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Not a living soul around

A tour of First World War battlefields and burial grounds in Eastern Europe. By Andrzej Stasiuk

All this is most clearly visible at the beginning of November, when the memorial candles are burning in the deserted valleys, and there's a smell of tallow on the wind. I have no idea who lights those candles. Whenever I arrive on the first or second of November with my own lamps, those ones are already burning, in Czarne, in Długie and in Radocyna, which stretches right up to the Slovak border. In each cemetery there are two or three little flames dancing in the wind under soot-blackened glass. It's hard to get here, and no one lives in this area. There used to be some Ukrainian, or rather Lemko villages here, but between 1945 and 1947 the communists quite simply displaced them, moving some of them to the Soviet Union and others to the west of Poland, to places the Germans had been evacuated from earlier on. This was a distant and relatively weak echo of the great Stalin-era deportations.

That's why the landscape is so empty. You can spend all day wandering the upland valleys, finding nothing but cemeteries or their ruins. The Austrian ones dating from the First World War are very often situated next door to Ukrainian ones, Uniate or Orthodox. Both kinds of cemetery are like traces of a long lost civilisation. In summer they simply vanish among the lush vegetation, in tall grass and the shadow of tall trees – it's only the nakedness of November that makes them take on such a hyper-realistic sharpness of outline.

At dusk, as darkness is falling, small red or yellow lights are twinkling in the dark-blue autumn mist. As you drive cautiously down a stony or muddy road, every two or three kilometres the will-o'-the-wisps of the dead are glimmering; there's no sign of a living soul around, not a single house, nothing. But someone lights those candles for soldiers from ninety years ago. Most of the graves no longer have nameplates. In some cases there is hardly a trace of the cemetery left, or just some ruins, but even in the ones that have been restored recently the dead lie anonymous. The only place where you can find some names is in documents kept in archives in Vienna and Kraków: Antoni Nemec, Franciszek Kladnik, Jan Schweriger, Mateus Cepuš, Gottlieb Kyselka, Artur Böhm, Leib Issman, Sandor Szasl, Josef Dymeček, Jan Kocanda, Adolf Angst, Emil Husejnagič, Hakija Gjukič, Tadeusz Michalski, Petro Santoni, Batto Delazer, Andre Stefančič, Feliks Conti, Hatko Podlegar….

So I light my candles, then go home and read out the names. Of course, their relatives still remember them, but here where they perished, hardly anyone knows their names. So it's a sort of private ritual of mine to hold my own silent mass and observe the pagan custom of lighting a candle for the dead at the beginning of November.

This is the route taken by the Russians in the winter of 1914 as they tried to gain control of the Carpathian passes. If they had succeeded, the Hungarian Plain, Budapest and Vienna would have been within their range, and who knows what the world would have looked like nowadays? Fortunately, matters took a different turn, and now I can imagine the Russian infantry in their grey greatcoats wading through the snow towards the lowland passes at Radocyna or Konieczna. They're carrying rolled-up blankets on their backs, and the bayonets fixed to their rifle barrels look like long skewers – no good for anything but stabbing. You couldn't use them to slice bread or open tins, as you could with the Austrian or the Prussian ones. The village buildings have burned down and there's no shelter. They have to wade through deep snow under bombardment from highland artillery, under fire from Schwarzlose and Maxim machine guns. The world has three colours: the white of the snow, the muddy brown of the earth torn open by shells, and the red of blood. As I look at old black-and-white photographs, only the red is missing. Everything else makes sense – it's all monochrome, greyish-brown, leafless and steeped in mud. The soldiers live in dug-outs, huts and torn tents; their way of life is like a gypsy encampment or a refugee camp, the only difference being that they are under constant threat of death.

I found the old photographs in a museum in my county town. It's a small museum, designed to display the long, rich and complicated history of the entire region. But half its exhibition space is occupied by the First World War; compared with those few dozen months of war the rest of the long and complicated history emerges like a brief episode. Apart from all this, there's construction work going on in the basement, and when I asked what's going to be there, the head of the museum replied: "A waxworks display." Apparently it will include figures of Emperor Franz Joseph, the Good Soldier Schweik and the top commanders of the campaign from the Austro-Hungarian, Prussian and Russian sides, and one Pole who commanded an Austro-Hungarian infantry regiment.

So it emerges that the First World War, or rather one of its episodes, is the most important thing to have happened in my area. You could say it is the only event of world significance to have befallen the south-eastern corner of Poland. In fact, Poland did not even exist on the maps at the time, because it was partitioned between three empires, but it did in some way take part in the European and the world game. Ultimately, in a way the First World War was a cosmopolitan war, at least from the Austro-Hungarian perspective. Who knows if sentimental feelings about those days, or even special memory of that war do not arise out of nostalgia for an era when a person's own regional national identity was part of a larger, universal reality in a natural way. Quite possibly, as time goes by, we tend to perceive the "prison of nations", as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was called in those days, as something like a prototype, albeit an imperfect one, for a united Europe. This conviction is naïve and sentimental, of course. Nevertheless, right here in the south of Poland, in Galicia, in the former Austro-Hungarian partition, the conviction that the First World War was also "our" war runs quite deep, as does the belief that Emperor Franz Joseph was very much "our" Emperor. Not in his wildest dreams could Kaiser Wilhelm have expected anything like that, not to mention Tsar Nikolai.

I also have a hunch that here in Galicia the image of the First World War has relatively easily succumbed to a process of aesthetic enhancement, most likely because it was the last ever "old-style" war. Poison gases were not yet in use, there were no tanks, and the fighting had not yet assumed the horrific form of struggling for position. All that was to be the fate of the Western Front. It was there that the technology of mass slaughter was tested, it was there that soldiers spent months on end stuck in muddy trenches amid swarms of rats and the decomposing corpses of their comrades. Compared with Verdun and the Somme, in this area the war took a rather old-fashioned, elegant course. The black-and-white photographs of the era show a peaceful (almost), rural scene: snow-covered hills, leafless copses, the white shape of roofs, and smoke streaming from the chimneys. Amid this landscape we can see the figures of soldiers and silhouettes of horse-drawn vehicles. All in all, it looks like ordinary village bustle; the photographs emanate the sort of atmosphere we might find in Pieter Brueghel's paintings, "Hunters in the Snow", for instance. Compared with this scene, the muddy plains of northern France, strewn with rotting flesh, can only remind us of the hell of modern mass slaughter. In the west the twentieth century was beginning, while here in Galicia the nineteenth was still going on, with Cossack divisions fighting against detachments of Hussars and Uhlans. The Austro-Hungarian chief command issued orders specifying that soldiers who were photographed, and especially officers, should adopt "martial poses". And that's just how Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Pittl looks, Commander of the 4th battalion, 100th infantry regiment: his moustache is pointing upwards and in his right hand he's holding a revolver, while holding out his left hand in front of him, as if pointing at the enemy; his steady, pitiless gaze is fixed on the camera. Yes, there was something theatrical about this war, something of a performance. After all, Schweik saw it like a sort of immense cabaret, a world-scale vaudeville and a prototype for the theatre of the absurd. And Schweik did his fighting here in Galicia. I'm trying to imagine what would have happened if by some miracle he had ended up on the Western Front as batman to Ernst Jünger, for example… If he'd had a batman like that, and had listened to his endless stream of absurd anecdotes, would Jünger still have had the courage to write his novel "Storm of Steel"? Would he have had the strength to mobilise enough pathos and solemnity for his own story? And what about Hašek's Schweik? Could he have existed in the muddy fields of Flanders, stinking of human carrion? Wouldn't he quite simply have lost the power of speech and descended into madness? Ultimately, the Western Front was a glimpse into the depths of time, into the future of Europe. In Galicia they were still fighting in the old style, but Schweik could already sense the threat and horror of impending History. And where Jünger saw heroism and a change in the paradigms of reality, all he saw was absurdity and the world's inane guffawing.

I'm writing a lot about Schweik, a fictional character, because in these parts the First World War, or rather the memory of it, bears his face. The character is actually a Czech, but here, in Galicia, there are statues or smaller images of him in the towns, the pubs are often named after him, and there are pictures of him hanging in noisy, smoky beer cellars, so you might easily get the impression that he was a real person, not a literary invention. Yes, of the entire war the two figures who are best remembered are Franz Joseph and his most implacable enemy, who could change everything imperial into satire, a spectacle of political necrophilia or the cabaret of the absurd. I wonder if the First World War produced any other hero on his scale? No one comes to mind – none of Celine's or Remarque's heroes are as distinctly memorable as Schweik. They are too self-absorbed, because the war frustrates them. Schweik, meanwhile, frustrates the war with his hypnotic prattle, and in the process he frustrates the sense and order of the world to date. Schweik has no regrets. He laughs and dances on the graves. He is a nihilist, because it's the only way to survive. His creator would end up as a Red Army commissar.

Of course, it's not in memory of that sort of Schweik that those statues are erected in Galicia. Here he personifies folk cunning, good humour and common sense. He even personifies a sort of thoroughly human, everyday dimension of war as a plebeian adventure that could happen to anyone, and that you just have to muddle your way through at the least expense. To this day his memory is alive and well in the army, in the Polish one at least, where his name is used to describe a soldier who pretends to be a dim-witted oaf in order to be left in peace and not assigned some difficult, responsible task.

Yes, Schweik was a misunderstood visionary. He was a prophet, but in his own part of the world he was taken to be nothing but a shirker and a joker. In the West the lesson about the destruction of the entire world was assimilated faster. Here, in spite of all, an attempt was made to save the old world. That's why when autumn comes I can visit these cemeteries of mine in the wildernesses of the Polish-Slovak borderland. And not just here either – in the whole of Galicia there are over 400 of them.

As soon as the guns fell silent in the spring of 1915, once it was clear to all who was the victor and who the vanquished, the Austro-Hungarian chief command gave an order for all the dead to be exhumed from thousands of provisional cemeteries and individual graves, and to be gathered together. They were to lie at rest in specially designed and constructed necropolises. These were very curious architectural creations, often monumental and situated on hilltops, a long way from human habitation. All the soldiers were buried together, regardless of nationality; Russians lay alongside Prussians and Royal-Imperialist Austro-Hungarians. The Orthodox had their three-bar crosses, and the Jews had stylised "matzevahs" (gravestones) with stars of David. Very often they are tiny cemeteries with one central monument, huddled up against church graveyards. But you also come across real mausoleums, like the cemetery at Łużna, where on artificially formed hillside terraces over a thousand soldiers lie at rest. Hungarians, Prussians, Russians and Austrians lie in separate plots, and from a bird's eye view the shape of the entire place resembles the silhouette of an eagle with outspread wings.

I was there a few days ago. I had already seen some photographs of the corpses being exhumed and reburied, and of the cemetery being built. They showed bearded Russian prisoners carrying the human remains in wooden boxes with handles, two per box. They were wearing armbands with a cross, and had Mongol or Tatar features. They were staring steadily at the camera. They must have come from far away, from somewhere in the remote interior of the Empire, so they can't possibly have made any sense of what had happened to them. Above all, they can't have understood the point of digging up corpses and carrying them from place to place. This noble, chivalrous gesture must have seemed like sacrilege or blasphemy to them, and they were probably afraid of the spirits of the dead. Later on, once the corpses had been buried in their final resting place, the same Russian prisoners, who were skilled at woodwork, carpentry and joinery, erected tall, monumental towers on the lonely hills. They carved crosses for the graves and decorative fences. In their turn, Italian prisoners were put to work on the stonemasonry. They cut and smoothed stones before using them to build walls, gates and pylons reminiscent of Babylon or ancient Egypt; in a similar way the wooden monuments were known as "gontyny" – the pagan temples of the early Slavs – to associate them with Slavonic prehistory. It looks as if the main concern of the people who designed the entire project was to confer eternity on the place, to set it outside the reach of time. These cemeteries were meant to remind us of dreams or myths, just as nowadays the First War is like a dream or a myth, a sort of knight's legend. After all that happened later, once the twentieth century was fully underway, this first worldwide massacre took on some old-fashioned charm.

Especially here, in Galicia, in the cemetery at Łużna. Admittedly, the cemetery chapel is in ruins, but some of the graves have been repaired and fitted with shining new nameplates including ranks and units. Someone has tied ribbons in the Hungarian national colours to some of them. In many places there are burnt-out memorial candles. Someone still comes here and treads the paths from one plot to another. Someone visits the Russians, the Germans and the Austrians, in other words at least a dozen other races besides these three, from Bosniaks to Estonians, say. In the old photos the cemetery hill is bare, but now it is wooded over, and the Hussars, Cossacks, infantrymen, grenadiers and all the rest are lying in the shade of the trees.

As I was leaving, an old man emerged from a solitary cottage standing nearby. He smiled and quite simply began telling me everything his memory had retained about the cemetery. He probably knew everything about the place – he was born and brought up in its shadow, and was only about a dozen years younger than the graves. He told me the chapel burned down in the 1980s, since when he had been afraid of storms. The chapel stood higher up, and it had a very solid lightning conductor that attracted every flash of lightning. But it had burned down on a fine day.

I got into my car. He waved goodbye, then set off among the crosses, as if wanting to make sure I had left everything in proper order.


The article was originally published in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 22 January, 2005.

Andrzej Stasiuk, born 1960 in Warsaw, writer, poet, essayist and literary critic. Winner of many prizes (including the 1994 Foundation of Culture prize and the 1995 Koscielski Prize); also nominated twice for the Nike Prize. In youth, practiced many professions, was engaged in pacifist movement, deserted the army, and spent a year and a half in prison. After this, wrote for underground newspapers. In 1987, moved from Warsaw to a little village in the mountains, where he presently lives. Publishes books at Czarne Publishers, a publishing house he has run together with his wife Monika Sznajderman since 1996.

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