Tag Archives: Spain

Ann Christys, Vikings in the South. Voyages to Iberia and the Mediterranean (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Much has been written about Viking voyages, raids, exploration and settlement in the North Atlantic, the Baltic and the lands of northern and western Europe during the Viking Age. The same applies to the activities of Scandinavian Vikings – the so-called Varangians (mostly Swedish) – in Russia, on the Russian rivers, in the Black Sea and the lands of the Byzantine empire. Students of Viking history have long been familiar with the most important facts of this history although ”new” knowledge is still being brought to light, offering new perspectives and interpretations. This is not least due to recent archaeological research in the area.

Continue reading Ann Christys, Vikings in the South. Voyages to Iberia and the Mediterranean (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Europe’s Constitutional Law in Times of Crisis: A Human Rights Perspective

In this paper, we aim to survey representative constitutional amendments in the European Union’s (EU) area, whether attempted or accomplished, as well as significant adjudications by constitutional bodies. Then, we proceed to assess these legal phenomena in light of human rights jurisprudence. Pivotal reference in our work is the recently released 7th volume of the Annuaire international des droits de l’homme (Athens: Sakkoulas, December 2014), edited by G. Katrougalos, M. Figueiredo and P. Pararas under the aegis of the International Association of Constitutional Law. Not only does this volume comprise the work of some of Europe’s noted constitutionalists, it also addresses the constitutional matters central to this paper in light of human rights jurisprudence, which is the area of expertise of one of the paper’s authors, i.e. Ágúst Þór Árnason, and the area that the other author, Giorgio Baruchello, has construed axiologically as a pivotal instantiation of civil commons, i.e. “all social constructs which enable universal access to life goods”. Have European constitutions continued to function qua civil commons in the crisis years? That, at the deepest level of value scrutiny, is the question that our joint survey and analysis aim to answer.

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Þorlákur Axel Jónsson, Dagur Austan. Ævintýramaðurinn Vernharður Eggertsson (Akureyri: Völuspá, 2009)

Þorlákur Axel Jónsson’s slender volume (104 pages in total) is written in Icelandic and inaugurates a book series devoted to the history of northern Iceland’s Eyjafjörður and its inhabitants: Safn til sögu Eyjafjarðar og Eyfirðinga. Yet, in a way that is commented upon in the following paragraphs, this book is relevant to Nordic and Mediterranean studies and it has therefore been decided that Nordicum-Mediterraneum should carry a belated review of it, given the book’s relatively old year of publication, i.e. 2009.

 

Vernharður Eggertsson (1909-1952) was known also as Dagur Austan, a marginal contributor to 20th-century Icelandic literature, to whom serious critics and well-established literary reviewers have paid hardly any attention. Despite his vivid depiction of police callousness, or his groundbreaking references to homosexuality and child abuse by Catholic priests (79), the author’s little fame between the 1930s and the 1950s was due primarily to infamy or, to put it more correctly, to notoriety. Before and during the years in which Dagur Austan published one book (An Icelandic Adventurer in the Spanish War, 1938), one booklet and a handful of short stories (including the 1950 “The Dog and I”, perhaps the most successful of them), the name “Vernharður Eggertsson” appeared repeatedly in Iceland’s newspapers and even more frequently in the official records of Iceland’s police, courts of law and prisons for a long string of petty crimes, often related to alcoholic beverages. 

Since at least 1931, when he experienced a stint in a Canadian jail for a somewhat mythical case of prohibition-era smuggling (24-7), Vernharður Eggertsson’s life was marked by the homelessness, poverty, instability, mendacity, proneness to self-harm and the erratic behaviour that are often associated with excessive drinking amongst working-class men. On top of that, his professed adherence to communism made him a target of exemplary toughness by Iceland’s police authorities (60-3). During a remarkable dry spell facilitated by the Salvation Army in the early 1940s, Vernharður Eggertsson did succeed in finding a wife and fathering a host of children, from whom he was eventually separated by his overwhelming propensity for the bottle (see esp. 64-70). What is more, before and after this spell, he worked in the family brewery (9-18), travelled the world as a sailor (21-3, 82-7), witnessed and probably fought in the Civil War in Spain (44-59), walked rarely trodden paths in his native country after a jail break (35-43) and managed to charm and befriend many fellow Icelanders, including young artists, journalists and literati (78-81, 101).

In the end, Vernharður Eggertsson suffered a tragic death in a shipwreck off Caithness’ perilous coasts, probably after sailing in the treacherous Pentland Firth (87), crowning a tempestuous existence with the kind of salt-water tragedy that fate reserves to the true adventurer, which is the way chosen by the book’s author to refer to Vernharður Eggertsson, i.e. Ævintýramaðurinn (“the adventurer”), and possibly the one in which Vernharður Eggertsson liked thinking of himself as well.

Certainly, the gritty tales that Dagur Austan recounts in his book on the Spanish Civil War—passages of which are included in Þorlákur Axel Jónsson’s text—are worthy of the most audacious adventurer, if not of a hero, which is the term used by the Swedish communists’ journal Ny Dag to salute in 1936 the brave Icelander that was reported to have fought for the Republic in the International Brigades (57). Besides, Dagur Austan’s matter-of-fact, adventure-centred outlook on the bloody fights between Republicans and Monarchists, as well as between Anarchists and other Republicans, offers an unusually fresh, ideologically uncompromising and little-known account of the Civil War itself. Historians that are interested in what happened in Spain during those terrible years may well find it a valuable integration of more commonly cited sources.

 

The author of the volume hereby reviewed is a historian and social scientist. His style is dry, unadorned and non-evaluative. He is careful in the selection of, and the references to, the sources utilised for his biography of Vernharður Eggertsson aka Dagur Austan. Photographs (mid-book insert, 1-8), a thorough critical apparatus (88-94), a poem (2) and a short story penned by Dagur Austan himself (95-100), plus a 1952 obituary by Sverrir Þórðarson (101) complement it effectively, giving a concrete sense of the times and the lives that are touched upon. The resulting volume is not big, its short chapters offering a dozen of highly effective sketches, rather than a lengthy account, of salient moments in the life of Vernharður Eggertsson and of his family. If neorealism were a literary style, rather than a cinematographic one, Þorlákur Axel Jónsson’s book would be an instantiation of it.

One may wonder why such a peculiar citizen of northern Iceland should have been chosen to launch the book series on Eyjafjörður and its inhabitants. Though unquestionably exciting and romantically eccentric, Vernharður Eggertsson’s story is neither enviable nor edifying. As Sverrir Þórðarson wrote, he was “a son of the street” (73). Yet, it is true that Icelandic literature has never eschewed the darker margins of the island’s society, whether by devoting entire sagas to famous outlaws or by celebrating the most poetically talented psychotic murderer of the Viking age, Egill Skallagrímsson. If divine wisdom informs the entirety of God’s creation, then lessons can be learnt from all walks of life. Thus, pondering upon Vernharður Eggertsson’s tribulations may remind the reader of how healthily insignificant is a comfortable middle-class life.

R. Bohlin, De Osynliga. Det Europas fattiga arbetarklass; M. Linton, De hatade. Om radikalhögerns måltavlor; B. Elmbrant, Europas stålbad. Krisen som slukar välfärden och skakar euron (All titles by Atlas, Stockholm, 2012)

 

The feminist journalist Rebecca Bohlin has looked into the working and living conditions of the least paid workers within the service sector, although reminding to us that many other jobs in different sectors meet similar problems. She has met cleaners, kitchen attendants and cashiers in Stockholm, London, Hamburg and at the same time has interviewed scholars and as well politicians and union representatives about the rise in income inequality and the worsening of working conditions, across Europe and in Sweden.

And to Sweden indeed is devoted the first chapter (Hur mår RUT?). The question of rising inequalities has become hot after 2007, when tax deductions for domestic service (RUT) were introduced, with the argument that the black market was to be stopped. In fact, however, according to the unions and to some research, the outcome has been an increasing in the number of workers (often asylum seekers or anyway migrants, very often women) exploited and with no safeguard: their formal job contract is legal, but their actual working conditions are definitely different, and for the worse. Yet in Sweden, as Bohlin acknowledges, living conditions of the low-paid workers are better that in most other countries.

In the second chapter (Så pressas lönerna neråt) Bohlin analyzes, again through witnesses and interviews, migration policy at the EU level and in some of its member States. She insists on the paradox of a rhetoric stressing the need of labour force from outside Europe, in order to face demographic challenges and to make companies more “globalized”, while at the same time the actual policy is based on a military defence of the “fortress Europe”, at the cost of thousands of human lives every year. And those who succeed in reaching Europe are often exploited both economically and, when women, sexually. And that even in a country that is a world master in workers’ rights and gender equality such as Sweden.

How are trade unions tackling this backward trend to a degree of workers’ exploitation similar to that in the 19th century? Around this unavoidable question the third chapter (Facket famlar efter en ny solidaritet) is built. The answer is not at all self-evident; on the contrary, here one goes on attempt by attempt. However, what comes out from the talks that the author has had with union leaders and members, in Sweden and in the UK, as well as with scholars, is that a trade union like the Swedish one, service-oriented, is not well-equipped to face the challenges that labour movements all over the world have to meet. More interesting it seems the experience of the “Social Movement Unionism”, a strategy that has been tested in South America and is made up of a mix of mobilization, learning, dialogue with local society, negotiations – and protest actions. Exactly what many all over Europe – either workers or unemployed, migrant or local – call for.

 

An even darker side of Europe is the subject of Magnus Linton’s work, that he describes in his Introduction as a book on “majorities and minorities, absolutism and relativism, boarders and lack of them, fantasy and reality”. The author, well-known in Sweden for his reports after the carnage in Utøya, has carried out an inquiry about right-wing radicalism in three European countries: Hungary, the Netherlands and Norway, moving from the awareness that the current economic crisis increases its appeal. Linton has met the main targets of xenophobic and neo-nazi groups, respectively Roma people in Hungary, muslims in the Netherlands and left-wing intellectuals in Norway. The first section (Parasiterna), after reminding shortly the persecution of Roma in history (culminating with their, neglected, massacre during World War II) and the recent deportation of Roma in countries such as France, Italy and Sweden, introduces the reader to the disturbing world of the Hungarian neo-fascist party Jobbik (Movement for a better Hungary), whose programme is openly “roma-centered”, so to say, and that in 2010 established itself as one of the main political forces in the country with 17% of votes. Jobbik’s growing influence resulted in a situation that Linton, with reference to what happened in the municipality of Gyöngyöspata, tells in the following way: “in 2011 in the middle of Europe fascists in uniform marched and families belonging to one of the poorest and most persecuted minorities in the continent were forced to escape what otherwise would have turned into a pogrom”. And Gyöngyöspata was only the beginning. However, the political scientist Zsolt Enyedi, interviewed by Linton, points out that these developments in Hungary were at the same time astonishing and predictable. Their roots can be found in a historical process starting from the fall of the Berlin wall; since then, populism has been a constant presence in Hungarian life and in the end has exploded due to the economic crisis. The fact that in 2010 the nationalist and authoritarian party Fidesz won 2/3 of the votes has made the situation even worse and transformed Hungary into a stronghold of radical Right in Europe.

Another country, another scapegoat: in the Netherlands, as it is well-known, the thesis that “our” problems could be solved if only “we” got rid of Muslims has found one of its most prominent champions, i.e. Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party and major pointer for Dutch politics for years (see the section: Ockupanterna). Though making sure to distinguish himself from people like Anders Berg Breivik (who pointed at Wilders as his ideological source of inspiration) by stressing his own democratic attitude, Wilders has steadily run down Islam, equating it with Fascism. Together with Pim Fortuyn (murdered in 2002 by a left-wing extremist), he has personified the idea that multiculturalism is a luxury only the privileged few can afford and has transformed the Netherlands into the headquarters of islamophobia in Europe.

The Dutch historian Thomas von der Dunk, here quoted, urges to take into account that politics’ highest aim is economic security, as well as the capability for society to accept cultural uncertainty; but when the former decreases, then the need for a strong cultural identity rises.

Roma people and Muslims are easy scapegoats in a continent affected by geopolitical and economic turbulences; but how came that in the rich and enlightened Norway a right-wing extremist killed more than 70 young left-wing activists? What Berg Breivik aims at with his double attack (a bomb in Oslo and the carnage on the Utøya island) was, as Linton explains, to murder at the same time three generations of “betrayers” (hence the title of the section, Förrädarna), i.e. three generations of Social Democrats: the forthcoming (the young activists who met in Utøya), the present (the governmental headquarter in the capital), and the former (Gro Harlem Brudtland, former prime minister, who escaped assassination in the island due to a delay in Breivik Berg’s plan).

What has been betrayed are Norwegian culture and identity, quite obviously. Breivik Berg defines “cultural Marxism” what could otherwise be summarized as “politically correct”, in other words the idea that there are some topics that cannot be questioned, above all feminism and multiculturalism. Linton points out that coinciding with the perhaps unstoppable march of right-wing extremism in Europe is the discontent caused by what has been perceived as the hegemony of political correctedness, which has become more and more centered upon universities. After all, right-wing radicalism is not interested in discussing rationally a question (which is supposed to be the academic approach) but, on the contrary, in imposing its own understanding of reality. And it is succeeding in doing this. Linton recalls our attention to the fact that what is striking in Breivik Berg is not his insanity, but how much he reflects stereotypes and plot-syndromes related to Islam that unfortunately are represented in more or less all the European parliaments (as well as in the EU one).     

 

Not even the book by Elmbrant, one of the most prominent Swedish journalists, is intended to bring comfort to the reader. Here as well the impact of the economic downturn is looked into in a European perspective, yet with a particular attention to countries such as Greece (see chapter 1, Ett land faller sönder) and Ireland (chapter 3, Irland på liv och död). In chapter 2 (Hur hamnade vi här?) the author follows the making of the Euro and then compares the faith of two countries, Ireland and Iceland; both hit by the crisis, but the latter (outside the common currency) recovering better. Italy is not at all forgotten in this account: the doubts about its financial soundness have been recurrent amongst EU – and German in particular – leaders, for many years. However, Elmbrant warns (chapter 4, Skenbilden av krisen) against those, in Brussels as well as Berlin and Paris, who blame upon some countries ? the Southern European ones primarily ? the European financial difficulties, as the problem were simply that if one spends too much, then one has to pay back sooner or later. Elmbrant is well aware that Greece, with all the stereotypes surrounding it, has worked as a perfect scapegoat, but insists on the European dimension of the economic crisis. The trouble indeed is not the Greeks’ unreliability, but the EU powerlessness in the face of much bigger transnational financial powers. In this connection, it needs to be said that left-wing parties have definitely not been united and consistent in their (often late) condemnation of the abuse of power from private banks and finance at large.

It cannot miss, in this critical report about the EU state of health, a chapter on Angela Merkel, significantly entitled She who decides (5, Hon som bestämmer) and on Germany’s hegemonic role. The outcome of financial powers’ and Germany’s supremacy are described in chapter 6 (Europas stålbad), again focusing mostly on Southern Europe, but raising a more general question: the changing role of the Nation-State. Here Elmbrant mentions an article on The New Left Review by the German social scientist Wolfgang Streeck as crucial: the dismantlement of Europe’s social policies has restricted the ability of the State as far as mediating between citizens’ rights and Capital’s diktats is concerned, and by this move increased further the latter’s authoritativeness as well. There have been massive demonstrations against budget-restriction policies, at least in Greece, Spain and Portugal (chapter 7, De unga på marsch), but Elmbrant does not forget that up to now it is the Radical Right the political actor who seems to have taken more advantage from the crisis, and not the Left. Are the European Central Bank and Merkel right when presenting austerity as the only way out of the crisis or can young people protesting in Athens, Madrid and Lisbon point out to an alternative? The last two chapters are built around this question. 

After summarizing the different proposals currently discussed in the EU (in the end all related to the dilemma: more or less unity among member States? See chapter 8, Stopp i Brysseltrafiken), Elmbrant closes his report by handling the question of the future of the common currency (chapter 9, Har euron en framtid?). After looking at expert analysis and people’s mood his answer (well reflecting Swedish attitude to the EU) is: the Euro is doomed to collapse ? after all it has been a mistake from the beginning ? with consequences that in some cases will prove to be devastating.  And thinking at what is going on in many European countries we can easily believe that this apocalyptic scenario is not simply a kind of snobbery from the rich Nordic countries.