I’m spending the bulk of my summer reading about the places that we’ll be traveling to next year. For the past three weeks I’ve been concentrating my reading on eastern European history, particularly twentieth century European history.
During the day, I’m wading through histories of Romania as well as histories of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia and, in the evenings, when everyone is asleep and the house is quiet I’m reading Czeslaw Milosz poems. I’m going to write a future post on Milosz.
I tried reading the histories in the evening, and that just gave me nightmares. Bad ones. So I shifted to thinking that through over my morning coffee, not that that helps so much, but at least it mitigates the nightmares. It’s pretty easy to get bogged down in the horror of the twentieth century but, at the same time, I wonder if we think we know more than we do about the mass murders that took place in eastern Europe after WW1 and through WW2 and if, perhaps, our thin understanding of what took place hasn’t made us callous to the horrors that are currently taking place in Syria and other places that aren’t covered by the media, like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Here’s an example: Tim Snyder’s excellent book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which was recommended to by my friend and colleague in the History department at Regis, Nathan Matlock, tells a searing story of the way that Stalin orchestrated mass starvations in Ukraine in the 1930s and then the Nazi mass murders of Jews in WW2. I was pretty aware of what the Nazis did, but I did not know much at all about how Stalin purposely starved tens of thousands of Ukrainians in the years leading up to WW2. Basically, Stalin wanted the agricultural production of Ukraine to feed Russians (specifically Russians working in industry) so rather than removing the Ukrainians by force (sort of what Andrew Jackson did to the Creeks) to clear space for the colonizers to move in and take over the fertile fields, he starved the Ukrainian kulaks and peasants and then allowed the Russians to move in after the mass starvations. Hitler looked at Poland with the same eyes: partly, Poland was a buffer zone between Germany and Russia but it was also a wide expanse of fertile fields upon which the Nazis would clear out the native Poles and then give over the land to Germans who would create a utopia of Aryan-run farms and villages that would supply Germans cities with fresh produce and meats. In other words, WW2 was as much about the colonization of fertile farm fields as it was about nasty ideologies.
When I was kid in the 1970s, you really wouldn’t have thought about taking your family on a year-long trip that included extended stays in eastern Europe. And, well, for that matter, let’s add Cambodia and Vietnam—early stops on our family’s future travels. These were Cold War hotspots that were mired in war and horror. Now, in my lifetime, I’m taking my children to these places which, by most accounts, are some of the safest places in the world.
I think what I’m getting at here is that we walk above layers and layers of history. I live on Osceola Street in Denver—Chief Osceola was a Creek Indian who became a leader of the Seminoles, both tribes which were dealt severely bad hands by the US government. Tomorrow I’ll go downtown and walk along Arapahoe Street, named after the Native American tribe that occupied the environs of modern downtown Denver before they were duped by white speculators. We all know this. That is, we know history oozes up from the sidewalks and drips down from our street signs.
I don’t know what it will be like to live and move around in eastern Europe. Maybe I’ll be so enamored with the cathedrals, the Romanian haystacks, the beautiful Carpathians and the flowing Danube that I’ll forget about the horrors that I’ll be walking over.
Or maybe not.