to win the Davis Cup. During the eighties Czechoslovakia produced many excellent players including all time-great Lendl, the mercurial Miloslav Mecir and Tomas Smid. After the Iron Curtain fell the country split during the Velvet Divorce of 1993. Development of top level professional tennis talent continued. The Czech Republic has won two more Davis Cups (2012 and 2013) since the split while the less tennis mad Slovaks managed to make it all the way to the 2005 final. The center of the men’s tennis world in Eastern Europe has now moved south to the Balkans, where several Grand Slam champions (Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic) have been developed. In between these two tennis hubs lies Hungary. The Magyars have a very poor record in the Open era of men’s professional tennis (since 1968). Other than the superb Balazs Taroczy, Hungary has produced only one other top 50 player during the Open era.

Marton Fucsovics - after a Davis Cup victory

Marton Fucsovics – after a Davis Cup victory

A Fetish For The Obscure – Hungarian Men’s Tennis
Only those tennis aficionados who have a fetish for the obscure can recall the name of Peter Szoke, a Hungarian who lost in the 1971 German Open final and two years later climbed to #47 in the world before turning his focus to doubles. No Hungarian has come anywhere close to matching Taroczy for titles (13) or highest singles ranking (#12). Since Taroczy retired in 1990, Attila Savolt and Sandor Noszaly have been the only Hungarians who have managed to break into the top 100. The current crop of Hungarian men’s tennis players has failed to attain Savolt or Noszaly’s meager level of success. In Davis Cup, the Hungarians have produced an endless succession of underwhelming performances. They have made the World Group twice, losing both times in the first round. Their last appearance was over two decades ago in 1996. Thus it was with great surprise that news arrived this past weekend of the Hungarian Davis Cup team producing a stunning upset of Slovakia. Playing an away tie in Bratislava the Hungarians managed to prevail 3-1 during Africa/Europe Group One play. The star of the tie was Marton Fucsovics who won both of his singles matches and was also a part of the winning doubles tandem. Fucsovics was an unlikely candidate for hero, especially in light of his play last year during a home tie in Budapest also against Slovakia.

In mid-July of 2016 Hungary faced Slovakia in Davis Cup for the first time ever. The tie was played on red clay in Budapest. The advantage of playing at home, turned out to be no such of a thing for Hungary. It was little surprise when the Hungarians lost the first match. Peter Nagy was ranked several hundred spots lower then Slovak Andrej Martin who quickly dispatched him in straight sets. The second match was the critical one. Fucsovics faced Joszef Kovalik, a player ranked forty-one spots above him. To compound matters, red clay is Kovalik’s favorite surface, while Fucsovics prefers grass or a fast hard court. The choice of the wrong surface for the home team proved decisive. Fucsovics split the first two sets with Kovalik, but the Slovak managed to eke out the 3rd set in a tiebreaker 7 to 5. After that, Fucsovics will was broken as was his serve multiple times in the fourth set. Kovalik coasted to victory. The next day Fucsovics was part of the losing doubles team as Slovakia completed the rout. Hungary had managed to win a grand total of one set in three matches. Fucsovics may have been Hungary’s best player at the time, but the tie had proved that he was no match for the Slovaks or did it?

From Champion To Journeyman – The Rise & Fall Of Fucsovics
In tennis parlance, Marton Fucsovics is a journeyman. He first rose to prominence by winning the Wimbledon junior title in 2010. Soon thereafter he was ranked as the top junior in the world by the International Tennis Federation. Later that same year he turned pro, but did not meet with anywhere near the same success of his junior career. In 2013 he won two challengers, including an indoor event in Andria, Italy where he defeated three of the top four seeds all in straight sets. In October 2014 he achieved his highest ranking ever at #135. From that point he began a slow, but steady slide, bottoming out at #275 in September 2015 while suffering from neck and back problems. Fucsovics has climbed back to his current ranking of #163, which means he is good enough to compete at the challenger level, but not quite up to the regular tour. He is certainly not the first world junior number one to have found the pro tour to be extremely difficult. Now at the age of twenty-five the question is whether Fucsovics reached his peak several years ago. The answer would likely have been yes, but his performance this past weekend has raised hopes once again.

History can repeat itself, but only up to a certain point. Fucsovics proved this when he found himself in exactly the same position in 2017 as he did last year against Slovakia in Davis Cup. Just as in 2016 Hungary lost the first match of the tie. Fucsovics then faced Jozef Kovalik once again. He won the first set and lost the second. At this point in 2016, the match had turned in Kovalik’s favor. This time though, Fucsovics made history rather than repeating it. The difference in the match was his return of serve. He actually won a greater percentage of points returning Kovalik’s first serve (42%) rather than an easier second serve (34%), a rare feat that decided the match in his favor.  In the doubles, he teamed up with Attila Balzas for a five set victory. Hungary suddenly was one win away from an upset.

Márton Fucsovics - leader of the 2017 Hungarian Davis Cup team

Márton Fucsovics – leader of the 2017 Hungarian Davis Cup team (Credit: Diliff)

A Surprise In Slovakia – Hungarian Tennis Reemerges
Then on the final day he faced his greatest test against Martin Klizan, ranked #35 in the world and playing in front of his home fans. Klizan took the first set, but Fucsovics ran off the last three sets in succession. He relied heavily upon his serve, finishing with 18 aces and winning 83% of his first serve points. He also feasted on Klizan’s second serve, winning 68% of those points. It all added up to a surprising victory for the Hungarians, almost entirely due to the play of Fucsovics, on the road no less. What had changed in the space of six months for Fucsovics? Obviously he had raised the level of both of his service and return game. Confidence is a strange thing, but it snowballed for him during the tie. He was also helped by the Slovak decision to play the tie on a fast, indoor hard court, Fucsovics favorite surface. Now the question will be if these three victories lead him to greater heights. Hungary has been waiting a long time for another top 100 player. Will it be Fucsovics? After his latest victories there is reason for optimism, a rarity in Hungarian tennis.

Alone At A Funeral – Moment Of Surrender: The German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

In Berlin the past never seems remote. There are remnants of the Berlin Wall, churches that World War II bombers crashed into, buildings constructed by Kaisers, Communists and Nazis. Almost anywhere you look the past is still palpable. There are also more remote sites that many would just as soon forget. Where the past is extremely painful and nothing good can come from reopening an old wound. One of these sites lurks in an otherwise ordinary neighborhood, the kind of nondescript setting that one usually does not equate with a history making event. Yet this is Berlin a place where war, defeat and division are all within living memory.

German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (Credit: Anagoria)

The House Of Capitulation – A Less Than Impressive Impression
On April 30, 1945 in an underground bunker beneath Berlin, Adolf Hitler blew his brains out. Forty-eight hours later the flag of the Soviet Union was raised over the Reichstag. As remarkable and decisive as these two events were in the German capital, neither signaled the official end of the war. Though the Red Army was in the process of finishing off the last remnants of the German Army and the Battle of Berlin would conclude on May 2, 1945, the war would not officially conclude until six days later. The surrender would take place far from the center of Berlin, in an eastern suburb of the city known as Karlshorst. The same place where the surrender was signed, known today as the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (Deutsch-Russische Museum Berlin-Karlshorst), can still be visited.  I discovered the place devoid of tourists on a beautiful spring day. In retrospect it is not surprising to me that only 40,000 people visit this site each year.  Just finding my way to the museum was not easy.

The quickest route by public transport to Karlshorst is on the Berlin S-Bahn 3 line. I took it starting at Ostkreuz in East Berlin, heading further east along the line for 5 kilometers until I arrived at the Berlin-Karlshorst station. A short walk brought me to Rheinsteinstrasse, which according to my map eventually led to the museum. What followed was a pleasant walk. The tree lined street flanked on either side by pastel painted apartment buildings and villas.  It seemed almost too normal, well kempt and above all, very German. It was hard to believe that during the Cold War, Karlshorst had been dominated by the Soviets. That domination began during the Battle of Berlin at what is today the German-Russian Museum, which after twenty minutes I found. The building was less than impressive, a bland gray, two and a half story structure with a red tiled roof. It looked like what it had been prior to the Soviets arrival, an officer’s mess hall. It was hard to believe that anything important could ever have happened here.

Deadly beast - Soviet T34 tank outside the German-Russian Museum

Deadly beast – Soviet T34 tank outside the German-Russian Museum (Credit: Andreas Teutsch)

No Illusions – Conditions For Unconditional Surrender
Standing in front of the museum I did see one visible artifact that betrayed the Second World War, to the left of the building stood a large Soviet T34 tank. It is generally agreed that the T34 was the most effective tank built by any side during the war. Its combination of firepower and mobility was unmatched, as was the Soviet ability to manufacture 80,000 of these deadly beasts. In large part, the Soviet war machine was propelled westward to Berlin by the T34. In April 1945 the Red Army slowly fought their way into the city despite the fiercest of resistance. It was during this time that the Supreme Commander of Soviet Forces, Marshal Georgi Zhukov setup his headquarters in what is today the German-Russian Museum. From here he directed the final assault on Berlin. It would also be from here that the death certificate of German militarism would be signed.

The surrender of all German forces was a two part affair.  The Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) only wanted to surrender to the western Allies. The Wehrmacht’s leadership had no illusions about the harsh punishment that awaited them at the hands of the Soviets. An act was drawn up and signed in Reims, France on May 7th, but this did not satisfy the Soviets. Josef Stalin and the Soviet high command insisted that this act of German unconditional surrender was invalid.  Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower ensured that the commanders of all three branches of the German military were flown to Berlin where they would take part in a formal surrender to the Soviets. Thus, late in the evening of May 8th, Allied, Soviet and Wehrmacht delegations traveled to the former officer’s mess at Karlshorst to sign the unconditional surrender.

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the German unconditional surrender at Karlshorst

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the German unconditional surrender at Karlshorst (Credit: NARA)

Before And After Midnight – Strokes Of Fate
Visiting the museum felt sublime. I was not really interested in any of the exhibits on offer. The true power of the place resided in the room where the surrender was signed. The room itself was a large cavernous space, a typical setting for a large dining hall. The allied delegation arrived just before midnight on May 8th while the German representatives entered the hall just after the clock had struck midnight. A new day had dawned both literally and figuratively. The ceremony took less than 15 minutes to complete, breathtakingly brief when compared to the years of planning that went into preparing for war, followed by the years of killing.

And all the horror, infamy and tragedy was ended by a few strokes of the pen in a quarter of an hour. It was the end not only for the Wehrmacht, but also the beginning of the end for two of their three signatories. In just over two weeks the man who signed for the Luftwaffe, Hans-Jurgen Stumpff would commit suicide by ingesting poison. He could not live with the shame of surrender. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel would be hanged the following year, after being convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg. His death was a particularly gruesome one. The trap door through which he fell to his death was not set right causing him to be slowly strangled to death. His fate could not have been worse than the millions of innocents who lost their lives because of decisions made by men like Keitel and Hitler’s other henchmen.

Room where the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces was signed

Room where the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces was signed (Credit: Andreas Teutsch)

Dead End – Footsteps Creaking Across The Floor
Standing in the room where World War II in Europe finally came to an end was a humbling experience. The museum is a somber memorial to the very end of a bitter, brutal war that took more lives than any other in human history. There is little to celebrate and much to mourn. No one else was visiting the museum at that time. I was all alone, standing to the side looking at the place settings. The room was setup to look like it did when the surrender took place. The only sound I could hear was my own footsteps, creaking across the floor. The effect was unsettling. A deep sadness came over me, the kind that occurs when you realize that nothing will ever be the same again. I felt like I was the only person at a funeral, on this day I was.


Wings Of Fire – Siegessäule:  Berlin’s Monument To Militarism

One of the most iconic World War II photographs shows the flag of the Soviet Union being raised by a Red Army soldier atop the burned out Reichstag during the Battle of Berlin. After four years of the most violent conflict in human history the Soviets had finally defeated Nazism. The heart and soul of the fascist beast, Berlin, was finally occupied. The photo was taken on May 2, 1945. On that same day, another nation’s flag flew over a symbolic monument not very far from the Reichstag. At the center of the Grosser Stern (Great Star), an intersection where four major boulevards converge, the flag of Poland was unfurled atop the Siegessäule (Victory Column). It was an incredible irony. The countries where Nazi Germany had carried out their most destructive actions during the war were now flying their flags atop two of Berlin’s most famous architectural wonders.

While many are aware of the Reichstag’s importance, the Siegessäule was just as mighty a symbol. Until 1938 it had stood in front of the Reichstag. Then it was uprooted and moved to the Grosser Stern. This was done in order to make way for the building of what was going to be the Nazi capital of the world, Germania. The Siegessäule had been constructed to commemorate multiple German victories in warfare, but by the end of the Second World War it was just another monument to German defeat. Today it stands at Grosser Stern as a soaring reminder of the ill-fated fortunes of modern German history.

Antoni Jabłoński hoists the Polish flag over Berlin from the Siegessäule

Antoni Jabłoński hoists the Polish flag over Berlin from the Siegessäule (Victory Column) on May 2, 1945

Unification & Division – Warfare For Germany
The fact that the Siegessäule still exists is due to luck and a historical twist of fate, Nazi planning for a city that would never exist. If not for its pre-war relocation, the monument would almost certainly have been destroyed by American air raids. It certainly would have made an inviting target. Now as a major tourist attraction in the city, it is best known for the commanding views that can be seen from the top of it. A 360 degree look at the surrounding Tiergarten and greater Berlin is well worth an exhaustion inducing trek up a spiral staircase of 585 steps. Yet the Siegessäule is more than just a modern tourist attraction.  It is also a place loaded with political and historical meaning, symbolic of the martial efforts that led to Germany’s unification and downfall.

It took nearly a decade to erect the Siegessäule. While sculptors and artisans worked on constructing the monument from 1864 to 1873, Germany was being unified by the military might of Prussia. The Siegessäule was first commissioned to honor the victory over Denmark in the Danish-Prussian War of 1864. This resulted in Prussia acquiring the region of Schleswig-Holstein in what is today northern Germany. Later victories in the Austro-Prussian War and Franco-Prussian War would also be commemorated by the monument.  Each of these wars was represented on the Siegessäule by circular sandstone columns, stacked one atop another and adorned with cannon barrels captured as prizes of war. The monument as it was originally conceived honored German militarism’s role in creating a unified state. Now it acts as a useful reminder that even before the Nazis came to power, modern Germany was brought together by the same thing that would tear it apart, warfare.

The Siegessäule - a view from above

The Siegessäule surrounded by the Grosser Stern (Great Star) – a view from above (Credit: Stephen Karl)

Homage To Future Victories – Monumental Arrogance
The Nazis went one better on the Siegessäule, adding a fourth, shorter column above the other three on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler. This was done in 1938, paying homage to future victories in the wars to come. This act of incredible hubris demonstrates the arrogant martial ethos of Nazi Germany. In that same year a military parade with 40,000 soldiers took four hours to march past the monument. The boulevard running east-west up to, around and past the monument had been widened to accommodate just such a display. German martial supremacy was given pride of place by the Nazis. And what better place to display the strength and virility of the nation, than close on a monument which celebrated the victories that had created a unified Germany.

There were more such victories to come at the start of the Second World War, but these led to overreach and ultimately defeat. At the beginning of May 1945 smoke from a burned out Berlin was rising all around the Siegessäule, which now cut a rather lonely figure. The monument was still topped by a 35 ton, gilded angel wrapped in gold. Soviet troops had deemed it “The Tall Woman.” This exquisite figure was meant to portray Victoria, the winged Roman Goddess of Victory, but everything Victoria looked down upon during that miserable spring of 1945 was destitution and defeat. What she had stood for was now all but forgotten. The idea of German military might had been shattered. Nonetheless, the Siegessäule stayed in place, no longer a reminder of a triumphal past. It was just there, a place marker and a window offering a vast panorama on a city divided during the Cold War.

Statue of Victoria atop the Siegessäule - still facing west

Statue of Victoria atop the Siegessäule – still facing west (Credit: Thomas Wolf)

Changing Perspectives – Facing An Old Enemy & A New Ally
Eventually the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunited. By then the Siegessäule had become a benign symbol. Berliners had taken to calling it “the Goldelse”, while westerners sometimes referred to it as “the Chick on the Stick.” Now it is known more for offering a splendid viewpoint than anything else. All the might, menace and martial power the monument once represented has lost much of its meaning. Yet it is still there for those who care not to look out from it, but instead stand on the ground from below and look up at it.

Such a change in perspective is telling. Gold winged Victoria faces west, towards France. This was done deliberately. The conflict the Siegessäule was meant to most commemorate was the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. That victory led to the declaration of the German Empire. It also set Germany on a course that would ultimately lead to defeat, ruin, reconstruction and resurgence. Where once the Victoria was situated so as to face in the direction of an old enemy, it now faces towards that same nation which is now a close ally. She also faces towards the freedom and prosperity of the west while turning her back to the east. The Siegessäule still stands in the same place, but the meaning has slowly changed, just like modern Germany.

A Light That We Are Still Able To See – Parkhomivka: Ukraine’s Greatest & Most Obscure Art Museum

Eastern Ukraine brings to mind many images and none of them seem to be good. The common perception is an area of flat, featureless land with smoldering industrial cities and gritty coal mines beset by post-Soviet decline. The largest city Kharkiv is known for its Soviet style of architecture whose main hallmark is gigantism. Add to this an on again, off again war that has fomented lawlessness across the Donbas region and it is little wonder that the area is avoided by most tourists visiting Ukraine. Thus it is quite surprising that one of Eastern Europe’s premier art museums is to be found in the region. And this museum is not located in Kharkiv or one of the other major cities, but in a village deep within the rural countryside. Works by some of the most famous names in 19th and 20th century art call the Parkhomivka History & Arts Museum home. The only question is which ones are original and which ones are not.

To find the museum in Parkhomivka is no easy task. There are two options, take public transport or rent a car. Either way, means navigating the rural roads of Ukraine, never a pleasant experience even in good conditions. A prospective visitor first heads west out of Kharkiv on the P46 highway, after a couple of hours the road takes a slightly bend in the middle of nowhere. This is the beginning of the T1702, notable for its numerous potholes and plethora of patches covering the roadway. For all the money spent on patching, an entirely new road could have likely been built at a much cheaper cost. The short, unhappy jaunt on the T1702 ends at Krasnoktusk with its trio of onion domed Orthodox churches and ubiquitous Soviet war memorial. There is a right turn onto an even more rural road which after fifteen bumpy kilometers leads to Parkhomivka.

Parkhomivka History and Art Museum

Parkhomivka History and Art Museum (Credit: Андрей Руденко)

A Personality Of Passion – Afanisay Lunev’s World Of Art
In the midst of what would otherwise be just another nondescript Ukrainian village, stands Parkohomivka’s vaunted History & Arts Museum. It has to be one of the most unlikely places in the world to discover great art. The museum is housed in a former manor house covered in a coat of pink. While the building’s exterior retains a bit of its former splendor, no one would mistake it for the home of a world class art museum. The structure is a definite upgrade from the museum’s first home, the local village school where the collection was held until 1963. The village school was the beginning of not only the collection, but also the story of the man who was responsible for its procurement.

Following the end of World War II, Afanisay Lunev came to Parkhomivka to teach in the village. His passion for art and literature was boundless. This led him to start a modest museum inside the school showcasing books from his private collection. On weekends, Lunev went to flea markets in Kharkiv, where he discovered masterworks by Soviet artists at cut rate prices. From this humble start the collection began to expand dramatically. Lunev’s students also helped bring in prized pieces. Before long the village school had a sizable collection of art. After the museum moved to the manor house, Lunev’s collection began to incorporate works from world renowned artists. How did a teacher in a village backwater of Soviet Ukraine manage to acquire paintings created by such titans of art as Camille Pissarro and Pablo Picasso?

Afanisay Lunev with schoolchildren

Afanisay Lunev with schoolchildren

Lunev’s method was quite simple. He built personal relationships with directors and curators at institutions such as the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow. These museums were willing to donate surplus artworks that would have otherwise been resigned to a life in storage. The trust placed in Lunev was tremendous. His personality and passion were such that he could sway potential donors. The collection eventually reached some 6,000 pieces by the time of his death in 2004. This was an incredible achievement by any stretch of the imagination. The only question now is which works of art are authentic and which are reproductions. The provenance of many paintings is vague, unknown or open to question. Thus in the museum, rather than have the artist’s name next to a work, there is instead a question mark.  Despite this, it is generally agreed that most of the artwork is original.

Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky

Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky

The Journey Within – Art & Life Forever
An opportunity to view the collection brings visitors to the museum, an estimated 150,000 per year to a remote village with a population of only 3,900. Such is the magnetic allure of the work of Van Gogh and Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Renoir, Manet and Mayakovsky. Lesser known artists are displayed just as prominently, many of them Ukrainian, whose acts of timeless creation cover the walls. Famous names draw travelers to the museum, but a relative unknown can make just as great an impression. Nothing illustrates this better than the mesmerizing Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky. Born in Kiev, Kryzhitsky lived and worked for many years in Gachina near St. Petersburg in Russia, but would often return to central Ukraine to paint landscapes and scenes. In Winter Landscape, Kryzhitsky was quite literally able to capture a moment frozen in time.

The painting portrays one side of several homes in a turn of the 20th century Ukrainian village. The homes are largely covered in snow, but the areas that are not – wood fences and gates, yellow siding and windows – have been painted with such realistic representation that they seem taken from a photograph. Above the houses rises a truly startling yellow sky. In this sky Kryzhitsky managed to create a color that only nature and imagination can produce.  A timeless moment has arrived just after dawn, setting the entire world alight with a blinding vivacity. While on the far right of the painting, a small, solitary figure with their back to the viewer walks gingerly into the brightness of a Winter Landscape. This painting, like hundreds of others at the museum, is indicative of the passion that guided Afanisay Lunev in building his collection. Just as a specific painting caught Lunev’s eye, it can also capture a viewer’s imagination. And it is through the imagination that we see an expression of the world that is a reflection of ourselves. Great art takes us to a timeless place where we can live forever. And Parkhomivka History & Arts Museum is where that journey begins.



100,000 Hits – Europe Between East & West

Today the Europe Between East and West Blog received its 100,000th hit. Thank you to everyone all over the world who have taken time to read or share one of the 384 Blog Posts.

The top 10 nations by hits are as follows:
United States 38,445
United Kingdom 6,754
Hungary 5,288
Germany 5,268
Canada 4,907
France 3,267
Australia 2,645
Ukraine 2,488
Spain 1,822
Poland 1,776

The Top 10 Most Viewed Blog Posts
1) The Quiet Concubine – Valentina Istomina: Stalin’s Housekeeper
2) Europe’s Far East – The Ural Mountains: Vast, Vital & All But Forgotten
3) Buried Beneath The Tisza: Huns, Magyars & the Mystery of Attila’s The Huns Tomb
4) The Keeper of Secrets – Valentina Istomina: Discovering Stalin’s Mistress
5) Lenin’s Mistress – Revolution Before Romance: Inessa Armand
6) The Real Terror In Transylvania – Bela Lugosi On The Eastern Front
7) A Second Stalingrad – Introduction to The Siege of Budapest Tour
8) The Titanic Times Six – Sinking MV Wilhelm Gustloff (Part One)
9) The Last Bolshevik – Konstantin Chernenko: The Sick Man of Europe
10) Indivisible Enemies – The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs In Venice

One again thank you!!!!

Anything But Great – A Morbid Misnomer: The Great Plague Of Marseilles (Part Two)

The Great Plague of Marseilles is a misnomer. It was the opposite of “Great”, causing death, depopulation and widespread deprivation on an almost unfathomable scale. Histories of the plague often note that the population of Marseilles recovered relatively fast. It was back at pre-plague levels less than fifty years after it devastated the city. That is an uplifting coda to a horrific event, but it does nothing to temper the sheer human misery that beset both the city and surrounding countryside from 1720-22.

One of the few physical remnants left from the time of the plague can be found in the Vaucluse region, northwest of Marseilles. Here a crumbling, dry stone wall is the only trace left of a barrier that once stretched for 27 kilometers between Provence and the Comtat Venaissan (County of Venaissan). In front of the wall was a ditch and parapet of earth, a bit back from the wall were sentry posts manned by guards that stopped anyone from the south trying to travel beyond it. Known as the Le Mur de la Peste (The Wall of the Plague), this was an attempt to create a physical barrier that would contain the plague. The problem was that south of Le Mur it had already spread, with lethal results. This brings up a second reason the Great Plague of Marseilles is a misnomer. The plague affected an area much greater than just the city of Marseilles. The surrounding countryside was hit almost as hard. The scope of the suffering is hard to grasp even today.

Last Remains - Le Mur de la Peste (The Wall of the Plague)

Last Remains – Le Mur de la Peste (The Wall of the Plague) (Credit: Wikipedia)

Consumed With The Stricken – An Expanding Horror
The first hints of plague in Marseille had begun about a month after the arrival of the Grand-Saint-Antoine ship at the port in May of 1720. Its cargo of silk fabric and cotton loaded on the Levantine coast carried the seeds of southeastern France’s destruction. The outbreak was slow, but began to expand at the beginning of July when two women in the city died. They showed symptoms of the plague before they succumbed. Then eight days later, doctors attending a gravely ill twelve year old boy diagnosed his illness as plague. They alerted a city alderman who spread the word. Precautions were taken to seal the homes of those who were believed to have died from the disease. This did little good because it had already spread.  On August 9th, the first day of one hundred deaths occurred, with many more to follow. Less than two months after the first sign of an outbreak, every district in Marseilles was consumed with the stricken.

The horrors of the plague would end all too often in death for the sufferer, but the living were also witness to horrifying scenes. The strain of plague that hit Marseilles with such deadly force was bubonic. Caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, bubonic plague is transmitted through the bites of fleas which breed on vermin. It infects and then rapidly multiplies in the lymph nodes, causing painful swelling which forms bubos, a sort of dark blister usually found in the groin, armpits or neck area. Bubos were the nasty hallmark of this type of plague. For treatment at the time, doctors would burst them, falsely believing that this would lead to a cure. In reality, it was a totally ineffective form of treatment. Those infected suffered from a range of ever worsening symptoms including ferocious bouts of fever, painful muscle cramps, gangrene, bloody vomiting, coma and finally death. First hundreds, then thousands in Marseilles were beset by these maladies. Hospitals quickly became overwhelmed.

Vue de l'Hotel de Ville pendant la peste de 1720 - View of the Town Hall during the plague of 1720

Vue de l’Hotel de Ville pendant la peste de 1720 (View of the Town Hall during the plague of 1720) (Credit: Michel Serre)

Mass Transmission – Punishable By Death
The rudimentary public health infrastructure of Marseilles could not cope. Infirmaries ran out of room to hold the dead. Bodies were tossed out into the street, exacerbating the crisis. The close quarters of the old town acted as a breeding ground. Most of those suffering were left to die at home. Whole families succumbed. Homes of those who had died underwent combustion with sulfur, this did little good. Bodies were thrown in mass graves filled with quicklime in another futile attempt to fend off the pestilence. At one point the situation grew so extreme, that a thousand people were said to have died in a single day. Whole sections of the city lost almost all of their population. Outlying areas in Provence feared they would be next.

By mid-summer the situation had turned so dire that a provincial court in the nearby city of Aix passed legislation making communication with anyone from Marseille a capital offense, punishable by death. At about the same time, Le Mur de la Peste was erected. A two meter wall and armed guards could only do so much. Aix ended up getting suffering grave casualties, losing a quarter of its population. The city of Arles suffered just as much. The plague was at its worst in the Mediterranean ports. In Toulon the mortality rate was 50%. In Marseille the plague finally began to lessen in the autumn with the advent of cooler weather. Deaths had fallen to one per day by the winter of 1721. The worst was over, but this bout of bubonic plague was not finished with Marseilles.

Vue du cours pendant la peste de 1720 (View of the course during the plague)

Vue du cours pendant la peste de 1720 (View of the course during the plague) (Credit: Michel Serre)

Dead Last – A Plague On Population
In the spring of 1722 there was another outbreak, causing mass panic and more deaths. It would take twenty-six months before the Great Plague of Marseilles had completely run its course. The demographic changes wrought upon the city as well as southeastern France were staggering. It is estimated that Marseilles lost approximately 50,000 of its 90,000 pre-plague population. That same number died in the provincial hinterlands. This sent the economy into a tailspin. Strangely enough it did not take very long to recover. The city took measures to protect the population from another outbreak. Port sanitation facilities were upgraded. Cargo would now be offloaded straight from the water into a quarantine facility that was surrounded by fifteen foot high walls. This only took place after inspections on an offshore island. Crews were vetted just as closely. Such measures helped, but they could never bring back the 100,000 men, women and children who died as the result of the last major plague to strike Europe.