Tuesday, December 15, 2015

#5 Central Europe (CE)-- THE READING LIST

So what have I been reading during the past six months? I would guess some of you reading this blog know I toured Central Europe( shortened to CE) for 25 days in August, September with my brother, sister-in-law and 26 other retired academics from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana under the auspices of Friendship Force, an international travel and hosting organization working to improve understanding and knowledge of people and places around the world. The trip covered Slovakia, Vienna, Slovenia,Croatia, Hungary and back through Slovakia by motor coach, seeing many spectacular sights, eating great food and drinking fine wines and beers, and just generally having a swell time.

My older brother was in charge of this trip so you know where this is going. If you have an older brother, especially one who was a teacher, department head of a college department and dean of arts and sciences, you know the trip will be well planned. Integral to this was the reading and viewing list stretching several hundred pages about each country, city and site to be visited so we would be prepared. While most travelers ignored the list, I viewed and read as time allowed. I would certainly recommend movies like Kolya and A Shop on Main Street as excellent introductions to understanding Central Europe.

The books that I read that were most helpful to me were also limited. I read a number of stories in "Description of a Struggle: the Vintage Book of Contemporary Eastern European Writing" that collected 43 stories from authors in 16 countries. One story, I think called "The War", sticks in my memory especially as we travelled through what was Yugoslavia and the scene of so much fighting from World War l through the civil wars as the country broke up in the 1980s after the death of Tito. A small company of soldiers crosses a mountain pass and comes on a town, silent with death. Upon inspection, it appears partisans from the opposition have massacred everyone, stolen everything and moved on. The kicker is neither group of soldiers is named-- are they Nazis, slavic partisans, communists? It doesn't matter in the utter horror of war.

Simon Winder's "Danubia" was also on the list so I gave it a try and read the whole deal, all 576 pages of history of the Habsburg Empire that ran Central Europe from Bratislava and Vienna for 500 years until World War l brought Austria and Emperor Franz Joseph to an end. The book was equal parts interesting history, travel narrative and the author's views(sometimes odd) on music, culture, food, sex. animals in zoos.

A book not on the list but of great interest is a brand new book, "Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning" by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. I read this before the trip and it framed a lot of my thinking as we traveled. Snyder's thesis is that to understand the Holocaust, one must understand Adolf Hitler and his deterministic view that people and races could be eliminated or enslaved if they prevented the master group's progress. He admired the US removal of native American people from lands that were needed for farming, mining and sought to do that in CE with the goal to make the Ukraine a German territory. When military victories over the Soviet Union stopped at Moscow's outskirts, Hitler thought his goal in the war would be to totally eradicate the Jews, gypsies,and all other "undesirables" from Europe leading to the change from casual death pits at the edge of towns to an industrial model that led to Auschwitz.This is an important book that doesn't just deal with the past, but looks at the condition of today and asks if it could happen again.

During the trip I re-read "The Good Soldier Svejk" by Jaroslav Hasek, written in 1923 about the bumbling adventures of a Czech soldier in the services of the Emperor and the Austrian army fighting the slavs and the Russians in WW l. While not a travel book it is very funny and does describe a number of sites visited in CE.

The final book related to the tour was Dan Fesperman's "Lie in the Dark"(1999) which is set in Sarajevo, Bosnia as the Serbs pound the city that hosted the summer Olympics a few years earlier but now is a battlefield in a civil war. Vlado Petric is a city police detective who discovers the murdered body of the chief of the federal ministry of special police on the street in "snipers alley". Petric is assigned the investigation as war rages around those left in the city with no food, water, electricity. Corruption and cynicism are the two commodities that rule as Bosnians and Serbs who are sniping and mortaring each other 24/7, deal with each other to sell UN-supplied food. Why was the police chief killed? So that's what I've been reading the past six months.