Monthly Archives: September 2015

Getting to Hungary

In July 2013 I went on a river cruise along the lower Danube, from the river port of Giurglu in Romania to Budapest in Hungary. It was a fascinating trip through the Balkans only a few years after the conflicts there had finally ended.

Vukovar water tower

Vukovar water tower, destroyed in 1991, kept as a symbol of the siege today.

One day our boat stopped at Vukovar, the Croatian river port that was under siege by the Serbian remnants of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) for 87 days in 1991, at the beginning of the Balkan War. Parts of the town remain a pockmarked ruin of bullet holes, but everyone was flying flags that day, just 2 weeks after Croatia joined the European Union.

From Vukovar we took a bus 15 kilometres to Osijek. This town was Roman, Hungarian and Turkish, before it was rebuilt as a Habsburg garrison town in the late 17th century, with Vauban-style walls and bastions designed to withstand cannon fire.

Siege of Vienna by Ottoman forces

Siege of Vienna by Ottoman Forces, 16C. Note the cannon. From Wikipedia Commons

Travelling up the Danube River, I was constantly reminded that this was the route that Suleiman the Magnificent took when his forces laid siege to Vienna in 1529. Vienna didn’t fall, and the siege was lifted in time for the Ottoman Turks to retreat back down the Danube as winter set in, although they left most of their cannon behind in the muddy river flats. The Turks tried to seize Vienna again in 1683, after which the frontier between Catholic and Muslim Europe stabilized, with garrison towns like Osijek marking the border.

A large Catholic monastery (with a population, these days, of 4 monks) is a reminder that this marked a cultural and religious border as well, between Catholic and Orthodox Christians these days, but once also between Christians and Muslims.

In fact this river valley between the Balkan and Carpathian Mountains has been a highway for armies for millennia. The Romans under Trajan marched east along the Danube to conquer Dacia. The Crusaders marched this way too. So too did ideas, art, language and religion, making the Balkans a mass of frontiers where many fault lines converge.

A river cruise must be about the most luxurious form of soft tourism, and I know I am very fortunate I can travel this way. I have the money, the time, and above all, the passport and return air ticket, that give me the privilege of easy entry into the Schengen states of Europe.

This became clear one early morning. I’m an early riser, unlike most people on holiday, so I was sitting in the lounge drinking tea and writing emails around 6am, when an unexpected announcement came over the PA system. Everybody, but everybody, was ordered to the lounge, because the Hungarian immigration authorities insisted that they needed to check every individual against the photo in their passport. Until then, our passports were kept at the desk so that we were not inconvenienced as the boat sailed upstream – from Romania – to Bulgaria – to Serbia – to Croatia. Hungary, though, was different.

A sleepy, shambling crowd of over-indulged tourists, we queued for our passports. I was lucky to be showered and dressed. Most people were in dressing gowns or tracksuits, with wet or bed-head hair, many showing the after effects of too much good food and wine the night before.

The authorities checked us all against our photos and gave us back our passports. Now we had reached Hungary, the eastern edge of the Schengen states, we would not need our passports for the rest of the journey, not even those staying on the ship as far as Amsterdam.

Later, at breakfast – strawberries, smoked salmon and bagel (and if I had wanted it, freshly squeezed orange juice and champagne) – someone told me the whole affair was just for show, to give an illusion of fairness, a veneer of equity covering the hard reality of our privileged status. Other immigration officers would be checking for stowaways below decks, checking for ring-ins amongst the crew and the innumerable workers who changed our sheets, cooked our meals, and scrubbed our bathrooms.

What struck me at the time was the name of the port where the Hungarian authorities came aboard to check our papers – Mohács. In 1526, the Ottoman Turks won the Battle of Mohács. It was the watershed moment in European history, marking the most westward extent of Muslim penetration into central Europe. The Hungarian king Louis was killed on the battlefield. Most of Hungary was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, leaving Louis’s son-in-law, the Habsburg Emperor’s younger brother Ferdinand, to become king of a much-diminished Hungarian monarchy. The Ottoman-Hungarian border shifted again in 1687, when a second battle of Mohács resulted in the defeat of the Sultan’s army by the Habsburgs. This nondescript little river port was twice a pivot in world events.

What strikes me now, though, seeing the photos, watching the footage, of desperate refugees trying to make their way into Europe through Hungary, is that in the long term, national borders are fragile, impermanent things. Cultural and linguistic frontiers shift too, even more slowly, but geography is permanent. The lower Danube has always funneled the movement of people between Central Europe and the Black Sea – and beyond that, the Fertile Crescent. This is the route, after all, along which Neolithic farmers first brought wheat into Europe.

Only the exceptionally privileged do the journey by river these days.

Sausages at the Shrine of Remembrance

Last week I went to the book launch of Yorick Smaal, Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45, a fascinating study of same sex relations between men during the Second World War, in Australia and the Pacific.

Much of the book is based in Brisbane, which for a brief time between 1942 and 1945, played a central role in the Pacific war effort. A million American servicemen passed through my hometown during these years. They were, according to the catchphrase, ‘Over paid, oversexed, and over here’ – and for some of them, as well as for the Australian servicemen and civilians they met, the turbulence of war brought with it new opportunities for sexual expression – and opportunities for new forms of sexual expression.

cover of Yorick Small Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific

Some of the people Smaal writes about were openly homosexual – or as open as it was possible to be at a time when such activity was illegal. Others were experimenting surreptitiously with homosex (Smaal’s preferred term) as a passing phase that they barely acknowledged to themselves.

Smaal is particularly interested in the geography of sexual encounters, so I found it fascinating to see my city laid out in a new way. My first memories of Brisbane date from the 1950s but my family’s stories go back to wartime experiences. My father used to tell the tale of seeing a man cooking sausages over the Flame in the Shrine of Remembrance in Anzac Square. When Dad questioned him, the man said he was an ex-serviceman, which seemed to be an adequate justification for his transgression. I wonder, though, if Dad realized at the time that this place was a gay beat?

At school, we were told not to wait for buses in the city at the covered bus stop in William St – another pick up point. And my mother’s dark but obscure references to the Pink Elephant Café make more sense now – the proprietor of the café was Frank Mitchell, a close associate of the artist Donald Friend, whose painting of naked men showering is on the cover of Smaal’s book. Mum visited the café as a teenager, all the same, though whether she met ‘Lana Turner’, ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ and the other cross-dressing waiters, she has never divulged.

By the standards of the day, I think my family was pretty relaxed about same sex relationships. My grandparents had a self-contained flat attached to their old Queenslander, which they rented out to a series of ‘confirmed bachelors’. One of them was the distinguished poet Val Vallis. My grandmother got on famously with them, and many of them came to her funeral.

Smaal’s research for this book is remarkable. Sodomy was illegal, so there are numerous court and police records – both civilian and military, Australian and American – and he has made good use of these. Many consensual encounters never reached the courts, though, especially if the participants were discreet and could conduct their encounters in privacy, though this was not always easy in a military setting. Smaal has interviewed a few remaining survivors of this era, and has used earlier interviews from the 1980s onwards. There are also memoirs and diaries. Faces are pixellated and pseudonyms are used where an unexpected revelation could cause someone embarrassment.

Sources on sex are always hard to come by, and so are sources on illegal activities, so Smaal is working under a double disadvantage, but one of the characteristics of military organizations is that they are vast bureaucratic regimes with a capacity for generating endless paperwork – the raw material of historians.

Both the Australian and the American armies worried about homosexuality within their ranks, and its implications for the civilian community. These concerns were less moralistic than practical: as with women in the army today, the top brass worried that consensual same sex relationships might change the group dynamics of the fighting unit. They worried about non-consensual sex, or sex with young boys (though since all homosex was illegal, no legal age of consent existed). They worried about venereal disease.

Smaal looks beyond Brisbane to other places across the South Pacific where soldiers met and mingled – and encountered other races and cultures, with different attitudes towards homosexual relations, looking particularly at the experiences of the Australians in New Guinea and the Americans in New Caledonia.

Studies of same sex relations can often be a rather cheerless read, partly because medical and criminal records invariably form an important part of the research on which they are based. What I like particularly about Smaal’s book is that his subjects are not constantly viewed in the dock, or under the microscope, but were frequently joyful participants of the world they inhabited, ‘a very social world. Australian girls and US belles made their own fun. Friends and lovers organized regular get-togethers and sing songs.’ [83] It sounds like the obverse of the nurses and marines in South Pacific, and no doubt it was fun – though the slightly hysterical fun that young men on a battlefront engage in, constantly aware of their own mortality in a war zone.

It was a world that operated below the radar. Though many of the men Smaal describes were good soldiers and brave men, they inhabited a world that was out of kilter with the dominant narrative of manly fighting men and the Anzac spirit. As Robert Aldrich said, when he launched the book last Thursday, the word ‘Anzac’ is even missing from the index – and how good is that.