Somewhere in Australia in a dusty forgotten box I have a hefty steel compass that was one of my great-grandfather’s tools of trade.
My great-grandfather was nominally Czech because his family home was in Opava near the current border of the Czech Republic and Poland. But he was born in the late 19th C – the time of Empire – prior to the hard and fast national borders of the modern nation state and in the manner appropriate to my great-grandfather’s class and station he was educated in Vienna as a forest administrator and entered a civil service in which he answered directly to the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg regime.
As the might of the Ottoman Empire started to wane, Bosnia – which for centuries had been one under its control – changed hands in 1878 and fell instead under Hapsburg dominion. The Hapsburgs had a more acquisitive eye then their predecessors and resource extraction was the new order of the day in Bosnia. It was as part of this colonial project that my great-grandfather was sent, in the early 20th C, to the Sarajevo region to manage forestry resources there for the benefit of the imperial rulers in Vienna.
One of my great-grandfather’s primary tasks was to guard against ‘poaching’ by the local population and to this end he had command of a small private army. When my grand-father took up his post the Sarajevo police commissioner dropped by to pay his respects and recommend that if my great-grandfather found anyone at all in his new domain that he didn’t recognise then he should simply shoot them. And subsequently, my uncle reports although he wouldn’t have been there to see it himself, pitched battles with ‘gypsies’ did, indeed, take place.
It was out of some of these imperial power struggles and the stirrings of new nationalist sentiments that the First World War erupted. Historians striving to achieve some sort of narrative clarity generally nominate Sarajevo as the geographical point zero of World War 1 with the assassination there of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, by Serbian nationalists, the fatal spark that ignited the conflagration that subsequently engulfed the world.
My great-grandfather and his family remained in Bosnia during the war although my grandfather, at the tender age of 12, was sent to a military academy in Vienna where alongside more intellectual pursuits he was instructed in military strategy and the arcane martial arts of fencing and hand to hand combat with a sabre.
As the war progressed food supply became a critical issue in Europe at large and my great-grandfather was instructed to set up fish farms in Bosnia to produce food for the troops. My uncle remembers photos in the family albums featuring his grand-father standing amidst groups Serbian war prisoners hard at work digging ponds surrounded by huge mounds of earth.
One war finished and before long another came and pushed aside memories of the first and, in the aftermath of it all, people scattered across the globe. What stories I heard from my grandparents who were settled in Australia by the time I was born were all of the Second World War and it wasn’t until I formally interviewed my uncle in the US as an adult I learnt anything of my forebears adventures in Bosnia.
But now I am here and when I contemplate my family history I feel that perhaps I have some secret ineffable connection to Bosnia and its woods and once I learn that Bosnia is home to one of Europe’s most ancient forests I am determined to visit it.