My photo
Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Chapel Hill, Boston, Istanbul, Calgary, Washington DC, Austin, Tunis, Warszawa and counting

Saturday, March 27, 2010

In Europe

Geert Mak's In Europe - Travels through the twentieth century is easily the most monumental book I have read in quite some time. Not the best, not the most impressive, not even the most informative. Monumental really is the only word apt to describe a year-long travel account, covering most of Europe and all of the 20th century on 850 pages. Mak, a Dutch author of historical books (not a historian!) and journalist, tells Europe's history through a collection of well-research anecdotes, literary citations (from private journals as well as works of literature reflective of their respective epoch), interviews and personal impressions.

It is quite naturally virtually impossible to do justice to a book of such length and breadth (in terms of subjects covered) within a single, short, blog post. I will not even try. Let me only make a few observations which might serve as food for thought for those willing to entertain the notion of spending two or three (or four) weeks of their lives with this book.

Starting out with the positive, Mak gave me some wonderful ideas for which literary accounts concerning a variety of periods I should read at some point of in my life. On the downside my books to read list has become ever longer, yet his taste in literary citations is for the most important impeccable (with the exception of Albert Speer's memoirs maybe) - Joseph Roth, Victor Klemperer, Primo Levi to name just a few. Mak's preference for (or emphasis on) anecdotal accounts who (usually) are representative for a bigger movement are thought-provoking and were at times quite new for me. Thus English suffragettes in the early 20th century apparently resorted to terrorist methods in their struggle for equal rights! He reminded me of the importance of the French mutiny in the trenches during the 1st World War, of the lack of judicial action against Nazi criminals after the 2nd World War (of the 15 attendants of the Wannsee Konferenz nine were either not sentenced at all or to ludicrously short prison terms only for example). Of the German population's unrealistic yet widely proclaimed (as I myself from personal experience know) ignorance of the existence of the horrors of the camps. Of the inadequate excuse of evil leaders having committed all of the crimes - "of all the Gestapo cases against Jews, Johnson's research showed that no less than 41 per cent started with an informant." He strongly attacks the myth of a wide-spread French resistance (only 15,000 résistants à Paris en 1944; Pétain's infamous, celebrated, attendance of the Easter mass à Nôtre-Dame de Paris aussi en 1944).

One of my favorite anecdotes, even without much larger significance: "Before being allowed to leave, the Nazis demanded the the world-famous doctor [Freud] sign a document stating that he had been treated well. Freud signed without batting an eye, and added a sentence of of his own: "I can strongly recommend the Gestapo to one and all."

On to some criticism then. Mak puts a very heavy emphasis on Germany in geographical and the period up until the end of the 2nd World War in temporal terms. Now, of course Germany played a decisive role in both World Wars and thus the temporal concentration to some extent begets the geographical one, yet I am not convinced of the intelligence of his decision to devote nearly 600 pages to the first half of the 20th century. The second half of that century seems to have been made up more or less exclusively of 1968, 1989, the EU, and maybe democratization in Portugal and Spain. Of course the idea of showcasing the European history of the last century in one book - no matter its size - is doomed to be full of omissions, yet I feel like the parts glossed over should have been a bit more equally dispersed.

Finally, my last (and most important) point of criticism lies with Mak's historical writing per se. There were a few accounts of periods (the German November revolution of 1918, the German student movement of 1968 and the German autumn shortly thereafter) where I am,far from an expert as well of course, but have read a few texts myself, and while I never caught him flat-footed committing a factual error, I felt that he insinuated too much or implied interpretations at times which I did not agree with or found too simplistic. Now, if that is the case for the few subject matters I know a bit about, I kind of have to assume the same is true for some (if not all) of the other accounts - which is a problem.

So. Read, but read with care and let yourself be inspired to read his literary source materials as well. I should add one further word of caution relating to the length of the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the beginning of the book, Mak's anecdotal way of telling history. Yet, I felt that his style dragged a bit towards the end, the maybe last 200 pages. I might have simply been reading it too long, had gotten fed up with his way of writing, or maybe the far more compressed second half of the 20th century was simply hurried through too fast.

No comments: