By David McLean Shoup
Next month will be a critical time for Romanian collective memory. Some will celebrate the anniversary of the Romanian Revolution with joyous revelry. For others, the last weeks of December will be a somber time, offering silent reflection of an oppressive past and remembrance for the many hundreds of lives lost in December, thirty years ago. 1989 was a tumultuous year, from Beijing to Bucharest and Budapest to Berlin. In the crumbling of communism experienced by Eastern Europe, and which saw the year rounding out with the execution of Nicolae Ceaucescu, it’s important now to look back on where it started. The roots of this revolutionary ran deep and ran wide. But by all accounts, it mainly started in Leipzig.
Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. A rough translation of this in German is scrolled across a postcard offered at the East German history museum in Leipzig, where I returned to this summer from Bucharest to gather up the final credits of a History Master’s degree. And as an American riding out the Trump era in Europe, I grimly acknowledge the message.
Leipzig is a fascinating study in juxtaposition. I spent part of the summer in a student dormitory right above what was once the print shop that churned out the first edition of Marx’s Das Kapital. And 104 years later, it was in Leipzig that a 35 year old chemist named Angela Merkel, joined thousands of peaceful protestors in taking to the streets every Monday for months to eventually topple East German Socialism, with Romania following in its anti-establishment wake, albeit with drastically different levels of government resistance and political outcomes. One year plus change at the formerly named Karl Marx University (since rebranded the less ideological Leipzig University) gave me a begrudging respect for Germany’s insistence on acknowledging the darker aspects of its history and vowing to avoid repeating it. That respect has been damaged by the rise of the AfD, or Alternative for Deutschland, Party, which now enjoys a popularity approaching 40% in Leipzig’s province of Saxony. Like Trump voters in the USA, and the 30-odd percent of Germans who ticked off the Hitler box in the 1932 elections, the AfD supporters in Saxony tend to be part of the shrinking middle class of rust belt regions whose jobs have been automated away or outsourced abroad and feel that the white, Christian nation they identify with is disappearing into a sea of Middle Eastern refugees (replace with Mexican and Central American migrants and you have the same recipe for racialised, nationalist populism that we face in the United States).
Being fairly broke and a big fan of this cyclical history message, I moonlighted as a tour guide in the surprisingly low key niche category of World War Two and Holocaust history tours. My tours would begin in the Augustusplatz, pointing out the damage still visible from Allied bombing raids, evident by the age of buildings and before and after pictures, allowing visitors to get just worked up enough in their sympathy before flipping them on their heads with a walk through the old Jewish quarter of Leipzig’s Gottschedstrasse and the Holocaust memorial, itself an outline of one of the destroyed synagogues that burned to the ground during 1938’s Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Inside the outline of the synagogue’s foundation sit, in neat little rows, 140 chairs, each representing one hundred Jews of the 14,000 who lived in Leipzig at the time of Hitler’s election in 1933. Only 53 survived the war. I therefore found it both ironic and disturbing, that on the day of my last tour, which happened to fall on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, a 27 year old neo-Nazi gunman attacked a synagogue in the neighboring town of Halle, killing two people. Halle went into lockdown mode, and police cars screamed up and down Leipzig for hours, sirens wailing, amid confused reports that there might be a second or third gunman. That night, in a sick coincidence, Leipzig celebrated its Light Festival, marking thirty years since the start of the peaceful revolution in 1989 which soon brought down the Berlin Wall, and with it, German communism. I’d been here two years earlier to see the same event, which featured a simple display of a big 8 9 on the tallest building in town, coupled with thousands of Germans of all ages holding candles and watching a series of speeches by local politicians and people who had participated in the peaceful revolution. The mood was changed this time. Concrete barriers and police trucks blocked off every entrance to the city center, with checkpoints and bag checks everywhere. It was the first time in Germany I saw masked police officers wielding assault rifles.
A bizarre projector show displayed on the surrounding buildings of the Augustusplatz made the mood worse. It featured dark and grainy ambient music, with shadowy images of what was likely protestors from 1989. At least three Germans I interviewed admitted that given the day’s events, the shadows looked like concentration camp survivors shuffling their way to freedom, or not. While a city councilman gave a speech denouncing anti-semitism, a heckler broke the crowd’s silence, screaming “long live the fuhrer, you’re all hypocrites!” before being led away by the same masked police.
That was my cue to bounce out of Germany. I took the first bus out the next morning. A couple of hours before sunrise, I said my goodbye to Leipzig, walking through the now deserted Augustusplatz, dozens of burned out plastic candles still littering the square, en route to the station, once the scene of fierce fighting between Americans and German soldiers in the final weeks of the war. Inside the station, far out of sight to the non-discerning eye, sits an old stretch of track with a small slab of bronze denoting the site from which the last of Leipzig’s Jews were deported to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Unlike most times I’d seen it, today there were some candles there too.
It was a long bus ride to my mid-point trip back towards Bucharest, the nearly eponymous Budapest. I had twelve hours on the bus to think about how much I wished that shooter had gone on my tour. I doubted he’d ever met a Jew. The internet is no replacement for a conversation. And the shooter was my age. If I’d been born in a Chemnitz or a Halle, didn’t have the education I had, and spent all my formative years on 4chan, would I too have ended up lobbing grenades in synagogue cemeteries and shooting up kebab stands? Too often we in the media brush away these thoughts in an effort to paint mass shooters as monsters and strangers. Part of the controversy and uneasiness surrounding the new Joaquin Phoenix film Joker stems from our revulsion to having the mirror held up to us, or as Russell Brand aptly put it, “facing the consequences of our increasingly nihilistic society”. After the New Zealand mosque shooting, which the Halle shooter claimed he was trying to emulate, Prime Minister Jacina Ardent famously declared “he was not one of us”. Her well intentioned wokeness is tragically misplaced. These shooters are part of us. Their dark thoughts run through all of us too, regardless of color and creed, and the sooner we acknowledge humanity’s capacity for evil, confront it, and embrace these shooters with an eye to education and inclusivity, before they go off the deep end, the better off we’ll all be.
My bus pulled into a station on the northern Buda side of the Danube just about the same time that Turkish tanks rolled across the Syrian border, immediately after my president more or less gave Erdogan the green light to start his Kurdish Holocaust. But it’s the era of hashtag self care, so I went to the Gellert Hotel Spa (5,900 Ft. for thermal pool entrance and locker) at the base of Gellert Hill. It was a warm October day, nice enough to swim around in the outdoor pool, catching up with an old pal of mine from Australia. The pool deck reverberated with British and American accents, speckled with laughs and calls in French and Chinese, admiring the view of Gellert Hill rising above the courtyard. Most of the spa-goers couldn’t have known that a mere 74 years earlier, over ten thousand Germans and Hungarians, fighting off even more Russians and Romanians (who had switched sides five months prior), died on that hill in the Battle of Budapest. Now Turks and Kurds were dying on another hill somewhere else. In 74 years, maybe there will be a spa there too.
The streets of Budapest were lined with campaign posters. Fidesz, Viktor Orban’s leading party, took up most of the space. A handful of green posters advertised a coalition of six less psychotic parties, but polls indicated they would be crushed. In an era of fear, hate trumps love every time. History is cyclical, and historians might be cynical, but that’s just the way it goes. Two days later, I found myself strolling down Budapest’s embassy row. Police vans lined up outside the Turkish embassy, erecting metal barricades with a five meter buffer from the embassy’s gates in anticipation of more protests against the invasion. It seemed like the right time to check out a Turkish cafe to scope out the mood, and sure enough one appeared conveniently across the street. I wasn’t disappointed. At the table to my right, two Turkish diplomats took pauses from their hookah drags to scream arguments at an Israeli reporter in an eclectic mix of Turkish, Hungarian, and English. The reporter’s translator looked like he hadn’t slept in days. The conversation froze with the sound of police sirens and motorcycle engines revving into overdrive. A procession of Hell’s Angel’s-esque bikes, four or five hundred of them, proceeded down embassy row towards monument circle. Were these the infamous Wolverines, the pro-Russian motorcycle gang stirring up trouble across central and eastern Europe? I asked one of the screaming Turkish diplomats, now retired from the conversation to watch the bike parade. “No,” he said. “They don’t have the flags, so it’s just a bike club,” adding “this time” with the type of mischievous wink that told me that our countries may well be at war with one another before the year’s out, in the event that Vice President Pence’s stony-faced press conference and staring contest with President Erdogan doesn’t do the trick.
After confirming with some police bystanders that this was indeed not a Pro-Putin biker invasion, I took the long way through the monument circle, its beautiful park and accompanying castle housing the national agriculture museum. Three months earlier I’d joined some Romanian and American friends paddle boating around the scenic manmade pond that fronts the castle. This time the pond was drained, the bare bitchement below serving as a temporary respite for excess car parking and dead ducks. The drained pond and ugly concrete served as a foreboding symbol for the likely results of tomorrow’s election. In need of something warm to raise my cooled spirits, I headed to my favorite Hungarian goulash spot with the best bang for your buck, Csarnok Vendeglo (Hold Utca 11), across the street from the back side of the epic monstrosity that is the United States Embassy, Budapest. I missed the protest at the front entrance, only hearing the chants and loudspeaker voices while I enjoyed outstanding spicy fish goulash (1,290 Ft.) and a tall glass of blonde Dreher (500 Ft.). After lunch, I passed around the front of the American embassy to chat with some of the protestors. They faced a wall of red peak capped Hungarian police. The US started offloading embassy security onto host countries when I was still in diapers, but it’s always a disturbing sight. The protestors soon gave up and scattered.
It seemed about the right time to leave Hungary too. For me, the next leg is always my favorite part of the 28 hour overland trip between Leipzig and Bucharest. From Budapest, I boarded the overnight sleeper train to Romania (6 bunk car for 39 Euros). Those less concerned with their budgets can splurge for a more private double bunk room for 99 Euros, but with the cheaper option, one is forced to make new friends, and rarely bored with the unexpected company made on this long journey across the former Austro-Hungarian empires borderlands into Wallachia. And for thirsty riders hungry for a killer view, most of the time the overnight train sports a bar car with comfy lounge chairs placed next to big windows offering commanding views of the Carpathians and countryside. A moderate but tasteful selection of Romanian, Czech and German beers are available for less than 10 Lei each, but pack your own snacks.
At the final stop in Hungary, three armed Hungarian border guards sporting the intimidating red peaked caps came by to check passports. In my sleepiness, I accidentally uttered an unwelcome “multumesc,” resulting in several minutes of questioning before they stamped me out of the Schengen Zone. By contrast, a few minutes later, once we’d crossed the Romanian border, I was greeted by a single friendly middle aged Romanian sporting a retro sheriff’s jacket and badge. His lack of a firearm was a welcome sight in contrast to the tense Hungarians. “David?” “Da?” “Here for business, da?” For a second I’d forgotten what type of visa I even had in Romania, it had been too long. “Da,” I hesitated. “Welcome back,” he said with a smile.
Nine hours later, I opened my eyes to the slowly brightening yellow of a Transylvanian sun illuminating the dusty cabin of the sleeper train. I peered out the port side window just in time to catch the Fagaras Mountains on the left, wide and gently sloping out of the farmlands below, with the jagged and impressive peaks of the Carpathians on the right.
I breathed in the fresh Transylvanian air, and with it a sigh of relief. These are tough times for Europe, equally tough for my home country across the pond, and devastating times for the Kurdish people. But I feel pretty good about riding it out here.
Despite my cynicism, the populist and nationalist Fidesz party did not win the Budapest elections, striking a blow to Viktor Orban’s leadership. We have to maintain our wariness, and cannot afford to let go of our historical collective memory, but it’s still good to take some time off after a win for democracy and tolerance to celebrate with a hearty “noroc.”