Eva and I spent three days in Budapest during April, 2004.
We visited a museum showing an exhibit of the history of Samizdat. I photographed a large display of the chronology of this “underground” effort toward freedom of expression, and freedom in general, in the USSR, Poland, Hungary, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Czechoslovakia. A written chronology wasn’t available in English. I later transcribed the chronology into a Word document: History of the Samizdat Movement, 1953-1992, 5 PAGES.
The chronology begins at 1953, upon the death of Joseph Stalin. It ends in 1991, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of the German state. Eva and I were reminded of, and learned more about, these 38 years during which many people paid a terrible price for their compatriots to gain, or regain, freedoms we in the West, especially the younger generation, now take for granted.
I was reminded of this chronology as read the book I now have finished, The Balkan Wars: Conquest, Revolution and Retribution from the Ottoman Era to the Twentieth Century and Beyond, by André Gerolymatos (2002). This book, too, shows a chronology at its beginning which recounts only in summary and dispassionate phrases the sometimes horrific events between year 1204 through the present day that the balance of the book recounts in great detail. What is still happening in “The Balkans”, at least in the parts thereof named Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania, is a microcosm of the tribal, ethnic, national and religious ambitions and blood-feuds in this region over the eight centuries since the sack of Constantinople (now Istanbul) by the Crusaders.
The wars and struggles in the Balkan Peninsula, described in this book, were not the only ones during the period 1204 to the present, of course.
Nicolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, published in 1515, no doubt reflects the nature of the times, where war and conquest as seen as natural things in the world. The author advises his current patron The Magnificent Lorenzo, Son of Piero de Medici, ruler of the republic of Florence, on how best to succeed and survive as the leader of his state over the long term. During the lifetime of Machiavelli (1469-1527) many wars between the Italian city-states, the Papal States, Spain, France and others were fought. One piece of advice to his “Prince” is, when taking over a new country or state, to immediately kill all past and potential leaders who did and would oppose him; then, to be a beneficent but firm ruler to the people.
Wholesale and purposeful killing, with accompanying atrocities by the undisciplined, was and continues to be the norm in The Balkans and in other areas of the world. Witness the genocidal conflict in Darfur and the bloody political repression in Zimbabwe, for example.
I recently read Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, a sympathetic look at the origins and development of this religion, established approximately 600 A.D., and the nation-states that identify with the religion. The book provides extensive chronology detailing, from the beginning of Islam, the conflicts, wars and atrocities visited by and upon peoples within and without the religion/states as a whole, and those between various subdivisions of the religion/states. Such conflicts continue in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in varying degrees in Iran (Persia), Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and other parts of the world.
These readings and my ensuing ponderings show me that Machiavelli is right: war, conquest, and mayhem of various kinds are the natural state of man. Modern national and supra-national governments are designed to moderate and control these aggressive impulses. But I ponder the possible results, over the long term, of the suppression of natural impulses. Just think of how repressed impulses in individuals can result in self-destructive and anti-social behavior.
I wonder, on the other hand, if team sport and economic & commercial “warfare” have roles to play in a more constructive, even healthful, sublimation of this human impulse. William James addressed this question in his The Moral Equivalent of War.
To end this ramble, I quote from the concluding paragraph of Gerolymatos’s The Balkan Wars, describing of the current situation as he sees it:
The grim cycle will undoubtedly resume, with the Serbs once again extracting vengeance. Victory or defeat in one war only prepares the ground for a renewed struggle in the future … Ultimately, the answer is not NATO occupation but economic peacekeeping, the integration of the region into the European Union. The blurring of frontiers will provide the political, economic, and social security needed for distinct and ancient communities to adjust their cultural, religious, and linguistic boundaries without fear of retaliation. Only then will national chauvinism and insecurity die a quiet death.