In eastern Austria, the rugged Alps subside into green and pleasant hills; and at the frontier, these hills give way to the great Hungarian Plain. Today these hills are a picture of bucolic serenity, a lovely landscape of cozy valleys, tidy villages, sun-dappled forests, and smiling fields. But for more than a thousand years, they were a fatal frontier, a battered and bloody borderland on the ragged marches of Europe.
Amidst these hills stands the castle of Rieggersburg, a striking fortress set on the precipitous plug of an extinct volcano. The castle was begun by the German margrave Rudiger von Hohenberg in the twelfth century, as a check against the Asiatic Avars, and five hundred years later it was still being enlarged and strengthened to foil marauders from the East.
A nineteenth-century visitor explains its persistent importance.
“The Turks, whose constant incursions prolonged, in this region, a condition of society which had wholly disappeared elsewhere; and which, at a time when armed retainers, ramparts, watchmen, and drawbridges had become, in the rest of Europe, mere archaeological toys, rendered them here still a practical necessity” (1).
Rieggersburg is today a “archaeological toy,” but as we shall see it is also a symbol of this battered and bloody borderland.
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On the grounds of Rieggersburg, there is an enclosed plot called the Grenzlandehrenmal, or borderland cenotaph. Constructed in in 1959, it is ringed by a low stone wall that is decorated with a plaque from each of the nearby villages. Each plaque indicates the number of young men the village lost in the First and Second World Wars. The numbers are sobering, especially when one considers that these villages are not large.
The 433 from Hartburg were, for instance, drawn from a population that could not have exceeded a few thousand.
The Grenzlandehrenmal is, therefore, a somber place. It does not celebrate these wars, but neither does it vilify. It is what I have called a sublime monument because it evokes that feeling of mingled longing and loss for which I know no perfect name. German-speakers might call this Weltschmertz und Sehensucht. I’m not entirely sure that I know just what this means, but it has something to do with metaphysical sadness and redemption. It has something to do with hope at the brink of despair.
Part of the sublimity of this place comes of it being a cenotaph, which is to say a monument to men whose bones lay scattered in distant lands. Part of it comes of the view to the east and south, over that low stone wall and towards those distant lands and scattered bones. Part of it comes of the wind and the silence. Part of it comes of the thought, enforced by the grim ramparts of Rieggersburg, that the present picture of bucolic serenity was, not so very long ago, not nearly so serene.
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Austria was born as the Ost Mark (i.e. eastern mark) of Charlemagne’s empire. It served as his bulwark against Asiatic tribes that invaded Europe by way of the Iron Gate of the Danube and the great Hungarian Plain. The word Hun was first applied to the hoard that rode with Attila, but it describes any one of the many tribes of horse-people who invaded Europe by this path. Whether they were Magyars, Avars, Turks, or Soviets, the marauders who came over this great plain all were Huns.
The essential and defining mark of a Hun is that he is a despoiler. When Huns came out of the East, it was to take things, not to make them. They built empires, to be sure, but that was almost all they built. They did not found great cities, or settle desolate wastes, or lay down roads and bridges. Where they managed to spread their culture and religion, it was more by accident than design. To be a Hun is to live in, and on, what other men have made. Huns are not civilizers, but are content with plunder, followed by tribute, and with the thrill of exciting terror.*
German knights like Rudiger von Hohenberg were quite capable of despoliation and exciting terror, but they were civilizers, not Huns. This was because they had inherited the Roman “destiny idea” that it was their mission to bring order to the lands they conquered, not destruction. When these Europeans built an empire, they founded cities, settled wastes, and laid down roads and bridges. Following on the heels of their conquering armies, there came missionaries, teachers, and the rule of law.
And this is how they differed from the Hun.
* * * * *
Prince Metternich is said to have remarked that “Asia begins at the Landstrasse,” the Landstrasse being the road leading southeast from Vienna to the great Hungarian Plain. He spoke from something very near to experience, for hardly a hundred years before he was born, Asia had marched up the Landstrasse to the gates of Vienna in the form of two hundred thousand Turkish Janissaries. At the gates of Vienna those Janissaries did all they could to plant Asia in the heart of Europe.
The Turk’s 1683 siege of Vienna is well known, and the gates of Vienna, which withstood that siege, are today a symbol of European defiance (such as it is). The year 1683 also saw a Turkish army unsuccessfully battering at the Paulustor, in the Austrian city of Graz, more than a hundred miles to the south of Vienna (and only a few hundred yards from the two modern malignancies that I wrote about the other day).
The city of Graz had long been a fortress, its name most likely a corruption of the Slavonic grad, or walled enclosure. We know that Frederic IV (also known as Frederic the Fat) fortified the city in the fifteenth century, when he also built the Grazer cathedral (in which, it so happens, my wife and I were wed). Despite these precautions, Turks briefly occupied the city in 1532, causing Emperor Ferdinand II (who lies buried in Graz) to construct more formidable defenses, such as the Paulustor. Graz thus rose to importance as a garrison town on the southwestern frontier of the Holy Roman Empire (and Western Civilization).
The region in which it arose was already a frontier—or marchland—of Europe. Since the year 1000, it had been known as Steiermark, a “mark” being a frontier fiefdom, and Steyr being the chief castle of its first markgraf (i.e. margrave, marquis, or marcher lord). The castle ruins that crown so many Styrian hilltops were built around 1200 by lesser German knights, who ruled and defended the primitive Slavonic hill tribes.
Thus Austria and Steiermark were, as their very names imply, marchlands of Europe; and like them Graz rose to importance as a bulwark against the East. It was precisely here, in these green Alpine foothills, that civilizing Europeans marked the line between themselves and the marauding Hun.
After the defeat of the Turks at Kahlenburg (1683) and Mohács (1687), Austria and Steiermark became offensive rather than defensive frontiers, and over the next a century the Hapsburgs advanced the marches of Europe east to the Carpathians and Transylvania, and south to the Save and Lower Danube.
In the nineteenth century it pressed the marches even farther, crossing the Save and entering the Balkan wilderness.
And that was, of course, its fatal mistake.
* * * * *
Americans have a peculiar understanding of frontiers. Among them is the expectation that a frontier will move quickly and in one direction because the people on the other side are weak. Despite the mythology, after 1800 our Indians were never more than a local nuisance, and their rapid dispossession was assured the moment Britain abandoned them as allies.
This is why the western marches of Europe became a “Land of Opportunity” and the eastern marches became a “Bloodland” seeded with bones.
The Hungarian geographer Emil Reich explains it this way:
“Every square foot of European soil has cost thousands, not to say hundreds of thousands, of European lives. The sweat and tears of generations have fertilized every square inch of European territory. The Union, on the other hand, has been placed, ever since the War of American Independence, in an entirely different position. The political necessity of fight for every rood of land during the centuries has never existed in America. Territories such as in Europe would have taken untold years to conquer and annex were acquired by the Union in a few months” (2).
Reich believed that those of us shaped by the easy conquests of the western marches had had it too easy, and that this would be, in the end, our undoing.
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Let me conclude by returning to that somber Grenzlandehrenmal in the shadow of Rieggersburg castle. Both the cenotaph and the castle are symbols of the larger meaning of this battered and bloody borderland, since each played its part in the answer to what nineteenth-century geopoliticians called “the Eastern Question.”
For those nineteenth-century geopoliticians, the Eastern Question was how to manage the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire (and perhaps, more distantly, the dissolution of the Empire of the Czar). Their answer involved seeding the borderland soil with bones, including the bones of 433 lads from Hartburg.
Obviously, geopoliticians are still attempting to answer the Eastern Question, and to manage the dissolution of an Ottoman Empire that has now decomposed into fractious parts. Obviously their answer still involves seeding the borderland soil with bones.
The eye cannot see Syria and Iraq beyond the low stone wall of the Grenzlandehrenmal, but the mind’s eye certainly can.
But this is not the whole Eastern Question, as the hulking ramparts of Rieggersburg castle so doggedly remind us. Before there was the question of Eastern weakness, there was the question of Eastern strength. Before there was a question of Asia in retreat, there was the question of Asia on the march. After all, the Landstrasse runs both ways and Huns will be with us always.
This is why a visitor standing in the Grenzlandehrenmal and looking up to to Rieggerburg castle must find himself thinking:
“How various are the labors necessary to protect a civilization against a barbaric frontier” (3).
*) I am perfectly aware that the descendants of these nomadic peoples are not “Huns” in the sense I am propounding, and that the Magyar aristocracy of Hungary became, in time, staunch knights on the side of European civilization. But Steiermark did not thereby cease to be a borderland.
“The language, manners, and appearance in every respect of these people differed essentially from those of the Styrians whom we had left but a few miles behind. This seems the more strange, as the boundary between the two countries is nothing but an imaginary line, or at most a hedge and a ditch” (4)
(1) Scribner’s (1890).
(2) Emil Reich, Success Among Nations (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1904), pp. 267-268.
(3) J. G. Kohl, Austria: Vienna, Prague, Hungary, Bohemian, and the Danube; Galacia, Styria, Moravia, Bukovina and the Military Frontier (London: Chapman and Hall, 1844).
(4) Basil Hall, Skimmings; Or a Winter at Schloss Hainfeld in Lower Styria (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea and Blanchard, 1836), p. 48.