Some people take pilgrimages to holy shrines, others to art galleries and still others to historical monuments. In Along The Trenches, published by Polity Books, Navid Kermani takes us on a trek through the horror spots of Eastern Europe from Eastern Germany to his parent’s birth place, Isfahan Iran. In other words this is not your typical travelogue, although you do travel through Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia and across the Caspian Sea to Iran.
However, this isn’t just a trip through recent history or an examination of atrocities carried out by the old USSR and Nazi forces in these regions. Instead Kermani uses these places of horror as jumping off points to examine the new face of nationalism in the East and how history is represented within that context.
As Kermani travels a common picture starts to emerge in his meetings with people from Germany to Belarus. Nobody is against immigrations per se, or at least won’t come out and say it in so many words, the new nationalists are just worried about their way of life being changed by others. They repeat the lines we hear from the right everywhere – how come so much money is spent of the immigrants when there isn’t enough money for housing and pensions for native born people.
While these attitudes are making a comeback, what nurtures them. Where are they generated. Are they born out of fear and economic uncertainty? Or are they a result of a resurgence in nationalistic feelings based on a desire for a return to the days of purity and Poland being for the Poles and the Ukraine for Ukrainians?
While in Poland it’s hard to escape reminders of the Holocaust with the camps still in existence and tour groups from all over the world having to book times well in advance to visit. However, even in Cracow, the city nearest to Auschwitz, there is a sense of things being ‘whitewashed’. Consider the fact there are no Jews living in the once thriving Jewish district of the city but that its become a popular destination for tourists who want to eat a Kosher meal within spiting distance of the camps, is telling.
It’s not just Poland that this is happening. The Jewish populations of both Latvia and Lithuania were almost completely destroyed. Which meant nearly half the population of some cities were hauled away in trucks to be shot in the forests in full view of their friends and neighbours.
What’s disturbing to Kermani is how there are so few indications as to what happened in these countries. The Nazis kept meticulous records of how many people they killed and buried, yet there are hardly any memorials or markers to remind people of what happened. Tour groups don’t come to Lithuania to bear witness as they do in Poland.
However, this is more than just a guided tour of the 20th century’s horror spots. It’s also a guide to what’s happening on the ground in these countries and how this ties in with historical grudges and the new wave of nationalism on the rise in Eastern Europe.
Kermani’s talent as a writer, and a journalist, is his ability to not only encourage people to talk to him, but to report what they say with little or no filtering. So we hear from both sides of the Ukraine conflict: those who want the Crimea to be part of Russia and those who want it to stay part of the Ukraine and each of them sound perfectly reasonable.
In fact, the most frightening thing about this book is how everybody sounds so reasonable. However, under the cloak of this reasonableness comes the feeling of disquiet. It’s like having a conversation with somebody who starts off almost every diatribe agains someone different from them with “I’m not bigoted”. Which usually means the contrary – or “as long as they act like I want them to act they’re fine”.
This is a frightening book in some ways. Not only for the way in which countries are choosing to ignore their own histories or their own origins in the hopes of creating a shiny new future for some idealized version of their national identities that never existed in the first place. Do nationalist Poles even know the ancestors they idealize placed those roots in Iran? Their fancy robes based on designs from the mythical Persian world of Sarmatia?
Probably not, and they would be appalled if you suggested it. However, as Kermani carefully points out in this book history is still being rewritten by the winners, even if its only recent history.
Along The Trenches is a amazingly well written and easy to comprehend book. Navid Kermani doesn’t overwhelm you with philosophy or theory. Instead he lets facts, and people, speak for themselves to create a stark picture of reality. All is not quiet on the Eastern Front and it doesn’t look like it will be again for a while.