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Posted January 5th, 2011 at 05:52 AM by chas
"Ah, the children of the night. What beautiful music they make!"
--Count Dracula

"After all, who else could keep order in a place like this?"
--Monty Python, The Life of Brian

The long post Napoleonic peace of Europe was shattered in 1914, when a Serb shot and killed the Austrian Archduke and his wife, and Western Civilization descended into a barbarism never seen before in the history of the human race. It lasted until 1945, when the survivors cautiously peeked out from the ruins of their cities, which had been overrun by either Russians or Americans. Many historians now consider the two World Wars to have been one conflict with a short truce in between. It was our Serbian tour guide who answered a a question of mine by saying that the Austro-Hungarian Empire should never have been dismembered.

Central Europe is the Land of the Nervous Breakdown; the hardest still affected by the Recent Unpleasantness. It has beautiful countryside, wondrous cities, and friendly people, and yet is still redrawing its borders and trying to figure out what it wants. It is The Neutral Zone between the relative comfort of Western Europe and the breakdown of modern Russia, and it has rebuilt the buildings of its Old Life, even as that life has disappeared forever.

I had an English grandfather, and my mother always said that Civilization was England and France. Yet three of my grandparents were Central/Eastern European Jews, a reality which was left as obscured in my childhood as our spiritual heritage. So it was time to reconnect with my own heritage in a land where Western style buildings were often topped with Eastern style towers and minarets.

I've tried to get into Russia several times. The first time we were looking into a home stay program, when the Soviet Union suddenly became Russia, and tourism was being discouraged as the former empire started to sort itself out. A second time we tried, the Russians pegged the rouble to the European Euro rather than the American Dollar, and suddenly the cost of our trip went up 30%, which was way beyond our budget. Another time, the long bureaucratic process of getting a visa defeated our opportunity to to there at the last minute. In Kirkenes, which is Norway above the Arctic Circle, there is a statue to the Red Army, in the only country occupied by the communists where they voluntarily left quickly. There I peered across the wire on the border to guard towers on the other side.

At Checkpoint Charlie--what used to be a main crossing point in the Wall in Berlin--and now a tourist diversion--the old Cold War bipolar division of the world is memorialized. As a Jew, it took me a long time to visit Germany, even though a former college girlfriend is nearby, and came to see me. It is a beautiful city;and very green from the air. Nearby in Potsdam, a city of castles where royalty once lived, you can see both the art house of Frederick the Great's palace Sans Souci, and the rooms where Stalin, Truman, and Churchill met to decide the postwar fate of the world. Back in the city proper, you can stroll down the lovely wide main boulevard Unter den Linden, framed with those tall trees. But not far off is the site of Hitler's Bunker; and down the street is the Air Ministry, one of the few buildings to survive, where Herman Goering drove to work every day. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!

"Put your faith in your sword, and your sword in the Poles!"
--Yul Brynner, Taras Bulba

Poland, possibly the most beleaguered country of Europe throughout recorded history, actually ruled its own part of the world in the early Middle Ages under the 'Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth,' a heroic period portrayed in the national epic "With Fire and Sword," the story of the Cossack rebellion which wrecked this state. After you ride the train for a long time from Germany across the vast Polish plain, which seems to go on forever, you are surprised to finally reach a destination. Warsaw is modern, but has its meticulously reconstructed Old Town, which is today a breath taking Renaissance/Early Modern reconstruction. To the south, Cracow, untouched by war, is still itself naturally. Its great plaza stretches far in a wide panorama of man's urban accomplishment. Between them you can see the town of Cestochiya, where most of todays Catholic priest's are trained and sent out to Christian nations who can no longer supply them. Its great cathedral is a bastion of prayer and hope. Yet nearby is the Death Camp of Auschwitz, where as I entered the infamous gate under the horrible sign "Arbeit Machts Frei" (Work Makes You Free,) I was seized by a ferocious anger that remained with me until I left. I have seen it; I would NEVER go back. I was astounded when another tourist told me he'd seen several of such places. he was not a Jewish person.

Budapest, Vienna, and Prague; all lovely, with boat rides down the rivers, classical music concerts, and palaces from which large parts of Europe were ruled. But here the Euro was just being or had not yet been adopted, and you had to have several kinds of coin when your bus stopped off at restaurants with public toilets, as you crossed between small nations not even a history major could be sure about. Out in the countryside, here is a ruined castle on a hill, here a Nazi armored train that was used in warfare against the local partizans. In Vienna you can see some of the most beautiful 19th Century fairyland buildings ever created, but you can also view poor Archduke Franz Ferdinand's car, with the holes from the bullets that destroyed the peace and sanity of Europe.

In the square of the people in Budapest, there are statues to generations of leaders. The very first in a historical sequence are the wild Magyar (Ma-jar) horsemen, with arrow quivers slung on their mounts, who founded the country. Clearly they came from the Asian plain, as conquerors had from ancient days. In another city there is a very clean monument to the Red Army, for the terms of their leaving dictated that it shall always be well maintained. In this city, another one high on a hill is mentioned by our local guide only as "Our Spirit of Victory;" one would never know what it was unless one read one's guide book.

Back in Germany at the end of our trip, we are in Dresden, another gorgeous fairyland city. This one is totally rebuilt from the famous Night of Terror when American bombers thoroughly destroyed it in one of the most controversial actions of the war. Both Terror and Beauty coexist side by side. Which will have the final say on the human spirit? In Central Europe, that question is ever before you.
Total Comments 2


Taeblewalker's Avatar
Great blog Charley!
Posted July 16th, 2017 at 10:31 PM by Taeblewalker Taeblewalker is offline
flameslayer93's Avatar
Great blog post @chas .

I realize this is very old, but were you allowed to take pictures?
Posted July 5th, 2018 at 07:23 PM by flameslayer93 flameslayer93 is offline
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