In Europe: Travels through the Twentieth Century

It Happened in Europe

In Europe: Travels through the Twentieth Century
Geert Mak
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
London: Vintage Books, 2008

Don’t let the sheer bulk of this book put you off – in fact, it makes for a compelling and intriguing reading; once you’ve picked it up, you’ll find it difficult to put it down. It’s more than a travelogue; indeed it’s travel literature, history, journalism and political commentary rolled into one, and graced with a remarkable storytelling ability – chapeau to the translator!

It all started in 1999, the last year of the XX century. Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist on the NRC Handelsblad and already an established writer of lively non-fiction books, was commissioned by his paper to travel through Europe for a year and report for a column in the newspaper. This was the basis for the book, which achieved immediate success, was translated into several languages (as I said, English-speakers are lucky there), and even inspired a 35-part television series in the Netherlands. You set off in early January, the first stop is Paris in the days of the Dreyfus affair, and you are caught in the whirl of controversy, which went beyond anti-Semitism giving the lie to the image of enlightened France, and indeed raised the question of “what was more important? The rights of the individual, or the prestige of the army and the nation? The progressive principles of the Enlightenment, or the old values of the counter-revolution, of the days of glory from before 1789?”. You end up at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, where “the Alsatian gingerbread smells of Christmas, 1900”. And you are left with bittersweet memories of your journey, you feel a lump in your throat. After all, another war (the last one?) raged on European soil that very year.

In between you criss-cross Europe through a lot of places, some of which have long become sites of memory (Ypres, Verdun, Versailles, Auschwitz, Nuremberg, Chernobyl, Srebrenica, Sarajevo, to name but a few). Others, however, don’t crop up very often in books “about Europe”, and may well come as a surprise. Like Odessa, for example, which sets Mak wondering “whether there is any sense at all to the discussion concerning ‘European identity’, whether it is not in fact diametrically opposed to the entire history of the ‘European concept’. For if anything serves as the true hallmark of European civilization it is diversity, and not a single identity. And if there is one city where this European variegation is in full bloom, it is Odessa. Only a few years after this half-French, half-Italian city was raised up from the steppes by pioneers around 1800, Czar Alexander I wrote to Governor Vorontsov that Odessa was becoming ‘too European’: soldiers walked around with their uniforms unbuttoned, and Odessa was the only city in Russia where one was allowed to smoke or sing on the street. A ‘native language’ census held in 1897 showed that a third of the city’s population spoke Yiddish, and barely half spoke Russian. Only one out of every twenty inhabitants spoke Ukrainian; almost an equal number had Polish as their native tongue. Many Russians hated Odessa. For Russian nationalists, the city served as a litmus test: anyone who liked Odessa was European. Anyone who did not like Odessa was faithful to Mother Russia. And Odessa today still has its own brand of civic pride that makes people say, not ‘I come from the Ukraine’ or ‘I am Russian’, but ‘I am from Odessa’”.

Or take Lamenère, a little depopulated village of 36 people in the Pyrenees, “the southernmost of all French villages”, which witnessed the Retirada of 70,000 defeated Spanish republicans in February 1939. Or Lourdes, the site of a colossal pilgrimage industry, where Mak found that “all the despair from all the back rooms of Europe bursts out here”. What is fascinating about this book is the way it makes you feel that everything that happened in Europe is relevant to all of us, or that a European significance is found in a far-off place, or in a half-forgotten event. “Europe” is often where you least expect it. It is this attention to all varieties of European experience, even the most seemingly marginal, in all their diversity, fragmentariness and contradiction, that creates a sense of inclusiveness, a feeling of commonalty which may well touch you even if you’re not actually from Europe. Could it be perhaps a key to the question of European identity?

Just as important are the eyewitnesses’ accounts – either as interviews or passages from diaries and other forms of literature. Some of them are prominent figures like former President of the Federal Republic of Germany Richard von Weizsäcker or the grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II, others are ordinary people. Their accounts often speak volumes. Here is what the British diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson wrote from the Paris Peace Conference, where he served in a junior capacity, in a letter to his wife Vita Sackville-West: “So I went in. There were Wilson and Lloyd George and Clemenceau with their armchairs drawn close over my map on the hearth rug … It is appalling that these ignorant and irresponsible men should be cutting [Asia Minor] to bits as if they were dividing a cake. And with no one there except me…”. He goes on in his 1919 diary:

Saturday, 8 March
Very tired, dispirited and uneasy. Are we making a good peace? Are we? Are we? There was a very gloomy telegram in from [General] Plumer. He begs us to feed Germany. Says our troops cannot stand spectacle of starving children.

Wednesday, 28 May
Have been working like a little beaver to prevent the Austrian peace treaty from being as rotten as the German. The more I read the latter, the sicker it makes me. The great crime is in the reparation clauses, which were drawn up solely to please the House of Commons, and which are quite impossible to execute. If I were the Germans, I shouldn’t sign for a moment. You see it gives them no hope whatsoever, either now or in the future.

Sunday, 8 June
There is not a single person among the younger people here who is not unhappy and disappointed at the terms. The only people who approve are the old fire-eaters”.

Not all Europeans are now alive to the fact that European integration was started to repudiate the very order that had produced the “Versailles peace” and eventually led the world straight into another war. The Dutch diplomat Max Kohnstamm, who served as Secretary to the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community and was a close associate with Jean Monnet, puts it this way:

“From the very beginning we were interested in more than just coal and steel, more than just a common market, more than an economic and monetary union, more than friendship between the participating states: it was about a revolution in international relations.

It was Thucydides who described the dealings between states as a world in which the strong do as they like, and the weak put up with what they must. Power and dominion form the basis of that system, even when a balance has been achieved within it. But neither the hegemony of a given superpower nor the attempt to prevent wars by means of a balance of power have ever led to lasting peace. The big question remains: can power be replaced as a ruling principle in international relations by justice? And how can justice, if it is not to deteriorate into mere words receive access to power? Can we, to that end, develop other forms of power, in order to establish justice between states?”.

The big question indeed remains and is far from being settled now, when the signs of the times rather purport confusion and regression. Even the “Epilogue” to In Europe reads rather out of focus, as if it is difficult to draw a conclusion or to express it persuasively. At least you feel after reading this book you’ve gained more knowledge and self-awareness (as a European, that is), which is never enough.

Francesca Lacaita


1 Response to In Europe: Travels through the Twentieth Century

  1. John Brand says:

    It’s taken me a while to add this comment because ‘In Europe’ is a considerable read – 830 pages of writing so good that it’s difficult to skim or skip. It is one of the most fascinating books I have read about the twentieth-century history of Europe.

    Geert Mak’s journalistic style, and the fact that the book consists mainly of stitched-together daily columns which he wrote for the NRC Handelsblad throughout his year’s travels, make this a very easy book to read. He has the journalist’s gift of finding odd and interesting angles, and (apparently quite fortuitously) coming across fascinating characters to interview. So in Austria he finds himself uncovering the grave of Hitler’s mother, giving rise to all sorts of musings about the early life of a psychopathic dictator; and in Petrograd – St Petersburg – his guide gives the lie to all the Soviet films where the waiting crowd falls silent when Lenin arrives to speak from the balcony of the Kshesinskaya Palace. For the first few weeks, a few hundred people would turn up each day: but they never stopped shouting, and in reality it was virtually impossible to hear a word the great man said.

    Virtually every episode uncovered by Mak is interesting and many, to me at least, are complete revelations. For example, the German government was more than willing to allow passage to the famous ‘sealed train’ in which Lenin raced across Germany on his way to St Petersburg – already late, because the revolution had started without him – because it was clearly in German interests to assist a man determined to overthrow a Russian government with which it was at war. But I had no idea that the entire Bolshevik revolution, from the financing of Pravda to the purchase of rifles, was funded by a huge subvention from the German treasury. Similarly, Mak’s account of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis – that extraordinary collection of ‘burglars, pimps, cheats and thugs’ – is chilling mainly because of its awful inevitability.

    Mak is clear-eyed and unflinching in his analysis and recounting of events. For example, he unearths the grisly history of anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Latvia and Lithuania – even before the Waffen SS arrived to encourage it. European man’s repeated and enthusiastic inhumanity to European man is set out in almost every chapter. This is not a comfortable book.

    As Mak’s journey wears on, along with the century he is writing about, he manages admirably to maintain his historical perspective. The Spanish civil war, the second world war, the physical and economic recovery of Europe, the imposition of communism and the Berlin Wall, the 1968 year of revolution and the eventual fall of the Wall and the end of European communism all take their places , not as isolated incidents but as integral parts of a continuous pageant of history.

    And yet, and yet… the one area where Mak himself admits to doubts, difficulties of interpretation, is the future of Europe itself. Almost all of the events in his book can be put neatly into their historical context. But when he comes to contextualising the creation of the European Union, drawing historical lessons and interpreting Europe’s most recent events, Mak is unwilling to commit himself. Acknowledging Europe’s undoubted achievement as a peace process and progress as an economic union, he still sees a happy ending as a long way off.

    Geert Mak ends his odyssey with a warning that the European project will fail unless it succeeds in creating ‘a common cultural, political and above all, democratic space… alongside the rest’. Who among us, regarding the bickering and national point-scoring going on at present, can be optimistic about our progress towards that goal?

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