Mak’s anabasis

In January of 1999, Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak set out on a journey across Europe. Commissioned by his employers at the Rotterdam-based newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Mak was to spend the entire year on “a sort of final inspection,” ostensibly to answer one very broad question: “What shape was the continent in, here at the conclusion of the twentieth century?” Mak acknowledges though that his motives were hardly limited to professional duty—“I needed to get out, to cross borders, to find out what it meant, that misty term ‘Europe.’”

Translated by Sam Garrett, In Europe is essentially a travelogue, a road diary of Mak’s peregrinations. His narrative proceeds temporally, as well as geographically, around the continent, and as such the book is a natural progression from his previous works—Jorwerd: The Death of Village in Late Twentieth Century Europe and My Father’s Century, both of which deal with the effects of industrialized progress on the cultural and social fabric of daily life. The difference here is scale.

In Europe, while highly detailed and often singularly insightful, remains a broad survey. Crafting a story from 100 years of European history requires massive, yet precise, excisions, and Mak has shrewdly edited his material. Wisely, Mak crafts his exposition to neither alienate readers that may not immediately recognize a reference to, say, Walther Rathenau or the Stasi, nor bore the readers that do. Weaving together his own observations and research with interviews, contemporary memoirs and newspaper stories, Mak has crafted a dense history that reads like an engrossing novel.

The majority of his destinations—seats of major governments and textbook historical sites like Sedan, Guernica, Ypres—are hardly surprising, but Mak skillfully avoids the potential redundancy in describing the events that made these locations famous. Perhaps deliberately, he never lingers too long at any of them, leaving the reader informed but nostalgic at every departure.

Given the 20th century’s bellicosity, it’s hardly surprising that much of Mak’s narrative revolves around armed confrontation. Inevitably, his introductory chapters are heavily concerned with the lead up to the first World War, but it’s the subsequent conflict, 30 years after the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, that truly dominates the work. In fact, over 300 of the book’s 800-plus pages of text—five of the 12 sections—are dedicated to the five catastrophic years between 1939 and 1944.

As far as the conclusions he draws, Mak’s own political bent (during the 1980s he served as a parliamentary assistant for the Pacifist Socialist Party) is rarely conspicuous, but one doubts that a more conservative historian would so vociferously challenge the accepted “miracle” of the Marshall Plan. In his analysis of post-war Europe, Mak rightfully expounds on the oft-overlooked fact that the left-leaning Western Europe that sprung from the ashes of WWII—the socialized society that conservatives, particularly American conservatives, revile—was as much a product of Truman-era policy as it was a reaction to the right-wing policies of the Nazis and their ilk.

Mak does find beauty in Europe—in Slovakian apple trees and Bavarian pastures—and the people he encounters are generally compassionate and hopeful, but his overall picture of 20th century humanity is far from flattering. At century’s end, Mak uncovers a pervasive, and dangerously passive, nostalgia—often in spite of, and sometimes even because of, the dark currents of provincial insularity and prejudice that made the 20th century so explosive. Strident nationalism, anti-Semitism and ethnic hatreds live on, and Mak observes a Europe still boggled by its multicultural legacy. Most poignantly, Mak punctuates many of his entries with news of the conflict in Kosovo, which was stirring European opinion at the time.

The Europe that Mak finds at the close of the twentieth century is reminiscent of Xenophon and his 10,000 rejoicing at the sight of the sea—celebrating their survival and only just realizing that the journey is far from over.