In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Amato, Joe
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: In Europe: Travels through the Twentieth Century (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Mak, Geert
Accession Number: 254405159
Full Text: In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century. By Geert Mak (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007. 879 pp.).

Every twentieth-century historian must have at least one favorite journalist. Mine is contemporary Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak, winner of the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding in 2008. Mak first gained my attention with Jorwerd: The Death of a Twentieth Century Village. Based on a long residence in the small Friesland village of Jorwerd, Mak's book fuses journalism and history around the theme of the rapid and irreversible transformation of a traditional Dutch village, covering its loss of autonomy, old rural way of life and, to borrow from the book's subtitle, "how God vanished" from the town.

In In Europe we have Jorwerd, Mak's "Brief History of Amsterdam," and his own bio-historical portrait of the twentieth century (De eeuw van mijn vader, "The Age of My Father") writ large. Based on a vast mingling of lives, times, places, and historical works, In Europe displays a mastery of journalism and contemporary history. With a poignant pointillism, whose skill and sensibility rests on academic training in sociology, long-time socialist and pacifist leanings, and a liberal disposition to side with the outsider and victim, Mak weaves individual lives into a compelling chronology of a century's tragic events. Constant in his testimony to the personal, collective, and spiritual destructiveness of the century past, he explores Europe's prospects for the future.

Mak centers his work around a single year of travel, 1999, during which he crisscrossed Europe. Stopping at sixty-six places big and small, his travels covered the continent from Madrid to Moscow and from Gdansk to Sarajevo. In interviews of the famous and the ordinary, he creates a polyphony of human voices that sing in deep keys of memory, loss, bitterness, suspicion, and yet achievement and hope. Eastern European voices sing the commanding bass conscience of what Europe suffered during the past century and what is still to be tested in the century ahead. Mingling the testimonies of the living and the dead, Mak's shifting spatio-chronological frame moves from large towns, cafes, apartments, and villages to cemeteries, battlefields, abandoned buildings, and out of the way places where plots were hatched and events transpired.

Mak fleshes out his work with secondary texts, documents, diaries, reports, newspaper articles, old travel guides, statistical reports, films, songs, paintings, and other iconographic materials. Though his work is not without strong opinions, it docs not constitute an ideological expedition into the past nor an exercise in applying social science theories of demography, democracy, or social class formation. His primary power, defiant of generalization, lies in his evocation of the singular person, moment, event, and consequence. Much more a matter of juxtaposition than argument, his work at its best reads like prose poem. His deepest truths--the points at which his meaning is most intense--come in the form of facts, stories, and anecdotes.

On the pages of In Europe different generations, classes, places, beliefs, and, alas, destinies mingle. At the start of his book, at the 1900 Paris World Fair, along the streets of the city of the Grand Illumination, we meet not just prophets of the new century but ordinarily forgotten grandperes and grandmeres, who in different guises intrude their way into Mak's narrative of epoch change. While not a religious text, In Europe is a serious meditation--a memorial of the cruel, mean-spirited, heartbroken, dead, sacrificed, and slaughtered. Along a short stretch of highway, with "only a tap of the accelerator along the autoroute from Lille to Paris," Mak delivers us to the battle of the Somme. A few pages later, after we've been told of the deadly "sum of the Somme"--1.2 million were killed in the late summer of 1916--we learn of a popular anti-war German song. Based on a poem by Bertold Brecht, it recounts the tale of a dead hero who, having died before the war, is re-animated, drafted, and sent marching forward to the front for a second hero's death.

Tragic commemoration forms Mak's dominant mode of surveying the past. Faithful to memory, he repeatedly brings up what is gone; what can only wrongfully be forgotten; what, for a religious sensibility, amounts to a spirit in prayer. At points Mak's tenacious fidelity is grim. There are not just bombs and even an occasional tank still exhumed in the farm fields of Ypres but a photo of a memorial of children's shoes from Chernobyl. As an Amsterdam resident, Mak never travels free of the tether of Anne Frank's house. He cannot forget the Nazi world organized against her, or the Dutch world that failed to save her. Eastern Europe--its Gdansk and recent tragedies at Chernobyl and in Bosnia--are used to remind prosperous and content Western Europe that progress does not obliterate the truth of the past, the reality of the present, or the steep challenge of the future.

If the moral subject of Mak's sermon is Europe at its most tragic, violent, cruel, and cowardly, his congregation is Western Europe's self-assured consumers and self-content citizens. Mak's path led, as most in the twentieth century did, through the darkest forests. Along the way we meet solitary protesting heroes like Franz Jagenstatter, who didn't believe someone could be a good Catholic and a Nazi; and now and again Mak points our forgotten marginal lands, those "territorial Jorwerds," which abound in Eastern Europe, "where the goats go up and the girls come down." Though Mak continually deploys moral cases of who did what to whom and for whom, he understandably does not systematically take up the question of collaboration, resistance, sacrifice, and martyrdom.

Indeed, individual choices, treatments, re-constructions, and omissions in Mak's book will be challenged. A case in point is Mak's harsh judgment of Pius the XII as simply a Machiavellian anti-Semite. The absence of footnotes in the book will underpin criticisms of it as general, "moralizing," and "journalistic." Larger criticisms will focus on Mark's proclivity to interpret Europe as une revolution manque yesterday and a failing revolution today. Surely his pervasive critique rests on the twin pillars of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, on the one hand, and the failures and tragedies of Eastern Europe and the neglectful indifference of Western Europe. Writing his work against the immediate background of the Bosnian War and the prolonged siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, Mak found plenty of evidence of the depths of multi-ethnic misunderstanding and hate and western Europe's continuing battle for justice and tolerance.

This brings us to the largest proposition of Mak's broad tapestry and moral inventory: Twentieth-century Europe essentially lost its culture, and it must find another to survive the pressing decades ahead. Mak does not take up the question of what constituted the substance of the culture Europe lost, nor whether it was lost well in advance of the twentieth century with (I only suggest some possibilities) the crusades; the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the expulsions and restrictions of centralized monarchies; the exclusive and divisive secular rationalism of the Enlightenment; or the nationalism, industrialism, and revolutionary ideologies of the nineteenth century. But whatever the case, Mak leaves no doubt that Europe is absent the unity and determination it needs. With a declining and aging population, it somehow must learn anew if it is to compete with a still growing and vital America and the emerging worlds of China, India, and other regional powers. Europe has no choice but to put aside its provincialism and nationalism, end its hostility to new immigrants, and quit its infantile but century-long dependence on the United States. Europe must be determined to rescue itself from its own crises.

An implicit assumption, in Mak's view, accompanies this challenge. Europe cannot form a new spirit unless it admits its history. It must acknowledge where it has been in the twentieth century to get a fresh start in the twenty first century. In Europe constitutes a powerful historical evocation of need of past for the life of the present and birth of the future. Certainly, contemporary historians can use a copy of this work on their shelf of thoughtful books.

Joe Amato

Southwest Minnesota State University
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