A Personal History of Habsburg Europe
By Simon Winder
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2013 Simon Winder
All rights reserved.
Tombs, trees and a swamp >> Wandering peoples >> The hawk's fortress >> 'Look behind you!' >> Cultic sites >> The elected Caesars
Tombs, trees and a swamp
The southern Hungarian town of Pécs is as good a place as any to start a history of Habsburg Europe. It is hard to believe that it has ever been anything other than a genial provincial town – the unfortunate butt of wider international events, but not a place to initiate anything much. It is the last place heading south before the landscape gets terminally dusty, glum and thinly settled, so it has an oasis or frontier atmosphere and a sense that the cappuccinos are a bit hard-won. The scattering of great, much-mutilated buildings dotted about Pécs have all been repeatedly patched up in the wake of various disasters and the main square's charisma is much enhanced by the gnarled bulk of an endlessly hacked-about mosque converted unconvincingly into a church when the Turkish rulers surrendered the town's smoking ruins in 1686.
There is one quite extraordinary survival: a necropolis from when Pécs was a wine colony called Sopianae, capital of the Roman province of Pannonia Valeria. The most famous of these tombs was only uncovered in the late eighteenth century and features a set of frescos of scenes from the Bible. These were painted with the colour and sensibility of a mildly gifted nine-year-old child but rescued from inanity by the pictures' age and mournful patchiness. There are Adam and Eve, Noah and his Ark, St Peter and St Paul all somehow clinging on – bits falling off here and there – through fourteen hundred years of life underground.
When the necropolis was built in the fourth century Sopianae must have been a fairly anxious place because of the nearness of the very restive Imperial frontier. It was not a strongpoint in any sense and if one of the Danube forts had given way then the news would presumably have reached Sopianae via a terrified horseman galloping only a few yards ahead of large numbers of terrifying horsemen. The people living here were Latinized, Christian Germanic Imperial subjects and had been part of the empire for four centuries. The very term 'wine colony' obviously sounds cheerful. There were baths, an aqueduct, a basilica – the usual Roman fittings – and it perhaps had a jaunty Asterix-like atmosphere.
One element in the Pécs necropolis is gripping not because it features pictures or any curious decoration, but because of something it lacks. One tomb, reasonably dated to about AD 400, had been prepared for plastering, but never plastered: somebody had gone to considerable expense to build it for a wealthy relative, but then left it incomplete. This is just speculation, but more than plausibly the tomb was left in this state because this was the year when Sopianae ceased to exist. Everyone involved with commissioning or building that tomb either fled or was killed or enslaved by Hun raiders. The next reference to the town is in a document some half a millennium later and there is not even a single brick that can be dated to after 400. Centuries of rain and soil accumulation buried the tombs.
The annihilation of this part of Roman Europe is the founding background to everything that follows. What would become the southern zone of the Habsburg Empire was for centuries a world without writing, without towns, with only residual, short-distance trade, without Christianity. Some people probably always lived in the ruins of towns because walls provided some security and shelter, but the water-systems and markets that had allowed them to exist disappeared. There was nobody who could repair an aqueduct once it broke so there must have been some final day when the cisterns simply stopped filling. Ephemeral chieftains might use a surviving chunk of a grand building as a backdrop for a semi-realized palace, but nobody knew how to dress stone and therefore nothing new could be built. For centuries the only towns were wooden palisaded structures protected by a ditch. It was against this backdrop that the notional ancestors of Central Europe's modern nations appeared, wandering in from the east in what must have been pretty ripe-smelling military caravans.
Some clues about the fate of Europe after the Romans left can be found in Bautzen, in south-east Saxony. The town sits in gloomy woods and hills – and indeed is itself so gloomy that the great chasm that dominates it soaks up all colour, making even as lurid a bird as a jay flying into it go oddly monochrome. The chasm is created by the River Spree, a long way yet from its more famous role in Berlin. Even on a map, Bautzen looks an unlucky place – with mountain passes to the south which would tend to channel armies passing west or east into its vicinity. And indeed, in a crowded field, Bautzen must have a fair claim to be the most frequently burnt down place in the region, both on purpose and through accident.
Bautzen is interesting in all kinds of ways. It is part of the area known as Upper Lusatia, once ruled by the Habsburg Emperor (there is still a fetching image of Rudolf II decorating a watchtower) but given to the ruler of Saxony as a thank-you during the Thirty Years War in 1635. At a jumbled linguistic crook in Central Europe's geography, Upper Lusatia was a partly Germanic, partly Slavic territory which would find itself inside the borders of modern Germany. Because of this most of Upper Lusatia's inhabitants were sheltered from the massive ethnic cleansing that turned neighbouring Czechoslovakia and Poland monoglot in 1945. This accidentally preserved the old pattern, once common across the entire region, of German-speaking town-dwellers and Slav-speaking country-dwellers, in Upper Lusatia's case a small group known as the Sorbs. So Bautzen is also Budyin and the Spree the Sprjewja.
The town's great value is in its origins – and what it says about the origins of the whole of Central Europe. This is an issue where the stakes could not be higher. Each nationality in Central Europe defines itself by being more echt than any other: as having a unique claim to ownership of the land through some superior martial talent or more powerful culture or, most importantly, from having arrived in a particular valley first. Objectively, the carbon-dating of your language-group's European debut would seem of interest only to a handful of mouldering antiquaries. But through the labours of these fusty figures, it has become everybody's concern – and a concern that has led to countless violent deaths.
This hunt for origins became obsessive in the nineteenth century as a literate and aggressive language-nationalism came to dominate Central Europe. Town squares filled up with statues of heroic, shaggy forebears and town halls became oppressively decorated with murals of the same forebears engaged in i) frowningly breasting a hill and looking down on the promised land; ii) engaging in some ceremony with a flag or sword to found a town; and iii) successfully killing everybody who was there already. Schools rang to the sound of children reciting heroic epics. This was at the same time a great efflorescence of European culture and a disaster as the twentieth century played out these early medieval fantasies using modern weapons.
The Bautzen region is so curious because it shows what was at stake in the Dark Ages in which all these nationalities could find their roots. Archaeological studies of Lusatia show that Germanic tribes lived here, comfortably outside the reach of the Roman Empire, from about 400BC to AD 200, but that for some six centuries after that no humans seem to have lived there at all. It could of course be that these were humans who lived so simply that they no longer left burials, swords, pots, fort outlines or anything – but this seems implausible. For whatever reason there seem to have been very few or no people and the default forest cover which blanketed Europe grew back over earlier settlements, leaving nothing but wolves, bison and giant oxen to roam through the picturesque fog. The situation in Lusatia was extreme, but more broadly the population of much of inland Europe does seem to have collapsed. Barbarian raiders, Huns and others, who terminated Roman towns like Pécs seem to have also killed or driven off those living in the always quite small settlements north of the frontier.
In much of Central Europe trees are now merely a pretty adjunct to human habitation, although some thick cover remains in Bohemia and Slovakia. But the ancient tree cover used to be almost total except on very high, bleak land. If humans failed to cut the trees back then they would quickly return: a small settlement that failed through a bad harvest or through a massacre would vanish, its cleared land picked apart by millions of roots. The need to clear space and fight back the trees remained a major concern well into the Middle Ages, with lords offering land to peasants at a bargain rent if mattocks were needed (to clear tree roots), with the rent shooting up once the land could at last be ploughed. Even such famously grim and empty areas as the Hungarian Great Plain were smothered in trees.
The Germanic tribes which lived in a massive swathe from the North Sea to the Balkans seem to have seized up, retreated, diminished or moved to Britain, both because of attacks by Asian nomads and as a side-effect of the failure of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, as economic links frayed and vanished. A final major horror was the arrival in the mid-sixth century of plague. We have records of its devastating impact on the major towns of the eastern Mediterranean, but it clearly must have swept through trading routes deep into areas with none of the tradition of literacy that would have allowed the victims to record their own demise. There is a parallel with North America, where many tribal groups died of European diseases years before they were even in direct contact with Europeans. I remember a tiny, mournful display in a western Canadian museum, of moccasins and beads from inland Athabascans who all seem to have died, scattered unnoticed throughout the interior valleys. It is easy to imagine something very similar in the European interior, with plague following the thin trade routes up through the Balkans and settlements being destroyed and then their very existence smudged out by the relentless trees. The ease therefore with which small groups of Slavs, Magyars and Vlachs and others infiltrated Central Europe came from its sheer emptiness.
A striking glimpse into this untamed Europe can still be found in the Gemenc Forest in southern Hungary. When most of the Danube was reshaped and made navigable and predictable in the nineteenth century, the oxbows of the Gemenc region were left, both because they are so totally intractable and so they could be used as an archducal hunting ground. Arriving there on a hot summer day, it seemed placid enough. A helpful map on a board outside the forest marked out coloured trails and was neatly decorated with drawings of the forest's massive deer plus some imperious eagles and an oddly frisking wild boar up on its hind legs like a circus poodle. This schematic and rational exposition was already under threat though because the board was itself covered in dozens of twitching, buzzing beetles – fetchingly, half ultramarine and half copper – which skittered about all over the lettering. The sunlight flaring off the beetles already made things seem a bit peculiar and threatening, but this was nothing compared to the reality of the forest. Within moments the neatly marked paths became almost overwhelmed: human order giving way to nature run mad, a foetid dementia of plant life, with hoots, squeaks and grunts filling the air and everything cloaked in stifling semi-darkness by the old trees. Within minutes I had already come across an immense, completely out-of-control pond, its surface choked in millions of seeds and with frogs mucking about on floating debris. A further pond flooded the path and only a few hundred yards in I had to turn back. This was a riotous deciduous jungle of a kind that seemed more Brazilian than Hungarian. I could suddenly see why centuries of drainage courses, weirs, mattock-wielders, grazing animals, the ceaseless, boring, human patrol-work needed to create our societies, were much more important than mere fleeting political events. In the end I walked for several miles on top of an earth dam next to the forest (the dam itself a colossal response to the oxbows' periodic convulsive floods) and was rewarded with eagles, a brass-coloured doe of alarming size, a fox skeleton and a cowherd with his cattle and cowdog – but no boars. The lack of these noble animals could not detract from the extraordinary nature of the Gemenc Forest. Here was a small indication of what most river valleys must have been like in an era of very few humans. Just as the Ganges valley, now a burnt-brown treeless plain, used to be a tiger-filled mayhem of flooded, impassable forest, so much of lowland Europe was threatening to people and unusable. Most big European animals evolved for this habitat and would disappear along with it. But it was into a very swampy, tree-clogged and unrenovated world that small bands of warriors and their families began to infiltrate in the eighth century AD.
There is a particularly hysteria-edged frieze in the Western Bohemia Museum in Plzen by V. Saff, carved in 1900, imagining the arrival of the ancient Czechs in a forest, torturing and killing their enemies, tying them to trees, strangling them. In the usual proto-Art-Nouveau style, the sculptor follows through on an ethnographic hunch that surprising numbers of the tribal womenfolk would be in their late teens and free of clothing. The sadism of the carving is oddly reckless and preserves the nationalist mania of its period: urging the Czechs to stop sitting around reading newspapers and sipping herbal liqueurs and instead to embrace the burly virtues of their forebears. In practice we do not of course have any sense at all of what these ancient Czechs were like and Saff may not be entirely wrong about their savagery: although occasions on which women with amazing breasts swung around a severed human head by its top-knot were probably infrequent.
Romanian nationalists cleverly trumped everybody by claiming descent from the Romans, inhabitants of the old province of Dacia. This messed up all the Slav groups and the Hungarians, who had between them established a fairly clear AD 600–900 arrival date. A feature of several Romanian towns is a copy of the Roman statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by their adopted wolf mother. This bizarre gift was handed out by Mussolini in the early 1920s to suggest none too subtly that his own new empire had a racial ally, a fellow Child of Rome. There will be plenty more of this sort of stuff as the book progresses, but I hope it is already clear to every reader just how freakish and peculiar history's uses have been in the region.
But as was the case for everybody else, it seems in fact the Romanians arrived from elsewhere – probably from the more Latinized areas south of the Danube, modern Serbia or Croatia, which would explain why so rough and marginal an area of the old Roman Empire as Dacia should have kept its Latin flavour in an otherwise drastically changed region: it didn't. This unwelcome result should make all the rival nationalist historians throw up their hands in jokey horror, call it quits and have a non-ethnically specific drink together. If the Romanians have a mystic heartland that turns out actually to belong to another country then we may as well all just go home.
To take too strong an interest in this subject is to set out on the high road to madness. The extreme mobility of all these tribes is bewildering and the almost total lack of written records for centuries does not help. The overall picture seems to be a retreat by Germanic tribes into the west and the arrival of Slavic tribes, seemingly from a start-point in what is now eastern Poland, mixed in with further post-Hun invaders from various steppe tribes, from the Avars to the Magyars. Indeed, in a despairing variant, the elites of the original Croats and Serbs may have been speaking an Iranian language, which is the point where I think anybody sensible just gives up. Arrows drawn on maps build up into an astonishing spaghetti of population movement, charted through pot-fragments, house-post remnants and casual, perhaps frivolously made-up comments written down by poorly informed monks living centuries later and far away. The net result of these migrations can clearly be seen today. The ancestors of the Czechs settled in a region protected by a crescent of mountains (the Iron Mountains and the Bohemian Forest Mountains) that happened to shield them from German and Frankish predation. Their fellow Slavs in the north and south, the Saxons and the Carantanians, were destroyed by invading Germans and the survivors converted into German-speaking Christians, bequeathing only the names Saxony and Carinthia. Further east and south the early Moravians, Slovakians, Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgars, Poles, Ruthenes, Croats and Serbs spread out (and in themselves had numerous further subdivisions which have since been erased), generally under Avar overlordship. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Danubia by Simon Winder. Copyright © 2013 Simon Winder. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.