Does the Adriatic Portend Europe’s Future?

September 11, 2022 Topic: Book Review Region: Europe Tags: Adriatic SeaMediterraneanTravelItalyEuropeAfrica

Does the Adriatic Portend Europe’s Future?

Robert D. Kaplan’s Adriatic provides a spellbinding look at a region of the world that has historically been a battleground between cultures and civilizations.

SPEAKING FOR myself, I’ve always had a particular soft spot for the Habsburg empire, and I suspect Kaplan does as well. In the 1970s I had the good fortune of becoming friends with the last of the Viennese waltz and operetta kings, Austrian composer-conductor Robert Stolz, and collaborating with him on his memoirs. Robert was born in Graz, the capital city of Styria, the Austrian province bordering Slovenia. His mother and father ran a music academy and, as a boy, he met Viennese friends of his father including Johannes Brahms and Anton Bruckner, who couldn’t stand each other but both liked Robert’s dad. On a visit to Vienna, the young Robert met Johann Strauss II who encouraged him to concentrate on Viennese light music once he completed his classical studies. Robert did, and he landed his first conducting post before his twentieth birthday. It was as music director at the provincial opera house at Marburg an der Drau (now Maribor, Slovenia), a short train ride from Robert’s native Graz.

It turned out that the “orchestra” he had been hired to conduct consisted of half a dozen musicians who couldn’t read sheet music but were able to memorize almost anything after hearing it played once on the piano. Later in life, Robert would be a guest conductor for many of the finest orchestras in the world, but he swore that he never encountered more raw, intuitive musical talent than he had with his “orchestra” in Marburg.

His first big career breakthrough was as a musical director in the major opera house at Brünn (now Brno in the Czech Republic). There, he coached a very talented young girl named Mitzi Jedlichka who would later gain fame as Maria Jeritza, one of the greatest operatic sopranos of her time and a star of many Metropolitan Opera productions. Stolz then moved on to Vienna where, as music director at the Theater an der Wien, he conducted the original production of his friend Franz Lehar’s immortal operetta, The Merry Widow. Lehar, incidentally, had been born in Hungary and, before achieving success as a composer, had served as a navy bandmaster at the Austro-Hungarian port city of Pola (now Pula, Croatia). On a more personal note, Stolz would later be cuckolded by the third of his five wives when she engaged in an affair with an Italian-speaking drummer playing in the dance band at the Park Hotel in Abbazia (now Opatija, Slovenia) while Robert and his wife were vacationing in what was then a leading seaside resort on the old Austro-Hungarian—and Adriatic—Riviera.

Stolz, a Catholic and certified “Aryan,” became a voluntary exile from Austria after the 1938 Anschluss annexed it to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. He would, among other things, receive two Academy Award nominations for his musical contributions to American films before returning to Vienna after the war. There, in 1967, he conducted a gala performance of Die Fledermaus attended by Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito, an ethnic Slovenian who had served as a cavalry sergeant in the Austro-Hungarian Army at the outset of World War I. Despite his conversion to South Slav nationalism and communism while a Russian prisoner of war, Tito had never lost his youthful taste for Viennese operettas, and was so impressed by Robert’s conducting that he spontaneously awarded him the “Order of the Yugoslav Flag with Gold Band,” the highest Yugoslavian award for artists. This was an appropriate gesture coming from the charismatic dictator whom historian Claudio Magris characterized as, symbolically, the last of the Habsburg emperors, holding Yugoslavia together by “a mixture of benevolence and repression in true imperial style.” While these events took place in what are now five different sovereign nations, they were all part of a single political and cultural superstructure at the time: the magnificent—but rather creaky—Austro-Hungarian Empire.

MORE THAN a century after that empire died, its echoes still resound throughout much of Mitteleuropa and the Adriatic. Kaplan illuminates this phenomenon by alluding to a 1935 story by Joseph Roth, the journalist and novelist who grew up in Galicia and who lamented the passing of the old empire as much as he detested the way Nazism filled much of the power vacuum it left behind. He ended up dying while exiled in Paris after the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938. According to Kaplan,

[Roth’s] story, “The Bust of the Emperor,” [is] about an elderly count at the chaotic fringe of the former Habsburg Empire, who refused to think of himself as a Pole or an Italian, even though his ancestry encompassed both. In his mind, the only mark of “true nobility” was to be a “man above nationality,” in the Habsburg tradition. “My old home, the Monarchy alone,” the count says, “was a great mansion with many doors and many chambers, for every condition of men.” Such a patriotism is almost contemporary, even futuristic, in its character. Indeed, the horrors of twentieth-century Europe, Roth wrote presciently, had as their backdrop the collapse of the empires and the rise of uniethnic states, with Fascist and Communist leaders replacing the power of traditional monarchs.

After Trieste, we head south along the Adriatic’s eastern coast to areas now flying the flags of Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania. The last stop is Corfu, Greece’s northernmost island just off the coast of Albania and, like Albania, once ruled by Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy.

Behind the new national flags of Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro—and in landlocked neighboring states like Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina—lies a tangled web of conflicting imperial ties, both dynastic and religious. Slovenia and Croatia, Catholic and governed by the Habsburgs for centuries, identify strongly and unambiguously with the “West” while still ethnically and linguistically “Slavic.” Bosnia’s Muslim majority, and centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule before its annexation by Austria-Hungary in the late nineteenth century, exert a different ancestral pull, as do Orthodox Christian Montenegro and Macedonia, and Muslim-majority Kosovo and Albania.

Superficially at least, the degree of “Western-ness” decreases steadily as Kaplan heads south along the Adriatic’s eastern coast until his terminal destination at Corfu, where the Greek flag flies and a uniquely Greek sensibility—in some ways European and even cosmopolitan, but still Greek to the core—prevails. No Slavic melancholy here and certainly no regimentation, as Kaplan points out with a simple twilight vignette:

Before sunset, on a weekday no less, the cafés and restaurants are absolutely jammed with people: grandparents, parents, and young children all together, the latter of whom noisily scamper around the tables while the fathers sip ouzo and the mothers nurse babies. Family. This is the true indestructibleness of Greece, despite economic depression and populism, and it is true of the Mediterranean in general, where the generations are not isolated from each other by technology and loneliness to the degree that they are elsewhere. There are no family scenes quite as poignant as Greek ones, where alcohol is not taboo, but something children grow up with and therefore do not abuse; nor is there quite the chicness of Italy or the sloppiness of the postmodern West. In the grounded stability of this evening crowd ... I sense something eternal. And then, of course, there is the language, which, with its gyrating phonetic eruptions, is meant for the stage as much as its ancient counterpart.

Of course, there is a down side as well, and Kaplan is not blind to it. In Greece, a Greek friend tells him, the emphasis on strong family ties can also lead to corruption, since family norms have historically outweighed legal and ethical standards. Ever since the consolidation of the modern Greek state in the mid-nineteenth century, there has been “an implicit bargain between government and people: we will give you little but we will also take little from you.” While much less severe than in nearby Montenegro and Albania, “Greece remains arguably among the more corruptly governed states in Western Europe, though this has been changing lately.”

There’s an important lesson here, and one worth remembering in a world where too many of our choices must still be made between greater and lesser evils: “Don’t ever think that an economic depression—as devastating as what America experienced in the early 1930s—has damaged Greece as much as half a century of Stalinism has done to Albania.” For all of its divisive, often extreme political rhetoric, Greece is “something you can hold on to. It never did leave the Eurozone. It never did crumble into anarchy, as many had predicted a few years before.”

Which, once the dust settled after the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, can be said of the Adriatic in general: it didn’t succumb to the anarchy so many had predicted. And since Kaplan chose the Adriatic to serve as a microcosm of what is going on in the larger world during what he sees as the end years of the modern age of large nation-states, perhaps “not crumbling into anarchy” is a practical—and achievable—goal for the scary new world of postmodernism. Mass migrations cannot be stopped, but borders can be maintained and the flow of immigration regulated. For all its flaws, the European Union has provided a rational overlay for Europe. Its strength may lie in its very weakness: its inability to become an imperial superstate while still regulating and encouraging the free flow of goods, services, knowledge, and technology among its very idiosyncratic member nations.