Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I have spent enough time in Varna by now that I can hardly get away without mentioning its connection to my pet interest: John Hunyadi.
Faithful readers of this blog may recall my arguably odd interest in this medieval Hungarian nobleman, Hunyadi János to the Hungarians and Ioan de Hunedoara to the Romanians. In 1456 at Belgrade, he led an alliance of European armies to victory over the Ottoman Turks, halting Ottoman advance into Europe for a century.
If Hunyadi’s life were a Hollywood feature, Belgrade would constitute act 3, the hero’s final triumph and apotheosis. Varna, on the other hand, would happen at the end of act 2, his greatest defeat and the nadir of his career. Today Varna is a mid-sized semi-resort town on the Black Sea coast where Bulgarians and Russians and other Europeans and, yes, Turks, like to come to relax. But like so many places in Europe, it is also the site of much tortuous history.
It was here in 1444, not too far from where the DJs play in the beach clubs every weekend, that Hunyadi faced a previous Ottoman sultan, Murad II. Hunyadi was riding beside his king, 20-year-old Władysław III, king of both Poland and Hungary. Being young and rash, Władysław ignored Hunyadi’s advice and made a premature assault on the sultan’s janissaries, during which the king literally lost his head. Pressing his advantage against the panicking Christians, Murad all but annihilated them. Hunyadi himself only narrowly escaped death.
(As an interesting aside, after this he was briefly imprisoned in Wallachia, today’s southern Romania, until Vlad Dracul, father of Vlad the Impaler, the real-life Count Dracula, let him go.)
Belgrade, then, was for Hunyadi not only a victory on behalf of his country and his religion, but it was also personal redemption for his earlier failure.
Since the last time I wrote about Hunyadi on this blog, I have discovered that unfortunately some white supremacists share my interest in him. I wrote that Hunyadi arguably saved Christian Europe from Turkish conquest. For that exact reason, some white supremacists hold him up as an object of veneration. The Australian who attacked a mosque in my homeland of New Zealand not so long ago had a rifle with Hunyadi’s name inscribed on it.
And it’s not just Hunyadi. A certain type of white supremacists, annoyingly, seem to share my love of history. The New Zealand gunman’s many weapons also bore symbols referring to many other episodes in history when European Christendom came into conflict with the Islamic East, including the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the Siege of Malta of 1565, the Crusaders’ campaign in Acre in 1189, and Charles Martel, the Frankish leader who fought Muslims all the way back in the 8th century.
With the gunman’s crime hardly faded from my memory, this week I have had additional, obvious reason to have white supremacy on my mind.
To most people, these are obscure episodes of ancient history about which they know nothing. I am not most people, and I have always taken perverse pride in knowing about such things. And yet, in light of the equally long memory of some white supremacists, I am wondering now whether the ordinary person’s forgetfulness is not healthier than my bookworm’s insistence on remembering.
But it cannot be so. History is what it is. It is what happened, whether we like it or not. And for every attempt to twist history to justify one’s preconceived views, history is still there, like a speed bump in the road. It won’t change itself to suit our ideologies.
Which is not so say that we don’t try. Most of us subscribe to and repeat and amplify certain historical myths that justify our way of life. Authoritarian governments understand this best. Like George Orwell wrote in 1984, “He who controls the past, controls the future; and he who controls the present, controls the past.” But it’s not an exclusively authoritarian practice. And yet in history there is always fine print and more fine print, always serving to undermine the easy myths.
Museums in Spain and even parts of Latin America glorify Columbus as the discoverer of the New World, eliding over his genocidal crimes. White Americans prefer to think of their country as being totally egalitarian since the 4th of July, 1776, which is why they don’t like to be reminded about how fundamental slavery and racism were to the country’s original institutions.
Russia today seems to be shoring up a white, Christian identity, but Russia’s national poet, Aleksandr Pushkin, was part black. Those white supremacists holding up Hungarian noblemen as heroes of the white race probably don’t want to remember that Hungarians as a people came from Asia.
History is like any other subject. Say, like nuclear physics. You can use it to study the deepest secrets of the universe, or you can use it to build bombs. Similarly, you can use history to justify your prejudices, or you can use it to gain better understandings of how things are, how they came to be, and what they can become.
History is like water. Water is what allows ships to float, but it is also what capsizes them.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."