Posts Tagged ‘european history’

This is a dual Romanian/English publication.
Available from:
Colectile Revistei ‘Orizont Literar Contemporani’, Bibliotheca Univeralis

Effs

There are so many untold stories.

Early mornings I would be waiting, shivering, for the early bus to go to work. One companion of those mornings was a Romanian man. Once he told me, ‘Boating was my life, then. I would have happily spent my whole life sailing on the Black Sea.’
‘One year,’ he said, ‘everyone was issued with iodine tablets. No exceptions; no explanations. That was thought to be sufficient. I remember it; it was 1986. The year of Chernobyl.’

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Daniel Dragomrisecu has set himself a very important task, in this book. He is rescuing the memories, the works, the reputations of people lost to the old regime. People who fell out of favour. People lost to time’s relentless tumble.
He gives us eight recollections, and revaluations.

Romania.
The Ceausescu regime, with its grand empty palace and boulevard. Claudio Magris, in his book Danube, writes: “Hiroshima” is the name  bestowed by the people of Bucharest on the quarter of the city  which Ceausescu is gutting, levelling, devastating … building his Centre, the monument to his glory.

But what of the starving villages’  untold stories?

What Daniel Dragomirecu has done here is collect together articles and memoirs he has published in newspapers, magazines, journals, and published them in a dual translation book, called Effigies in the Mirror of Time.

Ok, we started with Romania, but we need to narrow-down, zoom-in. Let’s find Moldavia, and in Moldavia, the region of Vaslui. This is the hub for all the stories, the personalities.
How often do we hear or read news from Moldavia?

We have here writers, intellectuals, philosophers, engineers, and a comedy actor: the exuberant, gifted, Constantin Tanese.
This sketch-song of his could well be a timeless anthem:

Nothing has changed / Everything is the same
/ Everywhere the same lies / So what have we done? /
Revenge is plotted behind the scenes / As it has not
been seen before / The country is full of VIPS / So
what have we done? / Our people leave, our people
come! / This is the famous slogan, / We have been
fools to vote again / So what have we done?

The story was that he was shot whilst on stage – he was doing a satire on Russians, the new power. A Soviet officer in the audience stood, up and shot him dead.
Did it really happen? Was that how we wanted him to go?
Or was the end of the great man more prosaic?
Truth and legend, both are necessary, both are stories from which we gain life and sustenance. But truth must take precedence; always.

When communism was abandoned, many here in the West hoped that the best of that regime – or was it the most durable? – would be combined with the best/most durable in the West, to create a better society. The old Marxist dialectic, with its synthesis: how people love to make patterns.
Now, it seems, many feel what they have instead is another lost possibility. Because what modern capitalism has to offer is repugnant in many ways. And durability does not promise anything, either.

In the West these ideas, the dialectic, were never put into practice; we did not witness its effects on people as with the people Daniel here rehabilitates.

Take, for instance, Cezar Ivanescu (1941 -2004). He was an uncrowned prince among academics: Don Cezar. Writer, philosopher, critic, academic par excellence. He was severely beaten in the 1990 Miner’s Strike, and hovered between life and death for weeks.

As a less violent example, take Nicolae Malaxa (1884 to 1965). Born in humble circumstances he grew up and developed an acute managerial sense combined with a dedicated engineering skills. Train engine maker, car engine manufacturer, heavy-engineering magnate. Only to lose it all when all his great enterprises were nationalised under the new regime.
What the man could have done for Romania.

Many here were academics, writers, poets.
We ask now, what is the worth of such work? We ask that because everything now is monetarised, including health-care, basic necessities. Cultural value differs from monetary value; there is also the value of a persons’ life in itself.

And the irony of free-thought. In the context of the early part of last century when these people were young, free-thought still meant mostly left-wing ideas. And so when left-wing ideas became a (supposed) reality, they found themselves once more on the margins. Why was this?
Left-wing practice had its own very special character. Only those who legislated knew what it was; this is a well-known managerial tactic, to keep everyone slightly off-balance.
What was one of Stalin’s first acts as leader? Get rid of all the old Bolsheviks.
The old and out-of-place ideas and idealists had to go. The last thing they needed was free-thought.

Teodar Rescanu (1887 to 1952) was such a left-wing idealist. And writer: it is heartening to see his books being re-discovered.
He was out-of-step with the new regime. He had been imprisoned for his support of the left, but even that did no good with the new boys. He was black-listed, and the ostracism became increasingly brutal as conditions hardened.  Suicide was always an option, and he chose it.

One of the many virtues that stand out among these exemplars, is their dedication to the people, and to the idea of Romania. It almost becomes as if the whole communist experiment has a hiccup in history, a glitch, that all are quickly working at eradicating.
That is, until you see the human dimension.
The people in this book are ones who lost out to that glitch, and the ones who follow – this is especially illustrated in Daniel Dragomirescu’s relationship with Don Cezar, and in turn with poet Ion Enoche – are left to reconcile this loss, and rescue from it a sense of human value.

V I Catarama – it is very hard to find general information on the man. And yet at one time he was an esteemed man of letters, and teacher – an Apostle of Education, as Daniel Dragomisrecu entitles him.
He fell foul of the system in 1958, and was held until 1964. He was the son of a farm worker, a left-wing supporter. It was not enough.
His reinstatement was marginal; he was allowed to teach. Although the continued scrutiny this entailed must have been oppressive.

Ion Enoche is an interesting case: on the fall of the old regime, he still had no place. He had become such a thorough non-conformist he could no longer adapt to any system. Daniel Dragmirescu implies that the over-riding  atmosphere after the fall of the regime was predominantly political, and busy with rebuilding the new Romania.
Enoche could not adapt to this, he was singular, and one-directional; his sole focus was poetry, a poetry cleansed of any politics, official or otherwise.
How was this possible?
Daniel Dragomirescu gives a moment from one of his works:

a poor, bedraggled, and starving Roma woman was riffling through a garbage can
for ‘a ray of sunshine.’

The set up of contrasting elements, and steering of image out of one circumscribed field of imagery towards another, more open and encompassing one, one of human values, is masterly.
It is, still, we could argue, political.
See also:
https://ion-enache.blogspot.co.uk/

Another online source related to this book is:
Ion Iancu Lefter: https://cumpana.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/pagina-121.pdf

*

This is such an important and necessary project.
It only tells a fraction of the story, of course; he acknowledges this.
It is a work of love, as well as rehabilitation.

May I suggest that he follow it up with a companion book, on the subject of notable women?
I would eagerly look forward to such another book.

*

I met a bedraggled man at the bus stop. I knew him vaguely. He had just come from the police station.
My house boat was robbed last night. They were banging on the doors, the sides. They’re a group of Romanians. They’re doing all the house boats.
What did they take?
I had no money or food; they took my chairs. They live over the back, in tents in a quarry. I phoned the police, when they were there. They laughed, Your police are pussies, they said.

It is a small town, and yes, they are pussies. It is a tacit understanding: we don’t do anything too bad, and they don’t come in too heavy.
It’s better that way.
The capitalism may be repugnant, but this works. For the time being.

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Harold Nicholson (1886-1968), in his Chichele Lectures, Oxford University, 1953, and published as The Evolution of Diplomatic Method, Constable, 1953, repeated several anecdotes from his earlier book, The Congress of Vienna, 1812-22: A Study in Allied Unity. Constable, 1948.

The anecdotes are all about the fights for precedence and position among ambassadors.

He writes, to begin with:
In 1504 Pope Julius II had composed a table of precedence, under which the (Holy Roman) Emperor (Maximilian I) came first, the King of France second, the King of Spain third, and so on down to the smaller dukes, despots and princes. Under this table the King of England came seventh on the list, after the King of Portugal, but just in front of the King of Sicily….

This would be the last years of England’s Henry VII.
How different perspectives give completely different evaluations! On what did Pope Julius II base his table?
Contemporary England certainly seems determined to get back down here.

The real juicy quotes are as follows:
Ungainly incidents were always occurring, one of the most notorious of which took place in London in 1661, when the coach of the Spanish ambassador tried to push in front of that of the French ambassador, a battle occurred with loss of life among the footmen and postilions, diplomatic relations were severed between Paris and Madrid and a very real danger of war arose.

All in one breathless sentence, note!

He gives a further, hilarious, example:
As late as 1768, at a Court Ball in London, the French Ambassador, observing that the Russian Ambassador had established himself in front seat next to the Austrian Ambassador, climbed round over the back benches and inserted himself physically between them. This led to a duel at which the Russian Ambassador was severely wounded

Interesting to note that the second anecdote is a direct follow-on from the first, and yet the term ‘ambassador’ has been capitalised/upper-capped in the second. Copy-editor, anyone?

And we thought we had seen it all!
President Trumps’ barging the Montenegro President out of the way, for his celeb photo-shoot is peanuts next to this.

 

Harold Nicholson was the husband of Vita Sackville-West, based at Sissinghust, Kent. He was a knighted as Sir Harold for his diplomatic duties. At one point he was First Secretary to the League of Nations. He became a Labour MP after resigning from the Diplomatic Corps.
His was a ‘colourful’ life.

The Collapse – The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall. By Mary Elise Sarotte.
Basic Books, 2014. ISBN 9780465064948

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I want to recommend a great recent book on the story behind the fall of the Berlin Wall. (This piccie of the cover does not catch the eye and face of a border guard peering through the gap in the Wall at the photographer.)  It’s a history book – but don’t let that put you off.

The author, Mary Elise Sarotte, is Visiting Professor of Government and History at Harvard, and Dean’s Professor of History at University of Southern California.

Another link worth following:http://www.katrin-hattenhauer.de/

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I’d like you to meet Harald Jager. He was born in 1943, the son of a Border policeman in what was soon to become East Germany. By 1964 he had entered the Border patrol himself.

What is special, in this story, about Harald Jager?

He was the senior Stasi employee on Bornholmer strasse Border Crossing Point, on the night of 9th November 1989. ‘He was essentially a record-keeper, one of the deputies to the senior figure…’ Mary Elise Sarotte writes.

He had begun work at eight that morning for a twenty-four hours’ stint at Bornolmer. He was the senior figure on duty. He was also very worried, to begin with: he had just had a test for possible cancer. He was nervously waiting for the results.

Gunter Schabowski, the Politburo member for the Media, had made a hasty announcement at the end of a tedious TV broadcast that evening. This end announcement was itself a hastily patched-together script; it couldn’t be examined by top Politburo people because they were tied up in internal wrangling. Nor could it be given assent by the Soviets because they were on extended leave celebrating the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

They all presumed it was bona fide, and gave it the nod.

What was it about, this script? The relentlessly growing pressure inside East Germany had forced the authorities into giving some kind of placatory announcement. But there were those, the hard-liners, favoured the China Approach: the Tiananmen Square resolution to trouble-causers. And there were the ones who called for more diplomatic solutions. The two were destabilising the already atrophied regime from the inside.

This script announced that East Germans would be able to travel outside, legitimately. But it was an emigration only exit. They must apply for permits of course. And here the regime thought they were being crafty: such permits would be difficult.

When would this come into effect?

Right away.

The gabbled announcement on TV – he had not read it through beforehand – seemingly handed to East Germans an exit visa. Not only that but the announcement named West Berlin, a rare occurrence in connection with travel. Especially during this period of great unrest: the Hungarian border-leak had been plugged; the Czech leak was causing great upset and putting even more pressure on the East German regime,

 

Harald Jager was senior man on duty that night. He had twenty-five year’s loyal service behind him.
Then people started turning up at the check point, demanding to be let through. They had heard the broadcast, and very few regime members had bothered to listen. Harald Jager had heard it – he was astounded.

People began to turn up in their hundreds. This was happening at every check point. The numbers grew all night long. They were peaceful, but insistent. Thousands came, and they were growing.
This was on the back of the huge demonstrations in Leipzig and Dresden

In a centralised system like East Germany, all permissions had to come from above. Harald put through about thirty calls to his superiors that night: How do we deal with this?

And they had no idea. They tried all sorts of tactics, but outright denial of exit would most certainly make matters worse, turn a peaceful gathering of people into a potential danger.
All guards had received instructions months before not to fire unless attacked themselves.

One tactic the superiors suggested was take in the ring-leaders, the trouble-makers, as though processing for exit, then let them out – but do not allow them to return. They did this.

The trouble was people saw others getting through.

The regime had misread the people so badly: there were no ring-leaders; trouble-makers were just people who were more insistent, made more noise.

This made the pressure worse.

He rang his superiors again: What do we do? Harald’s superior patched him into a conference call: Don’t speak, just listen.

And what he heard was his superiors, out of touch, out of the loop of what was actually happening on the ground, questioning his abilities, calling him a coward. The connection was cut. Harald was left to himself, fuming, betrayed, abandoned.

We all know what happened, but it is the How that is most important. Read and find out.

Harald Jager in later life, at Bornholmer strasse:coll1

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This is just one of the fascinating, heartbreaking REAL stories contained in this book.
All are meticulously researched: many, like this one, are pulled together from  interviews cross-checked with Stasi phone transcripts.

What happened to Harald? In unified Germany he had no job. He managed odd work here and there. Then he retired, on a meager pension.

Oh, and his cancer tests proved negative.

Many East German dissidents felt let down by the unification. Some felt that a greater democratisation was already on its way. Think of Gorbachev and his modernisations, his Glasnost etc. But the Czech and East German regimes opposed them. This disunity played its part in the communications failure of 9th November 1989.

Some dissidents hoped for – and I have read this recently as well – that the new Germany would combine the best of both East and West. In the event they felt, rightly, they had been steam-rollered by the Western powers. I had hoped this would happen too: creating a new European model – ah, the old dialectical synthesis idea, how it lingered.

One of the many commendable aspects of this book is how Mary Elise Sarotte has kept Western (USA, Britain, France) politicking out of the story. Hers is a story told by the participants, and they were the people on the ground, the streets.

Mary Elise Sarotte:

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Many talk of ‘tipping points’ in history. This seems a bit of a lazy idea: maybe it is that concepts of such a thing as ‘history’ gives birth to these things. History is the story the historian tells from the information of all sorts, in all forms, its nuances and contexts: history is in reality a scatter of information around several centres within an event time-frame. This posits a psychological angle on the presentation of history as history: the historian’s predilections. It is inevitable. How they get around this, I suspect, is why many seized on Derrida’s ideas so readily: history as the text of texts of texts: objective, measurable to some extent.

An identifiable tipping point is the construct of the historian.

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Wikipedia gives us the following; let’s use it as a footnote:

His claim to be the first to breach the Wall was questioned in 2009 when Heinz Schäfer, a former colonel in the East German army, claimed that he had opened his crossing at Waltersdorf in the south of the city a few hours earlier, which would explain the supposed presence of East Berliners in the area before Jäger opened his gate.[6]

Later life[edit]

Following the fall of the Wall, he was unemployed. In 1997, he was able to save up enough to open a newspaper shop in Berlin with his wife.[2][3] He has since written a book about his experience called The Man Who Opened the Berlin Wall.

The day after: 10th November, 1989, Bornholmer strasse Crossing Point:

Berlin, Grenzübergang Bornholmer Straße

ADN-ZB-Roeske-10.11.89-Berlin: Rund eine Million DDR-Bürger besuchten am Sonnabend Berlin (West). An den Grenzübergangsstellen, wie hier an der Bornholmer Straße wurde zügig abgefertig. Vom Ministerium des Innern wurden seit dem 9. November weit über 10 Millionen Visa für Privatreisen und über 17 500 Genehmigungen für ständige Ausreise aus der DDR erteilt.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1118-017 / Roeske, Robert / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5424866

Harald Hardrada – they don’t make them like that any more.

Born 1015, died 1066.

His real name was Harold Sigurdsson, son of a king of Norway. He ascended the throne himself in 1047.

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In 1030 he fought in the major Norwegian battle of Stiklestad. It didn’t go well for him, and the contending forces of Norway’s unsettled minor kingdoms drove him into exile. He didn’t take to  this easily, and later in life made darned sure he got back at them, claiming kingship even of Denmark, as well as Norway.

It must have been this period he earned that epithet Hardrada, that is, hard ruler.

Before this though, is when he really had the time of his life.

Exile meant travelling through Sweden, Finland, to Russia. Russia in those days consisted of principalities ruled over by separate princes, kings. The heart of old Russia was Kiev. And that’s where he headed.

He was a king’s son, he was used to privilege and the companionship of princes and the relatively affluent. Travelling as an exile was not exactly comfortable, nor was his company always what he was used to. So, he headed for the princes and kings. And they welcomed him!

If he followed the Viking paths down the rivers, most importantly from Novgorod south, or over and down the Volga, or the Don, then he was sure to make it the place. Why do I say this? Well, Yaroslav’s wife Ingegerd was a distant relative of his. She was a Swedish princess married off to a Kiev King.

In Kiev he spent some time as captain of the warriors of Yaroslav the Wise. He rode many campaigns with them. Most probably against the Polovetsians, a nomadic people from Siberia, who had settled in what we now know as the Ukraine.
See the Song of Igor’s Campaign, classic Russian geste for more on these battles.

By 1034 he was in Byzantium, once again pestering the kings and princes. He became a Commander of the Varangian Guard, until 1042. His campaigns were reputedly wide ranging, taking him into the Middle-East, even as far as Iraq in some chronicles.
It was said he had developed a habit of dipping his hand into the treasury; at one point he was imprisoned. He had to leave Byzantium under cover of night: he had requested permission to leave, but was refused.
He ended up back in Kiev.
It was here he married Elisabeth, Yaroslav’s daughter. His poem to Elisabeth has been suggested as the origin of The Lament of Yaroslavna, in the Song of Igor’s Campaign.

They returned to Norway, where he promptly set about claiming the throne for himself. There followed a period of fierce settlements amongst old enemies and detractors.

By 1066 we find him leading a force against Harold of England. They engaged forces at Stamford Bridge.
From what we know of this battle, he was killed – an arrow in the throat? And then English Harold had to tramp down with his forces to Hastings, way down in Kent, and King William.
And the rest,  they say, is history.

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It is interesting to note the dates here; I know, dates are the bane of history.

It’s just somewhere to hang the structure to see it better. When you’re talking about life it’s just not chronological – we have lapses, go back a step or two, sometimes (if we’re lucky) race ahead, or more often than not have long periods of fallow: all over the place; any idea of chronology is crazy.

It’s just a device for ordering stuff in retrospect.

In this case they reveal to us a bit more of the man, and of the expectations, and mindset of the time he lived in.

Born 1015, ok. In Norway – don’t know where as such – but he was a part of the Norwegian ruling elite. His father Sigurd Syr was second husband to Asta Gundbrandsdattar. Why is this important? The form of his mother’s name became synonymous with Icelandic formations after the Settlement. Her first marriage resulted in the birth of Olaf, later St Olaf, king from 1025 to 1028.

It was after this the Norwegian throne was claimed by the Danish king, Cnut the Great. Yes, that’s right, that King Cnut, the one who also claimed the English throne.

The next date is 1030, the battle of Stiklestad, one of the most famous battles in Norway. It happened around Trondheim. Harald sided with his half brother Olaf against local claimants for the throne.

Oh, by the way – he was 15 at the time. Accounts say he acquitted himself well. Even if they lost the battle, and it was decided best for him ‘to live in exile’. His exile also entailed his taking his retinue, as a regal claimant.

1031 he had made it to Kiev: aged 16.

His reputation as a fighter travelled with him; so much so that he was taken on by Yaroslav the Wise. His wife, as mentioned, was a relation of Harald’s from Sweden.

He was involved in many campaigns there – against Poland, Estonians… there were many factional squabbles. He learned his trade, improved his craft.

1034 and he appeared in Byzantium, where he was eventually appointed commander of the Varangian Guard. They were an elite force, and bodyguards to the Emperor. There were and remained a predominantly Scandinavian group amongst the Byzantine Guard. The Guard began as a group of mercenaries paid to protect Byzantine interests. Empress Anna Komnene spoke of them highly for their valour, but found their manners and general bahaviour very weird. The Scandinavian warriors held highly the qualities of coolness under fire – and most other times; anyone who showed themselves to be unmoved by anything was highly esteemed.

It is possible his campaigns took him as far as the Euphrates (Iraq), and even Jerusalem.

A Greek book of 1070s, Kekaumenos’ Strategikon, recorded him winning favours from the Emperor. It was some time after this he was imprisoned by the new Emperor, and his powerful wife Zoe. There is some suggestion he dipped into the treasury coffers. William of Malmesbury, as well as Saxo Grammaticus all have their pennyworth to add – but it was all hearsay. New Emperors always distance themselves from the favoured ones of the Emperors they replace.

The new Emperor was not popular, and insurrections broke out – whether Harald was released to lead the fight back, is not clear. What is clear is that, when in 1042 he requested permission to leave Byzantium he was refused. And so he had to sneak away, with his loyal companions. And so, back to Kiev.

By 1047 he was married, back in Norway, and ascended the throne. Payback time for Denmark. Only, it didn’t quite end up like that. It did end up in a lifelong truce. So, if he could not claim Cnut’s Denmark, he looked to England, Cnut’s other legacy realm.

But before that, let’s take the instance of the great town of Hedeby near Schleswig, one of the few great towns of the region. Quite a lot has been unearthed about the town, but one significant period stands out. The period of the 1050s. Why? One source has it: ‘A thick layer of ash and charcoal in the central area represents the final destruction of the town just before 1050. Whether this fire was accidental or… by… Harald Hard-ruler… is unclear. This was the end of Hedeby…’

Submit, or be smashed.

Tostig Godwinson, who was the brother of Harold Godwinson, king of England, persuaded our Harald that he had a decent claim to the English throne. Brothers, eh! Can’t live with them, can’t trust them out of your sight!

September 1066, and the Harolds (well, HarAld, and HarOld) met outside York for a bit of the old heave-ho.  The first battle at Fulford went well for HarAld, but it seems it made him complaisant. The later one at Stamford Bridge finished him. And HarAld was killed.

He was 51.

According to Snorri Sturlson he was buried at Mary Church, Trondheim. A huge stone now commemorates his burial place.

Even the age of 51 is a little old and grizzled for some. Still, that was one life lived to the full.

A little like the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting time – it’s usually a disaster for the people trying to get by; always some sod trying to make them part of his big scheme for power. And he was one of those. Submit, or be smashed.