Illuminating the Shadows – Prit Buttar & The Eastern Front of World War I (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #9b)

It might be said that Prit Buttar’s first work of history was a baptism of fire, one that was almost entirely due to the subject matter. Dr. Buttar chose to write about the campaign in East Prussia between the German Army and the Soviet Red Army at the tail end of World War II. He could have hardly selected a more dramatic or horrific moment in a war full of them. The campaign was filled with human drama, profound violence, and wanton destruction. The subject matter and stories which arose from the campaign must have been daunting to research and then retell, but Dr. Buttar was prepared from the start. The formative experience that laid the foundation for his first history book occurred when one of his patients, who had been a nurse in East Prussia during the war, told him about what she had witnessed when the Red Army invaded the region. To say that Dr. Buttar was intrigued would be a massive understatement.

The moment that former nurse told Dr. Buttar her story would only mean something if the good doctor took the opportunity to transcend time and place in much the same manner his patient did. Thankfully for those of us who always wanted to know more about the Eastern Front that was just what he did. Though Dr. Buttar has never divulged his patient’s name, one can only imagine the powerful effect that the woman’s experiences must have had upon him. A routine checkup was transformed into a moment that would change the English language historiography of the Eastern Front during World War I for the better. It also sparked the next phase in Buttar’s career, where he would become as much a doctor of history as he was a doctor of medicine.

The Eastern Front during World War I – Three works of Prit Buttar

The Passionate Amateur – A Doctor Finds His Calling
The upshot of that initial meeting between patient and doctor took eight years before it came to fruition. In 2010, Dr. Buttar’s Battleground Prussia: The Assault on Germany’s Eastern Front 1944-45 was published to widespread acclaim. Ironically, the book’s success spurred Buttar to not only research and write another work on World War II in Eastern Europe (Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II), but undertake the monumental task of writing a multi volume history of the Eastern Front during World War I*. With the centennial of the war fast approaching, there was certainly going to be a market for such books. The question was whether Dr. Buttar was up to the task.

The project would have taxed the resources of the most accomplished professional historians. There were a multitude of reasons why no one had ever written such a series in English. The languages were a barrier, archives were difficult to access, documentation was scattered, and the scale of the front was daunting. None of this was going to stop Prit Buttar. He may not have been a “professional” historian, but he was certainly an indefatigable one. Dr. Buttar would work assiduously to illuminate the shadowy Eastern Front for the English speaking world. He stepped into a historical breach. The Eastern Front was an area that very few historians in the western world had ever confronted. Those who had usually limited their efforts to a single volume on a specific battle. Passion combined with zeal, intellect fusing information with interpretation, a clear and concise writing style, these were the traits that Dr. Buttar brought to bear upon the project.

His efforts resulted in four volumes that together amounted to the first truly comprehensive history of the Eastern Front during World War I in the English language. From 2014 to 2017, Buttar published one book per year. Such a prodigious output required moving at warp speed when compared to other historians. The amazing thing is that Dr. Buttar managed to straddle the line between scholarly and popular history without sacrificing one for the other. While the books are readable by armchair historical amateurs, they are done to the highest professional standards. An academic would be more than proud to have these books as part of their resume. As for myself, I was ecstatic that Buttar had taken up the task to provide amateurs and professionals alike with a written narrative that enhances understanding of what occurred on the Eastern Front and why it mattered so much then and still does today.

Running for their lives – German refugees and soldiers on a road in East Prussia during World War II

Soldiers In Space – Deeper Into The Abyss
For anyone looking to read these books, I would suggest they start with the introductions provided at the beginning of each volume. These offer valuable context that explains why warfare on the Eastern Front was fundamentally different from that on the Western Front. These introductions also help explain why the war on the Eastern Front was so difficult to win. Some of the most compelling interpretation in the books concern these difficulties specific to the Eastern Front. It was Winston Churchill who once said, “in the west, the armies were too big for the land, in the east, the land was too big for the armies.” Dr. Buttar provides telling details and critical analysis showing that this was indeed true. For instance, in the introduction to the third volume, Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916-1917 he says:

In many respects, the fighting on the Eastern Front was very different, with the front line moving back and forth as the vast spaces of Eastern Europe allowed armies to exploit weaker areas. However, the very space that allowed for such movement also made a conclusive victory unachievable. As early as October 1914, the Germans had correctly calculated that it was impossible for armies to maintain operations more than 72 miles (120 km) from their railheads and both sides rapidly realized that there were few if any strategically vital objectives within such a radius.”

While several battles on the Eastern Front were decisive tactical victories, including Tannenberg, the Siege of Przemysl and Lake Naroch, they did nothing to relieve the stalemate. Such victories drew armies deeper into the vast spaces which swallowed armies. The war continued to grind on until it ground down the German, Austro-Hungarian and the Russian Empires. The latter of which imploded spectacularly in revolution.

Death in the Carpathians – Polish troops on the Eastern Front during World War I

An Unwinnable War – From One Extreme To The Next
The Eastern Front series by Dr. Buttar is not just a dry recitation of facts and obscure maneuvers that only make sense on a map. He sprinkles his narrative with first person accounts from officers and soldiers that bring the experience of warfare on the Eastern Front to life. Eyewitness accounts are used as invaluable aids to illuminate aspects of the fighting. Nowhere is this truer than in the obscure and catastrophic campaign of 1914-15 in the Carpathian Mountains. The fighting took place in some of the worst conditions of anywhere in the entire war. In Germany Ascendent: The Eastern Front 1916, Dr. Buttar intersperses his narrative on the campaign with first hand accounts such as this:

“On 23 January, we pushed forward into the frozen hell of the Carpathian battlefield…a blizzard engulfed the troops. The reports from those days are terrible. Hundreds froze to death every day. The wounded that were unable to drag themselves along were left behind to die….Pack animals couldn’t advance through the deep snow, The men had to carry their own supplies on foot. The soldiers went without food for days. Food rations froze solid at -25 C.”

This gives the reader an inside view of what it was like for common soldiers caught up in that cauldron of conflict the likes of which the world had rarely, if ever, seen before. The Russians ended up with the advantage in the Carpathian campaign, but in the process lost tens of thousands of troops for minimal gains which they would later have to abandon. In the final analysis, winning was akin to losing and vice versa. In this case, Dr. Buttar’s narrative shows that both the Austro-Hungarians and Russians fought themselves to exhaustion.

The conflict on the Eastern Front made winning a battle barely distinguishable from losing one. Nowhere was this truer than on the German side. A prime example of this was the Battle of Tannenberg, as complete a tactical victory as any army won in the war. Strategically the battle’s legacy ended up having major consequences, one of which was catastrophic.  The team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff used to eventually gain command of the entire German military apparatus. They failed as miserably as all the other German commanders in breaking the stalemate in France and Belgium. In the process they proved that success on the Eastern Front could not easily be transferred to the Western Front. The war in the East was an entirely different one, to understand why read Prit Buttar’s series. 

* The four volumes are:
Collisions of Empire: The War on the Eastern Front 1914
Germany Ascendant: The Eastern Front 1915-16
Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916-1917
The Splintered Empires: The Eastern Front 1917-1921


The Doctor Is In – Prit Buttar & The Eastern Front of World War I (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #9a)

Imagine a warfront that stretched almost a thousand miles, equivalent to the distance between New York and St. Louis, where millions of men fought for over three years in mountain passes and across wide swathes of steppe, in supersized fortresses and squalid villages. Where one and a half million Germans, over three million men from Austria-Hungary and an estimated six million Russians were either killed or wounded. And grasp the fact that the Russian Revolution, the destruction of three empires and much of old, aristocratic Europe were brought to heel by the fighting on this front.

More remarkable was the fact that until relatively recent times, trying to find English language books on the Eastern Front of World War I was a difficult task. Perhaps that was because of the language barrier or the revolutions which swept away many of the source materials. It might also have been because of the totalitarian regimes and Iron Curtain which cordoned Eastern Europe off from the world for much of the 20th century. Whatever the reason, a hundred years would pass before the Eastern Front was given its proper due in English language works of history. One of these, Prit Buttar’s multi-volume history, finally gave the Eastern Front the kind of long overdue coverage it deserves.

Keeping an eye on the Eastern Front – Prit Buttar

Gap Years – The Unknown War

While in high school I first became interested in the Eastern Front. There was only one problem, it was difficult to find many decent English language history books on the topic, let alone books dedicated to separate campaigns or individual battles. My reading was relegated to general reference works and a few specialized, but hard to find titles. The Marshal Cavendish Encyclopedia of World War I was invaluable in this regard. It provided an unprecedented scale of coverage. Volumes specifically dedicated to the Eastern Front were extremely hard to come by. Two of the very few that did focus on the front were Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 and The Unknown War, by far the most obscure work in Winston Churchill’s monumental multi-volume The World Crisis. Even the authors of these works might have been hard pressed to recall that they had written about this extremely important and overlooked front. I know this from first-hand experience.

A couple of years ago I had dinner with Professor Stone in Budapest. When I mentioned that I spent part of a South Dakota winter reading The Eastern Front, he looked at me with a combination of confusion and bemusement. He then laughed and said, “I didn’t think anyone remembered I wrote that.” I commended him for providing an entry point into that part of the war. Stone’s work was a rare exception. The fact that it was written in 1975 and still considered essential would have surprised no one familiar with the lack of coverage. For much of the 20th century in English language histories, the Eastern Front seemed to start and end with Germany’s crushing victory at the Battle of Tannenberg over the Russians in the early weeks of the war. Never mind that the battle, at least from a strategic standpoint, did little to settle the war. Fighting would continue all along the Eastern Front for three long and largely horrific years.

Classic work – The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 by Norman Stone

The gap in Eastern Front historiography between the Battle of Tannenberg and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in English language history books was a yawning chasm. That only began to change during the past decade. The main driver of growing interest in the Eastern Front was the centennial commemorations of the Great War. Publishers became much more interested in areas and aspects of the war that had been overlooked in the past. Scholarly and in several cases popular histories, offered coverage of topics related to the Eastern Front such as the Siege of Przemysl (Alexander Watson’s Fortress), Germany & Austria-Hungary during World War I (Watson again with Ring of Steel), the Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign (Richard DiNardo’s Breakthrough), The Carpathian Winter War of 1915 (Graydon Tunstall’s Blood on the Snow) and Austria-Hungary’s opening campaign for the war on the Eastern Front (Geoffery Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe) have been among the works that shed light on previously underexplored parts of the Eastern Front. These books were all written by professional historians and are well worth the time it takes to read them. Nevertheless, the most comprehensive history of the Eastern Front happens to be four magnificent volumes that have come from the pen of an amateur.

Total war – Soviet troops in Konigsberg East Prussia 1945

Total War In East Prussia – History Makes A House Call 

Prit Buttar was a doctor, not of history, but medicine. Now retired, Dr. Buttar was a General Practitioner at Abingdon surgery just south of Oxford, where he completed part of his studies. He also spent five years as a medical officer and surgeon in the British Army. A man of prodigious intellect, Buttar became interested in the Eastern Front after an unforgettable experience he had with one of his patients in 2002. The woman, an ethnic German who had long since emigrated to Great Britain, had served as a nurse in East Prussia. She proceeded to tell Dr. Buttar her story of survival on the Eastern Front during World War II. As a nurse she had been an eyewitness to the German Army’s collapse as the Red Army invaded and conquered East Prussia. During that time, the region was consumed by an orgy of violence.

It is not an understatement to say that East Prussia in 1944-1945 was one of the most violent places in human history. Murder and rape were commonplace. Ethnic Germans fled the area in droves. Many were lucky to make it out of the region alive. Whatever they left behind was destroyed or stolen. The entire region was a battlefield. From aristocratic homes to remote hamlets, tiny villages to the once sparkling provincial capital of Konigsberg, nothing was safe. Total war took place on an apocalyptic scale. It resulted in the destruction or expulsion of almost every ethnic German in the province. Look on a map of Europe today and East Prussia does not exist. The next time you hear the phrase wiped off the map, think of East Prussia. A steel stake was run through what the Soviets believed was the heartland of German militarism. As for Dr. Buttar, he was riveted by the stories he heard. Little did his patient know that her tales were laying the groundwork for Dr. Buttar’s second career as an historian. After hearing her experiences, Dr. Buttar felt compelled to research and write his first non-fiction work of history. Many more were to come. They would all have one thing in common, the Eastern Front.

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Makers of Destiny, Makers of Disaster – The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #8b)

The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition is more than a book or an album of photographs. It is a 19th century supersized version of an art exhibition catalog. It is the Kingdom of Hungary on steroids. The photos displayed on its pages were a thousand years in the making. The exhibition represented something besides people, places and structures, it was also a symbolic celebration of the self-confidence, some might say arrogance, of Hungary and Hungarians at their peak. I found it to be both enthralling and depressing. Enthralling, to think how all everything documented on those pages had once been in a single country, under a two headed empire that managed to keep a towering babel from toppling under the weight of its own contradictions. Depressing, to know that it could never be reclaimed except on these same pages. Here was the photographic memory of an entire kingdom that no longer existed, at least not in this form. 1896 was more than a year of celebration in Hungary, it was the pinnacle by which everything else in Hungarian history would be measured. The memory of the Millennium Exhibition still has the power to mesmerize.

Lost Glory - Detail from 1896 poster for the Hungarian Millennium National Exhibition

Lost Glory – Detail from 1896 poster for the Hungarian Millennium National Exhibition

On The Verge – A Problem That Refused To Go Away
The Millennium of Hungary book unravels a roadmap to a specific mentality that existed in late 19th century Hungary. The only thing the book lacks is a retroactive blurb on the back cover that would invite the curious to: “Follow the path laid out through photos and text to discover how Hungarians saw themselves and their kingdom at the turn of the 20th century.” Proud and boastful, confident even in their insecurities and assuming what they believed was their rightful place among the great nations of Europe, this is the attitude that pervades those beautiful pages. To be honest, much of this is understandable, 1896 was a heady moment for Hungarians. At this point in their long and deeply conflicted history they were free of foreign control. The thought process went something like this: now that the yoke of oppression from Ottoman and Austrian overlords had finally been cast aside after three and a half centuries of misrule, the Hungarians had risen to their rightful place. The uncanny thing was that they were right, but little did they know that their Kingdom was reaching the pinnacle of its power.

Within a generation the millennial celebration, like the kingdom itself, would become an anachronism. It is hard to believe that a people, a thousand year old kingdom and an ideal, could fall so far, so fast. It is easy to blame it all on the First World War, an event that once started, was seemingly beyond anyone’s control. While the war did take on a logic all its own, that ignores the fact that Hungarians had their own logic as well. The book claims that they were the makers of their own destiny. If that is true, then it is equally true that they could be the makers of their own disaster. For all the impressive accomplishments splayed across the book’s pages, it cannot completely obscure the chronic problems that plagued the Kingdom. The most volatile of these was the nationalities issue, an unquiet ghost that materializes in several of the photos, a haunting reminder of a problem, like the peoples who represented them, that refused to go away.

Makers of Destiny - Vadjahunyad Castle re-creation in Varosliget for Hungarian Millennium

Makers of Destiny – Vadjahunyad Castle re-creation in Varosliget for Hungarian Millennium (Credit: Landwirtschaftliches Museum-Brück & Sohn Kunstverlag)

“Well To Do”  – Causes With Consequences
The nationalities issue is vividly portrayed in the most patronizing of manners in one of the photographs and accompanying text. On the photo page for the Romanian Dwelling House, we see a “well to do” peasant family standing in front of a home with thatched roof and a single outbuilding. Whatever “well to do” meant in a countryside not far removed from serfdom, it looks like hard work. Grinding out a living on the land was anything but easy. The text describes Romanians as “quick-witted, their customs are modest and their wants easily satisfied.” The reader is assured that, “they are steadily advancing in culture under the brotherly protection of the Hungarians.” Well that was one way of putting it. The Romanians, like the Serbs and Slovaks, were restive minorities that were becoming increasingly aware of how marginalized they were in the Kingdom. One might discern from the text that their rightful place was eking out an existence via agriculture. The professional classes, parliament and politics were largely closed off to them.

Of the many photos found in the book, that of the Romanian Dwelling House is one of the most arresting. That is mainly because it portrays Romanians the way Hungary’s government at the time viewed them, contentedly rural, non-threatening yeoman who were economically backward. In other words, their place in the pecking order was on the lower rung. Nothing is said of the festering resentment that marked the Kingdom’s relations with them. The nationalities were viewed as “subjects” rather than fellow citizens. Those innocent looking peasants dressed in what amounts to antiquated folk custom would help bring the Kingdom of Hungary to its knees. The greatest strengths of the Kingdom, industriousness, technological progress, a reverence for tradition and fierce pride to the point of chauvinism were reserved for Hungarians or those who would give themselves up to Magyarization. In that sense, the Millennium of Hungary book is a photographic and literary record of the successes and failures, the causes and conflicts that led to the Kingdom’s collapse. The cataclysm would come less than twenty-five years after the exhibition.

Distant Memory - Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest's City Park

Distant Memory – Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest’s City Park

Terrific & Tragic – From Enchantment To Disillusion
After an initial, mesmerizing glance through the book, I purchased it in Veszprem for a mere 2050 forints, the equivalent of seven and a half dollars. I still find myself flipping through its pages, by turns astonished, fascinated and saddened by the photos. Astonished, because the breadth of beauty and industry portrayed in the photos provides compelling evidence for the Kingdom’s greatness. Fascinated, because I can see how the Hungarians viewed themselves and the nationalities. And saddened because I know it will all come to an end soon. The seeds of the Kingdom’s eventual dissolution are planted on the book’s pages. It is a narrow, exclusive world built by and for Hungarians. For everyone else, including outsiders such as myself, entering the Kingdom as it is presented in this book, begins with enchantment and ends in disillusionment. The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition is a terrific and tragic book.

A Reflection in Reverse – The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #8a)

“Unreal city, under the brown fog of a winter’s noon.” those were the words of T.S. Eliot in one of his most famous poems, “The Wasteland.” The poem is filled with dazzling wordplay, obscure allusions and a sublime melancholy that evokes the post-World War I world. That world did not seem so far away as my wife and I made our way on the 11:56 Intercity from Budapest Deli to Veszprem, one of Hungary’s most historic and beautiful cities. Veszprem is located a mere 30 kilometers northwest of Lake Balaton. Eliot’s words were not lost on me when we arrived at the city’s train station. A leaden sky hung over the town. This was no different than the perpetual gloom which had hung over the country for days.  Hungary was experiencing groundhog days of greyness. I began to wonder if blue sky was something only seen in paintings. The only thing that might brighten the gloom was a colorful city such as Veszprem. As we made our way toward Castle Hill, I suddenly spied one of my most passionate vices, a used bookstore. I felt that burst of life known to me by a single transcendent word, “books.”

Buy the Book - The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition

Buy the Book – The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition

Breathtaking Scope & Scale – The Thousand Year Exhibition

Finding English language books in a provincial Hungarian city is not quite impossible, but it is definitely a challenge. The bookshop in Veszprem was brimming with used books, the smell of which acts as an aphrodisiac that can evoke near orgasmic ecstasy in me. I lust for knowledge, often feeling naked and exposed if a books are not near me or easily within reach. I found this bookshop seductive in the extreme, such was its voluminous allure. The multicolored spines were so appealing that I forgot for a moment that the language they were written in was lost on me. The main problem was that I have never taken the time to learn Hungarian. Thus, I spent time in this bookshop lamenting my inability to decipher the titles to most of the tomes.

This was tantamount to torture for me. Here I was surrounded by books, but I had no way of knowing what they were really were about. This made me self-conscious, a stupendous insecurity threatened to overwhelm me. I consider myself relatively well read, but in this bookshop I was nearly illiterate. What I needed was a lifeline in the form of an English language book. I had faith that amid the thousands of volumes, a few might be intelligible to me. I would soon be pleasantly surprised since all it takes is one book to make me an insanely happy man. In Veszprem, a city with no great number of English speakers, I would discover that one book. Amid a pile of volumes, one stuck out, a rectangular shaped volume with lavish artwork across the cover. What caught my eye was the book’s title which was not just in one, two or even three languages.

Incredibly, it was written in bold and exquisitely styled fonts in four languages across the front cover. In English it read, The Millennium of Hungary and National Exhibition. The same words were rendered in Hungarian, French and German. I immediately opened the book and entered another world. Suddenly, it was 1896 all over again. That was when the thousand year anniversary of the coming of the Hungarians into the Carpathian Basin was celebrated in Budapest’s City Park (Varosliget) with an exhibition of breathtaking scope and scale covering the lands, people and structures that made the Kingdom of Hungary unique.

A Portal to the Past Present & Future - maion gate to the 1896 Millennium Celebration in Budapest

A Portal to the Past Present & Future – Main gate to the 1896 Millennium Celebration in Budapest

Photo SynthesisAn Insatiable Addiction
After opening the book and flipping through a few pages, I had the same feeling that I imagine an addict gets every time they begin to stick a needle in their arm. My appetite for Historic Hungary became instantaneously insatiable as I flipped through the pages. Large photos, some of which were spread across two pages, transported me backwards by over a century. Here was the largest city and de facto capital of Transylvania, Koloszvar, shown in a panoramic view. I had never seen the city this way, long before modernity had coated its surroundings with development. From this late 19th century vantage point I could make out one of the most enduring artifacts bequeathed to future generations by the Saxons, the Gothic inspired greatness of St. Michael’s Church. I had stood in the church’s shadow a year earlier. Now with the help of this photograph I could look back at both the 19th century and myself. In any photo that captures our interest, we always see something of ourselves. Even if it is just a glimpse, memorable photos have a way of drawing us in and making us part of more than the scenery. We find ourselves on the inside looking outward, a reflection in reverse.

One of the more entrancing photos in the book showed Kazan Pass in the Iron Gates area of the Danube. Despite the spectacular subject matter, this photo evoked an abiding sadness within me. During the latter half of the 20th century, this natural wonder was submerged beneath a reservoir. The urge to harness nature for industrial strength usage effectively drowned much of the Iron Gates in a watery grave. Today, the mighty Danube scarcely flows at all through the area, an exceedingly poor representation of the river that once raged through that spectacular defile. While Hungarians wish to the point of desperation that this area was still part of their nation, I looked forward to something much more inevitable, albeit hundreds of years into the future, when the dam that had drowned the Iron Gates gave way. Then the river would freely flow once again. Sadly, I would not live long enough to see it. That thought did not stop me from dreaming. The book, with one stunning photo after another, stimulated my imagination.

Historicism at the Millennium Exhibition - Ignac Alpar's Recreation of Vadjahunyad Castle in the Varosliget (City Park)

Historicism at the Millennium Exhibition – Ignac Alpar’s Recreation of Vadjahunyad Castle in the Varosliget (City Park)

Frozen in Time  – An Album of Photographic Evidence
Many of the photos showed places that were unfamiliar to me. These included buildings, natural landscapes, castles, churches and ruins that were in the old pre-World War I Kingdom of Hungary, but now could only be found by crossing into the nations that swallowed them up during the post-World War I peace process. I had never seen so much tangible evidence of the beauty, history and geography of Historic Hungary until I cracked open this book. The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition was an album filled with photographic artifacts. Most of the places still exist, but they have been irreparably altered by modernity. One hundred and twenty years does not seem like that long ago, until you see compelling evidence of just how much has changed. The Hungary shown in this book really was history. 

An Eastern Europe Dream – On The Road To Bababag (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #7)

Distance is measured as much by the imagination as it is in miles. Eastern Europe and Omaha, Nebraska are thousands of miles and an ocean apart, but a used bookstore brought them closer together for me. One book shrank that distance down to nothing. Reminding me of the magical power of words to bring places lodged in the memory back to life.

Rare Editions – By The Book
Within an hour of getting off the plane in Omaha I was striding through the Old Market area of the downtown. I had spent only a few minutes at the hotel dropping off my bags before I was pounding a path to my favorite destination in Omaha, Jackson Street Booksellers. Omaha might not be a hotbed of Eastern European émigrés, but Jackson Street booksellers has an Eastern Europe section better than that of any bookstore I have visited in the United States. Its selection of used books on Eastern Europe is unrivaled in my experience. I have entered other famous used bookstores in the United States, including Strand Bookstore in New York City and Powell’s City of Books in Portland with high hopes of finding a treasure trove of tomes covering every country east of the old Iron Curtain. Almost invariably, I have left disappointed.

Books on former Eastern Bloc countries are still something of a rarity at even the biggest used booksellers in America. The interest from a critical mass of population just isn’t there. At best, there will be a scattering of the most famous books on the region, such as James Michener’s The Bridge at Andau on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution or Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, a magnificent history/travelogue of unrivaled insight on the region during the tumultuous 1990’s. Every so often I might get lucky and run across Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon on her remarkable pre-World War II travels in what was then Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, these and a few other books are the most common ones on the region readily available at used booksellers. Everything else is conspicuous by its scarcity.

Portal to another world - The Road To Babadag by Andrezj Stasiuk

Portal to another world – The Road To Babadag by Andrezj Stasiuk

Nagykallo – The Other Hungary
Jackson Street Booksellers has an Eastern European section that covers several shelves. If you are looking for a volume on the Romanian perspective concerning Transylvania’s history, it is within reach. The same goes for an academic tome on the history of Medieval Ukraine. The owner of Jackson Street Booksellers has gone above and beyond what would normally be expected. Great finds on Eastern Europe can also be found in the travel section. I got firsthand experience with this when I pulled “On The Road to Babadag: Travels In the Other Europe by the Polish writer Andrezj Stasiuk. The book’s title intrigued me. Flipping through it at length, I came across chapter names that were mysteriously vague, yet held a magnetic allure, much like Eastern Europe itself. One of the first chapters was “The Slovak Two Hundred”, which I thought might be a road, but was instead a map. “Description of a Journey through East Hungary to Ukraine” sent visions of remote, dusty villages on the fringes of Hungary dancing in my head.

When I thumbed through this chapter I saw the word “Nagykallo”. Anyone who had been to that town was a kindred spirit. The fact that the author found his experience in Nagykallo worth writing about had me ready to purchase the book. I had been to Nagykallo and so had Stasiuk. That was enough for me. And still there was more. A chapter entitled Tara Sercuilor, Szekelyfold, Szekerland had my pulse racing. A window into the world of eastern Transylvania is something I have been longing for ever since I visited there myself. Other quixotic names appeared in the chapter titles, places such as Baia Mare, Shqiperia and of course, Babadag. These were places in an Eastern Europe that I had thought only existed in the furtive imagination of people like me. Stasiuk had actually visited them. I was filled with pangs of envy and a lust to learn more. This book was not just about travel in Eastern Europe, it was about the spaces in between the Pragues and Lvivs, the Budapests and Bucharests, that netherworld of sublime normalcy for Eastern Europeans that many see, but very few write about, especially in the English language. I needed to know more about the book because I felt like the author, Andrzej Stasiuk, had written the book for people like me.

Andrzej Stasiuk - Seeing What No One Else Can See

Andrzej Stasiuk – Seeing What No One Else Can See (Credit: Michal Kobylinski)

Nomadic Instincts – The Consummate Outsider
Stasiuk is a Polish author and as such, The Road to Babadag was originally written in Polish and translated into English. This is astonishing because Stasiuk’s travel writing would be difficult to translate. It can best be described as stream of consciousness. A master of words, his literary skill befits someone who is more poet and novelist than travel writer. Stasiuk comes from a non-traditional literary background. Not only does he not have a college degree, but he was kicked out of secondary school and later dropped out of a vocational school. A stint in the military ended in desertion. From reading his bio, I sensed that Stasiuk is the kind of magnificent misfit who was never suited to modern life. The consummate outsider, not by choice, but by his nomadic instincts. It is difficult to put Stasiuk’s writing into a literary genre. The phrase most often used is post-modern. His literary output has mostly been novels, but the Road to Babadag was an initial foray into travel writing than turned into a stunning success.

On The Road to Babadag is dreamy, to the point of hallucinatory. Take the following passage: It is good to come to a country you know practically nothing about. Your thoughts grow still, useless. Everything must be rebuilt. In a country you know nothing about, there is no reference point. You struggle to associate colors, smells, dim memories. You live a little like a child, or an animal. Objects and events may bring things to mind, but in the end they remain no more than what they are in fact. They begin only when we experience them, vanish when others follow. So they truly have no significance. They are made of that primal substance that touches our senses but is too light, too evanescent, to teach us anything.”

The Path of Stasiuk - A Village in Albania

The Path of Stasiuk – A Village in Albania (Credit: SuSanA Secretariat)

Stasiuk’s Sixth Sense – A Stream of Subconsciousness
Passages such as these had a magical effect upon me. I was reading Stasiuk and at the same time fragments of memories from my travels came flooding back…the container of orange juice I drank on my first morning in Bulgaria, a barking dog in the wrong room I entered at a hostel in Pecs, a prettily painted farm house in southern Romania, bare trees covering an anonymous mountainside in Transylvania, a lake shimmering silver in the autumn sunlight as seen from a train window in eastern Poland. Here was everything being brought back from nothing. Reading Stasiuk stimulated a sixth sense. His writing in The Road To Babadag is a portal, both to Stasiuk’s travels and to my own, starting in a used bookshop in Omaha and ending thousands of miles away.

The Ultimate Stimulant For Curiosity – Hungary & the Hungarians by Istvan Bart (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #6)

During each of my visits to Hungary, I have spent a fair amount of time perusing the English language sections of Hungarian bookstores in search of obscure volumes that I do not yet own. This means picking through the usual hardback picture books with names like Beautiful Hungary, the Architecture of Hungary and Budapest In Photos. Though the photography in these books is stunning, few of them interest me because they lack depth, as well as the historical information I crave. Such English language sections often contain a multiplicity of travel guides, most of which I own or tell myself I should have bought long ago. For some reason, Budapest: A Critical Guide by Andras Torok has been high on my list of potential purchases for years. For some inexplicable reason, I thumb through a copy for a few minutes only to place it back on the shelf. I tell myself there will be a next time, never knowing whether there really will be.

The English language sections are rounded out by a scattershot approach to subject matter. Translations of popular Hungarian novels, such as those by Mor Jokai, Ferenc Molnar and Sandor Marai are among a handful of authors on offer. They are the chosen few who have achieved an obscure renown in the English-speaking literary world. Either that or someone felt that it would been an affront to human knowledge by not going to the trouble of translating such masterpieces for a wider audience. My only wish is that someone would do the same for books on Hungarian history and culture. The lack of such works in English usually means my search for usually ends as an exercise in futility, but the hope of finding a hidden gem still leads me on to the next store. What keeps me going are the memories of certain discoveries which have stayed on my bookshelf to this very day. My favorite example of this is Hungary and the Hungarians by Istvan Bart. I came upon this volume at one of the shops operated by Alexandra, which along with Libri is one of the two largest bookstore chains in Hungary. My serendipitous discovery occurred in Szekszard, a city in central Hungary known chiefly for Bull’s Blood wine.

A Lexicon of Understanding - Hungary & the Hungarians by Istvan Bart

A Lexicon of Understanding – Hungary & the Hungarians by Istvan Bart

A Book By Its Binding – More Than Meets The Mind
Stumbling upon a copy of Hungary & the Hungarians is still fresh in my mind several years after it happened. Much of this has to do with my affinity for Alexandra and its correlation in my mind with literary discovery. That began on another trip to a different Alexandra Bookstore in central Budapest. That is where I stumbled upon a hidden treasure. The book was Eleanor Perenyi’s wonderfully insightful More Was Lost: A Memoir, concerning her marriage to a Hungarian noble prior to the Second World War. This discovery was much the same as the one at Alexandra in Szekszard where I searched the English language section to find anything of interest. While it is said that you should not judge a book by its cover, the same logic must apply to its binding. The color and font on the binding of Hungary and the Hungarians was less than eye catching when I first spotted it. The title was written in orange lettering atop a white background. On the bottom of the spine was a sketch of a crown with a raven inside of it. This was the logo of Corvina Press, a Hungarian publisher that specializes in English language titles concerning Hungarian subject matter.

From the binding I assumed the book was one of those lightweight volumes written for superficial appeal and easy reading. The cover was more intriguing. The main title only took up a fifth of the cover while a much longer sub-title was prominently featured. The sub-title stated, The Keywords, a concise Dictionary of Facts and Beliefs, Customs, Usage and Myths. This sounded unlike any book I had ever come across on Hungary. Despite its relatively slim size, the book was a reference work. Information is my addiction and reference works are often my drug of choice. I eagerly opened the book to find it arranged alphabetically, much like a traditional dictionary. The difference was that each word or phrase was in Hungarian with an italicized, literal translation following in English. The definitions were what I found most intriguing. They expressed the true meaning of the words and phrases rather than a literal definition. The book’s short introduction stated that these meanings were cultural. A sort of meta-language in which the true definition was hidden to all but those in the know. Only Hungarians or anyone who read this fascinating work might comprehend what was really being said. The book was a guide to deciphering a semi-secret code of the nuances of Hungarian words spoken in their proper cultural context.  .

Defining Terms - Hundreds of words and phrases can be found in Hungary & the Hungarians

Defining Terms – Hundreds of words and phrases can be found in Hungary & the Hungarians

A Lexicon Of Understanding – The Path To Future Discoveries
Choice examples were written on every page and decoded in clear explanations. From the nauseatingly mundane, albérlő (subtenant) which properly interpreted means “the image of the musty room of a crumbling apartment house giving out on the outer corridor…the smell of savoy cabbage”.  To the quasi-sinister ellenforradalom (counter-revolution) which happens to be a “perfidious and deceitful word used by the nomenclature for the revolution of 56.” A city such as Kolozsvar was noted as “the ‘capital’ of Transylvania…even by Romanian Hungarians, this despite the fact that due to the tens of thousands of new inhabitants settled there from other parts of Romania during the past couple of decades.” And on it goes for hundreds of entries. The book has become my lexicon of understanding when it comes to revealing another side of Hungary. It allows me greater understanding into the Hungarian mentality. What they are trying to say and why they say it. It is a welcome from the ridiculously useless phrase books one sees tourists mumbling from and fumbling through, Hungary & the Hungarians is much more useful. The Keywords come with a little translation and a large dose of interpretation.

From the matter of fact to the profound, Hungary and the Hungarians gave me a much deeper understanding of the nation, people and language. Several years later I still have it close at hand for both enlightenment and enjoyment. It is one of those books that was never meant to be read straight through. It is best consumed in smaller chunks. This means going from one entry to another while reading through a series of sometimes loosely associated definitions. I have traversed over a hundred pages at a time doing multiple cross-references. A half hour later, I emerge from such sessions knowing more than I could have ever imagined. More importantly, I am eager to read and reread Hungary & the Hungarians. There is always a new stimulant to provoke curiosity and provide illumination. The book was worth the bother it took to find it. I look forward to more happy returns from future discoveries.

Found In Translation – Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook (A Trip Around My Bookshelf # 5)

Any traveler to a country where they are unable to speak the language and have little knowledge of the culture is largely at the mercy of a guidebook. Whether that guidebook is from Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Wikitravel or any of the other innumerable offerings available in either print or digital form these guidebooks pretty much tell a tourist where they are going to go and what they are going to do. This was been doubly true for me the first time I visited Ukraine. I cannot speak the language and have only a rudimentary understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet. The first time I set foot in Ukraine was four years ago when I rolled into Lviv, a stunning city in the far western reaches of the country.  My lone touristic resource when I first arrived was the Lviv chapter of a Lonely Planet guidebook to Ukraine. I had ordered and download this online. The chapter was rather helpful in the discovery of the many must-sees found in the Lviv Ensemble of the Historic Center which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but going any further afield or gaining a more in-depth understanding of the city was beyond the scope of that chapter.

Baltia-Druk's Touring Lviv Guidebook - A Rare & Lucky Find

Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook – A Rare & Lucky Find

An Indispensable Travel Companion
Getting to really know Lviv was going to take a guidebook dedicated solely to the city. Of course, I could have hired an English language guide, but I am a literal learner and wanted something to read as I ventured into a world I knew little about. I found a bookstore just off the Prospekt Svobody (the heart of the city) where I managed to communicate my needs to a sales lady who spoke some broken English. She led me to a small shelf laden with touristic literature. There she pulled a guidebook that came in multiple languages, Polish (the majority of foreign visitors to Lviv), German and most impressively English. This guidebook was called quite simply Touring Lviv Guidebook by a publishing firm known as Baltia-Druk. Within minutes of the purchase, this guidebook became my number one resource not only for the rest of that first trip, but also two ensuing visits back to the city. It was not just informative, but also a good read. I have even found myself back home, thousands of kilometers from Ukraine, being warmed by the guidebooks engaging narrative style on many a cold winter night. I find myself referring to it again and again.

Why is this? Mainly because it dispenses with in just twenty pages the usual reams of information on hotels, restaurants, transport and all other essential, but seemingly endless details that clutter up almost all travel guides and travelers itineraries. This information is located where it should be in every travel guide, at the very end of the book. The publishers get right to the meat of the matter in the guidebooks first section “History In Facts And Figures”. The section title was something of a misnomer – and thank goodness for that!  There were of course facts, less figures (statistical figures), but an astonishing narrative, filled with stories, personages and legends that covered the high and low points during seven hundred memorable years of multicultural and multifaceted history in Lviv, Leopolis, Lwow, Lemberik, Lemberg and Lvov – the multiple personalities symbolized by the many names it acquired through the ages.

Statuary on a grave at Lychakiv Cemetery

Lviv is filled with sites of sublime beauty such as Lychakiv Cemetery

Fantastical & Non-Fictional – A Spectacular Past
The publishers of the guidebook understand what it takes to make history come alive, by using a story to transform a detail from merely interesting to highly fascinating. Take for instance how they introduce the fact that the Poltva River runs beneath the center of Lviv. “Much water has flowed under the bridges since the city’s foundation. And it is the water that poses the most fascinating of the town’s mysteries. Partly, it is attributed to the fact that the only river in Lviv, the Poltva, like the mythical Styx, flows in the darkness of underground crypts under the city’s main street. People say that when it rains, one can find a mysterious house somewhere by the railway station. The water that drips from the right side of its roof runs into the Baltic Sea, and from the left side – into the Black Sea. The legend could be explained by the fact that the city is situated right in the middle of the main watershed in Europe. The city’s very geographical position destined it to be the meeting place for the East and West, North and South.” Not only is that a well told tale, it also sets a scene, with “the darkness of underground crypts” and a “mysterious house”. At the same time it manages to convey crucial facts concerning the intrigue and importance of location in the history of Lviv.

Connections made in the text between factual information and seemingly unrelated subject matter showcase the stylistic powers of the authors. For instance, in a paragraph on St. John’s Church, whose genesis dates back to the 13th century, the reader learns of much more recent history pertinent to the religion and tourism in Lviv during the Soviet era (1944 – 1991). “In the soviet days, if a rare foreign tourist happened to come to the “closed” city of Lviv (under the Soviet rule some cities were closed for tourists for safety purposes; one could visit them only if he had permission issued by military authorities), it was commended he saw, among few other sacral edifices in town, the church of St. John.
The text also makes apt and telling comparisons that link past with present, such as when we learn that “Salt-mine ownership could be compared to owning an oil well nowadays” This statement is made in a sub-section expressing the wealth and power of the gentry during the 14th century. In another paragraph we are introduced to “Northern Rome” the “Eastern Gate” and “the Golden Book.” These terms evoke thoughts of fairy tales and the fantastical, yet they are actually historical. All part of the city’s spectacular past.

Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

A good book can be the best guide – Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

Everything & Everyone – Voices Heard On The Street
And there is more, so much more. The historical multiculturalism of the city is succinctly expressed in just a couple of sentences as, “A Lviv saying goes that when a Greek merchant was trading, two Jewish vendors were crying, but when an Armenian merchant came to the market Greeks would burst into tears. It was the fierce competition and national diversity that formed Lviv’s unique character.” Later we learn how the Ukrainians, who today make up approximately 90% of Lviv’s population, but were treated as second class citizens or worse in the city for centuries on end, made themselves heard in a unique way during the 16th century. “The Ukrainians made their presence in town known by means of the “Cyril” bell, placed on an elegant Renaissance belfry that had been erected by the Greek architect Cyril Korniakt. It was the loudest bell in town and the monks of the Dominican order often complained to the City Rada that the chime impeded them while conducting their services.

The class system was a notable and noticeable trait that affected everyone and everything in Lviv throughout its often fraught history. The following tale, from the time of Austrian rule, illustrates this. “Anyone fluent in German was sure to make a brilliant career and make a handsome fortune even in the poorest province of the Empire. Legend goes that it was then when the following funny story occurred. A local noble lady, accompanied by her friend, an Austrian official was approached by two beggars. One was local, the other – German. The first tramp got a copper, the latter – a silver coin. As she it explained it to her astonished friend, “tomorrow the German beggar might become a high official” and she wanted to make sure he remembered her.” Such stories say more than any number of demographic statistics or heavily footnoted monographs ever could.

As seen in Lviv - this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does to visitors

As seen in Lviv – this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does for visitors

Born Again – Lviv Into Life
Each time I arrive at the final paragraph of the “History In Facts And Figures” section entitled “Modern Lviv” I feel as though I have been taken on a rousing and illuminating ride, a tragic and triumphant introduction to the city. All done in just twenty short pages, interspersed with color photographs and a timeline adding substance, style and context. I am now primed to walk the cobbled alleyways, wide boulevards and photosynthetic parks, to experience for myself the intermingling of past and present, in one of Europe’s greatest cities. Yes this is Europe, make no mistake about it. As the authors remind us in the section’s final paragraph, “The rash statements made by some Ukrainian politicians, that Europe is a distant land evoke nothing but ironic smirks from Lviv inhabitants. Lviv has always been part of Europe, regardless of all the borders. It is only in Lviv a beggar will address you in several languages.” The high and the low, the possible and the improbable, all of it was, is and – let us hope – always will be a part of Lviv. Baltia-Druk’s splendid Touring Lviv Guidebook brings the city to life, both past and ever present.

Deeply Personal – A Mad Catastrophe: Recapturing Galicia’s World War (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #4)

I purchased Geoffery Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire at the Natrona County Library Book Sale this past spring. I was not expecting much of a selection to choose from at the sale, especially when it came to Eastern Europe. This was mainly because the city of Casper, Wyoming, the Natrona County seat, happens to a blue collar energy boomtown, not known to be a community of booklovers. Case in point, though Casper is the second largest city in the state, it only has a couple of bookshops, both with very modest selections. The best chance of finding books on Eastern Europe in the area is by checking the mailbox, after an order from Amazon. I thought the book sale would be low key, with the usual volumes of romantic novels, self-help tomes and celebrity biographies usually on offer at these events.

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and The Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

A Mad Catastrophe – the Austro-Hungarian opening offensives of World War I were just that

A Mad Catastrophe at a Bargain Price
Because my expectations were so low, I was shocked to find a hundred person long line had formed by the time the sale was due to open. Those who arrived at opening time were forced to wait upwards of an hour before entering the sale, as only a limited number of customers were allowed in at any time. Those who arrived earliest were the first to be allowed in to the sale. Soon they reappeared with shopping bags, baskets and carts filled with books. I began to grow a bit nervous that all the best volumes might be taken before I got inside. After 45 minutes of waiting I was permitted to enter. I was pleasantly surprised to find books on the history of the Serbs, the Poles and several that dealt with World War One in east-central Europe. These included a hard cover edition of Wawro’s book with a pristine dust jacket. The book had only come out a year before and dealt specifically with the Austro-Hungarian Army’s cataclysmic defeats in Serbia, Galicia and the Carpathians in the first six months of the war. I gladly purchased it for just five dollars. What a bargain!

I was interested to see what new information Wawro would bring to light concerning the Empire’s catastrophic performance in the opening campaigns. English language books on the Eastern Front of the war are extremely scarce. The most reliable scholarly work continues to Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front which was published in the 1970’s. A Mad Catastrophe was published just in time for commemoration of the war’s centennial, certainly not a coincidence. Like many books that I have purchased in the last several years, I did not read the entire volume cover to cover. I focused on the chapters concerning the Battles for Galicia and the Carpathian Winter campaign. Wawro illuminated the decisions, tactics and battles which occurred with many fascinating details. The book was well written, but Wawro could not help but take every opportunity to let the reader know just how bad the Austro-Hungarian leadership was. He had trouble hiding his opinions, to the point of bias.

Wawro used much of the narrative to point out every last flaw of the high command, both personal and professional. On many occasions Wawro would have been better off just letting the facts speak to the points he was trying to make.  Conversely, Wawro pretty much ignored the Russian Army’s incompetence. They were victorious only because the Austro-Hungarian high command was so bad. Both sides were sorely lacking in leadership, common sense and discipline. The Russians were victorious because Austria-Hungary committed suicide with frontal assaults, multi-day marches that exhausted the troops and a lack of artillery support. If anything, it is a wonder that the Austro-Hungarian Army did not disintegrate. Of course the Russians played a large role in this because they were not capable of delivering the fatal death blow that a more competent army would have done.

Zbarazh, Ukraine

Zbarazh, Ukraine – when Vasil and Anna Wawro left the town in 1914 it was at peace, but not for long

A Family Affair – The Wawros & World War
The most gripping part of the book – in my opinion the best – had nothing to do with battles and tactics. Instead it came in the acknowledgments. This is not a section I normally read, but in this case I was certainly glad I did. Wawro used the first half of the acknowledgments to talk about his family connection to Galicia and his trips to the region while researching the book. He tells of his great grandparent’s immigration from Galicia to the United States in 1914. This occurred just in the nick of time to avoid the war. If they had waited a few months longer, it is likely that both of his grandparents would have perished. Reading this suddenly made me aware of all those voices which had been silenced by the war. In all likelihood, the history of the Eastern Front has been lost to westerners as much because of the massive casualties as any language barrier. How many stories were lost, would be historians killed and descendants never born because of the war. Thank goodness that the Wawros left when they did.

Family was the critical force in both Wawro’s interest in the Battle of Galicia and his field research. The most memorable part of the acknowledgments section comes when Wawro writes about the research trips he took with his mother together across the region. He says, “my mother…gamely rented a car in Vienna and drove with me all the way to Zabaraz sharing the potholes, watery beer, bribes, thefts, and other tribulations (including being struck and nearly obliterated by an army jeep at an intersection in Bukovina).”  Wawro’s mother was well beyond senior citizenship when she traveled with her son to a wild and mysterious Eastern European backwater. She’s a lovably confused guide. Wawro recalls “an indelible memory of her in the passenger seat of our rented Opel, peering at grainy photocopies of old Habsburg general staff maps, patiently cross-referencing them with modern maps, and affecting not to notice as I slewed around country lanes roaring things like: ‘Mother, for the hundredth time, Hradec Kralove is Koniggratz.”

Geoffrey Wawro

Geoffrey Wawro – Author of A Mad Catastrophe The Outbreak of World War I and The Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

Deeply Personal – A Mother and Her Offspring
Judith Stoughton Wawro raised seven children after her husband died in a tragic accident that nearly killed her as well. An entire family matured and prospered under her tutelage, none more so than her youngest son, Geoffery. She kept up with him even when they were oceans apart. When he was lonely and depressed in Vienna, drowning in a sea of archives, Ms. Wawro installed Skype on her computer (she was in her mid-80’s) and called her son to perk up his flagging spirits. The acknowledgements section of A Mad Catastrophe makes it quite apparent that without the deep bond between mother and son, the book would likely have never been written. Family roots are an abiding inspiration for Geoffery Wawro. From grandparents to parents to son, several generations of Wawros crisscrossed the Atlantic, first in search of a better life and then in search of the past. It is a story almost too good to be true. Like the best kinds of history, its roots are personal, deeply personal.

Truth in the Trivialities – The Radetzky March: Chapter 18 (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #3)

I hate nationalism and nation states. My old home, the Monarchy, alone, was a great mansion with many doors and many chambers, for every condition of men. The mansion has been divided up, splintered. I have nothing more to seek for. – Joseph Roth

There is scarcely a better explanation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s implosion than Chapter 18 of The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. It centers on a grand summer festival put on by an imperial dragoon regiment stationed in the eastern part of the province of Galicia. In a remote and insipid imperial army outpost, one of the most fantastic scenes in the whole of literature transpires as the officers of the regiment plan and then put on the festival, only to have it interrupted by a ferocious natural and geopolitical storm. During an ethereal thunderstorm they suddenly learn the news that the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Sarajevo. The shock of the news causes them to lose all inhibitions. The nationalistic instincts of the officers gush forth. The fault lines between the competing nationalities and dual loyalties of these men undergo a seismic shift in a matter of minutes after hearing the news. It all breaks apart and the world will never be the same.

Joseph Roth's classic work - The Radetzky March illuminates the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Joseph Roth’s classic work – The Radetzky March illuminates the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

A Motley Crew of Multinationals
Roth created a motley multi-national cast, representative of the empire’s conflicting ethnic identities. It is through these characters that we witness the empire’s disintegration. The Dual Monarchy had loosely knit together peoples of widely varying ethnic backgrounds for centuries. It had ten different national groups numbering at least a million, with the largest single ethnic group, Germans, less than a quarter of the population. The empire finally disintegrated under the pressure of a singular, transforming historical event. The final implosion occurred due to the internal contradictions of many different nationalities competing for autonomy or independence.

All the characters present in the chapter reflect an ethnic group which had either a sense of privilege or grievance that is offensive to another one.  Two of the characters in the scene are so brilliantly rendered that critiquing one of their seemingly, minor interactions, illuminates the tension at the heart of the Dual Monarchy’s most important relationship, namely that between the Austrians and Hungarians. Each is representative of national traits that cause even the most trivial of details to require delicate negotiation.

Violent arguments over stylistic niceties”
Rittmaster Count Zschoch is the man who had originally come up with the idea for the festival. An Austrian who spends many hours at a time in “violent arguments about stylistic niceties” regarding an invitation to the festival for the “honorary commander of the regiment, a minor German prince from an, alas, neglected collateral branch.” These arguments take place with Colonel Festetics, who comes from a family that is “one of the best in Hungary.”  The two work together, yet underlying tension exists over even the most trivial of matters.

An illuminating example is their dispute concerning the order in which invitations should be sent out to the invitees of the festival.  Zschoch wants the invitations dispatched in sequence of noble rank, while Festetics demands that they be sent out all at the same time. Zschoch is suspicious that Festetics wants it done this way, due to “a democratic leaning inspired by his Hungarian blood.”

Here Roth has given us the Austria-Hungary relationship in a nutshell. Trivial disputes plague everything, from the invitations wording to the order in which they must be dispatched. But these disputes are only superficially trivial. In actuality, they are rooted in the troubled history of the two protagonists. In this case, Festetics represents the rebellious spirit of the Hungarians who had revolted – most recently in 1848 – in numerous attempts to throw off the yoke of Habsburg rule.

A Swarm of Trivalities
Trivialities are metaphorical stand-ins for the continuous disagreements which threatened to undermine the relationship from 1867 onward. In the recently released The War That Ended Peace, concerning the lead up to and outbreak of the First World War, historian Margaret Macmillan uses some enlightening examples to describe the fraught relationship at the heart of the Dual Monarchy. “Even the simplest decisions were wound about with red tape or in reality colored twine, black and yellow for imperial matters, red, white and green for Hungary.” Or, “When Franz Josef [stated] that his armed forces were animated by a spirit of unity and harmony and treated all ethnic groups with respect , he simply threw more fuel the way of the Hungarian nationalists in Budapest. ‘Ethnic’ came out as ‘tribal’ in Hungarian which was seized upon as a deadly insult.”

One other detail of the Zsochoch-Festetics interaction to note is the worry and disagreement that arises over an invitation to “a minor German prince.” The imperial dragoon regiment is reduced to vying for the attentions of an obscure German noble. This is what the Dual Monarchy had been reduced to in the years prior to the outbreak of the war, vying for a smidgen of attention from the Germans. The weak and ossified monarchy had lost its importance and would soon lose much more than that, its reason for being. Why this happened is the subtext of many scenes in Chapter 18 of The Radetzky March. Roth shows us an empire coming apart at the seams, at the very end of its rope. It would take four more years of horrid war for it to finally strangle itself.

What History Did To Hungary – The Phoenix Land (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #6)

“The true use of history is not external, but internal. Not what you can do with history, but what history does to you” – Jacques Barzin

Hungarians in exile, Hungarians abroad, this has been a reoccurring theme for the past one hundred sixty years in Hungary. Whether it was because of failed revolutions (1848 and 1956), seeking better opportunities abroad (the late 19th/early 20th century & 21st century since EU membership) or fleeing radical ideologies and chaotic political upheaval (post World War I, World War II and the immediate years thereafter), on numerous occasions Hungarians have found themselves far, far away from their homeland. Despite this dislocation or perhaps because of it, they have used their creative talents to make a name for themselves. Hungarians provided much of the brain power behind the atomic bomb, the moon and mars rover, supersonic flight, jet propulsion, full length motion pictures and Microsoft Office to name just a few of their innovations. Even personalities as famous and disparate as Joseph Pulitzer and Harry Houdini were both originally from Hungary.

This seems almost too good to be true. It makes one wonder what would have occurred if all those famous Hungarians who went abroad could have stayed in their homeland, what heights might the country have attained? Hungarians are justly proud of their fellow countrymen’s accomplishments abroad. Conversely, there is rarely any discussion of Hungarians who returned to their homeland. This is something which is rarely spoken of, if ever. In today’s installment of A Trip Around My Bookshelf, we will learn about some Hungarians who returned from abroad, the near abroad of Transylvania in the first case and the trenches of World War I in the second. In both of these cases the central figure is Miklos Banffy, as both subject and recorder of changes  that would roil 20th century Hungary.

Miklos Banffy as photographed in 1912

Miklos Banffy as photographed in 1912

One Hungarian who was cut asunder from the nation and also went abroad for a time was the author Miklos Banffy (1873 – 1950). Banffy left his homeland for a short time and was something of an internal exile through no fault of his own, since Hungary lost Transylvania in the peace which followed World War I. Many people who are quite knowledgable about Hungary have never heard of Banffy, that is such a shame. Miklos Banffy was born into one of the pre-eminent aristocratic families in Transylvania, back when it was an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary. He was an incredibly talented writer, artist and politician. He wrote one of the great works of period literature, what is known as The Transylvania Trilogy, a three volume set of novels under the stark titles, They Were Found Wanting, They Were Counted and They Were Divided. The books follow the life and times of Transylvanian aristocracy from the turn of the 20th century up to the outbreak of the First World War. We get to know not only a cast of characters whose tragic excesses, love affairs and  aristocratic traditions are the essence of great drama, but also a people who are inextricably attached to a land which seems to almost be a physical part of them. Fortunately one of Banffy’s descendants saw fit to have these books translated into English. The trilogy is now readily available for purchase in the English language sections of good Hungarian bookstores, in addition to online.

Somewhat hidden in the shadow of this towering literary achievement is Banffy’s other book, The Phoenix Land. The name metaphorically implies the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, just as Hungary rose from the calamity of World War I, the chaotic aftermath of revolution and counter-revolution which followed and the disastrous Treaty Of Trianon whereby Hungary lost over two-thirds of its land and population, including Transylvania. Banffy was named the foreign minister for a time following the war. He offers insight into the negotiations and political machinations that took place in order to keep the country from totally falling apart. These memoirs deal with the interwar years, as the Hungarians attempt to deal with the shocking reality of defeat, occupation and dismemberment. This is not just a memoir of a man, it is also the memoir of a national trauma. Banffy is both insider and outsider. He no longer has his country, but his country will forever have him. The same could be said of the relationship between Hungary and Transylvania, even today. The exile of over a million ethnic Hungarians is all the more painful because of the mother nation’s close proximity. Banffy and his fellow Transylvanians do not have an ocean or a continent separating them from their mother country, they only have an invisible political barrier, a border. It is a scar that all Hungarians live with. The Phoenix Land is much more an interpretation of mental rather than physical scars.

The Last Coronation - Emperor Charles, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto

The Last Coronation – Emperor Charles, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto

The only part of the book which does not deal with the interwar years may also be its best. Banffy describes with eloquence and melancholy what became the final coronation of a Habsburg monarch.  In late 1916, long time Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef died after sixty-eight years on the throne, the last forty-nine of which saw him lead the Dual Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. With his death a new coronation was quickly arranged. This event would crown his great nephew Charles as the new monarch.  He would become King Charles IV (Emperor Charles I). Banffy was in charge of planning, organizing and staging the coronation which took place at the Matyas Church in Budapest on December 30, 1916.

It was at this final coronation that the coming fate of the Kingdom of Hungary was foretold by an unanticipated scene, one that is hardly known, yet symbolic of the state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. In this historic moment we find Hungarians, specifically the Knights of the Golden Spur returning from the trenches in order to be present at the coronation. The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in tradition and protocol. Soon after it begins, Charles had the Holy Crown of Hungary and St. Stephen’s robe placed upon him. He then retired along with his wife, Queen Zita, to the sacristy. Soon he was to step outside and take the royal oath. Before this though, with the church now empty, protocol took precedence. Suddenly the ghostly Knights of the Golden Spur appeared to receive accolades from the newly crowned king.  Banffy describes what happened next:

“There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service in the front lines. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps…In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of movement. Through that side door and out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war to flood the space where a few moments before all had been shine and glitter.
No one spoke. They were all utterly silent, not a word passing between them. All of them just stood there, looking straight ahead with a stare that was both eloquent and at the same time passive. Their eyes were the eyes of men who, day after day, looked death in the face.”

The King, crowned with St. Stephen’s Crown and wearing St. Stephen’s mantle, now came back into the church and ascended the throne. The first name was called out. A grey broken ruin of a man pulled himself up on two crutches. An orderly rushed to his side to prevent him falling and guided him forward. At the steps of the throne he faltered just as St. Stephen’s Sword touched his shoulder the ritual three times. Then he was lifted to his feet and, supported by his orderly, tottered away.”

The entire ceremony was a metaphor, but not for traditional imperial principles. Instead, the glittering coronation represented what the Kingdom of Hungary had been. Then suddenly the Knights of the Golden Spur appear and represent the stark reality of what the Kingdom has become: broken, feeble, on its last legs. The end is near. The future will be a different place, where nothing will ever be the same. The resplendent beauty of the empire is now transitory, fading fast. The Dual Monarchy is disintegrating at the front and the soldier’s scars, bear witness to the mortal wound that the Habsburg Empire has suffered. Reading this, it is much easier to understand what happened in the years that followed. The monarchy dissolved, Hungary’s best and brightest had been killed or irreparably wounded at the front fighting for an ideal that had been vanquished. This was foretold by those Knights of the Golden Spur who had returned to the homeland. Perhaps we should now acknowledge the ultimate Hungarian exile of the 20th century, the monarchy. It left, never to return and nothing has been the same since then. Ironically, it was returnees, the Knights of the Golden Spur and Miklos Banffy, who foretold the future and what was to come.