'Weep Wretched Man' - Civil War in Poetry

By Baker, Kenneth | History Today, November 1997 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

'Weep Wretched Man' - Civil War in Poetry

Baker, Kenneth, History Today

* I remember meeting a Conservative politician in Vienna in 1989 who told me that there was going to be a large political upheaval in Yugoslavia, which could lead to the most horrific happenings. Living in what was the capital of the Habsburg Empire, he had a knowledge of the history of the Balkans which we had either not learnt or forgotten. In the heady days when the Berlin Wall was literally torn down, and Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania were breaking free from Soviet and Communist domination, it seemed to many in the West that the same peaceful transition would occur in Yugoslavia, which had slept so happily under Marshal Tito.

This was not to be. The centuries-old jealousies, hatreds and injustices had not all evaporated in the sunny days of a tourist paradise. The nationalist, racialist and religious passions, which had been the curse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, flared up and consumed the Balkans in a series of civil wars which reminded the world that civilisation can be a thin veneer and the barbarian in ourselves is always at the gate. The whole world has now seen on television the barbarism in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. A new phrase, `ethnic cleansing', was coined to describe the cold, calculated murder of whole communities, when all the males in a village -- boys, men and pensioners -- were taken off in trucks to remote fields and slaughtered. The mass graves reveal the evidence and the war trials tell again of these atrocities.

In my anthology The Faber Book of War Poetry, published in paperback last month, I have included a poem by a female victim of the Bosnian war. She had been repeatedly raped by a gang of `freedom fighters' who stubbed out their cigarettes in her hair. They then cut off the head of a farmer to use as a football. She says:

I knew the farmers They were

Neighbours colleagues relatives

Just a few weeks ago I knew most

Of the soldiers too They were

Neighbours colleagues relatives They were

Men like you

Holger Teschke, `The Minutes of Hasiba'

All war has its horrors, whether it is the 1914-18 trench warfare, or Tamburlaine sweeping across Central Europe and leaving in each town a pyramid of skulls, but it is civil war, when neighbour kills neighbour, that seems to inspire the most vicious and cruel acts of revenge.

NATO and the West are trying to bring the authors of the Bosnian atrocities, particularly Karadzic, to trial, but among his own people he is a hero, a legend? even a poet. He must answer for what he perpetrated, for the conscience of the world has demanded it. What makes this barbarism even worse is that it happened in a country which had schools, hospitals, factories, banks, churches, mosques, hotels, tourist agencies. It did not happen in Rwanda, nor Northern India, nor Indonesia, nor in Cambodia: it happened here on our own doorstep in Europe. So my friend in Vienna was right: history was on his side. Over the last 300 years, every country in Europe has suffered from civil war: Germany in the Thirty Years' War; France in 1870; Spain in the 1930s; and the first dews which Hitler killed were German citizens. England has suffered in two civil wars: for forty years in the Wars of the Roses, and for eight years in the struggle between king and Parliament in the seventeenth century. Henry Tudor ended the Wars of the Roses in 1485 by defeating the Yorkist king, Richard III, but there was no vindictive slaughter, instead a royal marriage uniting York and Lancaster.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

'Weep Wretched Man' - Civil War in Poetry


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?