Metafora Wyszehrad

The Elusive Centre (of Europe)

Visegrad as Metaphor

Publication: 14 October 2021

NO. 10 2013



The place name Višegrad, as Wyszegrad, sounds familiar to Polish ears, although it is not in Poland, but in northern Hungary. Since 1991 this small town has been the venue for the annual summit of representatives of the democratic countries of Central Europe, in emulation of the crowned heads of their states before them. The Visegrad Group was formed as an attempt to overcome the burden of past conflicts and to build a framework for mutual understanding between the countries of Central Europe.

After the fall of communism, this bruised and sore region worked to establish institutions seeking unity between nations with similar experiences but differing visions of them. Although their cooperation was not always ideal, the states of the former Yugoslavia, which bordered Hungary to its south and east, and throughout the 1990s were engulfed in war, were overtly envious – often to the point of excessive idealisation – of their fellow members of the former Soviet Bloc. They envied their ability to confront their past contentions, a method far preferable to going to war over them. The Hungarian town of Visegrad became – at least in the symbolic sphere – a metaphor for unity.

Several hundred kilometres to the south, but at virtually the same longitude, in eastern Bosnia, there is another small town by the name of Višegrad. This backwater of barely a few thousand, inhabited prior to the recent war by a population 70 per cent Muslim (Bosniaks), and in its remaining part Serbian, is now home to almost exclusively the latter. Višegrad, like so many other places in Bosnia, saw barbaric acts of ethnic cleansing, and as such is a symbol diametrically different to its Hungarian namesake, a metaphor for crime and forced displacement. It is one of many names on the blacklist of Central Europe‑ an phantom towns all linked by similar experiences at various times in their history. Others in the same group include nearby Sarajevo, Pula in Croatia, and, further afield, Kosice, Bratislava, Lviv, Vilnius, War‑ saw and Wrocław. Also close by is Srebrenica, where in 1995 an army of Bosnian Serbs under Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić murdered 8,000 Muslims.

At  the  time when Milošević’s psychopathic henchmen were implementing his plan to “reclaim” Bosnia from the “Turkish infidel”, another Serb – the well‑known architect and urban planner Bogdan Bogdanović – emigrated from Yugoslavia in pro‑ test at their nationalist policies. Together with other intellectuals who remained in the country, he raised opposition to the war and its bestialities. He looked with horror on the devastation wreaked on its towns and cities – Vukovar, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo and Mostar. In his conception of urbanism, rooted in a profound humanist conviction, the city was an idea virtually synonymous with civilisation. By contrast, destroying cities – which he called, more forcibly, “ritual killing of cities”[1] – was an act of aggression directed at the very foundations of culture.

There are two ways of destroying a city: razing it, or driving out its people. Both ways are equally effective, although the latter has more lasting consequences and is more refined – even, one might say, more perfidious – because it preserves the illusion of continuity of the urban tradition. Lights go on in windows just the same, plaster continues to fall off walls just as it always did, people even look similar. But the city is not the same. New residents are settled, usually not through their own choosing but pursuant to decisions taken from above by new leaders – barbarians whom a prank of history has permitted to don suits. The habits and attitudes towards a city accumulated over years, even centuries, cannot be learned at once, so the new inhabitants bring new mores[2]. They move into apartments not yet properly empty, in which the odour of the previous owners remains pervasive for some time, perhaps even months. Perhaps they have left some of their clothes, or books – after all, it is never possible to take everything. In such situations people are rarely given enough time to pack cases or trunks.

Ethnic cleansing – often referred to perniciously as the “airing” or “purging” of a city (and not only cities!), are the common experience of Central and Eastern Europe. Nowhere in post-communist Europe is far from a Višegrad. In the western part of the continent, by contrast, this is virtually an unknown phenomenon. For some time now there have simply been no mass crimes there, or expulsions of populations because of their race or political beliefs. Bogdanović would most likely see this as an expression of civilisational maturity. But how, then, can we explain the fact that all these crimes in Central Europe, including the destruction of at least all the cities listed above, were perpetrated with the approval or shameful acquiescence of Western politicians?

The Bosnian Višegrad is famous for the bridge founded in 1577 by the Ottoman grand vizier Mehmed Pasha Sokolović and in 2007 (how late!) inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List. It owes its place there not only to its extraordinary artistic merits, but also to its symbolic significance. It is there as an emblem of Bosnia – a metaphor for the symbiosis and connections between different worlds: Islam and Christianity, East and West, present and past. It was close to this bridge – although not in the town centre proper, but on the slope of the hill above the road running alongside the river – that Ivo Andrić (1892–1975), the only literary Nobel laureate from this region of the world, spent his childhood. It is here, too, that his novel The Bridge over the Drina (1945) is set. The story starts in the 16th century, with a young boy of the Eastern Orthodox faith, along with dozens of others like him, being taken by a detachment of Janissaries into devshirme (a levy to the sultan). The boy later grows up to become one of the most influential Slavs in the history of the mighty Ottoman state – a grand vizier. The novel ends in 1914, with the first after-effects of the shots fired at the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, a hundred kilometres away. Almost a century has now elapsed since that moment, but the echo of those bullets in Sarajevo still ricochets off the hills between which the blissfully quiet Drina meanders.

In Andrić’s time, Višegrad was a Turkish settlement even smaller than it is today. In his novel, he uses two words to describe it – kasaba, from the Turkish, and varoš, from the Hungarian. The vernacular Slavic word grad (meaning “fortified town”) features only incidentally, despite the fact that it is preserved in the very name Višegrad. Its proud residents say that Višegrad is – literally – more than a town; it is više od grada. This clever pun, however, is no more than a neat metaphor, as the town really is tiny. Andrić wrote of it: “The town and its outskirts were only the settlements which always and inevitably grow up around an important centre of communications and on either side of great and important bridges.”[3] Its most significant, most impressive feature is, indeed, its bridge. “[…] this great stone bridge, a rare structure of unique beauty, such as many richer and busier towns do not possess (‘There are only two others such as this in the whole Empire,’ they used to say in olden times), was the one real and permanent crossing in the whole middle and upper course of the Drina, and an indispensable link on the road between Bosnia and Serbia and further, beyond Serbia, with other parts of the Turkish Empire, all the way to Stambul.”

In Andrić’s novel the bridge was a witness to human passions, cruelties and inconceivable tragedies alike. The writer himself remains a controversial figure to this day; some see in him a symbol of Serbian nationalism and Islamophobia. But reading Andrić in a patriotic key – including this novel – demands truly remarkable feats of the imagination, although it is, alas, common practice, not only among Serbs. Radical Islamic nationalists see him as a figurehead of the anti-Islamic Eurocentrism that imposed the figment of the Orient on Bosnia to justify its colonisation. At the outbreak of the war, one fanatical Muslim destroyed a bust of Andrić in a gesture intended to signify rejection of his legacy and the ideology attributed to him. This act subsequently served the Serbs as justification for their policy of ethnic purges, which they claimed were protecting the town from barbarity.

Andrić’s book is not, as apologists of the patriotic interpretation would have it, a nationalist manifesto (for the term patriotism is often used in this context to propagate nationalism). It is a modernist novel par excellence, with all the pessimism and catastrophism characteristic for that current – a truly Mannesque work. It is a profound, philosophical reflection on human suffering and the hopelessness of fate, cloaked in a mantle of outstanding artistic creation. For, as the narrator says, “in fact we are all of us already dead, only we descend one by one into the grave”[4]. Thus the bridge is a painful, although beautiful utopia. It is like God observing impassively the suffering of his children, and the man on the bridge in no way resembles either a Serb or a Bosniak, only the insane figure from the Edvard Munch painting.

But an erroneous – ideologically determined – interpretation of Andrić has transformed him, against his will, into the patron of the “reclamation” of these lands from Muslims by their Serbian population. Andrić, born into a Catholic Croat family in Bosnia, later chose Yugoslavianism, although with a marked Serbian slant. Like Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, he was a member of the Young Bosnia organisation, which some see as a patriotic fraction and others call nationalistic. The Young Bosnians saw the liberation of Bosnia from Austro-Hungarian control not as a stepping-stone on its route to autonomy, but as a way of incorporating it into Serbia. It is for this reason that The Bridge over the Drina has been reduced to an anti-Islamic pamphlet (note has also been made of the fact that in his doctoral thesis, which was only translated into Serbian after his death, Andrić gave a critical assessment of the role of Islam in these territories). It is claimed that the book predestined the Serbs to fight for the liberation of these lands from Muslim control, and hence for their Serbian identity. This ideological construction was – surprisingly – soaked up possessively and deviously by Yugoslavian communism, and Princip – the hero of the Serbian monarchists – was elevated to a canonical hero of all socialist Yugoslavia (it was no exception that the heroes of the despised state country manned the barricades of the proletariat revolution). Contemporary Serbian school textbooks only know this Andrić – the Serbian patriot.

The bridge still spans the Drina today. It was not destroyed like the equally old bridge in nearby Mostar. The destruction of this historic structure, which spanned the Neretva on its course to the Adriatic, by other fanatics – on that occasion Croats – was intended as a symbolic act arresting the co-existence of different ethnic groups in the town. Many international organisations ultimately came together to rebuild the bridge, but this could not bring understanding between the conflicted parties[5]. Although the bridge over the Drina was not destroyed, another way of stripping it of its symbolic meaning was devised: it became the site of the killing of Muslims. The rest of the town’s inhabitants were driven away, and now barely a few descendants of the former kasaba residents ever set foot on the bridge. None of them are Muslims, Catholics or Jews. A few Ashkenazi Jews found their way here from as far away as Galicia in the wave of officials of the black-and-yellow monarchy, but they, like their Sephardic cousins, were wiped from the face of the earth by the Second World War. The only evidence of their presence is Andrić’s novel and a small, decaying cemetery on the fringes of the town, on a hill with fantastic views of the mountainous region. The mosque stands abandoned, and the synagogue has been converted into a public facility. Here, by a cruel ploy of fate, Jews and Muslims are on the same side – the side of the victims.

Little is left of Višegrad’s historic fabric. Aside from the bridge, there are other architectural landmarks that supplement the symbolic imaginarium of the kasaba. Foremost among these are the “apartment buildings” – mutant structures by contemporary “urban planners” more commonly known as developers – the equally unfortunate hotel Vilina Vlas from the experimental socialist period, and the most monumental memorial to the Nobel laureate himself – Andrić grad.

It is not worth shedding ink over the apartment buildings. They are just as ugly everywhere else in post-communist Europe – shoddy, and grossly out of keeping with the surrounding space.

The history of the Vilina Vlas hotel, a few kilometres out of the town centre, cannot be passed over, although it is not its architecture which is responsible for its “momentousness”. During the last war, Serbian soldiers brutally raped and murdered more than 200 Muslim women at the hotel. In 2008, Australian artist Kym Vercoe happened to stay there. When on her return home she learned the truth about this place of torture, she created a theatre performance on the theme of her experiences from her time in Višegrad called Seven Kilometres North-East. She has been back to Bosnia several times, and is currently, with Jasmina Žbanić, director of the prize-winning film Grbavica (Golden Bear in Berlin, 2006), making a film based on her art and her experiences called It Begins Like This. She is to play one of the leading roles herself. The Vilina Vlas Hotel has also found “fame” in another set of circumstances. Recently – in October 2012 – Višegrad hosted a conference devoted to Andrić’s novel. Local Serbian politicians, who question the war crimes, prevented the head of the Institute of Slavic Studies at the University of Graz from paying tribute to the victims of the crime committed at the hotel[6]. The affair was made public by women’s organisations.

But according to Serbian politicians, who are unwilling to talk about the victims, Višegrad also has a prettier, more positive side. The war crimes and victims are a subject best forgotten, as quickly as possible. “Look into the future!” is the town’s new slogan. Five minutes’ walk from the old town centre is a monumental architectural project in statu nascendi. On a building site three hectares in size, the well-known film director Emir Kusturica is building Andrić grad, a new, or rather “old” town dedicated to the Nobel laureate. It is to be Renaissance through and through – no matter that it is being built in the 21st century. And the fact that the Serbs never had the Renaissance is not their fault, Kusturica avers; it is the fault of the Ottoman Turks who colonised them. And precisely because the Renaissance never came to these lands, it is time this was corrected and the town, which would almost certainly otherwise have grown up there, built. On a single site, then, a piece of kitsch is being created that is unique on a global scale – a synthesis of Byzantium, the Orient, folklore, and pseudo-Renaissance. Kusturica is bringing a new civilisation to Višegrad. Andrić’s narrator – who was essentially slow to believe in revolutionary solutions – might have passed the following comment on this civilisational proselytism: “Every human generation has its own illusions with regard to civilisation; some believe that they are taking part in its upsurge, others that they are witnesses of its extinction. In fact, it always both flames up and smoulders and is extinguished, according to the place and the angle of view.”[7]

Fortunately, Kusturica in his creative fervour does not intend to destroy the old part of Višegrad. (One recalls with dread the words of one of his compatriots responsible for the bombardment of Dubrovnik, who ecstatically crowed that “if necessary we will build a yet older and yet more beautiful Dubrovnik”. Other builders of our contemporary times, even as they razed Baroque Vukovar to the ground, had plans to build a city in the Serbian Byzantine style in its place – a style, we might add, that has no documented existence[8].) But Kusturica is building Andrić grad to prove its Serbian nature and to blow Bosnia as a state out of the water. He himself was born into a Sarajevo Muslim family, but converted to Orthodoxy a few years ago. Today his official name is Nemanja, despite the fact that he is known primarily as Emir (a Muslim name). He supports a party that is running in the elections under the tag line “Serbian house by Serbian house”. At gigs by his band, the internationally known Non Smoking Orchestra, he sings a song called Wanted Man, which is about the war criminal Radovan Karadžić. Apparently this is an artistic provocation, but his fans know otherwise.

The former leader of the Bosnian Serbs is currently on trial in The Hague together with his general, Ratko Mladić. They are not sharing a cell with Dragan Malić – a fictional character created by Gustaw Herling-Grudziński in his short story Wędrowiec cmentarny. Malić, unlike these two fiendish criminals, was not a psychopathic nationalist but an ordinary man who became a criminal through his pragmatism. Malić is an allegoric figure. He is not essentially evil, but weak and devoid of values. Herling is saying: people like this are also guilty of crimes. The Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić also wrote about ordinary criminals in her superb essays They would never hurt a fly[9]. In Andrić grad, at the psychopathic fête accompanying the construction of the town, no-one had heard of the ordinary man Dragan Malić. Here, questions about morality are always ignored, or analysed in a historical context that facilitates the justification of every indignity. For ethicality here, is almost all about ethnicity.

Everything about Višegrad bears the marks of Andrić’s literary vision – but trivialised by the nationalist interpretation. The little town is living a life all of its own. It is becoming increasingly popular as a destination for excursions, chiefly Serbian school trips. Here, they learn the truth about the Serbian patriot. It is hard to imagine their Muslim fellow Bosnian citizens coming here as tourists. Some of them – former residents – will never want to come here again, like Stanisław Lem, who never returned to his native Lviv after the war.

The municipal authorities are hoping that when Andrićgrad is finished, Višegrad will be able to count on hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Per‑ haps some of them will stay at the Vilina Vlas Hotel. Maybe they will change its name – if the names of whole towns and streets can be changed, why not the name of a hotel? Anyway, doubtless before long, no‑one will remember these past contentions. Recently, during a debate on Ivo Andrić and the unfortunate conference on Croatian television, the – shockingly heartless – general consensus was that in fact it would be hard to find a hotel in Bosnia that had not been the scene of one crime or another. This begs the question of whether one should steer clear of all buildings erected before 1991, or simply stifle one’s conscience. Not long ago I heard that there is tourist accommodation on the actual site of the German Nazi camp of Ravensbrück.

The kasaba is adjusting to its new mores and to its new residents. Just over the bridge there is a memorial commemorating the defenders from the last war – the very people who took the place of their predecessors. A grimly glaring crusader bearing a sword and a cross on his breast warns all comers, in particular, Muslims. The street names only extol Serbian heroes. Interestingly, the bridge does not seem to be the subject of controversy, even though it was built by a Mus‑ lim. It is Serbian too. Valiant Serbs live here.

In Višegrad, unlike in Mostar, where two conflicted nations live either side of the Neretva, there is only one nation. Nevertheless, both towns, Višegrad and Mostar, are infected with the same virus – hatred, and there is no knowing how many years must elapse before they attempt to build bridges of communication like those in the Hungarian Visegrád.

Andrić’s literature, though pessimistic by nature, sometimes offers a glimmer of hope: “But misfortunes do not last for ever (this they have in common with joys) but pass away or are at least diminished and become lost in oblivion. Life on the kapia always renews itself despite everything and the bridge does not change with the years, or with the centuries, or with the most painful turns in human affairs. All these pass over it, even as the unquiet waters pass beneath its smooth and perfect arches.”[10]

But even if one day representatives of some Balkan tetragon do come together in this Bosnian town, and Višegrad, like its Hungarian namesake, does become a metaphor of this much-needed reconciliation, what comfort is this for the victims of the bestiality?


[1] Bogdan Bogdanović, “Ritualno ubijanje grada”, in: Grad i smrt, Beograd 1994, pp. 29–33.

[2] Bogdanović also wrote about this; he saw in the “constant current from the non-urban – or more precisely suburban – world” in Belgrade, deliberately exacerbated by the socialist authorities, yet another dimension of the attack on the city and on urban life. See: Bogdan Bogdanović, “The Serbian Utopia. Between the lost Arcadia and the unrecovered city”, Herito, 2011, no. 5, pp. 26–47.

[3] Ivo Andrić, The Bridge over the Drina, Harvill Press, London 1995, p. 14.

[4]Translation J.T.K.

[5] On this subject see: Husein Oručević, “The city and its bridges”, Herito, 2011, no. 5, pp. 48–61.

[6] On this subject see: Maciej Czerwiński, “Most na Drinie”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 2012, no. 51, p. 32.

[7] I. Andrić, The Bridge over the Drina, op. cit., p. 233.

[8] B. Bogdanović, “Ritualno ubijanje grada”, op. cit., p. 30.

[9] Slavenka Drakulić, They would never hurt a fly, Abacus, London 2004.

[10] I. Andrić, The Bridge over the Drina, op. cit., p. 101.

About authors

Maciej Czerwiński

A Doctor of Philosophy in Slavic Languages and Literatures, a translator and a researcher at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He specialises in the languages, cultures and literatures of former Yugoslavia, and deals with such disciplines as semiotics, historical discourse analysis, sociolinguistics and stylistics of literary and non-literary texts. He studied at the Jagiellonian University where he received his doctoral degree in 2004. He conducted part of his PhD research at the Faculty of History at Yale University where he was a Visiting Assistant in Research (2003). Recently, he has published the books Semioza gatunku – semioza stylu (2011) and Semiotyka dyskursu historycznego. Znaki i kody w chorwackiej i serbskiej syntezie dziejów narodu (2012). His papers have been published in journals such as Studia z Filologii Polskiej i Słowiańskiej, Pamiętnik Literacki, Pamiętnik Słowiański, Stylistyka and in numerous southern Slavic magazines. His essays and reviews have been printed in periodicals such as Tygodnik Powszechny, Znak and Dwutygodnik. He co-edited the bilingual reprint of the book, Kraków Zagrzebiowi (2011), originally published in 1881. He is a member of the editorial staff of the Croatian philologist journal, Fluminensia.


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