So many students had dropped the class, the professor had us meet in his office. The course, (a 300 level?) concerned the history of Eastern Europe, and though challenging, I sucked it up and remained.
Exotic names such as Moldova, Herzegovina, and Macedonia evoked mystical places barely touched by the Renaissance or Enlightenment. The prof tossed around these names as an American would with Oklahoma or Nevada.
He spent a great deal of time lecturing on the Balkan region. This mountainous peninsula is situated south of both Slavic Ukraine, and the Magyars of Hungary. This area, I learned, suffered an especially turbulent past, and for that matter still does today. One book on the course list, “Land Without Justice,” by Montenegrin, Milovan Djilas starkly described and reiterated that point.
Seated around a small table, our teacher introduced the Slavic folk who embraced the Orthodox faith of Byzantium. while the Croats to the northwest remained Catholic. For good measure, the Ottoman Turks rode hard northward, flashing scimitars of enforced conversion or butchery through remote pockets of alpine settlement.
Violence tinted the region red, scarring the inhabitants through generations of fierce reprisals.
The people of South-Central Europe appeared to have been dragged pillar to post in the religious chaos of competing Kings and Sultans.
In the wake of Turkish conquest, the youngest boys were systematically abducted from Orthodox villages up and down the rugged terrain. Raised in the Islamic faith, these children grew into fearsome warriors, eventually unleashed back on their former homes. These Janissaries coldly delivered Ottoman violence upon their own kinsmen.
Mired in blood, rulers like Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula eliminated his many enemies by impaling victims on wooden stakes. Most were Muslim.
I don’t recall my grade in that course, but I was mesmerized. Enough remained with me to pass on to my history students. For example, as America fought their Civil War, a Medieval system still restrained Eastern European society. Blood feuds raged through the mountain terrain pitting Croats against Serbs, against Albanians, against Bulgars, and on and on. By the end of the 19th Century the Balkans acquired a new moniker, “the powder keg of Europe.”
The ignition of World War One began in Sarajevo, the center of Bosnia Herzegovina. As the Ottoman Empire eventually receded southward, the Austro-Hungarian Empire aimed to absorb Bosnia as their own. Hapsburg Emperor, Franz Joseph sent his nephew on a good will mission to picturesque Sarajevo. For the nephew, Franz Ferdinand, this would be his last royal duty. A Serb teenager waiting on the processional route shot the Hapsburg heir, and his wife, too. From that incident came “The War to End All Wars.”
This essay barely scratches the full history of Eastern Europe. Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Kosovo, all hold eons of collective history, enough to study a lifetime.
Still much like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle with scattered and missing pieces, an incomplete picture of the region remains. World War Two, the frigid tension of the Cold War, and the Balkan Wars of the mid-1990’s all continue to pull the world in, as if a black hole.
I stuck with that college class, in that professor’s office, and as a result understand why NATO, including US peace-keeping forces, still must remain in the “Land Without Justice.”
Gail Chumbley is an author, and history educator. Her two books, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” both available on Kindle. In addition Gail has composed two plays, “Clay” and “Wolf By The Ears.”