Books

The heart of darkness

Modris Eksteins weaves the story of his family, his homeland and 1945 into a new kind of history

Mary Janigan August 16 1999
Books

The heart of darkness

Modris Eksteins weaves the story of his family, his homeland and 1945 into a new kind of history

Mary Janigan August 16 1999

The heart of darkness

Books

Mary Janigan

As a young man on an academic scholarship to Toronto’s Upper Canada College from 1956 to 1961, Modris Eksteins was taught a history steeped in liberal values and proud certitudes. The Second World War was a moral victory, the lessons claimed, the unequivocal triumph of good over evil. High culture constituted the best of society. Western civilization was on a forward march to an ever-better world. But the young Eksteins was troubled by the fact that those progressive notions did not match his Latvian family’s own experience of the calamitous 20th century, which reached its nadir as they took shelter from Allied bombs in a Berlin train sta-

tion in early 1945. To make sense of that very personal saga, to square his life with his learning, he became a cultural historian at the University of Toronto. “I concluded that the traditional questions of the historian—how, why, where and when—are not adequate anymore,” he says. “They suggest a continuity that I just don’t see. How does one write history in a century of disruption and surprises?”

The result of those inner conflicts is a provocative, marvelously evocative new history, Walking Since Daybreak (Key Porter). The second of a planned trilogy on the century’s tidal changes, the book is ambitiously subtitled A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II and the Heart of Our Century—and it fulfils its

haunting promise. Eksteins, 55, has concluded that the terrible climax of the war gave birth to a postmodern era of fragmented worlds where human progress is a chimera—and where no individual historian can ever grasp the whole truth. So Walking Since Daybreak aims to re-create only a fragment of the tapestry. In cinematic flashes, it weaves across time, moving steadily towards 1945 from the years before and after, entwining Latvian history with the tale of Eksteins’s family. “Artists and musicians turned to abstraction almost 100 years ago, realizing that traditional modes were inadequate to represent their way of life,” Eksteins told Macleans. “I wanted to write history in a mode and mood that would perhaps

Modris Eksteins weaves the story of his family, his homeland and 1945 into a new kind of history

correspond to what the rest of the world was thinking and feeling.”

Thankfully, Eksteins is too much of a traditional historian to have abandoned altogether the comforts of a steady narrative. So the story of his family’s odyssey and Latvia’s horrific fate make for absorbing reading. The larger panorama moves between the first sweep of eastern tribes into the Baltic region 7,000 years ago and the uneasy, ever-suspicious relationship between Latvia and Russia in the post-Cold War world. The personal shifts from his great-grandmother, Grieta, who was impregnated by a Baltic German baron, to his own emotional return in 1993 to a Latvia freed from Soviet control.

Between those points lies the tale. Latvia was almost always an occupied land. German crusaders first swept into the Baltic states in the late 12th century, intent on converting the hapless pagans to Christianity. Those Germans who re-

mained became landed nobility, rarely mingling with the local peasantry, living on through successive waves of conquest by Poles and Swedes, Russians and Lrench. In the 20th century, two world wars and a civil war raged over its territory.

The book’s personal tale is equally fascinating. The baron quickly married off the pregnant Grieta to an estate worker—and then setded the couple on their own farm. Grietas youngest daughter, Eksteins’s grandmother, met her husband when the two were in service on another baronial estate. As the Great War and then civil war raged around them, the couple shuttled between city and country, finally settling on a farm in central Latvia. Her younger daughter, Biruta, born in the midst of the first World War, married an earnest Bap-

tist minister. Their only son, Modris, was born in 1943, in the midst of the Second.

A year later, the young family found itself trapped between German and Russian armies. They fled, first to Estonia, then to Germany, ending up near the Danish border. They passed the next four years as displaced persons in a spartan camp until Canada accepted them. They lived first in a run-down house in northern Winnipeg, then among the abattoirs of west-end Toronto. On his Upper Canada College scholarship, amid his privileged classmates and his war-veteran teachers, Eksteins “always felt an outsider, an interloper in an Anglo-Saxon bastion.” Decades later, the tension persists. “Of course, I am conflicted,” he says, pointing to photographs in his book. “Here I am with Viscount Montgomery, being inspected, in a school honour guard, 15 years after this guy tried to blast me into the Stone Age. There I am playing a British bobby in The Pirates of Penzance, after living in a refugee camp administered by the British army.” He pauses. “I am a conflicted historian, a historian in midlife crisis,” he says. “I don’t know what history is anymore.”

But there is far more to Walking Since Daybreak than Eksteins’s own struggle with the limits of his craft. In the first volume of his trilogy, Rites of Spring (1989), he traces the birth of the modern age to 1913 when the elites of Europe, especially Germany, embraced a culture of newness, of individual freedom that shucked off the staid moral precepts of the previous century. In a much-contested thesis, he argues that the Nazis drew their inspiration from that drive towards self-realization: culture, in effect, had produced an ambiguous moral climate in which the Nazis could contemplate the horrors of the Holocaust without flinching..

Now, with perhaps equal controversy, he argues that Westerners have never come to terms with the great evil that culminated in 1945. The Cold War froze the arteries of civilized reflection: wartime issues such as Nazi plunder and smouldering ethnic tensions have persisted to the brink

of the 21st century. “The Holocaust, the saturation bombing of German cities, the millions of deaths,” muses Eksteins. “In the 20th century, we have journeyed to the edges of complex science and technology and yet we have perhaps regressed in moral terms. I am trying to look at the cataclysm in a civilization that was, and perhaps remains, so loaded with opposites.”

He detects the moral shorthand of the Second World War in the recent war in Kosovo: good and evil, us and them, right and wrong. And he warns that unless the Western world moves beyond jargon to an understanding of mankinds capacity for great evil, even greater cataclysms may follow. “The liberal mentality,” his book adds ominously, “is basically incapable of coming to grips with human failure.” In his own attempt to understand that moral abyss, however, Eksteins may ignite more heated debate. To a Latvian, on the ground in Berlin, under bombardment by the forces of Air Chief Marshal Arthur (Bomber) Harris, the destruction wreaked by British and American bombs on centuries-old cities and their inhabitants was indistinguishable from the horrors of the Nazi and Soviet advances. Eksteins is disturbed when asked whether the distinction still remains blurred on occasion in Walking Since Daybreak: “lam not equating Bomber Harris with Hitler or Stalin. But I am saying Bomber Harris is another symptom of the crisis.” Still, if his emphasis on the West’s own morally ambiguous position is occasionally troubling, that is perhaps the iconoclastic role that history must perform in 1999.

The author spent 1988-1989 on sabbatical in Europe, near the French city of Arles, where artist Vincent Van Gogh cut off part of his left ear a century earlier. From that vantage point, watching the Soviet empire crumble, Eksteins discerned a parallel between “the ear which symbolizes the severing of traditional modes of perception and the events of 1989.” That analogy will become the basis for the final volume of his intriguing trilogy’s look at this dark century. E3