22 March 2020
Review of In Europe: Travels through the twentieth century by Geert Mak
Sam Garrett: he is the man who translated this book from Dutch into English. It may be unusual to mention the translator before the author, but I couldn’t help wondering at how much time and care must have gone into the translation of the author’s magnum opus, for the English translation is very well written.
Geert Mak is a journalist who was commissioned by a newspaper to travel around Europe in 1999 with two aims: to assess the continent at the end of the 20th century and to follow the course of 20th century history from the traces it had left behind — whether those traces be in the buildings, the countryside, the economy, or the people. The book has one part for each month of his travels, with each part covering several places and a particular historical period. In January, he was covering 1900–1914 by visiting Amsterdam, Paris, London, Berlin, and Vienna. By December, he was covering 1989–1999 by visiting Bucharest, Novi Sad, Srebrenica, and Sarajevo. Some cities pop up more than once, due to their pivotal role at several times.
The style is that of serious journalism. In each place, the author interviewed survivors of the 20th century to get stories of their experiences then and now. The big picture gained from the large span of time and space shines light not only on particular political ideologies but also on the effect of shifting ideologies, and not only the development of particular nation states but also the very idea of the nation state. There are some surprises, such as stories of people who are expected by outsiders to be grateful that their country gained democracy after decades under a totalitarian regime but who, at the turn of the century, were poorer and still struggling with the consequences of change.
Alongside interviews and observations, the author also did considerable research in the archives. For example, the received wisdom is that, in between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the end of June 1914 and the declaration of war in early August, the ordinary people reading their papers in the coffee houses of Vienna knew that a disastrous war was coming. So Geert decided to check that out by going to the Austrian National Library and reading every issue of the Neue Freie Presse newspaper for those months. What he found was mainly gossip, road traffic accidents, and adverts for bosom-enhancing products. There were a few stories about rising international tensions, but these were seemingly reported with confidence that everything would be sorted out.
I noticed three omissions. (1) From the list of countries that joined the EU in 2004: Slovenia. (2) From the account of the Troubles in Northern Ireland: the many IRA bombings in England; there’s not even a mention of the attempted assassination in 1984 of the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and her cabinet by bombing the hotel where they were staying — an act that actually killed five people and injured over thirty others. (3) From the section on the Neue Freie Presse: the fact that Austria-Hungary kept its planned ultimatum to Serbia a secret during July 1914 for several reasons, which would explain why newspapers didn’t report on it. Also missing is a follow-up on whether the bosom-enhancing products worked.
There’s an epilogue, which considers the strengths and weaknesses of Europe at the end of the 20th century and speculates on how the “European project” may or may not progress in the 21st century. The possibility of an EU member state voting to leave is not one of these speculations. But then sixteen years is a long time in politics and prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
If you’re wondering why I chose to read this book, well, a copy came into my possession unexpectedly. I only started reading it because a quick flip through it revealed some intriguing things and it was clear that one could read individual intriguing chapters independently of the others and thus wouldn’t have to tackle all 800 pages. Having started at the beginning, however, I got hooked and read it from cover to cover. This in itself is a good recommendation because I did have other things to do at the time.