I embarked on a journey this past August that would take me through a diverse set of nations, cultures, and landscapes in Europe. The heart of this trip was a segment in Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro. Holland and Hungary were other destinations along the way. It had been over a decade since I’d been in Europe, and this was the first time I’ve traveled there as an adult with a fuller appreciation of the places I’d be visiting.
I read Mark Mazower’s The Balkans: A Short History to expand my admittedly lean understanding about the history of the region outside of the role it played in instigating World War I, as well as the more recent Yugoslav Wars. One of the first points Mazower makes is to debunk the commonly held misconception that the Balkans are somehow especially prone to conflict for one reason or another. This caution led me to reflect on the history of conflict across Europe and not just the Balkans. I’ll elaborate below with an account of each stop on my trip. Given where I traveled, I found the trip especially poignant as it fell one year short of the centennial of the end of World War I. How conflict unfolded and how the people recovered afterwards in all of these areas are as relevant and instructive as ever, perhaps especially so in light of concerning trends as of late.
It’s hard to imagine while strolling along the harborside esplanade in Volendam, the placid polders adorned with windmills in Zaanse Schans, or the boisterous canals in Amsterdam that Holland has been through more than its fair share of destructive conflicts over the course of the last 500 years. Indeed, the Dutch Republic was born of the Eighty Years War during which the Dutch wrested independence from their Hapsburg rulers. The conflict took a horrible toll, but in the end, not only did the Dutch gain their independence, they also launched headlong into a golden age that has left a legacy across the globe. This includes my home in Flushing, which takes its name from the town of Vlissingen in the Scheldt estuary.
The marks of earliest conflicts in Dutch history are still visible today. The Eighty Years War broke out in part due to the religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the wake of the Reformation (the 500th anniversary of this just passed). In Utrecht, on a casual night out, my gracious hosts took me to a bar in a building that once housed an underground Catholic church. The facade of the building is understandably undifferentiated from the surrounding buildings, but on the inside, the ceilings are massive. Adornments typically found in a Catholic church occupy the inside, including an organ. Many are unaware of Utrecht’s history as a Catholic stronghold in Holland even well after the Reformation. There is even a historic papal residence in town. Utrecht’s strategic importance as a nexus of trade routes sitting astride a now defunct channel of the Lower Rhine ensured that it would be fought over. Catholics were surrounded on all sides by Protestants and faced such persecution that they felt the need to clandestinely convene away from their neighbors. The Dom Cathedral in the heart of the city was burned and vandalized. The desecrated statuary and other relics are preserved for visitors and natives alike as a silent memorial to this unfortunate chapter.
Anne Frank House in Amsterdam stands as a stark reminder of the horrendous cost conflict fueled by religious hatred. And yet Holland at this point looks no worse for the wear having survived two world wars. It’s a thriving place where the investments the Dutch people have made in building up their infrastructure and institutions put many others nations to shame. This is in no small part due to effects of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after the cataclysm of World War II, in stark contrast to Bosnia which I’ll address later.
Religious conflict continues to afflict northern and western Europe today. This time it’s a renewal of the longstanding tension between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. Extremist groups like ISIS have conducted a wave of terrorist attacks across France, Belgium, and England. Geert Wilders, the firebrand Dutch politician, offers among the most vociferous and impassioned resistance to extending an open hand to immigrants and Muslims in response. He is not alone in this sentiment, as the next destination I visited is also seeing a rise in nationalism in the face of a wave of immigration from Muslim nations.
Budapest was a true delight to visit, and its impressive panoply of architectural styles captures in stone the city and nation’s long and diverse history. Gleaming new glass and steel constructions, Soviet apartment blocks and metro stations, the iconic Hungarian Parliament, Turkish bathhouses, medieval palaces and churches, and Roman ruins each bear witness to a distinct era. Throughout all of these periods, this crossroads of Europe has been the scene of sweeping changes and has seen wave after wave of invasions.
At the ruins of the Roman city of Aquincum, one can picture what life was like on the very edges of the empire. The threat of invasion from any number of barbarian tribes was ever-present. The high cost in blood and treasure incurred by securing this long Danubian frontier was among the factors that eventually led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. The vacuum of power left by a retreating Byzantine Empire set the stage for Árpád and the first Hungarians to invade and settle the fertile plain created carved out by the Danube and Tisza River.
The Hungarians established a burgeoning kingdom that lasted for several centuries before they themselves were taken over by the Ottoman Empire, a force that will figure prominently in the rest of this essay. Traditional Turkish style bathhouses the Ottomans built in Budapest stand as the most visible testament to their legacy, since mosques were largely destroyed after Christians reconquered the area. It is remarkable to think that I could have soaked in the very same baths that pashas, sultans, and their entourages would have visited 600 years ago.
For the Ottomans, Budapest was a convenient staging point for their ultimate goal: the conquest of Vienna. This was a goal that would occupy The Porte for centuries. The thrust on Vienna was also the galvanizing moment for Christian Europe to organize a united defense against the Islamic armies of the East. Austria gained territory as it pushed the Ottomans back, and it became the next sovereign over Hungary. The restlessness of the Hungarians in wanting to throw off the Austrian yoke would force the Austrians to negotiate the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, establishing the Dual Monarchy with Hungary as a co-equal in the newly established Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The half century following the Compromise would see the ascendancy of the Dual Monarchy and elevate it to Great Power status. The famed Szechenyi lanchid, and Metro Line 1, the first subway in Continental Europe would be built in Budapest during this time. Culture also thrived, Franz Liszt being among one of the exemplars of this period. It was multi-ethnic state in every sense of the word, but in the end the experiment in multiculturalism would come to a catastrophic end, embroiling the entire continent in a war like none before it.
The economic dislocation brought on by the collapse of the Dual Monarchy has consequences that still endure. A much weakened Central Europe would later be no match for Germany and the Soviets after that. Europe has done what it can to re-integrate the continent with the institutions of the European Union, but the same tensions that pulled apart the Dual Monarchy a century ago persist. Viktor Orban’s administration has taken a hard-line stance on issues of immigration, just as Geert Wilders advocates in Holland.
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
If there’s one itinerary item that highlights the rapidity, brutality, and ever-present threat of conflict, while also showcasing the ability of a people to recover from such conflict, it’s Bosnia & Herzegovina. This crossroads of the Balkans was a centerpiece of Ottoman Europe, and was the heart of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Over centuries, trade interests and invasions brought a mix of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims to settle in the area. The capital, Sarajevo, retains the physical legacy of these heterogeneous origins. Ottoman era mosques dot the skyline. The main landmark is a square around the Catholic Cathedral of St. Mark. This diversity of religion has been at times a auspicious blessing for Bosnia. Other times, disaster can and has unfolded when there’s been a confluence of the currents of ethnic and religious tension.
One point Mazower drives home in his history of the region is that these ethnonationalist identities were almost non-existent prior to the late 19th century — they arose in part due to the intervention of Great Powers who sought to sow unrest in Ottoman Europe so as to resolve the “Eastern Question”. Even religious identities were fluid during the Ottoman Era as people often found conversion to and away from Islam could be expedient at different times. Mazower recounts that some people would go to mosque on Fridays and attend Orthodox mass on Saturdays. If the imam failed to remove a hex on you, you might go and see the patriarch. Ottoman rule, though clearly flawed and unfair, was at least stable up until the advent of ethnonationalist movements.
The resolution of the Eastern Question cost the Great Powers a world war. It brought about the demise of Dual Monarchy and the Romanov Dynasty, destroyed by the very forces of nationalism they had seeded in Ottoman Europe. The interwar period didn’t bring much relief as economic woes spread. The economic gap between former Ottoman Europe and the rest of the continent was wide, and it could not be closed easily. World War II brought a fresh set of horrors, occupation by yet another in a line of aggressors, but it did spark a successful partisan movement led by the charismatic Tito that would set the stage for a unified Southern Slav state after the war.
By some of the accounts of the people we met traveling, Tito’s rule was not only stable, it was also fair and led to prosperous growth in Yugoslavia. But it didn’t last. Brotherhood and Unity began to unravel almost as quickly as Tito was put to rest in 1980. What transpired next was a descent towards internecine and religious conflict. We were led by a tour guide named Meme (short for Memović) on a journey back to the brutal Siege of Sarajevo during which he was born.
Meme noted that even in the 1980s one could see the bonds of unity that Tito had carefully cultivated fraying. Yugoslavian flags and anthems were replaced by those of the constituent republics even before any formal move towards dissolution of the union took place. This process began as Slovenia, then Croatia declared independence and were welcomed by the international community in the early 1990s. Bosnia & Herzegovina was not so lucky.
Meme took us up to the hilltops overlooking Sarajevo and recounted to us the background and setup for the Siege of Sarajevo. This siege lasted 1,425 days (3 years and 5 months), the longest ever in modern warfare, longer than the infamous Siege of Leningrad in World War II. Bosnia’s diverse makeup of Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks, held as a shining example of Brotherhood and Unity, now became the trigger for regional conflict. Yugoslav forces composed primarily of Serbs and Bosnian Serb forces undertook any means necessary to turn back the renewed tides of ethnonationalism that threatened to break apart Yugoslavia. Croats at times fought with and against Bosniaks as they tried to secure their own future as independent entities. The scars of the savage fighting between these sides are still plainly evident in the holes on buildings created by bullets and mortars.
The Sarajevo Rose and the ever watchful white tombstones that dotted the hillsides surrounding the city were ample reminders of the war, which is why there are few actual war memorials as Meme pointed out. Divisions still remain. Meme alluded that the potential for renewed conflict was real, especially if the economy continued to stagnate. On our ride up to Trebević Mountain, we passed into territory administered by the Republika Srpska, an autonomous region governed by Bosnian Serbs. Immediately, you could see Serbian flags flying. It was from the abandoned bobsled track that Serbian forces launched mortars down on the city, and from the side of Trebević Mountain, their troops took hold of the skyscrapers overlooking what would become known as Sniper Alley.
At Trebević Mountain, you can see the themes of renewal and rebirth, too. The entire bobsled track is functionally an outdoor gallery of street art and there are people who do actually use it for luge. The city and its people stand as a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit even in the face of overwhelming odds and prolonged suffering. Stari Grad is rebuilt. Wandering around the streets at night, you could be forgiven for forgetting a war happened here only 20 years ago. We were there during the bustling film festival, and throngs of tourists eagerly soaked up the atmosphere of the renewed city. But unlike Western Europe after World War II, the nations of the former Yugoslavia didn’t have the benefit a Marshall Plan recovery program and fund, and sadly, the differences are stark in comparison to Holland.
CROATIA & MONTENEGRO
Resiliency in the face of conflict when combined with adequate resources in recovery and renewal can work wonders — Dubrovnik in Croatia is a sterling example of this and provides a more proximate contrast to Bosnia. Though Croatia was far from being immune to the impacts of the war, it fared better than Bosnia, partly because it served as the entry point for aid UN ad deliveries. Today, the streets of former Ragusan Republic are teeming with hordes of tourists. You can hardly tell the city was shelled extensively from nearby Montenegro during the Yugoslav Wars. The superficial damage has largely been repaired. Indeed, looking out from its daunting defensive walls over its rooftops, you can see some of the only signs of this conflict in the bright orange tiles of restored roofs compared to the aged brown tiles of older roofs that stood through the war. Bullet holes are there, if you look closely, but not nearly as noticeable as in Sarajevo.
Perhaps Dubrovnik’s quick ascendancy can be in part attributed to its historical legacy as a powerful, independent city-state with a prowess for trade. At its apex, Ragusa vied with Venice for control of lucrative Mediterranean trade routes along the network fostered by the Ottoman Empire that eventually connected with the Far East. Circumventing this monopoly was in part a trigger for the Portuguese to seek a new route towards India and China around Africa. Ragusa’s imposing defenses were built with the riches from this trade, in order to protect this very lifeline. To this day, the old harbor of the city continues to be a place teeming with activity. But even this prosperous place was quite literally built on foundations of parleyed conflict. It is said that the Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik, was once a channel that separated one part of the city as an island. Greeks and Romans inhabited this island while the “barbarians” were kept at arms length on the mainland.
From Dubrovnik, we journeyed onward across a short, but painfully time-consuming border crossing into the picturesque environs of the Bays of Kotor. This ria (not a fjord) has also been a point of contention between multiple parties over history. The bay itself provides a sheltered, deep water harbor, so it’s no wonder that it has attracted the eye of empire builders from the Ottomans to Austrians to the Russians. This has kept up even to this day. Montenegro only recently left the orbit of its traditional protector, Russia, in favor of joining the EU despite of heavy investment from Russia. Opinion on this decision remains divided.
In light of all this, the Montenegrin national identity has developed a strand of fierce independence, dogged resistance to external aggressors, and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds. We saw abandoned as well as extant villages and farms deep in the remote mountainous terrain of the rural areas of the country. Whenever the Ottomans or whatever other imperial power with designs on Montenegro invaded and captured its urban centers, its people would simply retreat into the relative safety of the isolated mountains. Such a scene is visible just on the other side of the commanding heights of the fortress of Kotor.
It was fitting one of the last sights I saw in this trip was the mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš. Njegoš was known not only for his leadership skills but for his contributions to the canon of Serbian literature. His seminal work, an epic poem entitled Gorski vijenac (The Mountain Wreath) tells the largely apocryphal tale of a tortuous decision Christian Montenegrins of old make regarding what to do with their Muslim family, friends, and fellow countrymen. An ultimatum is handed down to the Muslims to convert back to Christianity on a certain Christmas Eve or face the consequences. Those who refuse meet a predictably fiery end. This work is considered seminal to both Serbian and Montenegrin culture, and yet is so controversial that it is sometimes not taught in an ethnically and religiously mixed setting like Bosnia. This, I think, speaks volumes about the scars that many centuries of conflict have left in this region.
As Mazower cautions, it’s all too easy to buy into the tropes presented to us about the Balkans having some propensity towards bloodshed, a place where divisive nationalism is as much a part of the landscape as the dramatic mountains and coastlines. Indeed, the Balkans are hardly alone in inheriting this kind of legacy, as I’ve alluded to throughout this piece, and there are crucial lessons for us all of the various histories and geographies detailed above. From what I saw, signs of historical and contemporary conflict are everywhere. While we were ambling along the alleys and plazas of Dubrovnik, we were also getting news about the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and its violent aftermath. Meme’s caution that “when ethnicity becomes more important than nationality” you’re in serious trouble seemed particularly apropos at this time.
Many of the same threads of risk factors for serious internal, internecine conflict that I saw along my journey are present in the United States today. Political ideology is becoming identity: the new tribe. Underlying racial, religious, and cultural differences are increasingly in sharper relief. Economic dislocation and inequality allows some to genuinely not understand how others are struggling or only just making it. We’ve been waiting for political saviors of our chosen tribe to fix our problems the way we want them fixed, while refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of other people’s grievances. We demand instant solutions for problems that have slowly accrued over generations. These trends are not new to the Trump era. They have simmered for decades. In many ways, these are echoes of the traumas of our own prior internal conflicts that we’ve never truly recovered from.
Violent conflict arises when people refuse compromise and only choose to see irreconcilable differences, eventually dehumanizing those they have no common cause with. But conflict, internal or external, is not inevitable. How we as individuals, communities, societies, and nations cope with a bewilderingly diverse world in which integration is accelerating at the expense of established identities will be decisive. This will be complicated by real physical constraints from continued growth and climate change. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented, and indeed can seem paralyzing.
When I ask myself what I can do, I think the only practical answer is to start from a foundation of sound knowledge of myself, genuinely understand and embrace the diversity around me (especially the views of people who I don’t agree with), draw on these lessons from history as a guide, and commit to serving the greater good, organizing with others to enhance my impact. I’m betting I’m not alone.