Saturday, March 12, 2016

'In Europe's Shadow' – Between the Seas with Kaplan

Review by Bill Doughty

Happiness is a new Robert D. Kaplan book, even if it's filled with grim reflections. But wait – there's more...

Kaplan presents a large sweep of history Central and Eastern Europe as he captures a "perishable moment in time" in "In Europe's Shadow" (Random House, 2016). He looks back so we can look forward. Will Russia continue threatening its neighbors? Will the European Union survive?

Authoritarian Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu
Kaplan's personal but shared journal reflects on his travels through the Balkans and through time. He examines "Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond."

Naturally, the author of "Balkan Ghosts" and "The Revenge of Geography," begins with 14 pages of maps showing how Romania's borders changed over the centuries.

The Byzantine, Ottoman and Habsburg empires used the region as a punching bag, as did Communists and fascists more recently, especially Stalin-like Nicolae Ceausescu, who took "eminent domain" to another level as part of a "drumroll of violent catastrophes."

Cold War shortages and depressed lives loom in Kaplan's earlier visits to the region.
"Soon the bread and fuel lines began ... The silence of the streets was devastating as I alighted from the bus with my backpack on Strada Academiei. The city had been reduced to a vast echo. There were few cars, and everyone was dressed in the same shapeless coats and furry hats that evoked internal exile somewhere on the eastern steppe. People clutched cheap jute bags in expectation of stale bread. I looked at their faces: nervous, shy, clumsy, calculating, heartrending, as if they were struggling to master the next catastrophe. Those clammy complexions seemed as if they had never seen the sunlight."
Kaplan introduces us to another authoritarian nationalist and mass-murderer who preceded Ceausescu by a generation, Marshal Ion Antonescu.

Antonescu's Romania "was Adolph Hitler's second most important Axis ally after Benito Mussolini's Italy." Antonescu contributed more than half a million Romanian troops to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. "Antonescu's crimes against humanity are beyond adequate description," Kaplan writes.

Romania's Antonescu goes over war plans with Hitler.
He describes the violence and turmoil the people of Central Europe have faced during wars, crusades and empire-building. The Ottomans enforced edicts of fratricide to ensure sovereignty, castration to maintain a palace corps of eunuchs, and slavery and forced conversion to Islam.

Today, Romania is a victim of geography after the "eruption of a new Cold War in 2014," according to Kaplan, who reports that Poland and Turkey ("ironically the former Ottoman enemy") are Romania's most capable regional allies, according to Romania's Prime Minister Victor Ponta. 

Kaplan writes, "Men in high positions of power in Bucharest labored under the knowledge that the average Romanian would never again accept a border with Russia – but if Ukraine were ever overrun, that would be Romania's fate."
"Precisely because Romania was historically a victim of geography, nobody here dismissed geopolitics. And geopolitics, in a variation of Polish statesman Jozef Piludski's 1920s concept of an Intermarium ("between the seas"), demanded the re-creation of a belt of independent states between the Baltic and Black seas, to guard against Russian expansion westward. On this visit to Bucharest, I constantly had maps and pipeline routes thrust at me."
Vlad "the Impaler" Dracula
Kaplan reflects on people who have influenced the region – or influenced his thinking about Cold War Europe: Isaiah Berlin, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Reagan, George Shultz, Kissinger, and (more than 500 years ago) "Vlad the Impaler," Vlad Tepes Dracula, who was the inspiration for Irish writer Bram Stoker's vampire novel.

Great thinkers and writers are mentioned throughout "Shadow": Voltaire, Lord Byron, Camus, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Herman Melville, Hannah Arendt and Elie Wiesel.

But the famous are sometimes overshadowed by the obscure.

Marinuta (left) is among international leaders the Army honored at Fort Leavenworth in 2011.
In Moldova, the "poorest country in Europe, behind Albania even," Kaplan interviews Vitalie Marinuta, defense minister from 2009 to 2014, who "personified the robust investment of the West and the United States in this part of the world. Marinuta studied at Lackland Air Force Base, Fort Leavenworth and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. before being assigned to Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

Kaplan expresses his apprehension for Moldova, whose army numbers only 5,000 soldiers. Moldova's air force is only a few helicopters. The country faces an autocratic Russia after the annexation of Crimeria. "I feared for Moldova ... I worried that Moldova had a future in the headlines," Kaplan writes.
"Were Moldova to fall into hostile hands, Ukraine would be threatened, for Moldova combined with Transdniestria occupies what I like to term the Pontic Breach, the hinterland of the Black Sea that offers and invasion route to (or from) the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Just as the North European Plain – Poland, Belarus, and the Baltic States – comprises the northern invasion route between Europe and Russia, the Pontic Breach comprises the southern invasion route."
The author is an unabashed supporter of the European Union.
"If the European Union crumbled, there was only unbridled German power, exclusivist ethnic nationalism, and the dementia of ideologies. To wit, Russia was now a threat not because it was Russia essentially, but because Putin's neo-czarist oil and gas empire had reduced geopolitics to the zero-sum factor of ethnicity."
Is Russia a threat to Central and Eastern Europe?
"For years I had passionately countered that the Russians, taking advantage of Europe's fiscal woes, were attempting to buy banks and electricity grids, oil refineries, and natural gas transportation networks, in addition to other infrastructure, even as they extended their energy pipeline network throughout the former Soviet satellite states. Meanwhile, a financially weakened Europe had less political capital to draw countries like Romania, Moldova, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine closer into its fold, in exchange for social and economic reforms."
But "In Europe's Shadow" is not all geopolitics and depressing post-imperialist, post-Communist history. This journal is filled with bits of analysis, introspection, beauty, philosophy and sage advice about life:

"You don't grow up gradually. You grow up in short bursts at pivotal moments, by suddenly realizing how ignorant and immature you are."

"New surroundings prompt forgetfulness of old ones, and thus speed up the passage of time."

Predicting the future "is impossible, for so much depends not only on impersonal forces like geography and technology, but on the actions of individuals – themselves motivated often by the disfiguring whirlwinds of passion."

"Travel and serious reading, because they demand sustained focus, stand athwart the nonexistent attention spans that deface our current time on Earth."

"Travel is linear – It is about one place or singular perception or book at a time, each one etched deep into memory, so as to change your life forever..."

Reading this book is like finding Kaplan's diary left behind in some train station in the Balkans. You sit and read his personal reflections, insights, anger and love, half-hoping Kaplan will walk in to reclaim his journal so you can ask him more about what he's seen between the seas of time.

Kaplan's travel writing sometimes brings Mark Twain to mind. Both know how to convert monochrome to high-resolution color.
"From Cluj I drove north into Maramures, which had the calm purity and femininity of a New Testament landscape ... Each tree as he would say was a hieroglyph, speaking so much with just a few lines, and with wine and gold on its breath as the autumn advanced. How distinct the colors were! We think of the past in black-and-white because of the state of photography at the time. But the past before the age of smokestack economies was even richer in primary colors than the world of today. And in Maramures, mountainous isolation had meant a degree of safety from the environmental ravages of Communism. In the glistening swards, the hayricks took on a remote, prehistoric quality. Fruit orchards and flower beds abounded. Nothing in this landscape was unnecessary. I thought not of painting but of music: Saint-Saens, Debussy, with their spare and haunting notes, touching you for moments after. There was such abundance yet concision everywhere."
Another pleasure in "Shadow" is reading about Kaplan's love of books. It's how this book opens, and references to great authors and their works are listed throughout. As this insightful book comes to a close, Kaplan finds himself "looking out over the glittering Danube between the neo-Gothic towers" and reaching for a book: Cambridge University professor Brendan Simms's "Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy from 1453 to the Present."

"The printed book was still for me the greatest expression of art," he concludes.

Robert D. Kaplan is a visiting professor at the United States Naval Academy, and a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. 

Tom Brokaw, author of "The Greatest Generation," calls this book "a masterly work of important history, analysis, and prophecy about the ancient and modern rise of Romania as a roundabout between Russia and Europe ... I learned something new on every page."

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