Another look at the Balkans

ISBN 978-3-552-05960-3

Book Review

“In the fire of worlds. Ivo Andrić – a European Life”

rt. With the wars in the former Yugoslavia (1991–1999), the work of the Nobel laureate in literature Ivo Andrić, who died in 1975, returned to the public’s attention after a long period of time. Many hoped that his literature would help them understand the history and mentality of the former Yugoslavia. After that it became more quiet again around Andrić’s work. In the newly published, detailed and well-researched biography about Ivo Andrić, Michael Martens, the former Balkan correspondent of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, presents a work that, striving for objectivity and balance, gives a deep insight into the life and work of the writer and diplomat. Martens takes a well-informed approach to the historical background from the end of the 19th century to the 1970s, particularly in the territory of the former Yugoslavia.
Ivo Andrić (1892–1975), born in Sarajevo – which was then still under Ottoman rule, then part of the Habsburg imperial and royal monarchy – his development into a well-known writer in the SHS Kingdom (Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slowenes) of Yugoslavia in the interwar period and finally his popularity in socialist Yugoslavia under Tito form a diverse background. How could Ivo Andrić – who as a young man was closely known to the assassinator Gavrilo Princip, who triggered World War I with his shots at Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and who later as a top diplomat in the service of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia tried to reach agreement with the Third Reich – continue his career as a writer under Tito?
Michael Martens does not jump to conclusions. Step by step he portrays the life of this worldly and eloquent writer. With the help of diary entries, quotations from the works and testimonies of contemporary witnesses, the picture of a person emerges who, with open eyes for his present in his personal environment, in politics as well as in contemporary literature, tried to precisely grasp his environment and to narrate his impressions and thoughts. He refined words, sentences, pictures, he researched extensively in archives, he studied people and human constellations. Martens makes it clear that he saw himself primarily as a writer. In his function as a diplomat in various European countries, including the League of Nations in Geneva and finally in the imperial capital Berlin, he also had to carry out tasks that led him into the abysses of politics. Despite his position as the leading diplomat of the former kingdom – but already a world-famous writer at that time – after the Second World War he became the flagship of the new socialist Yugoslavia.
Andrić held on to the idea of “Yugoslavia”. A state of the southern Slavs as a state union to represent the common interests to the outside world and not to remain a playground of the great powers. Early on he said: “The purpose of our national unification into a great and powerful modern nation state is also that our forces will stay in the country, develop and contribute to the common culture under our name, and not from foreign centers”“. (Martens, p. 57) In “The Bridge on the Drina”, the character Toma Galus explains: “Galus then described the advantages and beauties of this new nation state, which will gather all the southern Slavs around Serbia and Piedmont on the basis of complete equality of tribes, religious tolerance and civic equality”. (p. 115) Who was able to assert himself politically at that time remains an interesting question.
The governments of Yugoslavia under the monarchy of the Serbian Karadordevićs (1918–1941) led to lasting dissatisfaction among Croats, Slovenes and (as well as the) Muslims. – An almost ideal environment for unrest and political influence from inside and outside.
The situation became extremely complicated at the latest in 1938 with the annexation of Austria and the occupation of Czech Republic by Hitler Germany. Yugoslavia became a direct neighbour of the German Reich: On the one hand, it was under pressure from Hitler and Mussolini to join the Axis Powers – Yugoslavia had essential raw materials, but wanted to survive as an independent state – on the other hand there was Britain’s promise to support the kingdom against the Axis powers. In addition there were strong domestic tensions.
By a political move in February 1939, the governing power in Belgrade came under the direct influence of the Crown Prince Paul, who was oriented towards England. However, the foreign policy situation required an arrangement with the Axis powers, as the UK itself was too weak to actually support Yugoslavia militarily. A contract with Berlin was negotiated, ready for signature. Ivo Andrić as the first ambassador in Berlin was directly involved. The treaty allowed Yugoslavia a certain degree of autonomy, with various concessions. However, a surprise coup by Serbian officers on 26 March 1941, with British support, led to Hitler’s annulment of the treaty, shortly before its signing, and to his forceful occupation of the country. At that time the country plunged into a terrible occupation, civil and guerrilla war. – Was this situation caused by geostrategic calculation in order to militarily bind the armies of Hitler in Yugoslavia and Greece?
During the German-Italian-Hungarian-Bulgarian occupation, Serbian Chetniks, Croatian Ustasha, the occupying powers and the communist partisans were fighting each other in the country, amidst them German firing squads. Literary texts such as Manès Sperber’s novel “Like a tear in the ocean” or eyewitness accounts often describe human suffering, which later experienced a cruel continuation in the nineties – accelerated, if not initiated, from outside. At the end of 1944, after Tito’s partisans had won, with the help of the Red Army, a major “purge” started that took hundreds of thousands of lives. Only today – long after the end of Yugoslavia – this dark time of the forties is being tentatively scrutinised.
In 1961, Ivo Andrić was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm. The award ceremony took place at a time when the non-aligned states under Tito, Suharto, Nehru and others began to form and Yugoslavia was perceived anew by the West. At that time also other great narrators were taken notice of, outside the usual cultural and linguistic circles. Andrić’s three great works, also known as the “Bosnian Triology”, “The Bridge on the Drina”, “Bosnian Chronicle” and “The woman from Sarajevo” – written in the forties – had meanwhile been translated into many languages and well received even though they had no modern narrative modes or effects. “Andric’s work, however, has not aged. Looking back on his style from the distance of decades it seems timeless.”(p. 460)
In his biography, Michael Martens succeeds in gently illuminating the question of how Nobel laureate Ivo Andrić positioned himself in these turbulent times, without precipitating rash judgments. He lets the man Ivo Andrić slowly emerge from behind the world-famous author. “Andrić was also an opportunist along with many other things. But this is easily written in the safety of a shallow age. If Andrić had not been as careful as he was, we would not know anything of him as a writer. A European life in the 20th century also meant taking detours and abysses. If Andrić had not taken these detours, some of the most impressive works of European literature would perhaps have stayed unwritten, in any case unpublished.” (p. 461) Andrić’s personal life, his work, and European contemporary history have been linked by Martens in a very readable way. The reader is being given an understanding of precisely that region of Europe that still encounters much ignorance today.     •

Martens, Michael. Im Brand der Welten. Ivo Andrić. Ein europäisches Leben. Zsolnay, Vienna 2019. ISBN 978-3-552-05960-3