Discover more from Polemology Positions
War in Their Name: Blood History In The Boundaries Of European Geography
A guest post
Europe‘s belligerent and bloody past is inscribed in maps all over the continent. The names of many regions and indeed entire countries are reminders of how they were seen not as homes but contested areas or recruitment grounds. And for one case, this sadly is true even today. A guest post for Polemology Positions.
Ukraine is a very unfortunate name these days. Krajina is a Slavic word for borderland, frontier, military border. The name Ukraine means literally this.
This is not how the people in this vast country ever saw themselves.
It is how their home was seen by Russia, Prussia and later Germany, Poland and Austria for centuries. As a place between their respective territories, to be bickered over, to be contested or neutralized, irrespective of those who called it their home, irrespective of the cultures and languages and ways of life that emerged there.
It is still how Vladimir Putin sees the country today.
To the Russian head of state and commander in chief of Russia’s armed forces, the Ukraine is Russia’s frontier towards the West.
Ukraine’s citizens – and tens of thousands of young Russian men – get to bear the brunt of Putin’s sense of entitlement to the country.
In his speech justifying the illegal invasion of a neighbor country, Putin implicitely even used the country’s name against it, denying the Ukraine and Ukrainians any nationhood or culture of their own.
That tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people have died, millions have fled or suffer in the Ukraine is not history repeating itself.
It is a result of conscious decisions taken and precise orders given by Vladimir Putin, and nothing else.
Nevertheless, what we see in this war is the inevitable outcome of people thinking they have a right to repeat history.
Many toponyms tell the tale of a bloody past
A bloody history at that, inscribed into Europe’s map in all too many places.
The Ukraine is not the only country to bear a name that signifies that at some point and time more powerful outsiders saw it as a frontier for themselves, a recruitment area or a reward to be bestowed upon a military leader.
The German equivalent of the Slavic word Krajina is Mark, or Marshes in English.
Denmark did not come by its name accidentally. It was once the frontier of the Holy Roman Empire’s northward expansion.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is a bit more complex, in that it is a rare national double name. Herzegovina is a region in the country’s south, and so distinct do most people there feel themselves from the rest of the country that to date they will consider themselves Herzegovinians, not Bosnians.
Hercegovina comes from the German title Herzog. In other languages that same function is known as Dux, Duc, Duke. The leader of an army, or at least a host. Herzegovina means literally: The territory of an army leader.
To translate this as Dukedom would be somewhat misleading.
While Duke and Herzog are literally the same titles, the military connotation is somewhat stronger in German than in English — which is simply due to the fact that England was relatively peaceful compared to the rest of Europe. Ducal military functions were just not needed as often as on the continent, until people mostly forgot they had any.
The region along River Neretva is called that because that title, incidentally in German, was bestowed upon its ruler Stjepan Vukčić Kosača in 1448. Or rather, he bestowed it upon himself.
While the details are a bit complex, we can say for short: For Kosača the title of Duke was not merely ceremonial.
He led armies, and quite a few of them for the period. First he tried to conquer Ragusa, today’s Dubrovnik in Croatia, and later tried to defend his territory against the Ottomans.
Before calling himself Herzog, Kosača had borne the title of Grand Vojvod of Bosnia. Vojvod or Vojvoda is the literal Slavic translation of Herzog or Duke. A leader of a host.
The name Herzegovina stuck through the ages, even through Ottoman times. The Ottomans called it Sancak Hersek, which is a bit pleonastic. Sancak, English Sanjak, was an administrative unit in the Ottoman Empire.
The term originally designated the ensigns of Ottoman army leaders.
As it were, there is another region in former Yugoslavia that basically has the same name as Herzegovina.
That is the autonomous province of Vojvodina in Northern Serbia. As stated above: Vojvod or Vojvoda is the Slavic term for Duke. So, this too, is the territory of an army leader.
Vojvodina had been a frontier first between Hungary and the Ottoman Empire and then somewhat later between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire for centuries.
Hence the need for a strong military presence, hence the name.
The most well-known sight of the province’s capital still the fortress Petrovaradin, Europe’s second largest fortress still in existence, right after Verdun.
Replacing medieval fortifications, it was built under Habsburg rule from 1692 through 1780, intended to be a bulwark against further Ottoman incursions.
Telling Where the Frontier Was
The frontier between Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, and later between Austria and the Ottoman Empire, shifted considerably over the centuries.
At one point and time, after the Ottomans had conquered most of Hungary and Hungarian kings resided in a city now known as Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, it ran right through the easternmost province of today’s Austria.
To this day, this region has a sizeable Croat population, in spite of having no direct connection to Croatian lands, modern or historical. They are descended from Croat farmer soldiers settled there under Habsburg rule to defend the frontier against the Empire’s enemies in the East and South.
Numerous castles and fortifications also tell the tale.
When the province became part of modern Austria following the peace treaties of St. Germain and Trianon after World War I, it also got a new name that reflects this architectonic heritage: Burgenland, Land of Castles.
But for the most, the frontier between Habsburgs and Ottomans was somewhere on the Balkans. This is where we encounter the term that started this essay: Krajina, as the Slavic word for frontier.
Perhaps one of the most powerful short stories about the effects war has on the surviving soldiers links today’s Ukraine and Bosanska Krajina, a once contested region in Northwestern Bosnia, between Banja Luka and Bihać.
It is “Mustafa Madžar” by Ivo Andrić, Yugoslavia’s most eminent writer and Nobel Prize Laureat.
The hero, Mustafa Madžar (Mustafa Magyar, or: Mustafa, the Hungarian) is a veteran from the Ottoman wars against the Russians and the Austrians.
He had fought for the Sultan on the Crimea and led a charge against the Austrians in Banja Luka.
Revered as a hero by the Muslims in his hometown in Southern Bosnia, he feels empty inside, can not sleep, can not forget.
Eventually, his suffering becomes so great that he runs amok, and is killed in the end.
There are not many literary examples in which what we now call PTSD is captured so precisely and even empathically as in this short story.
The Krajina Most Croatians Would Like to Forget
There is another Krajina in Croatia, sometimes referred to as Hrvatska Krajina, or Croatian Krajina, bordering its counterpart in Bosnia north of River Sava, which in this part still marks the borders between Croatia and Bosnia.
The term was used from the 1530’s until 1881, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had occupied Bosnia and the idea of a frontier in the region lost its meaning.
Today, it is mainly Serbs that call Eastern and Southern Central Croatia Krajina. With Croatians the name has fallen out of favor for a number of reasons, never mind that nationalist Croats dwell on the claim that they – and no one else, according to them – defended Europa against Muslim conquest.
Some of the modern Croatian reluctance to use the old name for the region has to do with the fact that in the 1990’s one part of the country’s territory occupied by Serb nationalists was styled into the “Republika Srpska Krajina” (Serb Republic of Krajina), one of those internationally never-recognized statelets so central to the war following the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
Where Frontiers Meet
To the North, we see the Slavic and the German words for frontier meet geographically.
Slovenia has its Krajina as well, and one of Austria’s southern provinces, Styria, is called Steiermark in local language. The suffix Mark, English Marsh, stems from the time when this was the frontier for the southward push of the Holy Roman Empire in the 9th and 10th century.
From Germany to Italy
At that time, German speaking settlers seem to have coexisted with local Slavs peacefully. Their common enemy was the Avars and it was against them that the Marsh was directed. In later centuries, Slovenes were often victims of forceful cultural and linguistic assimilation.
The same story is written by toponyms in Eastern Germany: Mark Brandenburg and Uckermark are just two regions that marked the frontiers of an eastbound German conquest against Slavic territories in medieval times.
The names stuck centuries after these regions ceased to be any frontier at all.
It wasn’t until the defeat of Nazi Germany that these Eastern German regions became border regions again.
The Marche, a region in Italy, isn’t close to any modern border at all - save San Marino, which doesn’t really count. The province lies to the East of Tuscany, between the Appenines and the Adriatic. It too was once a Marsh of the Holy Roman Empire, dating back to Carolingian times – albeit always with a majority Romance population.
Carolingian, Holy Roman and later Habsburg presence in Italy were not exactly pretty affairs. War or even the permanent presence of a potential war such as in a frontier region never are. As the German speakers retreated northward every slowly, the territory became part of the Papal States until the unification of Italy. Throughout all these centuries, it retained as its name the military function foreign rulers had once assigned it, in one form or another.
For whatever reason, no one seems to have felt an urgent need to change it.
In this case, as in most others, life has conquered Europe’s bloody past. Reality matters more than names, and history does not repeat itself.
Unless someone thinks he has a right to repeat it. This is when tanks start rolling and people die.
Chris is a Vienna-based journalist and runs the blog Balkan Stories.
Polemology Positions is a reader-supported publication. Subscribe to support this work