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52 Books #7: In Europe

February 27, 2011

Geert Mak’s In Europe (Vintage) is a travelogue and history of the entire twentieth century and the entire European continent — diverse and often antagonistic territories at the start of the book, a lashed-together compromise of unification by its end. Throughout 1999, Mak travelled Europe from his home in the Netherlands, visiting sites from Verdun to Srebrenica, London to Berlin, Ostend to Helsinki. In some of these he manages to boil an entire century of development down to a few pages, which will no doubt anger those who feels he simplifies and/or insults Budapest, say, by telling the story of its none-too-gradual transformation from cosmopolitan, multicultural hub to insular, drab capital on the fringes of nowhere in particular, seemingly being pushed (or taking itself) further out of ‘Europe’, whatever that means. These are the questions Mak poses, without hectoring answers: what does it mean to be in Europe? What does it mean to be of Europe?

Much of the pagecount is given over to war, and indeed the book ends with the conflict in the former Yugoslavia underway. I’ve never read a more horrifying and gripping account of the actual trench warfare of World War I; this is one of the book’s most powerful sections. The more familiar horrors of Auschwitz still chill, and sobering statistics of survival rates, population declines and election turnouts are as shocking as the horribly familiar stories of what was suffered in the death camps. Mak is saddened by what he sees — at Dachau, at Ypres — as the (inevitable, with time) transition from historic experience to tourist experience: the box-ticking exercise that allows cultures to gloss over the past. Naturally no-one wants to linger on horror, not be accused of exploiting it for political or financial gain of any sort (on our recent trip to Beirut, almost everybody whom the Monkey and I met asked us not to write about the civil war as they wanted to help shift the associations fixed to the Lebanon away from conflict, a natural aim, but one which can’t always be so consciously effected even with the best intentions), but the notion that Auschwitz, says, belongs to “the Past” as a sort of hermetically sealed non-place which bears no influence on “the Now”, is an extremely problematic proposition, not least for being demonstrably untrue (otherwise there’d be no such individuals and groups as the repellent ‘Holocaust deniers’).

Less waspish than some authors of broad social histories (thinking of David Kynaston’s Family and Austerity Britain), Mak nonetheless has an eye for those coincidences and synchronicities of history which qualify as the darkest of ironies: after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the de facto end of the Communist project, he zeroes in on then-unknown civil servant Vladimir Putin, so desperate to incinerate incriminating documents that he overfilled the stove till it exploded.

One of Mak’s themes is the suddenness and pace at which world affairs can unfold, and the essential human randomness that underpins some of the hugest such events. On a number of occasions he wonders aloud, as it were, what might have happened had the young soldier Hitler been killed in the First World War, or had the car which clipped Churchill injured him more severely. These are irresistible what-ifs, and whole books have been written based on such conjectures. That the entirety of human history could be altered had a single bullet travelled a single inch to the left reminds us that of the role chance plays — and will always play — in events that seem with hindsight inevitable.

Even ten or eleven years’ additional history gives the reader something of a vantage point on Mak’s conclusions. The US’s record on overseas diplomacy and Ireland’s economy are left at their highest ebb as Mak writes his conclusion, making the reader grit his teeth somewhat. What comes next — unwinnable wars, economic landslides — are of course outwith the present book’s remit. Though in a sense everything Mak tells us here continues to resonate: hubris and chance play more of a role in how history unfolds than we’d like, and we all know what becomes of good intentions.

Several chapters of In Europe include first-person affidavits from those who experienced the events Mak writes about. These short essays work, as does the judiciously selected contemporary material, to make this a deeply personal book, rather than a ‘history textbook’. The individual can sometimes get overlooked in mega-histories such as this, and so Mak ensures throughout that human perspective is balanced against the great sweep of history, everyday lives against those of the ‘history-makers’. One of the book’s themes is a democratising one — however influential or otherwise their actions, no one human being is intrinsically lesser, greater, more or less deserving of a voice and a life than any other. This is the lesson the twentieth century should have taught us, but somehow still hasn’t.

Other reading in Week #7:

Zachary Lazar Sway (Jonathan Cape)

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