Category Archives: Baltics

‘The Good War’ Included Many Bad

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin’s, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6735-6779:

In his memoirs of the late 1940s and 50s, published after his death following the famous ‘umbrella assassination’ in London in 1978, the Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov told a story that is emblematic of the postwar period – not only in his own country, but in Europe as a whole. It involved a conversation between one of his friends, who had been arrested for challenging a Communist official who had jumped the bread queue, and an officer of the Bulgarian Communist militia:

‘And now tell me who your enemies are?’ the militia chief demanded.
K. thought for a while and replied: ‘I don’t really know, I don’t think I have any enemies.’
‘No enemies!’ The chief raised his voice. ‘Do you mean to say that you hate nobody and nobody hates you?’
‘As far as I know, nobody.’
‘You are lying,’ shouted the Lieutenant-Colonel suddenly, rising from his chair. ‘What kind of a man are you not to have any enemies? You clearly do not belong to our youth, you cannot be one of our citizens, if you have no enemies! … And if you really do not know how to hate, we shall teach you! We shall teach you very quickly!’

In a sense, the militia chief in this story is right – it was virtually impossible to emerge from the Second World War without enemies. There can hardly be a better demonstration than this of the moral and human legacy of the war. After the desolation of entire regions; after the butchery of over 35 million people; after countless massacres in the name of nationality, race, religion, class or personal prejudice, virtually every person on the continent had suffered some kind of loss or injustice. Even countries which had seen little direct fighting, such as Bulgaria, had been subject to political turmoil, violent squabbles with their neighbours, coercion from the Nazis and eventually invasion by one of the world’s new superpowers. Amidst all these events, to hate one’s rivals had become entirely natural. Indeed, the leaders and propagandists of all sides had spent six long years promoting hatred as an essential weapon in the quest for victory. By the time this Bulgarian militia chief was terrorizing young students at Sofia University, hatred was no longer a mere by-product of the war – in the Communist mindset it had been elevated to a duty.

There were many, many reasons not to love one’s neighbour in the aftermath of the war. He might be a German, in which case he would be reviled by almost everyone, or he might have collaborated with Germans, which was just as bad: most of the vengeance in the aftermath of the war was directed at these two groups. He might worship the wrong god – a Catholic god or an Orthodox one, a Muslim god, or a Jewish god, or no god at all. He might belong to the wrong race or nationality: Croats had massacred Serbs during the war, Ukrainians had killed Poles, Hungarians had suppressed Slovaks, and almost everyone had persecuted Jews. He might have the wrong political beliefs: both Fascists and Communists had been responsible for countless atrocities across the continent, and both Fascists and Communists had themselves been subjected to brutal repression – as indeed had those subscribing to virtually every shade of political ideology between these two extremes.

The sheer variety of grievances that existed in 1945 demonstrates not only how universal the war had been, but also how inadequate is our traditional way of understanding it. It is not enough to portray the war as a simple conflict between the Axis and the Allies over territory. Some of the worst atrocities in the war had nothing to do with territory, but with race or nationality. The Nazis did not attack the Soviet Union merely for the sake of Lebensraum: it was also an expression of their urge to assert the superiority of the German race over Jews, Gypsies and Slavs. The Soviets did not invade Poland and the Baltic States only for the sake of territory either: they wanted to propagate communism as far westwards as they were able. Some of the most vicious fighting was not between the Axis and the Allies at all, but between local people who took the opportunity of the wider war to give vent to much older frustrations. The Croat Ustashas fought for the sake of ethnic purity. The Slovaks, Ukrainians and Lithuanians fought for national liberation. Many Greeks and Yugoslavs fought for the abolition of the monarchy – or for its restoration. Many Italians fought to free themselves from the shackles of a medieval feudalism. The Second World War was therefore not only a traditional conflict for territory: it was simultaneously a war of race, and a war of ideology, and was interlaced with half a dozen civil wars fought for purely local reasons.

Given that the Germans were only one ingredient in this vast soup of different conflicts, it stands to reason that their defeat did not bring an end to the violence. In fact, the traditional view that the war came to an end when Germany finally surrendered in May 1945 is entirely misleading: in reality, their capitulation only brought an end to one aspect of the fighting. The related conflicts over race, nationality and politics continued for weeks, months and sometimes years afterwards. Gangs of Italians were still lynching Fascists late into the 1940s. Greek Communists and Nationalists, who first fought one another as opponents or collaborators with Germany, were still at each other’s throats in 1949. The Ukrainian and Lithuanian partisan movements, born at the height of the war, were still fighting well into the mid-1950s. The Second World War was like a vast supertanker ploughing through the waters of Europe: it had such huge momentum that, while the engines might have been reversed in May 1945, its turbulent course was not finally brought to a halt until several years later.

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Filed under Baltics, Bulgaria, democracy, Europe, Germany, Greece, Hungary, migration, nationalism, Poland, religion, Slovakia, Ukraine, USSR, war, Yugoslavia

Legacies of Danish Estonia

From The Baltic: A New History of the Region and Its People, by Alan Palmer (Overlook, 2006), p. 45:

The Swedes backed missions to secure Christian footholds in Estonia and in southern Finland, where in 1222 one Swedish king, John Sverkersson, was killed in a skirmish. Valdemar II, King of Denmark 1202-42, demonstrated the effectiveness of sea power by sending a fleet of deep-draught warships to seize the Estonian offshore island of Saaremaa in 1206, establishing a base from which he mounted an invasion of northern Estonia thirteen years later. On that occasion Valdemar came as a crusader and was accompanied by the Archbishop of Lund, two other bishops and their chaplains.

The campaign is steeped in legend. The formidable army that landed at Reval was thrown into confusion by an Estonian attack from the hill of Toompea. When the fighting became desperate the archbishop is said to have knelt in prayer, with hands raised in supplication: a red flag with a white cross upon it floated down from heaven, in token of God’s blessing on the Danish cause; and beneath the banner, Valdemar’s army went on to gain a historic victory. The emblem of Denmark today is still this Dannebrog, the oldest national flag in the world. And Estonia is the only republic with a capital named after the foreign invaders who made it a city; for the word Tallinn derives from the Estonian for ‘Danish Town’ (Tanni linn).

Soon Reval/Tallinn did indeed become in every sense a Danish town, founded little more than forty years after Copenhagen itself. A cathedral, eight churches, a nunnery and a Dominican abbey, all planted from Denmark, were grouped around the castle and royal treasury on Toompea hill, where the king’s lieutenant resided. Between Toompea and the quay-side everything essential to administer a distant dependency was concentrated – an arsenal, commercial warehouses, stables with horses kept ready for any expeditionary force from the homeland. It was, however, a curious form of ‘colonization’. After Valdemar completed a land settlement in 1242 the Danish kings never intervened in Estonian affairs. There was virtually no centralized control; nominal vassals enjoyed a rare independence on their territorial fiefs. The treasury remained in Danish hands but there were many months when the Sword Brothers were virtual masters of the growing city. Yet, despite these obstacles, during a 120-year period thirteen successive rulers of a country 1,300 kilometres west of Estonia could count on steady revenue from the tolls, tithes and taxes of their overseas colony.

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Danish Hedeby’s Heyday

From The Baltic: A New History of the Region and Its People, by Alan Palmer (Overlook, 2006), pp. 28-29:

Greatest of all merchant communities – and in 950 the largest town in the Baltic world – was Danish Hedeby (now Haithabu in Germany, east of the E45 autobahn, a few kilometres south of the town of Schleswig). There was a settlement at Hedeby many years before the Viking raids began, for it stood at a key geographical position, astride the main artery from the south in north-western Europe and at the centre of the narrowest isthmus between the Baltic and the North Sea. Hedeby faced north-east, down the winding Schlei fjord and about 38 kilometres from the open sea, a port far enough inland to receive warning of approach by pirates or enemies. West of Hedeby a mere 16 kilometres of moorland provided easy portage to the Eider, a short river that flows into the North Sea at Tonning, with an upstream quay at Hollingstedt. A ditch-and-embankment rampart, known as the ‘Danewirke’ and built in the eighth century, afforded Hedeby protection from Frankish incursions. The Danish King Godfred extended the rampart and encouraged merchants to settle in Hedeby in 808, after the raid in which his warriors sacked the Abotrite port of Reric, some 190 kilometres along the Mecklenburg coast. Yet, though ninth century Hedeby had the makings of a commercial port, it also served as a hideout for raiders who returned home with booty and slaves from Frisia, the Netherlands and England. The growing trade with the East transformed the town: Hedeby’s greatest prosperity came at the middle of the tenth century, the years of Varangian commercial ascendancy at Constantinople.

A Moorish merchant from Cordoba, visiting Hedeby about 975, was far from impressed. The town was too big, he thought; it was not, by his reckoning, rich; a high birth rate prompted families to throw unwanted babies into the Schlei; the main food was fish, because there was so much of it; and Viking singing was dreadful. It was a growling from the throat, ‘worse even than the barking of dogs’, he grumbled. There must have been a touch of the Wild North about Viking Hedeby. Yet archaeological evidence, from three major digs in the last seventy years, suggests that life in the port at its prime anticipated the commercial bustle of Thames-side London nine centuries later: ship repairing workshops; craftsmen tapping away at silver, bone or amber jewellery; potters, weavers, carpenters and leather-workers; and all the banter of barter in markets where bargains were struck for furs from the Lapps, soapstone from the Swedes, and wax, silk, spices and honey from the East.

Ironically Hedeby, the port that prospered most from the luxury trade with Novgorod and Kiev, was razed to the ground by the one Viking warrior known to have amassed a fortune in the East. For, in his attempt to add Denmark to his Norwegian kingdom, Harald Hardrada led a fleet up Schlei fjord in the summer of 1049 to destroy his enemy’s commercial capital. Nine hundred years later underwater exploration by divers and frogmen revealed that he had employed a tactic favoured by the Byzantines. Harald might not possess the secret of ‘Greek fire’, but he knew the panic a floating inferno would cause among the Danish defenders. At least one fireship – probably more – bore down on a wooden barrier outside Hedeby’s harbour. Soon the whole town was ablaze. The stock of goods in the warehouses must have fed the flames.

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Remnants of Early Baltic Settlers

From The Baltic: A New History of the Region and Its People, by Alan Palmer (Overlook, 2006), pp. 16-17:

Neither anthropology nor philology is an exact science and few today would follow the nationalistic scholars of the nineteenth century who equated race and language when seeking the origin of a country. But new techniques can revive familiar speculation while mellowing past prejudice. In the early 1980s the Finnish historian Matti Klinge argued that research into hereditary blood groups showed that three-quarters of the Finnish population were of western descent and only a third of eastern origin. He pointed out, however, that the linguistic structure of the Finnish language has remained more markedly eastern in character than western. Is this perhaps because the Finns and their kinsfolk south of the Gulf in Estonia are peoples with traditions of folk epic handed down orally? Their languages were shaped before the coming of written words. Finland’s Kalevala and Estonia’s Kalevipoeg survived as tales of patriot derring-do in taming both the forces of Nature and the evil spirits conjured up in a primeval wilderness of lake and forest.

By the end of the Scandinavian Bronze Age (circa 500 BC) other migrants felt drawn towards the setting sun, like the Finno-Ugrian before them. They came mainly from the south-east, to form compact units along the Baltic’s southern shores, with their communities set apart by forests, bogs and rivers. Among them were Prussian tribes astride the Vistula, the Polame on the Warta (farther inland, around modern Poznan) and a group of Lithuanian tribes around the river Niemen (Nemanus) and its tributaries. Over the following centuries tribal chiefs, seeking effective means to defend their homesteads, created what were in effect embryonic nations across these marchlands. Some tribes, like the Salic Franks and the Burgundians, provided a nucleus for historic kingdoms established after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Others bore names that recur in successive periods of northern Europe’s history. Thus the Cours (or Curonians), a tribe who lived in the peninsula between the central Baltic and the Gulf of Riga, survived as a separate people until the late thirteenth century and gave their name to the Duchy of Courland (Kurzeme, or in German Kurland) which between 1561 and 1795 enjoyed semi-independence within the Polish Commonwealth. The Cours’ neighbours, the Zemgal tribe (Semigallians), also maintained a distinctive corporate existence until 1290, farming the low-lying region west of the Daugava river that later formed the eastern part of the Courland Duchy.

Both Kurzeme and Zemgale are back on the map in today’s atlases: they form administrative divisions in modern Latvia. Three of the Western Slav peoples survive as member states of the European Union: Poland; the Czech Republic; Slovakia. Other tribes, once famed and feared for their fighting qualities, have sunk without trace. Among them were most of the Wends, the Western Slavs who settled between Kiel Bay and the Vistula Spit and may themselves be subdivided into Wagrians, Abotrites, Polabians and Rugians. But two of the ‘lost’ Wendish peoples are still extant, though few in number: some 50,000 Sorbs of Lusatia now live between the Oder and the Elbe and there is an even smaller community of Kashubs, Pomerania’s original ‘dwellers by the shore’. Like the people of Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Provence, the Sorbs and Kashubs owe their linguistic survival to academics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who defied the exclusiveness of master nations to fire the embers of a dying culture. By contrast, the Setus, a Finno-Ugrian people who settled around Lake Peipsi, were too isolated to find scholarly champions in the West. No more than 7,000 Setu survive, their communities separated today by the geographically ill-defined border that provides a frontier between Estonia and Russia.

I find two of Palmer’s linguistic explanations almost laughable.

(1) Are Finns and Estonians the only “peoples with traditions of folk epic handed down orally,” the only peoples whose “languages were shaped before the coming of written words”? Does he doubt that Norse sagas were orally transmitted long before they were written down? Does he realize that legions of illiterates have done far more over the millennia to influence the structures of the languages they speak than literates have?

(2) Were academics the saviors of Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Occitan, Sorbian, and Kashubian? Are those languages only spoken in classrooms? If so, then they are not yet saved. Academics may have documented those languages and first reduced them to writing, but they haven’t saved them until people pass them on to their children in a wider variety of settings.

As a historian, Palmer depends crucially on written records to construct his view of the world, but his imagination also seems hemmed in a bit too much by that literacy, as if nothing noteworthy exists until it exists in writing.

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Filed under Baltics, Finland, Germany, language, migration, nationalism, Poland, Scandinavia

Baruto the Giant Baltic Cowboy Ozeki

I imagine even regular readers don’t often see the giants of Japan’s sumo world profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and I’ve never, ever seen anyone compare any rikishi to Leonardo DiCaprio—until now. (Either the Titanic or the iceberg that sunk it is a more likely comparison, but I wouldn’t want to jinx anyone, especially not the genial giant featured in this WSJ vignette.)

As the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament gets underway in Tokyo, the spotlight shines on Baruto, the rising star aficionados hope can give a lift to the scandal-plagued national sport.

This is the first time for the Estonian-born wrestler to compete as an ozeki, sumo’s second-highest title. Having gotten off to a strong 4-0 start, his fans hope he could soon vault into the top ranks of yokozuna, making him the first European to reach that exalted status.

The 25-year-old’s relatively trim (for a sumo star) figure, and glamorous looks have drawn comparisons in the Japanese press to Leonardo DiCaprio. His inspiring story, including a rise from hard labor on a rural Estonian cattle farm, is well-known. “Baruto” means “Baltic” in Japanese.

The rapid climb of the clean-cut Baruto — nee [sic] Kaido Höövelson — comes at a moment of need for the struggling sport. Earlier this year, grand champion Asashoryu resigned suddenly after tabloid reports of a bar fight, just the latest in a string of embarrassing reports about the Mongolian in recent years.

Before that, other wrestlers were arrested for dope-smoking, and there was a hazing death. The fan base has been shrinking, and fewer young Japanese are taking up the sport, with its extreme discipline and hierarchy at odds with the comforts of modern Japan.

Here are a few more details from Japan’s Daily Yomiuri, which profiled the newly promoted ozeki before the May tournament got underway.

“When he first came here he had problems with the food,” the stablemaster said. “One of the wrestlers told him that as a foreigner he wouldn’t like natto. Baruto simply filled a huge bowl and ate the lot. It didn’t do him much good but I was impressed that he didn’t like to lose or give up.”

A former nightclub bouncer and judo champion, Baruto has more than repaid the faith shown in him since arriving from Estonia.

After making his debut in May 2004, he became the first wrestler in 43 years to win the juryo division with a perfect 15-0 record when he triumphed at the 2006 Spring Basho.

On March 31 of this year, he was promoted to the sport’s second-highest rank, having won 35 bouts in the previous three tournaments.

UPDATE: Baruto started strong but lost several bouts during the second week of the tournament. On Day 13, the sole yokozuna, Hakuho from Mongolia, clinched victory with a record of 13-0. Behind him, at 10-3, is the Russian Aran. Behind him, at 9-4, are the giant Estonian ozeki Baruto, the diminutive Mongolian ozeki Harumafuji, the lanky Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu, and the Mongolian Hakuba, who made his debut in the highest division in January. Not one Japanese among the leaders!

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Finland vs. Estonia vis-à-vis Russia

Finland’s President Tarja Halonen recently accused Estonia of being “hypersensitive” to Russia and thereby provoking it. David McDuff, a writer and translator who blogs at A Step At a Time, provides some interesting background on Finland’s history of severe compromise in its relations with Russia, relations that defined the neologism ‘Finlandization‘.

I began to visit Finland – exclusively on business connected with literary translation – during the early part of Koivisto’s presidency, and I can still remember the atmosphere that prevailed in the country at the time. While a relative freedom in social, economic and cultural life was noticeable everywhere, so that if one wanted to, one could imagine oneself to be much further West in Europe, in matters that had anything to do with the Soviet Union, a grim, sarcastic silence and unwillingness to discuss Soviet-related issues were the order of the day. While there was certainly more freedom than there was across the water, in Soviet-occupied Estonia, it was impossible to ignore the constraints that existed in Finnish society where Moscow was concerned. Perhaps because most of my activity in Finland was related to literature and translation, I avoided some of the more intense disagreements that could have arisen between my points of view and those of my hosts. My background in Russian studies, and the time I’d spent in Moscow as a post-graduate research student, tended to interfere now and then, however. I can still remember one or two incidents. For example, at that time, Koivisto’s Soviet Union policy included the long-established practice of returning Soviet defectors to the USSR. On a day when an anti-US and anti-Israel demonstration was being held in Helsinki, I happened to have conversation with a Finland-Swedish poet who much later on became a minister in the government of Paavo Lipponen. Incautiously, I mentioned the subject of Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union, and asked if Finland would also return them to Russia if they appeared in Finland. This provoked an outburst of violent anger from my interlocutor, and I decided not to raise any more such questions with him or with anyone else I met, as I was in Finland on an official invitation.

Many years later, I read about some of what had really transpired among Finland’s media and opinion-forming circles during the 1960s, 70s and early 80s in Esko Salminen’s Vaikeneva valtiomahti (The Silent Estate?) and felt that most of my suspicions were confirmed. Finlandization and “self-censorship” really were a important part of Finland’s cultural and political identity in those decades after the Second World War. Now the Finnish politician Erkki Aho has reviewed a recent book by the historian and political analyst Juha Seppinen, entitled Neuvostotiedostelu Suomessa 1917-1991 (Soviet Intelligence in Finland 1917-1991) which deals with the subject of Finland’s relations with Russia and the Soviet Union throughout most of the 20th century (I reached the link through Marko Mihkelson’s blog). The book also lists details of the meetings and contacts many Finnish politicians and public figures had with members of the Soviet security and intelligence services.

Perhaps at least part of the root of the problem in Finland can be traced back to the Finnish Civil War of 1918, when the forces of the Social Democrats (referred to as the “Reds”), who were supported by the Bolsheviks in Russia, fought with the troops of the Conservatives (known as the “Whites”), supported by Imperial Germany. The degree to which this conflict permeated virtually all areas of Finnish life cannot be exaggerated. It even affected the most recondite literary circles: the Dadaist poet Gunnar Björling became involved on the White side, and hid a White telegraphist in his basement room in Red-occupied Helsinki throughout the entire four months of the war.

A Step At a Time is a good place to keep up on regional sources on Russia’s relations with Chechnya, Georgia, and its Baltic Near Abroad.

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