Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cold War Soldier Visits Eastern Europe



Forty years after I looked across the East-West German border from the turret of an M60A1 tank. Now I am visiting the Warsaw Pact countries that sent soldiers to the other side of that border.  Every country I have been to is better off than the 1970s, at least for ordinary citizens.  It was relatively better to be a leader in a Soviet, or Soviet-dominated country, but the well-stocked stores and bright-colored clothes everywhere say life is much better now.

But in the former Yugoslavia I had the same feeling of being haunted by ghosts that I had when I first walked the streets of Wiesbaden in the 1970s. When I first walked around Cold War West Germany, I passed people in the streets who were old enough to have been adults during World War II, I thought `Were you a Nazi, were you part of the Holocaust, did you know?'  The beautiful city surrounded by a lush countryside stood in contrast to the horrors of its recent history.  

I had that same kind of moment hit me in Bosnia. I was riding my bicycle just over the border from Croatia. I came to a roundabout and pulled off the road halfway around. The first road I passed had a sign pointing to Banja-Luka, the second to Tuzla. I remembered these names as sites of massacres of Bosnians by Serbs.  That was two decades ago.  Everyone middle-aged and older was either a perpetrator or the relative of a victim.  That feeling stayed with me until I left the Balkans and was in Slovakia.

When we waited for war on the East-West border, most of the men on the other side were not there by choice. I wonder how many of them wished Patton had kept going and pushed the Soviet empire back out of Eastern Europe.

Certainly, the victims of the slaughter in the Balkans would have wanted the Russians to leave Yugoslavia with their guns instead of leaving the weapons with Serbs and death to the neighbors they hated.

I understood the hatred in Tito's wake only too well.  In 1980, the year after I left the Army, I took a Russian Lit. course at Penn State with a gruff, chain-smoking Serbian named Prof. Djorjevic. He escaped Yugoslavia in 1956 and end up in Central Pennsylvania. At the end of the course, the Prof. invited us to his house for dinner. I remember his mantelpiece over the fireplace vividly. He displayed two 8X10 black and white pictures. One was of a Serbian officer on a white horse, his grandfather. the picture was from the late 1800s. The other was of two Croatians with Nazi armbands sawing a Serbian woodsman in half with his own saw.  If Prof. Djorjevic could have killed a Croat and died doing it, he would have died happy.

Except for the Yugoslav mess, NATO has helped to keep the peace in Europe for 70 years. That has not happened for a millennia before that. Every place I visited in the former Yugoslavia is at peace now.  May it stay that way!