In this special podcast, Dr Tom Thorpe talks to historian and photographer Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy about the launch of his book In the Centennial Footsteps of the Great War.
The two-volume book chronicles and explains the historical events of the Great War through photos taken by the author one hundred years later, between 2014 and 2021, in each and every theatre of this global conflict. Beginning in Sarajevo, continuing through the battlefields of Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific, all the way to Versailles, the book covers a total of 57 different countries. More information on the book can be found here: https://www.greatwarbook.com/us/
Dr Tom Thorpe (TT) [00:00:17] Welcome to 'Mentioned in Dispatches' - the podcast from the Western Front Association with me Dr. Tom Thorpe. The WFA is the UK's largest Great War history society. We are dedicated to furthering understanding of the Great War and have around 50 branches worldwide. For more information, visit our website www.westernfrontassociation.com.
It is the 1st of July 2022 and this is Episode 261a.
This is a special podcast and I talk to historian and photographer Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy about his recent book titled In the Centennial Footsteps of the Great War. Attila spoke to me from his home in Hungary. Attila, welcome to the podcast. Now can you tell us how you became interested in the Great War as an economist?
Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy (ASB) [00:01:09]
As an economist, I am very much interested in international economics and trends and macroeconomic trends. And in order to be good at this, you need to know history. You need to know the history of the different nations. And I was always particularly interested in why nations are competing, why nations are failing, and how they can actually turn into a military conflict against each other? Why such economic and imperial rivalries can end up in military conflict? And I think the most important event of the past 200 years, since the Napoleonic Wars, for me is the Great War, because it changed the world as nothing ever before or after. So that's pretty much the simple answer to your question.
TT [00:02:09] Now, before we get into the details of your book, do you have any family connections to the Great War?
ASB [00:02:16] Yes. My great-great-grandfather's uncle was fighting basically in each of the front lines where the Austro-Hungarian Army was fighting, with the exception of Serbia. So he started in 1914 on the Eastern Front against the Russians in Galicia and as a commander of the cavalry there, and then in Romania, in Transylvania and eventually on the Italian front. And he was on the frontline from the first day of the war until the very last - it was 4th of November when the Austro-Hungarian Army collapsed after the Battle of Piave, at Vittorio Veneto
TT [00:03:04] And I suppose what we don't know in the UK is what is the relevance of the First World War to people in Hungary? It has a massive relevance obviously for people in Britain. But what does it mean for ordinary Hungarians?
ASB [00:03:16] Yes, it is. It is very different here in Eastern Europe. Basically, the two world wars started in the east. And the reason is because you are basically neighbouring to the West, the Atlantic Ocean. We in the east are pretty much stuck between the German Empire, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. So these three big empires are obviously, needless to say, that the Austro-Hungarian Empire is in the middle. So these four empires were shaping the state of Central Eastern Europe and Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We had two governments, two capital cities under one Emperor. Hungary was not in favour of declaring war on Serbia after the assassination in Sarajevo, but eventually the Germans and the Austrians pressurised Hungary and the Hungarian government to to approve it, to support it. So when it finally we declared war on Serbia, also the Hungarian government and the Hungarian's where from that moment on were keen to win this conflict. But the war was pretty much lost from day one on, both on the West and the Eastern front. At that time, it was not known. Just as we look back in history, Hungary was one of the countries before the settlement between Austria and Hungary - Hungary was one of the nations of the Austro-Austrian Empire. And in the 1867 settlement, Hungary became a level field player with Austria. By the end of the First World War, all the other nationalities. - ethnic nationalities within the empire were pretty frustrated and angry with the two leaders of the Empire, and particularly with Hungary. So unfortunately, we had no friends at that time. After November 1918, when the Peace Conference started in Paris, a few months later, and in addition, we had a communist revolution in Hungary. So as a result, we had no proper representation in Paris. And the Austrians did not take care of us. So by the time we got rid of our communist revolution, by that time, the Romanian Queen, Queen Mary, did a very good job representing Romania as an interest amongst the big empires. So we ended up in 1920 forced to sign the Treaty of Trianon. And that became such a disaster for this country that we also lost 600,000 soldiers in the First World War. But that was not such a disaster for the country as the peace negotiations itself. So there's a very big focus on the peace process. And it faded - the First World War - the tragedy of the military, tragedy of the First World War, in light of the Paris peace conference, so angry, ended up on the losing side. So and other central Eastern Europeans, with the exception of Serbia and Romania, were basically hosting the battles on their territories, but really not being real part of it or it was not their war. Particularly talking about the Polish or the Czechs. So Central Eastern Europe is a bit different when it comes down to commemorating the First World War compared to the West, which is a very clear case. You have winners there and an absolutely amazing culture of remembrance ever since.
TT [00:07:27] So that leads us onto my next question. Tell us about your book and what's it all about?
ASB [00:07:33] Yes, it became a huge project. It wasn't meant to be such a big one because I hosted a photo exhibition back in 2014 at the start, the centenary of the start of the First World War. I was already photographing the battlefields, both of the First World War, Second World War. And then I got some encouragement from friends that maybe we should do a book out of this exhibition. And at that time, it was a small scale project. But because in 2014 February, the Russians attacked Ukraine and invaded Crimea - the Crimean peninsula. That was for me as an economist, a game changer. Until that moment, I was absolutely sure that war in Europe would not be possible because the economic interest within the Globalisation's framework is not possible because the interest of any nation is to keep peace and boost economic growth. And I saw that the Russians were integrated into this capitalist, western style life. But 2014 changed this, and my whole theory collapsed. And as a result, because of that year, which meant that since the start of the centennial of the First World War, the whole First World War got a different meaning for me - not just commemorating and remembering our great great grandfathers or grandfathers who were fighting in the war. But actually, I became interested to know more about how these nations sleepwalked into the war, because we might be doing the same thing. And in 2014, obviously, I could not imagine that actually by the time the book comes out in March, we have to face the facts of the Russian invasion in the Ukraine. And the terrible war is starting. Actually there's a reason to look back to how we sleepwalked into the First World War.
And ... also, my thinking was impacted by the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq - that was also in 2014. And that was, for me, a scary period. So I became more interested in the First World War. And then because I had. The photos are ready. And because I went to Sarajevo on 28th June 2014, then I saw it and I experienced there the interest towards the centennial. I started to photograph the events of the centenary and then as the whole project became big - I realised I have to go all the way until 2018 and what's more, even beyond that. And as a result, the book project became a huge project and a big investment from my side. I had to cover 57 countries because I ... decided that I am going to visit all of the countries that were in one way or another, home of certain events of the war, or were directly impacted by the war. And I wanted to create a book which is unique not just in Hungary, but also internationally, because obviously the Hungarian market is too small for such a huge project. On the other hand, because you have 57 countries interested in the First World War, why not do something that is an international book. So it was written in English language and yep, that's pretty much the story of the book.
TT [00:11:45] What do you aim to achieve from your book and how do you think it will help? I suppose in a way to prevent future conflicts.
ASB [00:11:53] Well, what I thought about is that we know very well the black and white pictures, but new generations who see all kinds of visual effects on their telephones, on their computers, on their laptops. They might be more open and interested in seeing colour pictures. So we saw Sir Peter Jackson's documentary - colour documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. And it created a huge interest. And it also impacted my thinking that actually portraying the first World War and telling the story of 1914-1918 through photos that have not been seen before, because they were created during the centenary between 2014 and 2021. It may create a totally new experience for the readers and to younger generations. And because very few books capture the entirety of the First World War. My book goes into detail as far as the Falklands, the Falkland Islands are concerned, or Samoa or Papua New Guinea. I had to go to Cameroon and Togo and these are all sites of the First World War that have very interesting stories, but we know very little about it. We know a lot, you know a lot on the Western Front about your battlefields. We know a lot about the Eastern Front. Both of us know something about the Italian front and a few people know something about the Salonika Front. But beyond Europe, only a few people really have some kind of knowledge about it. So I thought my book will be interesting for two reasons: because it is covering the entire story of the Great War; secondly, it is telling the stories through photos that have been taken during the centenary.
TT [00:14:05] Which leads me on to my last question is where can people get the book from?
ASB [00:14:09] Yes, it's a pilot project. What we are doing because it's been done for so many nations. Obviously, we cannot go to print to accommodate all of the bookstores that are available or that are existing in all of these countries. In any way those World War One buffs who are really into this story or are interested to learn more about it. They can be well segmented and identified. We assume that many of the people around the Western Front Association in the UK, around The Doughboy Foundation in America, and this is why we partner with those institutions or organisations who are basically collectors of all the world people who have some kind of interest about the (First) Word War. And we, we come directly to you. The book can be ordered through its official website, and it is available only in a few bookshops - that can be found on the Western Front. So are the people at Passchendaele, in Ieper. So the World War One, specialised museums, bookshops are selling these books. Otherwise, if you are not travelling to the Western Front, you can order it on the website https://www.greatwarbook.com/
TT [00:15:41] Attila, thank you very much for your time.
ASB [00:15:43] Thank you very much for your grace and your questions.