- - Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Many years ago, an old Hungarian acquaintance — an ethnic German native of the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who had served as a cavalry sergeant in World War I — told me the tragi-comic tale of Trooper Popovich, a Hungarian-born ethnic Serb in his squadron of hussars.

Their regiment was posted on the Austro-Italian front and Popovich, as an ethnic Serb, sympathized with the Allies. Unfortunately, despite repeated efforts to desert to the Italians, he was never able to catch up with their rapidly retreating forces. Popovich ended up being punished several times for going AWOL and then returned to his unit. His mates received him with amused tolerance. The situation, as a popular Viennese expression of the time put it, was “hopeless but not serious.”

Trooper Popovich’s personal dilemma embodied the problems facing millions of people in the newly-minted nation states that had sprung up from the mid-19th century in formerly-Ottoman dominated places like Greece, Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria, and then in former parts of the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires after their collapse at the end of World War I.

In most of Eastern Europe, national characteristics are a confusing mishmash of legend, fiction and fact, further muddled by conflicting languages and DNA. While ethnic, tribal and religious roots can go back hundreds — even thousands — of years, borders and sovereignty, usually defined by foreign overlords, continued to fluctuate wildly long after most of western Europe had settled into clearly defined nation states or regions.

Exactly what did it mean to suddenly become a “citizen” of a freshly-minted “nation” like Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, rather than a Serb, a Croatian, a Bosnian, a Kossovar, a Slovenian, a Slovak or a Czech? If you were a Transylvanian native of Germanic or Hungarian ethnicity who had local roots going back many centuries, what did that make you when Romania, which had sided with the Allies, was awarded Transylvania at the peace table? Ditto large pockets of ethnic Germans in both the Sudetenland in what became Czechoslovakia, and the long-standing German coastal enclave of Danzig that was handed over to a newly-resurrected Poland?

In his magisterial new history of the area loosely referred to as Eastern Europe, John Connelly, professor of history and director of the Institute for East European, Eurasian, and Slavic Studies at the University of California (Berkeley), serves as an articulate, fair-minded and well-grounded guide through a treacherous historic landscape. And he does so with a refreshing absence of ideological cant.

In his terminal essay, he explains how, from the first stirrings of modern nationalism in the region in the late 18th century to Czech student unrest in 1968 and 1989, Polish workers movements in 1956 and 1988, and Yugoslav intellectual ferment in the 1960s and 1980s, there were three intertwined ”strands of struggle” for liberal, social and national rights:

“ … for responsible political representation, lives in dignity without want, protection of their national cultures. The stories of 1938, 1948, and 1968 were not a radical break but a refreshed version of older stories of self-assertion against foreign domination. In many ways the big-bang of 1919, or Budapest’s 1956 and Prague’s 1969, were a replay of the ferment of 1848/1849. The miraculous 1989 was a national liberation struggle, as well as an assertion of deeper traditions of local democracy, and basic civil rights, traditions going back centuries.”

It is not surprising that, having shed the Soviet yoke and achieved national sovereignty within the NATO shield and the European Union, and having made substantial economic progress, the concern of many East European people and governments is currently focused on “protection of their national cultures” from being flooded by alien immigrants with different languages, religions and social and political traditions in newly-reborn nations just beginning to enjoy the free expression of their own.

In 1989 I was one of several writers and journalists who traveled to East Berlin, Warsaw and Budapest to meet with government leaders and ordinary citizens just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Each of these three cities was the embodiment of both a complex national psyche and a tragic recent history. And each was celebrating the dawning of a new era in its own way: the Poles with a bold, head-on exuberance; the East Germans with a lot of beer-drinking and intellectual navel-gazing; and the Hungarians with a mixture of joie de vivre and bemused worldliness. But a clear majority of the citizens in all three capitals rejoiced at the promise of change.

For them, 20 years later — unlike for poor Trooper Popovich 100 years earlier — the situation is serious but not hopeless.  

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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By John Connelly

Princeton, $35, 956 pages

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