German Joys Review: In Europa

In_europa_1  In Europa (G) took 6 years to finish, and is over 900 pages long. Its author, Dutch journalist Geert Mak, calls it "a journey through the 20th century." Mak divides the century into time-segments as short as two years (1939-41) and as long as fourteen (1956-1980), and a chapter is devoted to each. The occasion for the book was an assignment from Mak’s newspaper, the Dutch NRC Handelsblad. In 1999, as the millennium drew to a close, the paper sent Mak off to travel through Europe and write a weekly column taking the continent’s pulse at points large and small. He visits places in Europe that played a role in whatever era he is researching — Paris for the early years of the century, Stalingrad for the early 40s, Berlin for the late 80s, Spain for the mid-70s, etc.

The book is much more than a stitched-together collection of newspaper columns. Mak relied on several sources of information: his own immediate impressions (he rented a mobile home for some parts of the journey, but went by train, bus, and steamer for others); visits to the same places earlier in his journalistic career; interviews with locals and with people who played a part in the events he describes, and a bibliography comprising 18 pages and four languages (Dutch, German, English and French).

It’s hard to do justice to the kaleidoscopic richness of the result. You watch Serbian television propaganda in Novi Sad in 1993; drink with cheerful peasants in a small Hungarian village in 1999 (the "last year that trash was collected by a horse-driven carriage"); hear the first-person accounts of a Polish government minister, Portuguese coup plotter, Dutch prime minister, and a founder of the European Union; visit an East German factory coming to grips with competition for the first time; sail across the Black Sea on a Ukrainian steamer; drink ouzo on a Greek island with men who resisted Italian and German occupation; watch a group of mentally retarded Germans riding a train through booming post-Wall Berlin; hear a Romanian professor describe the downfall of the Ceausescus; visit a pair of Ukrainian peasants who stayed on their farmstead even after Chernobyl melted down next to it; hear an afternoon of Poland’s populist, anti-Semitic Catholic right-wing Radio Maryja; listen to bemused Dutchmen describe Hungarian refugees who arrived all over Western Europe following the 1956 uprising; hear the complaints of unemployed Frenchmen living a vagabond existence in campgrounds on the fringes of provincial towns; and share Mak’s dismay at the nationalistic blather of Basque separatists.

It hangs together surprisingly well, because Mak threads these these impressions and narratives into a detailed historical context. Mak’s a gifted condenser: In Europa contains lucid, solidly-researched, well-paced capsule descriptions of the Spanish Civil War, the obscure maneuvering that heralded the end of World War I, the Battle of Stalingrad, the career of Charles de Gaulle, the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Russian underground music scene of the 1980s, the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, and other turning-points of European history both major and minor.

The reader unschooled in contemporary European history will find these narratives welcome and informative. For who already have a good grasp of the events, Mak keeps the narrative compact, and spices it with well-chosen details and quotations. Harold Nicolson on de Gaulle: "His arrogance and fascism irritated me. I have to say, however, that his eyes had something of the noble hunting-dog about them"; Mussolini on Hitler: "A sexually-degenerate type" whose anti-Semitism Mussolini found "simply sick"; Mak’s father on the combative anti-Nazi pastor and former U-Boot commander Martin Niemöller: "He once wrote a book called ‘From the Submarine into the Pulpit’, but should have called it ‘With the Submarine into the Pulpit’." The streets of Berlin in the early years of the century (according to Polish writer Józef Kraszewski): "[T]he behavior of street vendors, carriage drivers, porters, and even beggars all mimicked the soldiers. Berlin was a strict city, orderly, obedient, and disciplined, as if it were in a state of permanent siege."

It would be tough to write a dispassionate history of this charnel-house of a century, and Mak does not try. Mak is especially dismayed by the chest-beating nationalism he encounters. With simultaneous translation provided by a Serbian friend, Mak watches an afternoon of televised Serbian government propaganda. Crimes and atrocities of the Bosnians and Croats are reported in blood-spattered detail, while those of the Serbian military and its allies are ignored. Every few minutes comes a commentary: cloudy, sinister bullshit about the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds or the honor of medieval Serbian knights. So many people believe it, Mak notes with disbelief, as if they had learned nothing from the genocidal wars that scoured their nations just a few short decades ago.

Or take France. After hearing a few too many invocations of France’s glory, Mak details the sordid history of French collaboration during World War II, and concludes:

After the Second World War, several countries succeeded in polishing up their public images. The Austrians transformed themselves from enthusiastic accomplices to victims. The cautious Dutch suddenly became energetic resistance heroes, each with his own Anne Frank hidden in the attic. But what the French were able to achieve borders on the incredible. When one spoke of the war in France, it was only honor and triumph — as if defeat, chaos, hunger, cowardice, and collaboration had never existed.

Mak tours Guernica with a "friendly, intelligent, and interested" sociologist of Basque heritage who spent half her life in the USA. When she begins to talk about Basque tradition, though, her speech clogs with stiff Basque-separatist platitudes ("The Basque movement is a typical peasant independence movement. This is how it differs from Catalan nationalism."). Mak’s conclusion: "Everywhere from Kosovo to Ruthenia all the way east to the Basque country, the longing for a fatherland that nobody has ever seen and that, in many respects, never even existed is driving Europeans crazy."

Mak encounters the same kind of blinkered ethnic pride in Turkey, Northern Ireland, and in Poland. To his credit, Mak understands the danger of the condescension — specifically, the condescension of the "cultivated" Northern European looking down his nose at hot-blooded Slavs and southerners. Mak’s judgments about his own country, as the quotation above shows, are by no means whitewashed. And most importantly, Mak provides context. Although he doesn’t hide his distaste for some of the dumber things he hears, he locates the roots of nationalist thinking in economic dislocation and uncertainty, not genocidal hatred. Mak also gives generous space to the many Basques, Irish, Serbs, and Poles who have risked their lives and reputations to speak out against their countrymens’ darker tribal instincts.

In Europa has some weaknesses. It is heavily weighted toward the first half of the 20th century which (as Terry Eagleton recently put it) had rather an implausibly large number of wars packed into it. Mak does trace the beginning of the idea of Europe — mainly by focusing on the fascinating career of Jean Monnet, a cognac trader turned statesman who recognized that only economic interdependence could tame Europe’s tendencies toward political extremism and nationalism. However, the treatment remains cursory — compared to the detail lavished on war and Communist oppression. Granted, peace and prosperity are inherently less fascinating than war and intrigue, but a bit less bloodshed, cowardice, collaboration, betrayal, and death could have made In Europa just a bit less dispiriting.

It’s a rare book than genuinely needs to stretch over 900 pages, and In Europa is not one of them. My attention flagged once in a while, but I never read sheer padding. In any case, the meandering unpredictability of the book is its charm. My mind wandered a bit as I read superfluous biographical details about an East German family living in the small town of Niesky. But on the next page, a priceless anecdote: The husband worked in a factory, and everyone in the town wanted the plastic buckets in which paint arrived at the factory to use in their gardens. However, they buckets were covered with colorful West German advertising. To prevent these bright, shiny objects from corrupting the good Socialist morals of the people of Niesky, the husband had to dip the buckets in gray paint before they could be allowed off the factory grounds. A priceless metaphor for Eastern European socialism’s soul-blunting uniformity.

Mak also rescues from relative obscurity hundreds of quotations and personal accounts from the books he read as preparation. I’ll end this review with one, from an anonymous Yiddish-language manuscript (probably a diary kept by a relative of one of the Sonderkommando –concentration-camp inmates who were forced to assist in the extermination process). It was found in 1952 during excavations near the Auschwitz III crematorium :

Toward the end of 1943, about two hundred Polish resistance fighters were brought to the gas chamber along with a few hundred Dutch Jews. As they stood completely naked in the gas chamber, a young Polish woman, according to the unknown author, gave a fiery speech; she closed with the words: "We will not die now, the history of our people will keep our memory alive eternally; our desire and our spirit will live and bloom again." Then she turned to the Jews of the Sonderkommando: "Tell our brothers, our peoples, that we went to our deaths conscious and full of pride." Finally, they Poles sung the Polish national anthem as a choir, the Jews sung the Hatikva, and all of them sang the Internationale together. "During the singing, the Red Cross auto with the gas canisters arrived…, the gas was thrown into the chamber, and everyone in the chamber gave up the ghost singing and in ecstasy(!), dreaming of the brotherhood of man and a better world.

* In Europa, by Geert Mak, 944 pages, Siedler,Press, Berlin, 2005. Translated from the Dutch by Gregor Sefernes und Andreas Ecke. All English translations in this review by Andrew Hammel.

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