Death In Vienna: Plague Columns In Central & Eastern Europe (Part One)

One of many sobering memories that kept coming back to me as the United States fell into the grip of Covid-19 were the Holy Trinity (Plague) Columns that I have seen during my Eastern European travels. These monuments of morbidity are almost impossible to avoid in historical city centers.  To give but one example, within the first couple of hours after setting foot in Hungary, I walked into the magnificent Szechenyi Square in Pecs where I saw among other things, the beautiful bronze equestrian statue of Janos Hunyadi, the Mosque of Pasha Qasim, an eclectic façade of the Fatebenefratelli Church, the neo-baroque inspired City Hall and a Trinity column, otherwise known as a plague column. The architectural mood of the pastel colored facades, domes and details of the structures surrounding the square was both grand and festive. The only ominous exception was the Plague Column which despite its baroque splendor filled me with a dreadful curiosity.

I always found Plague Columns too beautiful to protect against something so ghastly as a disease that could reduce a city sized population to insignificance in a matter of weeks. The Bubonic plague was the most notorious and an all too common occurrence from medieval to early modern times. Characterized by swollen lymph nodes (also known as buboes), flu like symptoms accompanied by fever and vomiting, Bubonic plague was extremely lethal. Evidence of its wrath is marked In town square after town square across Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic by Plague Columns. These ornately decorated Baroque monuments from the 17th and 18th centuries rise above cobbled streets. I found them to be photogenic, with their angels, saints and putti swirling around in charismatic scenes. I always felt a bit guilty photographing the columns for their artistic beauty and exquisite craftsmanship. After all, the historical tragedies they memorialized were a recurring scourge in Central and Eastern Europe.

A Hope For The Future - The Holy Trinity Column & the Mosque of Pasha Qasim

A Hope For The Future – The Holy Trinity Column & the Mosque of Pasha Qasim (Credit: Pudelek)

Periodic Pestilence – Supersized Brushes With Death
The plague is most often connected with the legendarily horrific Black Death of the 14th century which wiped out approximately 50 percent of Europe’s population at the time. Unbeknownst too many, this was only the first of successive outbreaks of the plague (many of them Bubonic) which reconfigured the demographic destinies of empires, kingdoms and other polities of those times. The plague was a recurring menace that left depopulation and depression in its wake. A capricious source of terror, it inflicted untold suffering upon thousands. Combating the plague was often as much a matter of faith as it was medicine. Plague Columns are one of the few things that outlasted the periodic bouts of pestilence that wreaked havoc from medieval to early modern Europe. That is not surprising since they were erected after a city had managed to survive these supersized brushes with death.

Vienna and Budapest, these two cities are redolent of the charms and grandeur of Old Europe, but a great deal of their development is a post 17th century phenomenon. This is true for almost all of Budapest and a great deal of Vienna as well. This is because during the latter part of the 17th century, Budapest was under the Ottoman yoke, while Vienna was a city not far from the military frontier and under imminent threat. A great deal of destruction was wrought upon both cities both during and after the Ottoman Turks. While many are familiar with the epic siege of Vienna by the Ottomans in 1683, far fewer are aware that the plague ravaged the city just four years before that.

Death in Vienna - Plague Hospital in 1679

Death in Vienna – Plague Hospital in 1679

Disease Ridden – The Great Plague of Vienna
The Great Plague of Vienna that struck in 1679 was one of the worst outbreaks to strike a European city and would lead to the ubiquitous plague columns that have become standard monuments in towns throughout the Habsburg Empire. During my first visit to Vienna a decade ago, I was struck by the sheer cleanliness of the city. Everything, from the sidewalks to major thoroughfares to public transport, was sparkling clean. Cleanliness is a modern virtue of the Viennese. Those who are less than historically minded could be forgiven for believing that it was always this way. The historical record tells a very different story. In 1679, Vienna was an exceedingly foul and polluted place filled with the detritus of human squalor. Its citizens piled their garbage in the streets, drainage was poor to nonexistent and its streets were crucibles of festering sickness. This fetid environment was a breeding ground for rats to run rampant and by extension, disease.

That is just what happened in 1679 when the plague broke out in the city. The result was a disaster that rivaled anything in the city’s historical experience. An estimated 76,000 people died, that was at least a quarter of the population. Disposing of the bodies was problematic. Pits were dug on the city’s periphery to burn the bodies. Unwisely, the authorities decided to pile as many bodies into these pits as possible, leaving them exposed for days. This only served to allow rats into the pits and stimulate even greater pestilence. While this was occurring, the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I fled the city fearing for his life. Before leaving for Prague he was said to have prayed to God for the city’s deliverance from the plague. He also vowed to have a column constructed as thanks for mercy if the plague ended. It took fifteen years and numerous iterations, including a wooden one erected by the Viennese, before the column was completed in 1694. It became known as the Holy Trinity or Plague Column (Pestsaule) due to its origins and design.

A Show of Mercy - Pestsaule (Plague Column) on the Graben in Vienna

A Show of Mercy – Pestsaule (Plague Column) on the Graben in Vienna (Credit: Thomas Ledl)

Powerful Messenger – A Model Of Faith
Vienna’s Plague Column still stands today in the Graben, one of the inner city’s most famous streets. It became the model for Plague Columns that were later erected across Habsburg ruled lands. The column was meant to send a powerful message to the Emperor’s subjects that Leopold I’s intercession with God saved the city from both the plague and the Ottoman siege. To that point, Leopold is shown on a lower pedestal praying to God. Angels, acting as a mediator with God, are represented in the area above Leopold. The column’s top portion portrays the Holy Trinity. This consists of a gilded God the Father, Jesus the Son holding a cross and the Holy Spirit represented by a dove in the center of the sun.

The iconography is rich with detail and filled with symbolic meaning all done up in the lavish style of Baroque art. Sadly, much of the column’s spiritual power is lost on the throngs of tourists who spend a few minutes at most staring at the column and nothing more. The Viennese of the late 17th and 18th centuries would have been much more devout. They knew that there was a possibility that at any moment the plague might return. And that is exactly what would happen across many parts of the Habsburg Empire.

Going Back & Going Beyond – The Power of Pecs, Lviv and Thessaloniki (Part Two)

The delights of a provincial rather than a capital city is an acquired taste, one that I have been lucky enough to gain in an Eastern European nation on three memorable occasions. My experience was all the better for it and not just with my first love in Pecs, Hungary. The first time I traveled to Ukraine, I did make it a point to visit the capital, Kiev. That was my second stop though. My first one was Lviv, a sparkling jewel of a city in western Ukraine. Lviv colors my opinion of Ukraine to this very day, even nine years after my first visit I cannot help but have a fondness for Ukraine because of that initial experience. It pains me when I hear people discuss Ukraine as though it is a dangerous country that should be avoided. Ukraine may have dangerous regions (the Donbas where an asymmetric war continues to rage is to be avoided by tourists) and endemic corruption (signified by the national government in Kiev), but Ukraine for me is a charming place full of magic rather than malevolence.

Street Art - Lviv

Street Art – Lviv

Lusting After Lviv – Falling For A Ukrainian Super Model
Lviv was then, what it still is today, the historical hub of Ukraine, a place where I could reach out and touch the past. On my return trips to the city I felt a sense of nostalgia, not just for Lviv’s past, but my own past in the city. The friends I met and kept over the years, the mystical churches that deepened my curiosity for the mysterious sensuality of the eastern world and the sheer exoticism of finding renaissance architecture in far eastern Europe. Kiev on the other hand, was a raucous and at times, menacing metropolis. I am fortunate that I avoided making it my first stop in the country. I have never been back and have no plans to go there again. I enjoyed certain aspects of the Ukrainian capital and the city center was well worth visiting. Conversely, there was something impersonal and at times outright inhuman about Kiev.

Perhaps it was the Stalinist architecture to be found on its most famous avenue or the hectic pace or the pushing and shoving on the metro that remains so vivid in my memory. Whatever the case, I could hardly wait to leave. I sensed then what I can still feel today, I would be unlikely to come back for a visit. If I did, it would only be to pass through the city. Bigger is rarely better and Kiev bore that truth out for me. Lviv is my idea of a Ukrainian super model, sleek, seductive and spectacular. Voluptuous in its charms, my eyes ogled its many beautiful buildings. I felt a pathological sense of romance in its city center. If there is such a thing as lusting after a city, then I fell for Lviv with uninhibited inclination. And I hope to get back to Ukraine, to visit Uzhhorod and Mukachevo, the type of provincial cities that are likely to give me a Lviv sized experience. Now when I look at a map of Ukraine, Kiev has vanished and all the smaller cities in the country are magnified. To lust like this, is to live travel forever.

The Dawn of a New Day - The Old Byzantine City Walls in Thessaloniki

The Dawn of a New Day – The Old Byzantine City Walls in Thessaloniki

Anywhere But Athens – Beyond The Obvious
My first visit to Greece last year was made with one thought in mind which can be summed up as “anywhere but Athens.” The capital of the classical world has never appealed to me. Perhaps it comes from disappointment at its failure to host the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games. When Athens lost out to Atlanta, it lost something else, my respect. Then there are the stories I have read about the congestion and pollution that clogs and clouds the city. I have never heard a single person ever say anything nice about its modern iteration. The Parthenon, the Acropolis and a clutch of world class museums filled with astonishing artifacts do not provide enough an allure for me. This is snobbery in reverse, I find a perverse pleasure in the provincial when it comes to Greece. I cannot see the appeal of Athens. That is likely the product of my imagining throngs of tourists crowding me out. These feelings and an affinity for Byzantine and Ottoman history led me to first set foot on Greek soil in Thessaloniki, a city whose modernity is unsightly in the extreme.

What I found was another Greece mostly unknown to the western world. One with deep multi-cultural roots. Thessaloniki had more in common with Balkan culture than modern Greece, a place where digging in the dirt had unearthed entire worlds that existed before the blight of fires, wars and unchecked development smothered whole swathes of antiquity. Thessaloniki was an acquired taste, one that did not come easy. It asked visitors to look beyond the obvious or the famous, to the obscure and the infamous, to the Ottomans, the Sephardic Jews, the Byzantines and to the Rome of late antiquity. I want to believe that the difference between a visit to Athens and one to Thessaloniki, is like the difference between staying in a former five star hotel and staying in someone’s home. There is hospitality in search of your wallet and hospitality in search of your heart. Thessaloniki for me, was all about the latter.

A Lasting Memory - Pecs Cathedral

A Lasting Memory – Pecs Cathedral

Crossing Frontiers – My Wildest Imagination
At some point during my visit to Thessaloniki, I began to look further afield. My eye was not drawn to the obvious in Greece, neither islands nor Athens caught my attention. Instead, it was the hinterlands that I began to focus on. Those provincial outposts of interest that no sane tourist would take time to visit. This would be my Greece in the future. Thessaloniki made all of Thrace suddenly seem possible. The region, a Balkan borderland holds a magnetic attraction for me. I know not a single person who has traveled in its more obscure parts. I have not been back to Greece since my visit to Thessaloniki, but I already know what will come next. Crossing frontiers in my mind, as much as on the land.

The frontier between Greece and Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, Greece and North Macedonia, the frontiers that only exist on a map and now appear in my mind. At one time these frontiers were as unfamiliar to me as any other lines drawn upon a foreign land, now I want to become as familiar with them as the lines on my hand. My future travels in Greece, will be like my past ones in Hungary, my future travels in Ukraine will be like my past ones in Hungary and my future in Hungary will be a place like Pecs, and in Ukraine a place like Lviv and in Greece a place like Thessaloniki. I could never have imagined the day I set foot in Pecs, that I was entering a whole new world, one that led the way down a path of endless possibilities. Soon it will be time to go back and go beyond my wildest imagination.

Souls of a Nation – The Power of Pecs, Lviv and Thessaloniki (Part One)

My initial impression of Hungary was formed by the first city I visited in the country. The most surprising thing, it was not Budapest. Instead it was Pecs, a sublimely beautiful and historic city in southern Hungary that was on the verge of becoming a European Capital of Culture when I arrived there. That visit pushed me to travel into provincial Hungary in search of similar cities. I was soon scanning the map to find places comparable to Pecs. That led me to Gyor, Sopron and Szombathely. And these cities were just the start of a personal effort to visit all the best places in provincial Hungary. Eventually this led me to visit smaller towns and villages in the countryside. After a few trips, I discovered that covering all the counties in Hungary was within reach.

This new goal sent me further afield. It was only upon later reflection that it occurred to me why I have always found it so comfortable traveling far and wide in provincial Hungary as compared to other Eastern European countries. It is precisely because my first experience in Hungary did not take place in Budapest. My first, formative Hungarian experience occurred in Pecs. First impressions are lasting ones and as such the Hungary I am always searching for is the same one I discovered on that early spring day in Pecs nine years ago. It has become my frame of reference for the entire country. The first time I ever set foot on Hungarian soil was at the train station in Pecs, everything has flowed forward for me in Hungary from that first moment.

The First Time - Arrival by railway in Pecs

The First Time – Arrival by railway in Pecs

Capital Losses – A Distorted Image
Budapest almost always comes first in Hungary, but not for me. I did not realize until many years later how my first impression of Pecs gave me such an affinity for provincial cities and places in Hungary. This became more apparent when I compared my Hungarian experience to my initial impressions of other Central and Eastern European countries. The first place in Austria I set foot in was Vienna. Austria is supposed to be mountainous alpine glory, the only thing mountainous in Vienna is the cash it takes to keep the city glittering. In Slovakia, a nation known for its spectacular nature and innumerable castles I found myself in the capital city of Bratislava looking at Hungarian and German inspired architecture. If this was Slovakia, then it was suffering from a multiple personality disorder. My experience of the Czech Republic will forever be framed by Prague, where I spent many days on my first visit to the country. Prague is a beautiful city, totally unlike anywhere else in this part of Europe and that includes the Czech Republic.

Then there was Warsaw, where I started and ended my first trip to Poland. I could not get away from it fast enough. In Latvia there was Riga, which is the mightiest city in the Baltic lands and completely unlike the Latvian hinterland. In Lithuania I alighted in Vilnius and never got more than 50 kilometers from the capital. I first experienced Bulgaria through Sofia, much of which is the anti-thesis of this beautiful Balkan country. It was the same in Romania, where I headed straight to Bucharest, a Ceaucescuian set piece of concrete and dilapidated faux grandeur that has little in common with much of the country. In the Balkans, I found myself in one capital city after another, what I never found was these nation’s heart and soul. Now I have come to realize that capital gains were capital losses when it came to authentically experiencing any of the above countries.

A Provincial Beauty - Pecs city center

A Provincial Beauty – Pecs city center

A Nation On Steroids – Obscured By Monumentalism
A capital city is basically the nation it represents on steroids. There is the usual glitz and glamor of lavish buildings, national symbols, traditions and heroes are all deified in a withering array of monumentalism. Capitals always come with a thick coat of makeup, government money supplies the mascara to cover up anything that might resemble reality. Grand buildings in a capital city have a duty to distract, statues of heroes are forever getting in the way, soldiers stand at attention guarding entrances to ministries filled with faceless figures. Show me a capital city in eastern Europe and I will show you a mirage. One that is as disconcerting as it is unreal. There is no way to really get up close and personal with the grandiose. There is a reason that tourists are rarely allowed inside even the most anonymous government buildings. The wizards of this less than wonderful world see it as their duty to keep the curtain drawn.

On the few occasions I have entered a house of parliament, it is empty. There is a reason for that. Capitals are nationalist Potemkin villages where politicians promote narratives that are largely unreal. Capitals have been expanded exponentially by governments over the past century hoping to put on their best face while growing government that if it is not against the people, then it is certainly not for them either. If you want to see a country, then you need to see it naked. To strip away the excess and see a country as it is, rather than as the powers that be would have you believe it to be, take a trip to the provinces where a national capital can put in its proper perspective, remote, shadowy and obscure.

Memory Blurs - The First Walk Around Pecs

Memory Blurs – The First Walk Around Pecs

Pride Without Pretensions – A Place Called Pecs
Provincial cities and places have a certain pride without the pretensions. Just being themselves is good enough. I felt like Pecs was the type of place that was proud of itself. The city seemed to have a certain self-confidence. Pecs was built on a human scale, sure it had plenty of monuments, statues and architectural eye candy, but it felt like the kind of place I could call home. After leaving Pecs, I thought that I was done with it, little did I realize that it was not done with me. Everything I have searched for in Hungary since that time has somehow had to measure up to that first provincial impression. Realizing this led me to search my memory for the countries and cities where my first impression was somewhere outside the capital. There were only two – in the cities of Lviv in Ukraine and Thessalonikki in Greece – and their example was instructive.

Click here for: Going Back & Going Beyond – The Power of Pecs, Lviv and Thessaloniki (Part Two)

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.

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

Forced Separation – German West Hungary & The Burgenland: Austria vs. Hungary (Part Two)

It is a strange thing to be in a region that was considered more or less part of Hungary for the better part a millennium and then to realize this same region bears very few overt traces of its Hungarian past. Anyone traveling through the tidy towns and quaint villages of the Burgenland region of eastern Austria today, would be hard pressed to notice much of anything identifying it with the Kingdom of Hungary. The transformation was radically subtle and had a great deal to do with the border alterations that occurred in the region after World War I. In retrospect, the new lines that were drawn turned out to make a great deal of sense since they followed ethnic demography. Nonetheless, there were winners and losers. The nation of Hungary was certainly one of them.

After the First World War ended, Hungary endured the dismemberment of its kingdom by the hands of peacemakers who poured over maps in Paris. They relied on experts to advise them on the best course of action. Such courses were fraught with danger. The decisions that were made, especially in regard to the Kingdom of Hungary, created a sense of grievance that endures to this very day. Oddly, that sense of grievance is largely absent in the Burgenland even though Hungary lost land to its former ally, Austria. In the postwar peace process, Hungary could not win, even against the losers.

Fertile Fields - Looking east towards Hungary from the Burgenland

Fertile Fields – Looking east towards Hungary from the Burgenland (Credit: Jacquesverlaeken)

An Agricultural Lifeline – The Food Network
Creating Austria was not easy. Many disparate provincial pieces had to be brought together, one of the most important of which, the Burgenland, is largely overlooked today. To understand the Burgenland’s importance, consider how geographically different it is from the rest of Austria. While the mountains of Austria might be beautiful, the words alpine and agriculture are not synonymous. Some 60% of Austria is mountainous, while only 17% of the land is arable. Trying to grow crops at high altitudes is a non-starter, especially for populations that were rapidly growing as industrialization and urbanization proceeded apace. The far western region of the Kingdom of Hungary, known as German West Hungary (Deutsch-Westungarn), offered a pastoral lifeline for a newly forming nation that suffered from a paucity of decent agricultural land. The land just happened to be located east of the River Leitha, a symbolic dividing line and in this case an administrative border between what had been the Austrian (Cisleithania) and Hungarian (Transleithania) ruled regions of the former empire.

This region included portions of the pre-war Hungarian counties of Vas, Moson and Sopron. It offered choice ground for cultivation. The land was an extension of Transdanubia, a region of fertile fields west of the Danube in Hungary that yields excellent crops. It was unlike any other region that would help form Austria. It was also badly needed. Areas where Austria used to get its food supply, such as Moravia, were now going to be part of the newly constituted nation of Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, Hungary was in no mood to deliver food to their former allies. In 1919, it was every nation for itself. Austria and Hungary were no longer allies, that meant everything was up for grabs, including land that had been administered by Hungary before the war. Borders could be changed at the stroke of a pen, as soon they would be.

Stamp of Approval - Lajtabansag 100 korona stamp

Stamp of Approval – Lajtabansag 100 korona stamp

Forget Me Not – From Trianon To St. German-en-Laye
To be fair, Austria might be getting a piece of territory at Hungary’s expense, but it was losing plenty of its old imperial holdings. Today, Hungarians are never shy about reminding people how they lost two-thirds of their territory due to Trianon, but you would be hard pressed to find an Austrian who would remind you that they lost 60% of their territory due to the Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye. This included Bohemia and Moravia whose German population would become a huge point of contention in the lead up to the Second World War. They were also losing south Tyrol to the Italians. Getting German West Hungary would not compensate for all those losses, but it would ameliorate them to a certain extent. The Austrians had demographics on their side in the tussle for control. In the 1910 census, the last one taken prior to World War I, ethnic Germans made up 74% of the population in the region.

Strangely enough, though the region was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, ethnic Hungarians were not even the second largest ethnic group in the region. This status was reserved for ethnic Croats at 15%. Ethnic Hungarians came in at only 9%. This demographic breakdown was nothing new and went all the way back to when Hungarians first gained control of the area during the Middle Ages. A Germanic majority existed at the time. This was the frontier or Marchland as it was then known on the Kingdom of Hungary’s western border. The Hungarians who settled there were border guards. The Croats had come in much later, during a fifty year period in the mid-16th century when their lands in Slavonia had been laid waste by the Ottoman Turks. Hungary had nominally retained control of the area throughout much of the past 900 years. This was something of an historical anomaly since so few of the residents were ethnic Hungarians. Thus, it made sense to attach the region to Austria, but logic is one thing, passion quite another.

A Land Apart - The Burgenland

A Land Apart – The Burgenland (Credit: ariva.io)

An Afterthought – The Course of History
Dispassion and reason were not exactly hallmarks of the postwar peace process. Demographic evidence certainly did not make the loss any easier for Hungarians to stomach. After all, it had lost a massive amount of territory due to the Treaty of Trianon. Losing German West Hungary only served to add insult to injury. Interestingly, the Hungarians did not give up German West Hungary without a fight and it would pay off in at least one instance. On August 19, 1921, the handover to Austria of German West Hungary region was due to occur. This resulted in an armed uprising led by ultra nationalist Hungarian forces. They succeeded, albeit only briefly, in carving out their own state, the Lajtabansag (Banat of Leitha) which lasted little more than a month during the autumn. The “state” managed to issue some stamps and implement custom duties.

This “state” did not enjoy support from the Hungarian government which was susceptible to pressure from the Allies. It did not take long for Lajtabansag to disintegrate. One offshoot of the uprising was that the city of Sopron held a plebiscite to see whether it would go to Austria or Hungary. Sopron and three of the surrounding villages voted to stay in Hungary, while five villages voted to stay in Austria. Due to the size of Sopron and the weight of its vote all eight villages would remain in Hungary. Meanwhile, German West Hungary became the Burgenland. The Austrians had gained a valuable new territory, the only one of its nine provinces which had never really been part of Austria proper. It would now and remains part of Austria today. As for the Hungarians, they focused their irredentist energies on Transylvania and southern Slovakia. The Burgenland became what it continues to be for them, an afterthought.

Click here for: Conceived in Chaos – The Burgenland & Trianon: Austria vs. Hungary (Part One)

The Limits of Chauvinism – Eastern Slovakia’s Powerhouse (The Kosice Chronicles #2)

Crossing the Hungary – Slovakia border has never been easier. There is no passport control, no inquisitive border officials with probing questions, no metal detectors and no endless waits. If there is a need for an advertisement on the advantages of European Union (EU) membership it should involve someone seamlessly crossing a border. It happens hundreds of thousands of times a day across the EU, to the point that no one even notices anymore. The train trip from Budapest to Kosice became a day trip option the minute that border controls were dismantled between Hungary and Slovakia. Delays disappeared overnight and cross border relationships could be cultivated or in some cases rekindled.

Crossing the border by train would have barely been noticeable, if not for a stop that was made at Hidasnemeti on the Hungarian side. It was there that the Hungarian ticket taker offboarded. Soon he was replaced by another ticket taker who worked for Slovakian railways. This minor pause would have escaped my attention, if not for the fact that the Slovakian attendant came back through to check everyone’s ticket again. This obligatory process took place while the train was already racing northward. Within the hour we would be arriving in Kosice.

Destiny in the Details - Kosice

Destiny in the Details – Kosice (Credit: Adam Jones)

Smokestacks Rising – A Steel City
What did I really know of Kosice before my arrival? The short answer was not much. I was aware of one thing, the city’s status as eastern Slovakia’s largest city and a main hub for the entire region. I also knew that it had an American connection in the form of a massive U.S. Steel plant (formerly the East Slovak Ironworks). The Kosice I wanted to see has nothing to do with smokestacks. Instead, it was the historic city center with its gothic, medieval, baroque and turn of the 20th century architecture that proved to be a magnetic attraction. The appeal of this had been an afterthought for over a hundred thousand Slovaks who emigrated to the city during the decades which followed World War II.  An unfortunate side effect of this boom was that development of Kosice, from the 1950s onwards was unsightly.

Heavy industry led to air pollution. Poor architectural aesthetics and less than desirable air quality did nothing to stem the human tide which flowed into the city. New arrivals were packed into towering concrete monstrosities where they lived shoulder to shoulder in what was supposed to be a worker’s paradise. Much of the population and building boom was due to the East Slovak Ironworks, a communist era industrial behemoth that transformed the face of Kosice. This was by design, as leaders in the Soviet Union selected Kosice to be the epicenter for the entire Eastern Bloc’s steel production.

There is a great deal of Kosice’s industrial output in the housing estates of cities that fell behind the Iron Curtain. Kosice quickly became known for its rapid industrialization and urbanization. Industrial development led to a fourfold population rise in Kosice over the ensuing years. Factories and towering apartment blocks sprouted around the city. The latter still stand today. These were one of the first things I noticed looming over the city as the train made its way into the city. The communist period also coincided with Kosice becoming a primarily Slovakian city, something that it had rarely ever been during its long and storied history.

Smokestacks On The Horizon - U.S. Steel Plant in Kosice

Smokestacks On The Horizon – U.S. Steel Plant in Kosice

Concessions To Trade – Between Profit & Loss
The current ethnic makeup of Kosice is fundamentally different from the multicultural city that had existed since the Middle Ages.  The first written document on Kosice appears in the 13th century, just before the Mongol horde swept into the Kingdom of Hungary. The Mongols vacated the area a year after their apocalyptic arrival, but they left a wasteland behind. Hungary’s king at the time, Bela IV, was looking for immigrants to repopulate the area. This brought waves of Germans to the area. Many of them were merchants and skilled craftsman. They helped boost Kosice as a burgeoning center of trade. The town was ideally positioned on a popular trade route from central Hungary northward to Poland. This route in turn connected to other trade networks stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Kosice grew wealthy on the profits accrued from the commerce that was conducted there. It also brought Poles, Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans and many others to the city.

In the latter half of the 15th century, these trade networks began to fray as the Ottoman Empire began its surge northward. The Ottomans ushered in a tumultuous time for Kosice, which resulted in it constantly changing hands. The city was under the sway of such disparate entities as the Principality of Transylvania, Hungarian led Kuruc rebel forces, the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Austrian Habsburgs had won out, but not before their rule was nearly derailed by Hungarian Ferenc Rakoczi’s War of Independence from 1703 -1711. As I would soon find out, Rakoczi may have lost the war, but he would forever be immortalized in Kosice.

Impossible to Ignore - Kosice in 1617

Impossible to Ignore – Kosice in 1617

A Gloriously Conflicted Past  – Impossible To Ignore
Hungarian influence grew in Kosice (Kassa in Hungarian) throughout the 19th century, especially after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed in 1867. Nonetheless, the city continued to be decidedly multi-ethnic. The 1891 Austro-Hungarian census done by language showed that half the population spoke Hungarian, one-third Slovakian and one in eight said German was their mother tongue. A later census that took place in 1910, showed that almost three-fourths of Kosice’s inhabitants spoke Hungarian. This was almost certainly the product of manipulation by Hungarian authorities. Such chauvinism had its limits and they were reached by the outbreak of World War I.

The oppressor became the oppressed after the war, when Kosice was given to Czechoslovakia. This inaugurated an era when Slovaks were in the ascendant. Most of Kosice’s multiculturalism vanished with the post-World War II expulsion of ethnic Germans and oppression of Hungarians. Communism made Kosice a Slovak city through and through. When it collapsed, the Slovakian population was left looking for something other than heavy industry to heal their economic wounds. One of Kosice’s great selling points was its historic city center, an architectural and cultural wonderland full of charm. Ironically, this area has always been the epicenter for multi-cultural Kosice. A place impossible to ignore, despite or perhaps because of its gloriously conflicted past.

Click here for: A Sense Of The Sensational – Jakab’s Palace & Gothic Glamour (The Kosice Chronicles #3)

A Little Bit of Venice, A Whole Lot of Wealth – Perast: On A Strait Path (A Balkan Affair #14)

It was two days before Orthodox Christmas, not to mention a Sunday. Kotor was as close to a ghost town as it would probably ever get. Locals were scarce, tourists even more so. Montenegrins were home with their families, sipping coffee and catching up on conversation. The handful of tourists I had crossed paths with were probably going to sleep the day away. This did not bode well for finding public transport from Kotor to Perast. I realized this while standing on a windblown strip of sidewalk for almost an hour while waiting on a local bus that never arrived.

The entire time an angry, cold wind whipped off the nearby bay and blew right through to my bones. At one point a man who looked rougher than the rocks that soared behind the Old Town, walked up to me and attempted to ask what time the bus would arrive. I pointed at the time on my phone. This elicited a look of irritation. He then said something about needing the bus to get to work. He must not have needed it too bad, since he disappeared in 15 minutes and never came back. I began to grow skeptical that the bus would ever arrive. Thus, I walked back to my accommodation where the proprietor arranged for a taxi to take me to Perast.

An Ideal Image - Waterfront road through Perast

An Ideal Image – Waterfront road through Perast

Geography Defines History – A Place In The Sun
His name was Petar, he had a huge nose, wore sunglasses and looked like he had managed to stay calm every day of his entire life. He only spoke scattershot English, but for the most part we were able to understand each other. Enough so that I could learn a few things about him. Petar was from Niksic, where he said the economy revolved around breweries and bauxite mines. He now lived in Kotor, driving a taxi he did not own. Nonetheless, he was making a better living here shunting tourists around, than he could back in Niksic. Petar treated all my questions the same way he treated driving, with utter indifference. He seemed not to care about much of anything. I found his attitude strangely admirable. The most animated he became was when he pointed at some fishing platforms where large nets were cast in better weather. Our conversation was tepid, but it hardly mattered since the scenery was spectacular. Mountains rose several thousand meters up into the sky from both sides of the bay. White caps appeared and dissipated with ferocious rapidity as the wind blew the water white and black.

Before long Petar stoically announced “Perast”. We turned off the main road and were soon speeding along the waterfront past multi-storied stone buildings that looked as though they had been standing here forever. Petar stopped in front of a square to let me out. We agreed that he would return for the pickup in three hours. I immediately saw a historical information plaque that gave some details of Perast’s rich history. I later learned much more from guidebooks. Perast was one of those places that punched above its weight historically. An astonishing feat for what amounted to a bayside village that never held more than 1,643 people. Geography was decisive in Perast’s history as it overlooked the narrowest point guarding the Veringe Channel between the Bay of Risonal and the Bay of Kotor. Controlling this strait was of paramount importance to both the Venetians and Ottomans who vied for supremacy in the area for over four hundred years.

Reaching Towards The Sky - The Church of St. Nikola & Campanile in Perast

Reaching Towards The Sky – The Church of St. Nikola & Campanile in Perast

Leading The Way – Rise Of A Naval Power
Perast was lucky enough to fall under the sway of the Venetian Republic. That waterborne empire found Perast to be of great use to it, both for seamen and seafaring. At one point, Perast had four shipyards building a variety of watercraft as well as a naval school that helped educate some of the best sailors in European history. It was Perastians who provided the expert navigators who helped propel the Venetian side to victory against the Ottomans at one of the most famous naval battles in world history, at Lepanto in 1571. Such exploits led to Perastians being given the honor of protecting the Venetian standard during battle. Perast also achieved lasting fame when Peter the Great of Russia sent his future naval leaders to its maritime school. The exchange was two way as Perast supplied admirals that helped Russia win control of the Baltic Sea. One of these was Matija Zmajevic, who led a trifecta of victories over the Swedes.

Perast’s naval exploits brought it fortune along with fame. This can still be seen today in the Gothic palaces that line the waterfront. At one point there were 20 palaces in Perast. Those still standing evoke the regal architecture that Venetian rule bequeathed on the town. Constructed from limestone and worn by centuries of radiant sunshine and sea spray, these stone edifices allowed the great families of Perast to look directly out onto the water. It was an enchanting prospect, that must have heartened many a family member who saw their loved one sailing safely into harbor.

Dream in Blue - View from Perast

Dream in Blue – View from Perast

The Course of Empire – Wind, Water & Stone
The most important port of call for me was a striking piece of architecture that shot skyward. The unfinished Church of Saint Nikola, with its 55 meter high campanile rising over the town, drew my eye upward. For many years, it was the tallest structure along the eastern Adriatic’s shoreline. The campanile was magnificent, but my efforts to get inside the tower and church were in vain. There would not have been much to see anyway. Only an apse and the campanile were ever completed. They came at a cost of some 200 kg worth of gold. Wealth was not lacking in Perast. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about the finishing touch. My enduring memories of Perast will forever consist of wind, water and stone. I got my fill of all three of these in just three hours. The entire town seemed to be made of stone whether it was stairs, arches, alleyways or palaces.

A cold wind howled off the water, throwing up waves and warning anyone foolish enough to contemplate a voyage to the famed islands of St. George and Our Lady of the Rocks. I knew better than to even think about it. I had Perast largely to myself. There was nothing left to do except walk the empty streets, imagining how much and how little had changed in Perast since the late 18th century. The Venetian Republic was no more, but the power and privilege it afforded this small town could still be detected. Perast had helped sustain an empire and in the process sustained itself right up to the present day.

Click here for: Off-Seasons Greetings in Kotor – Tinder Box: Implosions & Explosions In The Balkans (A Balkan Affair #15)

Pyramid Schemes – The Afterlife of Enver Hoxha: A Nation Entombed

You can tell a lot about an Eastern European nation by the most famous building in its capital city. In Budapest, there is the exquisite eclecticism of the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament, a statement of grandeur so striking that it single-handedly transforms how one sees the city. In Bucharest, stands the gargantuan Palace of the People, a hulking edifice of such ridiculous proportions that it acts as the ultimate monument of megalomania and an expression of just how depraved the ruling regime of Romania became after forty years in power. In Belgrade there is the Church of Saint Sava, a supersized Serbian rendition of sacred architecture that represents the centrality of Orthodoxy in the country’s consciousness.

In Prague, there is the Castle, a suite of structures so spectacular that the visitor senses a greatness in Czechs much greater than they could have ever imagined. Iconic buildings are more than capital improvement projects, they are expressions of the national soul captured at a particular point in time. This might also be said of the Pyramid in Tirana, Albania. It is a symbol of decadence and depravity, a mirror image of both the time period and man it was meant to extol, Enver Hoxha. What was once a dead dictator’s mausoleum/museum is now the symbol of an era in Albanian history that continues to rear its ugly head.

A Diabolical Design - The Pyramid of Tirana

A Diabolical Design – The Pyramid of Tirana (Credit: David r 1929)

Diabolical Designs – A Vanity Project
Pyramids must plague the nightmares of Albanians. If the one standing at the heart of Tirana was not bad enough, there is also the living memory of a pyramid scheme in 1997 that developed into a full blown financial crisis. The resultant fallout led to unrest throughout the country. The incident also resulted in hundreds of thousands of Albanians losing their savings. While the memory still haunts, the economy has thankfully moved forward since those dark days. On the other hand, Albanians have to live with more than a memory when it comes to that other pyramid. Those who live in Tirana cannot help but notice the pyramid that occupies an important space in the city center. This was just the way Enver Hoxha’s daughter and her co-architects envisioned it. Following Hoxha’s death in 1985, they designed a monument to the man they worshiped and almost everyone else in Albania loathed. It was a pyramid covered in marble tiles. Inside was a museum and mausoleum to the late, not so great dictator.

The pyramid was problematic from the very start. The country was so impoverished by the time of Hoxha’s death that it could scarcely afford such a vanity project. While Albanians were starving, construction proceeded apace. After three years the pyramid was complete. Ironically, the expenditures on the Pyramid likely helped to expedite the coming change of system. In another three years, the pyramid’s original function was rendered useless by the collapse of communism. Almost overnight, Hoxha became a pariah. His body was removed from the mausoleum and the building was re-purposed into a convention center. It is interesting to speculate what Hoxha, the human embodiment of resistance to capitalism would have thought about his tomb becoming an economic apparatus to stimulate the economy he had ruined.

Into the Abyss - Entrance to the Pyramid

Into the Abyss – Entrance to the Pyramid (Credit: Quinn Dombrowski)

Surreal Symbol – The Modernist Albatross
Unfortunately for Albania, the post-Hoxha years may have offered freedom, but they failed to bring prosperity. The Pyramid soon became a surreal symbol of post-communist Albania’s deterioration. The convention center failed, just like much of the nation’s economy. Various investors attempted to revive this modernist albatross without success. Meanwhile, vandals covered it in graffiti and souvenir sellers tore off the marble tiles to hock them for hard cash. At one point, there were several night clubs housed inside the structure. Once a tomb, then a house of tawdriness, the Pyramid was symptomatic of a nation lost in a maze of depravity and degeneration. Hoxha’s ghost was haunting Albania at its very heart.

In another bit of bizarre irony that would have made Hoxha turn in his tomb (if he had not already been removed from it), the Pyramid was used by NATO as a humanitarian staging area during the war in Kosovo. Hoxha hated foreigners with a passion and suspected that every one of them were spies. Now they were occupying his most sacred former space. When NATO vacated the Pyramid, in came television stations. Now mass media, something else Hoxha hated and feared in equal measure, was calling his former death digs home. The Pyramid could not escape the ghost of its Red Pharaoh.

Nothing to see here - View of Tirana from the top of the Pyramid

Nothing to see here – View of Tirana from the top of the Pyramid (Credit: Albinfo)

A Memory Marker – Sliding Down The Surface
A strange thing happened on the way to oblivion for the Pyramid, many Albanians began to grow fond of it. When the government wanted to have it torn down and a new parliament built to occupy the space, protests began to break out. The proposal went nowhere, as did the Pyramid which stood silent and forlorn. Meanwhile, young Tiranans got a cheap thrill from climbing atop and then sliding down what were left of the marble tiles. The Pyramid in Tirana had inevitably become another piece of communist kitsch, joining the ranks of Trabants, innumerable Lenin statues and red stars in the dustbin of history. The Pyramid went from loathed to not quite loved. Every time the government talked about tearing the Pyramid down, protesters rose to the occasion and managed to save it from destruction.

Why would any Albanian want to save the Pyramid? Because it was a reminder of a darkness that had nearly destroyed the nation and that should never be forgotten.  In a strange twist of fate, the Pyramid had returned to its original intent, a marker of memory. What had started off as a grand homage to Hoxha, had become a monumental monstrosity to his rule. The Pyramid was, like the system that gave rise to it, forever falling apart. It defeated all ideas for improvement. A waste of resources both financial and material, the Pyramid could be forever re-purposed and still be a useless eyesore. It was a money pit, in a land without money. A museum, whose only artifact was itself. A dangerous idea that never made sense. The Pyramid was the Hoxha era’s most lasting work of art and Albania has been all the worse for it.

 

Concrete Constructions – “Bunkerization” in Albania: Monuments To Megalomania

It is said that every country gets the leader it deserves. That is not quite true, because no country in the world deserved the leadership of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha’s forty-one year reign of staggering mismanagement and political malevolence in Albania was downright appalling. The regime he led was most notable for a backwardness not to be found anywhere else in Europe. The Hoxha regime provided a new definition to the phrase “regression to the mean.” The Albanian government was dishonest and depraved. The people were to be controlled rather than ruled, everything was done to keep power in the hands of one man, Enver Hoxha. For that, Albanians suffered grave injustices

Relief only came with Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the collapse of Albania’s communist government in 1990.  The nation finally had a chance to move on or at the very least to move forward. Unfortunately for Albania, a large proportion of its population, some 800,000 fled the country in the years since communism’s collapse. As for those Albanians left behind, there is always something left to remind them of the dreadful Hoxha years. Specifically, Albania is covered in concrete bunkers. These unsightly edifices pockmark the country’s otherwise beautiful landscape. To say that they are a constant reminder of the Hoxha regime is an understatement.

Bunker mentality - Concrete bunker on city street in Shkoder, Albania

Bunker mentality – Concrete bunker on city street in Shkoder, Albania (Credit: Jeroenverp)

Hunkering Down – War On Every Front
Some dictators secure their legacy by building monuments to themselves, Enver Hoxha built bunkers. At the midpoint of his long and terrifying tenure Hoxha became infatuated with bunker building. He ordered concrete bunkers constructed across every square kilometer of Albania. It was an infrastructure project of depressingly epic proportions informed by a dangerous combination of megalomania and stupidity. Meanwhile, Hoxha and his henchmen did not bother with building decent roads, because their construction efforts were consumed, quite literally, by a bunker mentality. The upshot was a profligate symbol of paranoia in almost every place imaginable. There are more concrete bunkers in Albania than the population of all but two of its cities.  From remote mountain passes to beaches, city streets to cemeteries, concrete bunkers grew like mushrooms. The policy that led to their construction was dubbed “bunkerization.” The kind of idea that a paranoid megalomaniac might find appealing.

The reasoning behind the bunkers was both ridiculous and predictable. Hoxha saw enemies everywhere, not only on the streets of Albania, but also casting covetous eyes on the nation’s territory. The Greeks were supposedly eyeing territory in the south. The Italians wanted to pounce on Albania’s Adriatic coastline. In the north stood Marshal Tito, a man who Albanians were told wanted to make their country another Yugoslav province. Hoxha’s vision of Albania’s future was the opposite of peace and prosperity. His dream would be most leader’s nightmare. It consisted of a multi-front war which would be led by NATO or Warsaw Pact forces looking to destroy Albanian independence. Thus, he needed to ensure his people’s preparedness at all costs. This was the reasoning behind the policy of bunkerization. Never mind that the policy made no sense.

The countries Hoxha claimed were potential invaders of Albania could never have afforded to occupy and rebuild a nation that by the standards of modern civilization was in a complete state of ruin. Members of Albania’s military and political apparatus who knew better did not dare voice their disapproval of Hoxha’s permanent state of war policy. Dissent was a virtual death sentence. Hoxha’s minions feared for their lives and marched in lockstep behind him as he led Albania into oblivion. It was an entirely emasculated nation. Hoxha’s diabolical leadership style was marked by regression rather than progression. Concrete bunkers were just the most recognizable symptom of a terrible illness that Albania contracted from Hoxha’s hard line brand of communism.

Getting defensive - Concrete bunker in an Albanian cemetery

Getting defensive – Concrete bunker in an Albanian cemetery (Credit: Elian Stefa & Gyler Mydyti)

Destructive Constructions – In Favor of The Imaginary
Building the bunkers was part of a decades long process to militarize the populace. Civil defense was taken with the utmost seriousness. Twice a month Albanians were required to take part in drills that often lasted for several days. They were even issued guns. Of course, the authorities kept the ammunition out of their hands. In Hoxha’s mind, Albania had to be ready for war at a moment’s notice and they were. Living under Hoxha’s regime required a wartime mentality, the only problem was that the real enemy was within. Albania’s government inflicted grievous wounds upon the citizenry. For instance, the spending on concrete bunkers came at the expense of nearly everything else in the economy.

Despite incessant professions of militarism during Hoxha’s campaign to keep Albania on a permanent wartime footing, the armed forces were badly equipped, poorly clothed and lacked modern weaponry. Meanwhile, the nation’s infrastructure fell further and further into disrepair. Every pound of concrete that went into the bunkers was a pound less that could be used to improve horrifically potholed roads. The concrete was also needed for building apartment blocks to alleviate a housing shortage. One bunker used enough material to build a two-room apartment. Unfortunately, the people had no say in the matter. Adding insult to injury, ordinary citizens were commandeered to keep the bunkers clean. Reality was ignored in favor of the imaginary.

The bunkers became hot spots for sex or other illicit activities kept from the prying eyes of state control. In truth, this was probably the sanest use of these structures. Scarcely any of Hoxha’s henchman cared to analyze their military efficacy. One Defense Minister who did publicly question their utility was promptly executed. The most common type of bunker was the pre-fabricated, dome shaped QZ Qender Zjarri (“firing position”) which could house one or two men at most who would fire out of a slit. Anyone trying to defend one of these bunkers in a shooting war would have been a sitting duck. The QZ was one of several types of bunkers Hoxha had installed across the country to fend off the invasions which were only imminent in his mind.

Scene stealer - Bunker in the Albanian Alps at Velbona

Scene stealer – Bunker in the Albanian Alps at Velbona (Credit: Elian Stefa & Gyler Mydyti)

Nowhere To Hide – Every Man Against Himself
In 1985 Enver Hoxha died and most of his worst ideas went with him to the grave. Bunker construction was halted not long after his death. In a tragic bit of irony, the bunkers were finally used in a shooting war during the early 1990’s as Albanians fought one another in a civil war to decide who would rule the country after communism collapsed. What no one seemed to notice is that Albanians had been fighting each other during the entirety of Hoxha’s reign. For forty-one years there was nowhere for Albanians to hide, not even in the concrete bunkers which covered their country.