‘Nam

 

He was heading my way.

South, to Brisbane. The airport.

He was driving an old Toyota.

I put my rucksack in the back next to some open cardboard boxes filled with clothes.

At a glimpse: trousers, shorts and T shirts. Some other stuff I couldn’t identify.

 

Nice guy. Talkative. Said his name was Shane.

You don’t say.

Try and find an Australian male these days who isn’t named Shane.

 

What’s with all the clothes?

That was a story.

He was trying to interest big companies in clothing.

´A lot of companies fit their employees out with company uniforms. Or trousers and T shirts bearing the company’s name and logo´.

He’d been up on the Sunshine Coast talking to people. People with money, people who pulled strings.

 

Strange line to be in, I commented. Why should a company be interested in your clothing?

‘Because they’re cheap and good quality. Made in ‘Nam. ‘

‘Nam?’

‘Vietnam’.

There was silence as he pulled up a major intersection.

 

Sure, I knew the term ‘Nam.

Thing was though, the last time I’d heard someone talking about ‘Nam’, it was an Australian Vietnam veteran I’d met on the border of Laos and North Vietnam in 2004.

During the war, he had been a forward scout in a unit of jungle commandos. In the late 1960’s, Vietnam had been covered in dense, steaming jungles. His unit was flown out there in a helicopter and dropped into the jungle. They stayed out there for two, three weeks at a time. Search and destroy it was called. Looking for the enemy. Kill or be killed. Most natural war in the world he told me.

‘Nature!’ he laughed.

‘People talk about ´nature´ as if it’s something nice…´mother nature´ and all that. Let me tell ya’ about nature mate. It the law of the fuckin’ jungle. You see them first and kill ‘em or they see you first and kill you.’

Shane was in his 30’s. Far too young to have been in the Vietnam War.

Yet after talking to him for a while, I began to think that his use of the term ‘Nam was appropriate.

The law of the jungle I learned, still applied to Vietnam.

 

‘Most companies still get their clothes made in China. But the Vietnamese stuff is better…´

´Better?’ I said in a sceptical tone.

‘Yep, better quality and cheaper than China.’

‘Cheaper than China?’

You bet. Nam’s where it’s happening these days mate. It’s undercutting China and I’m not just talking about clothing. All the big corporations are heading for ‘Nam now. Sony, Samsung, Microsoft, Nike, Apple, you name it – Chinese firms are investing there too.’

 

‘So how did you roll into this Vietnam clothing line?’

‘Playing golf’.

‘Huh? Playing golf? (You met some interesting people hitch hiking that’s for sure).

‘Been teaching golf for the last 5 years in ‘Nam. Went over there with a mate. He and I were kind of in the same boat. We were both good golf players. We met each other at a training course. We were both good golf players but we weren’t good enough to play competition and make a living. So he came up with this idea of heading to Nam, which he had read somewhere was an up and coming golf destination.

He was dead right!

 Golf was really taking off in ‘Nam. There were great courses being built, world class,  some of them designed by Greg Norman. There’s a big market for people who want to play golf in foreign places.’

‘You’re teaching tourists?’

‘Sometimes, yeah. Over the last few years though, it’s increasingly been locals, the Vietnamese and sometimes, Chinese. ‘

 

 

He seemed to have no trouble driving and talking at the same time.

´Traffic´s nothing compared to Hanoi!.´

 

‘Hang on …what’s golf got to do with clothing?’ I asked.

I suspect he thought this was a dumb question. Probably was. Then again, what did I know about golf?

 ‘The golf scene’s all about appearance! Clothing, belts, socks, shoes, caps, that kind of stuff.  It’s important how you look, the image you present. It’s kind of sick, but that’s how it is.’

‘Then …how come you’re here in Australia trying to sell corporate clothing?’

‘I’m on holiday for a few weeks. Sooner or later I want to come back to Australia. But I’ve got to find some way of generating an income….getting work teaching golf in this country is almost impossible… ‘

 

Moving on, we began talking about how Shane and his mate had got involved in the clothing scene:

‘We rolled into this line of things because some of the people we were teaching owned factories manufacturing clothing. These guys were big time and I mean, big time. You wouldn’t believe how wealthy some people in Vietnam are. We’re talking about  billionaires not millionaires. They were exporting to America and Europe. So whilst we were teaching, we came up with the idea of setting up an on-line shop, selling fashionable golf clothing.´

‘It´s going ok?’

Yeah, I mean, its small time at the moment….’

 

Strange where a conversation can take you. Like a meandering stream. Especially with him navigating the traffic and talking at the same time. And he was glad of the chance to talk too. We got on the subject of the big factories where the golf apparel was manufactured. I think he wanted to get this off his chest.

‘One day one of our clients, a big guy, worth billions, invited us out to take a look at one of his factories. We went out there, really naïve, expecting to …I don’t know what we were expecting to see…it was fucking horrendous mate!. Thousands of these young women sitting behind machines, rows and rows of them, like battery chickens, that’s what it reminded me of…it made me sick.’

‘Yet you’re still selling the clothing.’

‘It’s fucked, I know that….but I got to thinking: how could we have helped those women in the factory by not selling clothing? Our orders were nothing in comparison with the big boys. A drop in the ocean. These guys were filling orders for tens of thousands of garments at any one time. They were doing us a favour just to give us the time of day. ‘

 

 

Maybe these massive industrial sweat shops were a part of a general historic movement towards higher living standards. After all, the western nations had only reached their present high living standards after almost two centuries. In the process there had been an incredible amount of suffering, not to mention a Great Depression and two devastating wars. The developing nations were trying to fast forward this historic process – to compress centuries into decades.

The people working in the Vietnamese sweatshops may have a hard life – that is, compared to people in a western nation – but measured against their own past, they were much better off.

Their past: feudalism, colonialism, war, decades of Stalinist dictatorship and equality in poverty…

There was one problem with this notion of ‘progress’.

 It emerged later in our trip, as we neared the outskirts of Brisbane when I asked Shane a straight forward kind of question.   

With the Australian veteran in mind, I said:

‘How the world’s changed. Once the Vietnamese communists waged war against capitalist America, now they’re running a country with luxury golf courses….’

‘The communist party!’ He laughed.

‘What a fucking joke!’

‘Plenty of our clients are members of the party. You can’t do anything in Vietnam without paying off the party. Every time I see these old men in their green uniforms on the TV I have to laugh. These bastards are like a bunch of rats let loose in a cheese factory! ‘

‘The big corporations investing in Vietnam pay bribes?’

‘They call it ‘taxation’ mate….you get to hear a lot teaching golf. Plenty of stories I could tell you ….fact is, communism’s the best deal around for the Cayman Island mob. The communist dictatorship’s been in the saddle for decades and it can’t be toppled. They run this propaganda industry about the glorious liberation war, being freed from the yanks and all that….absolute bullshit!’ 

‘It’s no worse than the other Asian nations.’ I observed. 

I had my rucksack in mind. It had cost an arm and a leg, as the saying goes. It was made in Thailand: another corrupt tin-pot dictatorship with a sweatshop economy. It was a fair bet that from the money I paid – around 800 dollars Australian – precious little had trickled down to the workers on the line.

 

When I got out he gave me a T shirt. It was nice. A proper T shirt with a collar.

Every time I wear it, I think of ‘Nam.

And try to forget the law of the jungle. 

 

 

The Tombs of Hyderabad – Part 1

 

 

I went to Hyderabad to see a graveyard. 

It was no ordinary graveyard. 

There were 12 tombs built on a stretch of land at the outskirts of the city. They were old, the oldest constructed 5 centuries ago and the most recent, 2 centuries. They were built to house the remains of a succession of Moslem shahs (and their wives and children) who had ruled Hyderabad until the arrival of the British in the early eighteenth century.

Each tomb was a scaled down version of the Taj Mahal (which is another way of saying that the Taj was an adaptation of an architectural idea long in existence before it was built). There was a big dome supported by a solid, rectangular building with arches and columns. The size and grandeur of the dome reflected the wealth, power and pretensions of the Shah who reigned at the time. The smallest dome was 20 metres high, the largest, over 40. On the floor inside each building, directly under the lofty ceiling of the dome, there were stone coffins on the floor. In the bigger domes, there were galleries of recessed alcoves.

Most of the inner sanctum of the dome was space, emptiness, shadow and silence. These tombs were classic examples of the genius of Middle Eastern Islamic architecture transposed to India; there was a beautiful combination of elegance and disarming simplicity. They were impressive architectural works especially considering when they were built and the technology available.

I imagine that during their construction, they were cocooned with the same network of bamboo poles tied together with rope which you can see today on any modern construction site in India – and were plied by the same army of workers, emaciated village peons, moving back and forth across the precarious looking structure like ants. 

These dome tombs were the relics of Islamic rulers who spent a good part of their lives preparing – and building – for their deaths.

Westerners often romanticised the Taj Mahal and saw it as an expression of love; inside the sanctum were the graves of the Shah Jahan and his favourite wife. But in reality, the Taj was at least as much about death as it was love. It was the most magnificent example of an Islamic tombstone from the hundreds of them scattered around India.

And it cost so much to build that it bankrupted an empire.

 

 

To reach Hyderabad’s tombs, I had to get a scooter rickshaw and travel from one side of the city to the other.

It was not a pleasant trip.

Like in every big Indian city, the traffic was chaotic and noisy, and the air pollution was stifling. A day spent breathing the air in Hyderabad was equivalent to smoking a packet of cigarettes. In more than a few Indian cities today, the air pollution is worse. 

It took me an hour to reach the tombs.

On the way, I passed dilapidated buildings and apartment blocks, dusty shops and stalls: a chaos of squalid structures of every size and shape devoid of anything remarkable or elegant. I covered my face with a handkerchief in a vain attempt to filter out the pollution.

Sometimes the scooter rickshaw pulled up next to a bus or a truck and I got covered in a thick black cloud of diesel exhaust.

Finally I got there.  

There was an ancient stone wall and behind it, trees. The trees were a welcome sight after the urban desert of the city. I found myself in an oasis of green and, relative silence. Following a shady road, I came to a metal box which was the ticket office, where I paid an entrance fee. Rounding a bend, I saw my first dome. There was something mesmerizing in the size and symmetry of that massive half globe, garlanded with carved lotus petals around its base, a spire on top, rising high above the tree tops and illuminated by the bright sun. This was the first tomb – there were eleven others back among the trees. 
 
Centuries ago, the domes had been set in a garden Paradise. Between the tombs there had been tended gardens and hedges, pools and canals. It was a different scene today. There were no gardens. The pools and canals were dry. Scattered about was the detritus left by Indian tourists; paper plates, plastic bottles and wrappers, styrofoam cups etc. There were lower caste women whose job it was to sweep away the leaves that fell on the paths and in the immediate area around the tombs. But it wasn’t their job – it wasn’t anyone’s job – to clear away the trash. So it didn’t happen. 

It was hot, near 40 degrees Celsius; I took it easy and spent my time walking from one tomb to the other and taking long rests in between.

 

 

One tomb which interested me was the first one ever built; it was a good 30 metres high and housed the remains of a certain Sultan Ibrahim. He was a Turk, raised and educated in Persia, who turned up in the present-day Hyderabad (then known as Golconda) in 1520 with an army and defeated the local Hindu kings and started building the fort. He also played a leading part in bringing down the powerful neighbouring Hindu kingdom of Vijenegar, the remains of which are today one of the most famous tourist attractions in southern India. So this Ibrahim was where the Muslim domination of the Hyderabad area began. Dotted on the stone pavements outside his dome were flat black slabs of marble marking the graves on his favourite wives. I cannot imagine that this Ibrahim, despite his classical Persian education, was a particularly savoury sort of character. The Islamic invasions of the subcontinent were extremely brutal. The force he represented was one based on the certainty of his cause, his religion, and his absolute conviction that the infidel deserved to die or be enslaved. 

Those who came after him, foreign invaders, built exquisitely beautiful architecture – and administered a reign of terror upon the majority Hindu population including the systematic abduction of their young women to fill their harems. This continued for a good 400 years until the British appeared on the scene. Men like Ibrahim who swept in the from the west and occupied large sectors of India, brought with them an energy and fanaticism which was missing in an India paralysed by the caste system and depleted by endless dynastic rebellions and wars. 

In time however, the Moslems fell prey to the same disease – and were easily pushed aside by the British. 

 

Going from tomb to tomb, one problem which I kept running into was young Moslem couples who had chosen a tomb as a lover’s rendezvous. The young men were dressed in short sleeved shirts and trousers and had sports shoes and cool sunglasses. The young women were clad in long black cloaks with a black headscarf – or black burkas.

What was it like wearing a long black cloak and headscarf or a burka in the Indian heat?

In the centre of Hyderabad, I had seen many women wearing burkas. I’d stopped at a few shops selling burkas and related ‘modest’ clothing and noted that they were made from nylon or a mixture of nylon and cotton.

Black Nylon? In this climate?

In Hyderabad the temperatures hovered around the high 30´s – and higher – for most of the year.  

Wearing black nylon in that sort of heat must have been, at the very least, uncomfortable – if not outright torture.

Most of the women also wore black gloves.

This garb seemed to me akin to the old Chinese custom of binding women’s feet – or in Europe and America – when women had to wear whalebone corsets, fastened tight, to give them an ‘hour glass’ figure. It reeked in other words of something belonging to another era – the era of Ibrahim, for example.

I continued my trip around the tombs of Hyderabad and as I did so, my thoughts turned to a scene from the day before at the hotel I was staying at.

Suddenly I found myself in the modern world, rather than the ancient, turning over a whole plethora of questions confronting the Moslems of Hyderabad today – and not only them, but the world’s Moslems in general. 

 

 

The Tombs of Hyderabad Part 2

 

 

It was a problem.

Wandering between the tombs of Hyderabad: time and again, tracking through the hot sun, I’d arrive at a tomb, looking forward to the shade and cool it offered, like an oasis in a desert, and find myself disturbing a young Moslem couple who had chosen the tomb as a lover’s rendezvous.

Their reaction on seeing me, a tourist with a camera, was invariably the same: flight.

As far as I was concerned, they didn’t need to fear me and they certainly didn’t need to flee in panic.

I felt like an intruder. I didn’t want that feeling. On the other hand, I was here to see the tombs.

Sitting in the shade of a tomb, the image of a teenage man dressed in a short sleeved shirt and trousers and sports shoes and sunglasses and the woman in a black nylon burka, a scene from earlier in the day came to mind.  

 

The hotel where I was staying in Hyderabad wasn’t luxurious or expensive by western standards – but by Indian standards it was certainly middle class. On the ground floor, opposite the reception counter, was an air-conditioned restaurant with tinted glass windows and lots of heavy wooden tables and chairs. Fixed to one of the walls at the end of the dining room was a large flat screen TV set.

The food was very good and especially around lunch times a lot of people from outside frequented the restaurant. All of them, it spoke for itself, were middle class. There was a mix of Hindus and Moslems. Invariably, in the case of the Moslems, the women were clad in either burkas or niqabs, but the men and the children were dressed in western style clothing.

On the TV was the usual run of Indian soap operas, stock market updates, news and blitz advertising. Waiting for my order, I struck a conversation with a Moslem man on the table next to mine. He was on holiday from Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a doctor in a hospital. His young wife, a pair of eyes staring out from a burka, busied herself with the children.

He talked about the ruling princes of Saudi Arabia in a tone of hostility. There were so many of them; they formed a caste of privileged, wealthy, authoritarian rulers. The rest of the Saudis were lazy and pampered by a welfare system. Foreigners did all the work he said, from the most menial tasks to the advanced technical and professional jobs. At the hospital where he worked, a large one, all of the doctors were foreigners and so were the nurses (many of them Filipinos). We got talking about his job. It was a good job he said, it paid well. But he was counting off the days before he had saved enough money and could leave. There were lots of Indian Moslems working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States he told me, and especially from Hyderabad. No one wanted to live in the Middle East, just earn money and then come back to India.

Whilst we were talking, ads appeared on the TV featuring beautiful women dressed in western, often revealing, clothes promoting toothpaste, deodorants, washing powder – and apple and mango flavoured condoms. The sexualisation of the Indian media was proceeding at a rapid pace. Scantily clad Bollywood babes could be seen everywhere in every media format, from magazines to TV to billboards. 

I wondered about how the Moslems who frequented that restaurant regarded the all too explicit adds. Didn’t they clash with their ideas about women and modesty?

It seemed bizarre to be in a restaurant where women clad in burkas manoeuvred food into their mouths whilst up on the TV screen were images coming from a very different kind of world.

Of course the commodification of women by a commercially driven mass media had many negative sides to it. It was easy to understand that religious people – and not only Moslems – had serious objections to this blatant invasion of our lives by the profit motive. The over sexualisation of life thanks to the advertising industry brought with it some obviously very negative consequences. There was the danger of reducing women to commodities, things, this in a very different way to traditional, patriarchal societies. In the West, one could ask serious questions about the role played by the advertising and porn industries in defining our ideas of gender and women.

I had a feeling that the insistence on women secluding themselves behind a wall of black nylon was a way of avoiding a whole plethora of complex issues, this in the name of resisting modernisation.  For how long could women be denied the right to develop their talents and decide their own role in life? And what about gays and transgender?

The doctor from Hyderabad was critical of Saudi Arabia because he saw it as a parasite state inhabited by a lazy population. Yet he was not opposed to the puritanical, better said, reactionary form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.

I was tempted, but resisted the temptation, the raise this issue.

 

There was nothing in the Koran about women having to wear the burka or even, long black nylon dresses. There was nothing about women being subservient to their men.

This was purely a cultural interpretation and one vigorously promoted all over the world by Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis role in financing its feudal version of Islam called ´Wahhabism´ (or sometimes, ´Salaafism´) was well documented. It was a problem in Europe, as well as Asia and Africa. In one nation after the other, reactionary versions of Islam had emerged as a direct result of Saudi interference – a recent example being the world’s most populous Islamic nation, Indonesia. Once home to a tolerant version of Islam, in recent years it had fallen prey to fundamentalism. Attacks on minority groups such as the Christians, Hindus and Buddhists had escalated; gays were caned in public and women encouraged to practice ‘modesty’.

When people criticised Saudi Arabia for its disgraceful human rights record, it protested loudly about foreign interference in its affairs. Yet it saw no problem in interfering in the affairs of other nations by funding fundamentalist mosques, imams, schools, universities and media.

In the past, empires rose and fell on the basis of the armies they could field. Today, money and media were the means of power. In this respect, Saudi Arabia was exceedingly powerful. Home to the two most holy sites in Islam, Medina and Mecca, and sitting on the world’s major source of high grade oil, Saudi Arabia formed a major obstacle to any attempt by the world’s Moslems to modernise.

The only western nations which had ever dared criticise Saudi Arabia were Canada and Norway.

For the other western nations, oil spoke more loudly than human rights. In the problems of fundamentalism and terrorism they were complicit.

 

 

 Late in the afternoon, after walking around and studying each tomb – hot work to be sure – all I wanted to do was to find a quiet spot and sit down.

I walked behind one of the biggest tombs, where there was a corridor of land between the columns and archways at the base of the tomb on my right, and a belt of dense forest on my left.

Rounding a corner, I came upon yet another canoodling couple. Before I could retreat, they jumped up and fled. They had been sitting against the wall of the tomb, behind the columns and arches and right next to each other, their bodies touching. They had been holding hands.

In her free hand, the girl held a purple flower which the boy had plucked from a nearby bush.

There wasn’t much I could do. I couldn’t invite them back and offer to leave – it all happened so quickly.

Within seconds, they were gone. I felt sorry for them.

How nervous they must have been.

Why?

Because secrecy was a part of the magic of a lover’s tryst?

Or because I was a foreigner?

Questions appeared in my mind like the ants foraging around on the ancient floor of the tomb in search of food. 

Perhaps this young couple  – and the others I had seen around the tombs – were taking some rather large risks.  

I couldn’t imagine that their parents and family would be very happy about the idea that they were pursuing this kind of clandestine love affair. In India, marriages were arranged. Seen from our western perspective, there was something naive, almost puerile about a couple of teenagers furtively arranging a tryst at the tombs of Hyderabad. Put into their terms however it might be an act of rebellion, one fraught with danger. Perhaps these young people were the pioneers of a new kind of love. Perhaps there was a break with tradition here.

Which was why they were so scared of intruders.

Questions and more questions, hanging in the warm air, silent yet inescapable.

Ah! Time to put it all aside. To resign for the day.

I sat down at the spot where they’d been sitting. 

The tomb was on a low hill. In front of me was a view of an area of forest and a larger dome rising above it. The air was filled with bird song. On the right side, at the end of a gallery of columns and arches was a view of another dome in the distance.

As the sun hovered near the horizon, a big, orange red ball, I quit for the day and luxuriated in being a tourist, alone at the feet of an ancient tomb.

That young couple had chosen the spot where I was now sitting for a reason. It was secluded and directly in front there was a fine view of a large dome, rising from above a blanket of green.

 The scene before me was to be savoured. The sun began to set, lighting up the ancient dome in a flaring orange.

From a mosque somewhere in the outskirts of Hyderabad he call to prayer went up, a haunting musical lament which echoed in the distance.

 

 

 

The Thirty Years´ War – Part 1

 

Southern Germany, September, 2018:

When we arrived at the outskirts of Ladbergen after a long day on our bikes, we got lost. It was a warm day, 30 degrees Celsius, and we were tired.

We had booked a hotel for two nights but couldn’t find it.

We stopped at an Aldi, went inside, bought some supplies, packed them in our bike bags and then asked around for directions. As usual, the Germans went out of their way to help us.  

The hotel was on a side street, off the busy main road, at the end of town. It was a medieval era building which had been tastefully renovated. We parked our bikes and went inside to sign in.

There was a woman standing behind a bar. The ceiling was low and supported by heavy beams. It was dark. The bar was no longer used. There was a polished wooden counter and taps and behind it, large ceramic tankards sitting on shelves.

There was a restaurant next to the bar, but this was also closed.

The hotel was half museum and you could hear voices from the past, in the days when the bar and restaurant were busy.

Initially I was pleased to be in a place with so much character, until we went to our room, that is.

It was up a flight of wooden stairs. It was small, basic, with a creaking wooden floorboards. The lighting was poor. We’d booked the place for two nights because we needed a rest day after a series of long days on the bikes, but I wondered about that decision after settling into our room.

We unpacked our stuff.

Whilst I had a cold shower, Anya went to the office to ask about breakfast, which was included in the price of the room.

She was gone a while.

When she came back, I was lying on the bed, passing in and out of sleep. I was just so damn tired. Every muscle in my body ached.

She appeared before me like an apparition. She was full of enthusiasm.  

‘Near the door to the bar and restaurant there’s an alcove. It’s easy to walk passed without seeing it. There was a door there once but it’s been closed off. In the alcove is a plaque on a wall, made from ceramic tiles. There are few sentences in German. It says that in 1645, the leaders of the armies fighting the 30 years’ war first met here to discuss peace terms. Just imagine it! This building was here almost 400 years ago! In the old sketches on the tiles, it looks exactly the same!’

This sparked my interest. I knew then what I was going to do on our rest day, after a long sleep.

Sleep in, have breakfast, and then take a look at the alcove.

 

 

One thing led to another. I studied the plaque in the alcove in the morning and by midday I was immersed in the Thirty Years War. There was lot involved.

It was interesting and depressing. That’s the problem with history. You go out there looking for information, facts, and end up feeling, well, kind of depressed.

 

 

1618: the last great religious war in Europe begins.

The cause?

The Vatican. A newly installed Pope named Ferdinand. A religious fanatic.

He is determined to impose Catholicism on the Protestants by force of arms: terror and mass murder no problem.

Whatever it takes.

Europe is roughly divided between Catholics in the south and Protestants in the North.

Protestantism had begun with the German priest Luther. His criticism of Catholicism was the start of a revolution within the medieval Christian world. Priests could not determine one’s entry into heaven; that was for the individual to decide. The entire priesthood, along with the monasteries, the clerical lands and over decorated Cathedrals were profane. Latin was no longer to be the language of God.

Protestantism spread quickly in the north of Europe. But it did not become the dominant Christian creed. There was a patchwork of Catholics and Protestants living in co-existence. This co-existence was formerly recognised by the Treaty of Augsburg.

Live and let live.

Until the ascension of Fascist Ferdinand.

 

He was determined to crush the Protestant states in the north of Europe. In Bohemia, in today Czech republic, the German Lutherans rose in rebellion against Ferdinand’s Catholic imperialism and were brutally crushed. The word was out: this was a pope who was prepared to do anything to exterminate the Protestants.

What Ferdinand did was trigger off a long and terrible maelstrom.

 

The northern Protestant states, banded together. At the same time, a welter of national rivalries – the great problem of Europe – was unleashed.

Spain, aiming to crush the Prostestants in The Netherlands, swung behind the Pope’s campaign. It had been waging a campaign there for the last 50 years. Without success. It had a problem: it was trying to wage war in a water land in which its troops were unfamiliar and were being systematically defeated in an ongoing guerrilla style campaign. Now, egged by the Pope, they were going to take the gloves off. Austria, a Catholic country, also aligned itself to the Catholic campaign.

But the besides the water, the Dutch protestants had another formidable advantage over the Spanish: business sense. The seeds of a future greatness were in the offing. Amsterdam and its sister cities were already thriving trading cities with deep pockets.  

The French – Catholics – alarmed at the policy of the Austrians and the Spanish, supported the Dutch protestants. They were joined by the English and the Danes.

Subsidized by the Dutch Protestants and French Catholics, Sweden, a Protestant nation and a formidable military power, entered the conflict. Saxony, the largest province in Germany and Protestant, joined this alliance.

There it was: an unholy mess!

Thirty years of savagery in the name of God!

 

 

Both sides employed mercenaries – they would change sides depending on who was paying them the most.

As usual, the civilians got the worst of it.

Like in Syria today.

It’s almost impossible to know how many people died. No one was keeping reliable statistics then. Murder, disease, starvation and rape – were widespread. Became normal. 

 

 

By 1645, the belligerents were exhausted – and on the Catholic side, bankrupted.

They began talking about terms, although military operations continued in hopes of improving their bargaining positions.

 And where did they meet?

 In a small town called Ladbergen.

 In 1648, finally, a treaty was concluded. .

 Thirty years of utter barbarity had been unleashed and nothing had been gained, much had been lost.

The suffering had been immense and, most of it endured by the Germans.

 

In the evening, when the sun had set and it was cooler, we ventured outside. There were strange and conflicting images in my mind.

During the Second World War, Ladberg was bombed flat. Only two buildings survived: the hotel – and the church.  

How strange, how perverse it was!

The building where the warring parties in the Thirty Years War had sat down together for the first time and discussed the idea of a truce, had somehow survived the devastation of the Second World War. 

Almost as if its role in securing a lasting peace was preserved for posterity.

But after a visit to the other historic survivor, the church, the strange coincidence of the survival of the hotel receded before another, different insight: the peace concluded by those men in 1648 was, in reality, only a truce.

In the longer term, there was no lasting peace.

In reality, the Thirty Years´ war, that dark cataclysmic event, was a forerunner for the horrific wars waged 3 centuries later.

As twilight descended, the threads of cause and effect became ever clearer.

With the creeping darkness, the ghosts of terrible wars appeared from behind the tombstones.

The First World War, the Second…..the Holocaust….

 

The Thirty Years War Part 2

 

On the second evening of our stay in Ladbergen, we went to visit the church.

We didn’t have far to go; it was on the opposite side of the road to our hotel and  perhaps 200 metres away.

It was a Protestant church. 

In the last light of a warm September day, as Anya and I circumnavigated its stone walls, it occurred to me that it must have been humiliating for the Catholics to have had to travel to this small Protestant town to discuss the terms of a peace treaty. They knew that they had lost the Thirty Years’ War: they had failed to eradicate Protestantism from Northern Europe. 

But was even worse, they had set the scene for the rise of a powerful new Protestant nation in the form of The Netherlands.  Catholic Spain had waged a cruel and brutal campaign in that water land and been defeated. After 1648, when the final peace treaty was concluded, The Netherlands entered a period of greatness, the so-called ´Dutch Golden Age´, when it became the world’s foremost economic and naval power. 

Peace however brought no benefits to the provinces comprising Germany. They had borne the brunt of the Thirty Years War, endured the worst excesses of the hate, the violence, the epidemics, the hunger, the mass deaths. And afterwards, there was no recovery, no ‘Golden Age’; poverty, starvation and disease lingered for decades. Millions of people emigrated. Germans flocked to The Netherlands – including almost half the population of Ladbergen. The Germans became Europe’s refugees – ironical in view of recent events with the mass migration of Syrian refugees to Germany.

Beyond this grim physical reality, was another, deeper, emotional one: in the memories the German people, the 30 years’ war was a time of terrible disaster, rivalled only by the latter stages of the Second World War.

Appropriate, given the links between the two events.

 

On two sides of the church were gravestones.

There weren’t many gravestones and none of them had anything interesting to say: just the usual stuff about resting in peace and god and heaven.

Nevertheless, there were a few of the gravestones which literally stopped me in my tracks.

It wasn’t the words in epitaphs that caught my attention, it was the numbers: the dates of birth and death. There were gravestones of people who had been born in the early years of the 20th century and died late in the 1990’s or early 2000’s.

I made a quick tally of the events which had occurred during the lives of those people – of the history which had unfolded during their lives:   

The First World War and the horrors of trench warfare; mass starvation during the last year of that war, followed by the chaos of defeat, the Great Depression (which hit Germany harder than anywhere else), the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the Second World War, blitz bombing, defeat, the country in ruins and the shocking revelation of the gassing of 6 million Jews (2 million of them children); the post war reconstruction and the division of Germany into East and West; the miraculous years of recovery and then, in 1990 the fall of the Berlin Wall and the creation of new, united Germany – followed by the personal computer, the video and CD player, the age of the internet, the mobile phone and so on.

The simplest thing in the world, the statement of birth and death on a marble slab, was enough to amplify the short but tragic history of the German nation.

And ironically, not far from the gravestones, I came to a very different kind of monument: one which served as a reminder of the birth of that nation: it was an old four- sided stone column, with a few sentences engraved on one side.

The stone was weathered, pitted, but the script was still legible: it was a tribute to ‘our brothers’ who died in 1871.

1871: the birth of a new nation called Deutschland.

 

Normally Anya and I never ate ice cream.

But this was our last night in Ladbergen. The evening was warm and we knew that on the following day we had a long ride in front of us. Besides, a rare indulgence is often the most enjoyable one. Which was certainly true about this particular indulgence.

The Italian ice cream parlour was on the same side of the road as our hotel. Hence, our hotel, the church and the ice cream parlour formed a triangle, its sides no longer than 200 metres (probably less, I suspect).

 

 

I have never seen a people so enamoured of Italian ice cream as the Germans. It’s something that I noted in my diary during previous bike rides in Germany.

Outside the Italian ice cream parlour were tables and chairs on a brick work pavement. They were all occupied. Echoes of people chatting and laughing filled the air.

We bought two small containers of ice cream. The man behind the counter pointed us in the direction of a place over the road where we could sit. We walked over there. it was odd that we hadn’t seen this area before: it was next to the church grounds.

There were three bench seats arranged in a semi-circle around a pond. The perimeter of the pond was a low wall topped by glazed cement tiles. At the end facing the bench seats, water flowed over a low edge of the wall into an iron grid recessed into the ground; the water was then circulated back into the pond. The sound of the water splashing into the grid was welcome on a warm day. There were trees surrounding the area, enough to provide shade yet not block out the light entirely.

On the bench seats were parents and grandparents and children eating Italian ice cream.

After a while, we began watching the kids and their reaction to the water. Some of them were fascinated by it and tried to jump in – whilst being restrained by an adult – or they dabbled their hands in the overflow. But other kids didn’t want to go near the water, just watch it from afar.  

People stayed a while and left. Others turned up. Some people appeared on bikes with their children seated behind them and stopped and chatted.

It was a delightful scene.

Sometimes one of the ultimate travel experiences is just sit somewhere and watch people.

 

 My thoughts drifted to the old stone column in the church yard.

After all, it wasn’t far from where we were sitting, surrounded by people and children eating ice cream.

1871

The German war against France.

Long ago, after reading the works the French novelists Guy de Maupassant and Emile Zola, I realised that this war was very important but had never received the attention it deserved, overshadowed as it was by the First and Second World Wars.

1871: Germany united under the authoritarian rule of Count Otto von Bismarck. A Prussian nationalist, he was a late convert to the cause of German unification. The drive for unification came from below, from the people. In turn, this desire had deeper historical origins. In the aftermath of the 30 years’ war and the decades of poverty afterwards, the call for the unification of Germany became ever more clamorous. A united Germany would never see a repeat of the 30 years ‘war, never have its lands invaded by foreign armies and its people murdered and humiliated.

Bringing the various provinces together was no small task. A shared language and culture was not in itself enough. There were immense political obstacles. There was also another very basic issue: would the German people be united under a democracy or a dictatorship? In 1848, the spectre of unification had loomed large when all over Germany, people had rallied behind the ideals of liberal democracy: of voting for their leaders, of free speech and social equality. The liberal democratic fervour was accompanied by a call for unification. What the vested elites had failed to accomplish would be realised by the people.  But the revolution of 1848 was eventually crushed by the powers that be

And then Bismarck. Prussian in heart and soul.

Prussia: since medieval times, a militarised state, a kind of Sparta in Northern Europe.

The ethos of ancient Athens, the birth place of democracy defeated, and Sparta prevails.  

Bismarck´s means of pulling the provinces of Germany together into one nation?

War.

France was an obvious choice, given the ongoing dispute over the areas of Alsace and Lorraine.

A war against France would rally the German people like never before. His army, led by Prussian officers and generals, was far more disciplined and modern than the French. He played his game carefully. The French fell into the trap.

War broke out the French army was decimated. Bismarck’s army surrounded Paris.

A new nation had suddenly appeared on the continent. Of all the possible Germanys which could have emerged from the cauldron of history, this was the most ominous: a Germany united on the basis of Prussian militarism and nationalism born out of war.

Another Germany might have appeared, a democratic Germany. But it didn’t. The promise of 1848 came and went.

Instead, the stage was set for a disastrous chain of cause and effect: the thirty years war, the German-French war, the First World War and the Second.

 

 A graveyard for German soldiers killed during the First and Second World Wars – in Flanders, Belgium. 

 

Sitting next to the pond that evening, I was a silent witness to a mundane and yet heartening scene: parents and their children sitting around eating Italian ice cream; the air filled with the sounds of water and chatter and laughter.

I had a feeling that this was as far as we could go, never mind all the big ideas about Utopia, a just society, a fair world and so on: a world where parents and grandparents and children could sit around in the evening.    

In safety.

Nothing to worry about.

How distant the memories of two devastating wars!

How many people in Ladbergen had seen the stone column in the church yard?

‘Our brothers’. 1871’

Very few, if any.

 

As the shadows grew longer and the air grew cooler, my thoughts drifted to our hotel and what had taken place there in 1645: a peace treaty which brought no lasting peace.

The air seemed to be filled with metaphors that evening.

It had taken the German people over 3 centuries to travel from the hotel, to the church and finally, to the Italian ice cream parlour: a tiny distance measured in footsteps, an enormous distance measured in years, wars and sufferings.

Finally they had arrived and we were all better off for it.