Writing history from below: radical pilgrimages and alternative European travel

This post comes from D.D. Johnston, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire, and author of novels including The Secret Baby Room (2015), The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub (2013), and Peace, Love & Petrol Bombs (2011). 

This summer, not for the first time, I travelled around Europe with an Interrail pass. I have always found exploring Europe exhilarating: it’s a joy to fall asleep on a night train amid the arid plains of central Italy and then awake enveloped in the mountain mist of the Swiss Alps, or to leave the bustle of Paris and awaken the following morning in a sun-scorched Pyrenean border town. The European rail traveller can move overnight between landscapes and cultures, switching currencies and languages; the constant exposure to things anew slows time until it passes as it passed when we were children, in those days when the world’s fresh strangeness meant that a summer could last forever.

Atop Monte Rubello

On every trip, even in these days of roaming data and travel apps, I carry – perhaps only out of habit – two physical books: the European Rail Timetable and a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet guidebook. Over time, I’ve realised that I have little interest in seeing these guides’ recommended historical and architectural sites. Not only do they bore me, but I’ve come to view them as part of an oppressive ideological apparatus. Every European city is inscribed with the histories of the powerful. Most backpackers who tour the sites of Europe feel compelled to gaze dutifully at landmarks built to assert the dominance of the powerful – Buckingham Palace, Versailles, Vatican City, the Kremlin, Belém Tower, Prague Castle, Trafalgar Square, the Brandenburg Gate. We traipse around awe-inspiring cathedrals, formidable castles, and vainglorious statues, spending our leisure time unknowingly imbibing the ideology of hierarchy as it has been monumentalised over thousands of years.

There is another history waiting for you to visit it. “The history of all hitherto existing society,” wrote Marx and Engels, “is the history of class struggles,” and wherever there is power, there is also resistance. I started to seek out this other history, first as hobby, then as duty, and recently as research for what I hope will be an alternative European travel guide.

I’m not a historian: I’m a collector of stories about the past. The stories I’m most interested in are those suppressed by official historiography and its monuments: the stories of slaves, peasants, workers, women, people of colour, queers, anarchists, and communists. And these are great stories: my travels have taken me from remembering pro-democracy rioters in Ancient Athens to commemorating trans-rights activists in 21st-century London. I’ve visited thousands of sites, remembering the struggles of cross-dressing Welsh toll resisters, nudist heretics, and a Ukrainian peasant – Nestor Makhno – who survived more than 200 attacks and battles, during which bullets went through his hat, his hand, his ankle, his thigh and appendix, his nape and right cheek. In a church in Odense, I’ve seen the skeleton of the last king of the Vikings, who was killed in a peasant revolt.

Statue of Eunus, Enna, Sicily

I’ve learned that the Spanish Civil War led an anarchist to invent table football, and that during the First Servile War (c141-135 BCE), the slaves were led by a magician named Eunus, who was likely a devotee of the Seleucid goddess Atargatis, whose priests bit and cut themselves to induce religious ecstasy and typically wore make up and women’s clothes.

Every European city has a hidden history, often more interesting than the state-constructed version. Take Munich, for instance. Two years ago I visited Munich to commemorate Ernst Toller, Gustave Landauer, Erich Muhsam, Ret Marut (who probably became the famous – and mysterious – author B. Traven), and others who in 1919 were involved with the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic: the “regime of the coffee house anarchists.” They were pranksters more than politicians, creating a government that negated itself with absurdity. The foreign affairs minister, Franz Lipp, telegraphed Lenin to complain someone had stolen the key to the ministerial toilet, and then declared war on Switzerland because they declined to lend the anarchists sixty trains. They appointed a burglar with convictions for moral turpitude as president of the police. They declared the university free and open to everyone, except those who wished to study history.

Inspiring though these tales are, often these stories have a tragic denouement. For instance, Jews were prominent in both the anarchic and Communist iterations of the Bavarian Soviet, and the smashing of the Bavarian Soviet by the Freikorps is properly the beginning of Nazism and the Holocaust – several Freikorps officers became senior Nazis who later were implicated in genocide. Indeed, within two decades central and eastern Europe would be divided between two brutal dictatorships. And it is an extraordinary historical coincidence that before WW1, the architects of both lived on the same Munich street (though not at the same time). Lenin and Hitler both rented apartments on Schleissheimer Strasse and both frequented the Schelling Salon. The cafe still has its original urinals, allowing one to urinate in the footsteps of two dictators at once. Hitler was eventually barred; he didn’t pay for his drinks.

Yes, travelling through this history is also to go on a journey of mourning. I’ve been to the memorials to the victims of Franco, laid flowers at the monument which marks where Carlo Guiliani was shot dead by police during protests against the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa, and I’ve visited Auschwitz, where I tried to comprehend the horror, while celebrating the heroism of those Jewish prisoners staffing Crematoria II and IV at Birkenau, who on 7 October 1944 managed to kill three SS men and destroy Crematorium IV before their revolt was suppressed.

This alternative history is all around us, but often it’s hidden. Sometimes to see it you need to look at the famous sites in a different way; for instance, by remembering the 1381 Peasants Revolt at the Tower of London, or the women’s march during the French Revolution at Versailles, or the 1378 Ciompi Revolt at the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, or the first European observation of International Women’s Day at the Rathaus in Vienna, or the 1848 barricades at Charles Bridge in Prague, or the Spartacist guns on the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1919.

Other revolts have been monumentalised because the stories have been appropriated by nationalist historiography; for instance, in Budapest, numerous statues mark the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Conversely, across the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Bloc, statues and even museums remain from when the “Communists” attempted to tie their power to the memory of earlier revolts: the statue in the small town of Cegled, Hungary, that commemorates the peasant revolt led by György Dózsa in 1541; or the museum to the Croat-Slovene Peasant Revolt in Gornja Stubica; or the giant statue in suburban Bucharest that celebrates Europe’s last jacquerie: the 1907 Romanian Peasants Revolt.

Other sites are marked by simple plaques or cairns: the first Gay Liberation Front demonstration at Highbury Fields in 1970; the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester; the 1882 Battle of the Braes on the Isle of Skye; the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, the location of the 1961 massacre of scores of Algerians in Paris; the spot where, in 2008, 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos was murdered by police in Athens’ anarchist stronghold of Exarcheia.

1936 Barcelona street sign

Sometimes, some remnant of the past has survived to tell the story: for instance, during the 1936 anarchist revolution in Catalonia, all the streets were renamed in the spirit of revolt; these people’s signs were completely eradicated by the fascist dictatorship with one exception: in 2004, during renovations to the Santa Maria del Pi church, a wooden board was removed revealing a painted street sign from 1936, which reads “Plaça del Milicià Desconegut” (“Square of the Unknown Militiamen”).

Or how about this: at the end of the bloody Münster Rebellion, in 1535, the corpses of the Anabaptist leaders were displayed in cages, which still hang from the steeple of St Lambert’s Church. Or this: in the Royal Garden in Stockholm, near the Elms and Erik Glemmes teahouse, you can see chainsaw marks in the trees, from when environmental campaigners narrowly saved them from destruction in 1971. Or, if trees are your thing, what about Middle Oak; located off a slip road entering the Newbury Bypass, it is the one tree that still stands to tell the tale of the 1996 environmental protests that cost the road builders £30 million.

Leoncavallo Social Centre, Milan

Legacy of Berlin’s Squatting movement

At other times the history lives on, as is the case with the Leoncavallo Social Centre in Milan, and the legacy of the huge squatters’ movements in Berlin, Hamburg, and in the “free territory” of Cristiana, Copenhagen.

Or maybe all that remains is a building carrying no trace of its former function: the farmhouse that became the amazing Casa de Salud Durruti anarchist hospital during the Spanish Civil War is today the HQ of the municipal refuse centre. Ryesgade 58 in Copenhagen is today a commercial and residential property on a quiet and affluent street, but in 1986 it was where squatters resisted police for nine days. The Hotel El Palace in Barcelona was once the Ritz, which in 1936 anarchists collectivised and turned into a dining hall for the working class.

And sometimes there is nothing. There is nothing to see where Louis Michel led the women’s battalion in their valiant defence of the barricades on Place Blanche, near the Moulin Rouge, during the last days of the 1871 Paris Commune. There is nothing to mark where the army attacked a convoy of peasants who in 1743 marched from Dalarna to Gustav Adolfs Torg in Stockholm. There is nothing to mark where disabled activists blockaded the now-shut London Studios during the Block Telethon protests in 1992. But still I’ll go. I’ll walk miles to see nothing.

Why? Firstly, because these are pilgrimages. They are acts of faith that soothe and enrich me, though in themselves they have no material effect. Visiting these sites enables me to feel a connection to things that though now gone hold for me great meaning. It is like visiting the grave of a relative.

Sometimes the value of these pilgrimages is tied to the effort they involve. Some of my most powerful experiences have involved visiting the least accessible locations. In Zaragoza, I rented a city bike and then cycled 70km in 40° heat, so that I could visit the trenches where George Orwell fought. In torrential rain, I climbed Kinder Scout in the Peak District, retracing the route of the 1932 mass trespass. I hiked the Italian Alps to Monte Rubello, where in 1307 the Dolcinian heretics made their final stand.

Swarms of flies in Strandzha

I travelled to the Bulgarian border with Turkey, and walked through swarms of flies in the Strandzha Nature Reserve, to remember the 1903 Strandzha Commune.

In Stephansdom in Vienna, there is a bullet hole, besides which someone has at some point inscribed the date on which it was made: 6th October 1848. It’s a memento from the street fighting during the October Revolution. The bullet hole in the cathedral is easily missed; it’s not something to which any one pays much attention. I don’t even know the full story.

Bullet hole in Stephansdom Vienna

Who carved the date? Is it really a bullet hole from the October 6th uprising or is that merely a tradition? But the funny thing was, the more I studied it and photographed it, the more curious the other tourists became. They edged closer, interested to see what I was looking at. And then, not wanting to miss out, they started to photograph it too. Soon, a small crowd had formed around the bullet hole. To create a shrine, you have only to look.


Hilary Weeks says:

You are right to say that we can start simply by looking. Noticing something, or its absence, is the start of remembering. Thanks Mike for this haunting piece.

Owen Adams says:

Excellent piece. I could take people to the place where the Dean Forest Riots began in 1831, but it’s now a holiday resort 🙂

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