By Rick Steves and Cameron Hewitt
To learn about Eastern Europe past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
Lonnie Johnson’s Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends is the best historical overview of the countries in this book. Timothy Garton Ash has written several good “eyewitness account” books analyzing the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, including History of the Present and The Magic Lantern. Michael Meyer’s The Year that Changed the World intimately chronicles the exciting events of 1989, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 is a readable account of how the Soviets exerted their influence on the nations they had just liberated from the Nazis; her Gulag: A History delves into one particularly odious mechanism they used to intimidate their subjects. Tina Rosenberg’s dense but thought-provoking The Haunted Land asks how those who actively supported communism in Eastern Europe should be treated in the post-communist age. For a good background on Croatia, read Benjamin Curtis' A Traveller's History of Croatia.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water is the vivid memoir of a young man who traveled by foot and on horseback across the Balkan Peninsula (including Hungary) in 1933. Rebecca West’s classic, bricklike Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is the definitive travelogue of the Yugoslav lands (written during a journey between the two World Wars). For a more recent take, Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić has written a quartet of insightful essay collections from a woman’s perspective: Café Europa: Life After Communism; The Balkan Express; How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed; and A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism. Drakulić’s They Would Never Hurt a Fly profiles Yugoslav war criminals. Dominika Dery's memoir, The Twelve Little Cakes, traces her experience growing up in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s.
For a thorough explanation of how and why Yugoslavia broke apart, read Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (by Laura Silber and Allan Little). Joe Sacco’s powerful graphic novel Safe Area Goražde describes the author’s experience living in a mostly Muslim town in Bosnia-Herzegovina while it was surrounded by Serb forces during the wars of the 1990s.
For information on Eastern European Roma (Gypsies), consider the textbook-style We Are the Romani People by Ian Hancock, and the more literary Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca.
The most prominent works of Eastern European fiction have come from the Czechs. These include I Served the King of England (Bohumil Hrabal), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera), and The Good Soldier Švejk (Jaroslav Hašek). The Czech existentialist writer Franz Kafka wrote many well-known novels, including The Trial and The Metamorphosis. Bruce Chatwin’s Utz is set in communist Prague.
James Michener’s Poland is a hefty look into the history of the Poles. Zlateh the Goat (Isaac Bashevis Singer) includes seven folktales of Jewish Eastern Europe. Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March details the decline of an aristocratic family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Imre Kertész, a Hungarian-Jewish Auschwitz survivor who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, is best known for his semi-autobiographical novel Fatelessness (Sorstalanság), which chronicles the experience of a young concentration-camp prisoner. Márai Sándor’s reflective Embers paints a rich picture of cobblestoned, gaslit Vienna just before the empire’s glory began to fade.
Arthur Phillips’ confusingly titled 2002 novel Prague tells the story of American expats negotiating young-adult life in post-communist Budapest, where they often feel one-upped by their compatriots doing the same in the Czech capital (hence the title).
Each of these countries has produced fine films. Here are a few highlights:
Czech Republic: I Served the King of England (2006); Czech Dream (2004); Divided We Fall (2000); Kolya (1996); The Trial (1993); Kouř (Smoke, 1991); The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988); The Firemen’s Ball (1967); Closely Watched Trains (1966); The Loves of a Blonde (1965).
Poland: Katyń (2007); Karol: A Man Who Became Pope (2005); The Decalogue (1989); The Wedding (1972).
Hungary: Children of Glory (Szabadság, Szerelem, 2006); Fateless (2005); Kontroll (2003); Csinibaba (1997); Time Stands Still (1981); The Witness (1969).
Croatia: The Battle of Neretva (1969); How the War Started on My Island (1996); Underground (1995); Tito and Me (1992); When Father Was Away on Business (1985); Border Post (Karaula, 2006).
Slovenia: No Man’s Land (2002, Slovenian-produced, but deals with Bosnian war; Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film).
Other Movies: Two recent German movies are excellent for their insight into the surreal and paranoid days of the Soviet Bloc. The Oscar-winning The Lives of Others (2006) chronicles the constant surveillance that the communist regime employed to keep potential dissidents in line. For a darkly funny and nostalgic look at post-communist Europe’s fitful transition to capitalism, Good Bye Lenin! (2003) can’t be beat.
Schindler’s List (1993) and The Pianist (2002) — both of which won multiple Oscars — chronicle the plight of Jewish Holocaust victims in Kraków and Warsaw, respectively.
Sunshine (1999, starring Ralph Fiennes, directed by István Szabó; not to be confused with Danny Boyle’s 2007 film of the same name) somewhat melodramatically traces three generations of an aristocratic Jewish family in Budapest, from the Golden Age, through the Holocaust, to the Cold War.
Documentaries about this region are also worth looking for. The BBC produced a remarkable six-hour documentary series called The Death of Yugoslavia, featuring interviews with all of the key players (it’s difficult to find on DVD, but try searching for “Death of Yugoslavia” on YouTube; the book Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, noted earlier, was a companion piece to this film). The 1998 Oscar-winning documentary The Last Days recounts the fate of Jews when the Nazis took over Hungary in 1944.
On a lighter note, you may recognize Eastern Europe backdrops in many blockbuster Hollywood movies — particularly Prague, whose low costs and well-trained filmmaking workforce appeal to studios. In many cases, Prague stands in for another European city. Films shot at least partly in Prague include everything from Amadeus to Mission: Impossible, from The Chronicles of Narnia to Wanted; from The Bourne Identity to the Hostel films; and from Hannibal to Shanghai Knights. Elsewhere in the Czech Republic, they've filmed the James Bond reboot Casino Royale and The Illusionist. Not to be outdone, Budapest has been a setting for many films, including Stephen Spielberg's Munich, A Good Day to Die Hard, and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. And fans of HBO's Game of Thrones may recognize locations in Dubrovnik and other Croatian coastal towns, where much of the series is filmed.
Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Eastern Europe guidebook.