Mak travels to Sarajevo shortly after the fourth Yugoslav war. The fragmented region is still in recovery from the conflict. Many of the city’s structures are damaged or in ruin due to the war and the city is now filled with international peacekeepers and relief workers. Mak writes, “of the 400,000 inhabitants of Sarajevo, 11,000 were killed during the siege, including more than 1,100 children” (807). Now, everything is “standing still” as peace slowly returns to the now independent Bosnia.
While Sarajevo suffered immensely, much destruction also took place in the villages surrounding the city. In the town of Mostar, Mak takes note of “one scorched and blasted housing block after the other” and also mentions the destruction of a world famous bridge from the sixteenth century. For local Esad Mavric, it was an attempt to destroy what had been built by rival ethnicities.
What had once been a peaceful and united nation called Yugoslavia, violently broke out into a series of wars with rivalries divided between ethnicity. For Hrvoje Batinic, each side shares responsibility for devastating the country, “We lost everything we were good at, and we kept everything that was bad” (806). What now worries Batinic is the next generation of Bosnians. His generation has ruined the country for their children. He states, “When our children grow up…there’s a great chance they’ll be even more fanatical that the people who started this war” (806).
Rome during the Second World War was called an ‘open city’ by the Pope and Nazis, where the devastations of war would not be permitted to reach the streets of Rome. However, the city still had a strong Nazi presence during the war. Mak highlights the inaction of the Vatican against the Nazis in Rome. While Pope Pius XII’s devotion to the church was unquestionable, he was also believed to be an anti-Semite that detested communism. Mak writes that while “he sent out directives to help Jews… [and] played an important role behind the scenes in stopping the deportations,” he was at the same time “a sly negotiator who, to keep from compromising his own secular power, avoided all conflicts with the Nazi regime” (p.515). Because of Pope Pius XII, the Vatican never directly opposed the Nazis when it came to protecting the Jews of Italy. The absence of the Pope and Catholic Church was made obvious when, after a bomb killed thirty-two SS men in Rome, the resulting reprisal that killed 320 political prisoners went unopposed by the Church. While local priests did what they could to protect Italian Jews, there came no leadership from the Church. The Vatican was also believed to have played a role in helping Nazis escape after World War Two. Mak writes that fleeing Nazis “received money, shelter, false documents and an escape route to South America from Vatican prelates” (p.517). Over half a million Italians were deported to concentration camps where many would die as victims of the Holocaust.
Being from one of the coldest regions in Europe, the Finns are used to hardship. One woman Mak interviews, an outsider of sorts, described the Finns as “a people completely shaped by geographical extremes” whose “pride comes from knowing that they can survive under extreme conditions” (Abu-Hanna in Mak, 155). But these “extreme conditions” were not always geographical. From the Civil War of 1918 to the Soviet invasion of 1939 and its ensuing takeover of Finland, they show that they know what it means to suffer at the hands of human conflict as well. After the bloody Civil War in 1918, the Finns were bitterly divided and only reunified when forced to do so by the threat of the Soviet invasion.
Finland’s relationship with Russia is long and complex. Once a part of the Russian Empire, Finland managed to declare sovereignty after the Russian Revolutions of 1917 put an end to the empire. Lenin’s train came through Helsinki on its way to Petrograd in 1917, and his new Soviet Union was the first to acknowledge Finland as an independent state, but as Finland’s former minister of culture told Geert Mak, “we have never been interested in his Bolshevism” (Andersson in Mak, 151). In 1939, when the Soviets invaded, the Finns held them off for as long as possible despite being overpoweringly outnumbered. Eventually, the Finns were defeated and large chunks of territory were taken by the Soviets, leaving many Finns bitter at the same country that had once been the first to recognize their sovereignty.
However, little of that bitterness is in sight as Mak writes that in 1999 the Finns were “calmly and composedly maneuvering their way towards their national elections: all is well, and everyone wants to keep it that way” (Mak, 152). The Finns of today are enjoying the sovereignty and independence they once fought for against the Soviets in 1939. After spending decades under Soviet rule, the Finns of today have accepted membership with European Union as a way to bring greater peace to Europe and to give Finland a greater role in European affairs. Though their goal is peace, they remain as ever a nation of survivors, shaped by conflict and their own rugged homeland. (jn332)