Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

Scenic Tour

Geert Mak pays contemporary witness to the last European century

John Lichfield


A couple of weeks ago, I attended a European Union summit meeting for the first time in nineteen years. Wandering through the bowels of the new Council of Ministers building in Brussels, I felt suddenly like that great Dutch-American Rip Van Winkle. He woke after a twentyyear nap in the Catskill Mountains to find that the thirteen British colonies had become the United States. Returning to my old hunting grounds in Brussels after nearly two decades, I was confronted with a bewildering New Europe.

The twelve EU member states had become twenty-seven. Germany was now one country, not two, represented by a tough little woman with a beautiful smile. There were briefing rooms for the national delegations of countries that had not existed nineteen years before, such as Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. There were offices guarded by the national flags of countries that had been separated from the EU by minefields and barbed wire in 1988: Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. There were television crews in T-shirts and baseball hats from countries that had been part of the Soviet Union in 1988: Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.

Click to enlarge

Map of Europe drawn by Walter Trier in 1914.

And yet the ambience of EU summitry was stiflingly, and reassuringly, the same. There were the same competing briefings by national spokesmen. There were the same kinds of conflicting rumors spreading through the throngs of journalists. There were the same arguments about how to prevent the nations of the EU from arguing so much.

To the other journalists present, this had all become normal. Tedious. To me, it was a joyous festival of the banal, an epiphany of the normal. Ideologically divided, battle-scarred Europe was united at last, even if it was united in bureaucracy and hairsplitting and the redrafting of subclauses of obscurely worded texts (in twenty-three different languages).

Geert Mak is a wide-awake Dutchman who deserves to be just as famous as his fictional forebear. His extraordinary book, In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century, covers five times as much history as Van Winkle's nap in the Catskills. The book is a "Travelogue Through Time": a hundredyear- long bus tour across the continent that invented democracy and the concentration camp, the symphony orchestra and trench warfare, the novel and the gulag.

The idea sprang from a twelve-month tour that Mak undertook for his newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, in 1999 to sift through the debris of the European century. What a century. What debris. There are twelve sections representing the places and the overlapping tranches of history visited on the months of his tour. Thus each section explores one of the interlocking calamities of twentieth-century Europe, from the optimistic golden age of the 1900s ("January"), to the two world wars ("March"; "June" through "September"), to the Spanish civil war ("May"), to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s ("December").

The European bus tour used to be a byword for triviality ("If this is Tuesday, it must be Paris"). Mak's bus tour in print offers encyclopedic knowledge, penetrating wisdom, limitless curiosity, and—crucially, given the subject—a sense of humor. If this is February, it must be Verdun, as it strikes an intelligent visitor today but also as it was during the siege by the kaiser's armies that began in February 1916. If this is July, it must be Leningrad, or rather the corrupt, glitzy Saint Petersburg of today, intercut with scenes from the city under siege by the Wehrmacht in 1941. If this is December, it must be Sarajevo, during and after its siege by drunken Serbian farmers armed with heavy artillery in 1992–95.

Mak is not only a tour guide in print but a TV historian in print. His power to evoke what he calls the "remarkable atmosphere surrounding the phenomenon of the 'historic location'" persuades the stones, and the rubble, even the obscure provincial tombs, to tell their stories. Thus we visit the graves of Alois and Klara Hitler in the village of Leonding, near Linz, in Austria. Neither lived to see their son, a lover of cheap novels about the American West, emigrate to Germany and inscribe the family name in the annals of infamy.

Mak scatters his text with eyewitness evidence, sometimes the testimony of the dead, often the fresh testimony of the living. Long interviews include the reminiscences of the young Wehrmacht officer who told Adolf Hitler in 1943 that Stalingrad was lost. (None of the more senior officers dared.) There are also the thoughts of a retired Dutch manufacturer of artificial flavorings. He is the only surviving grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

"April"—the finest section of all—is a masterly retelling of the story of Berlin, and Germany, between the world wars: how Herr and Frau Hitler's good-for-nothing immigrant son persuaded one of the most cosmopolitan, civilized capitals in Europe to abandon frivolity and tolerance and embark on world conquest and genocide. If you have never quite understood how that happened, you might consider reading Mak's book for the nearly eighty-page section alone.

You would almost certainly end up reading the rest, all eight-hundred-plus pages. Which would substantiate Mak's point. No single part of European history in the twentieth century can be understood without exploring the whole. Everything connects, from the shot fired in Sarajevo in 1914 to the shells lobbed on Sarajevo in 1992.

This is not the way European history is usually told. Just as Britons and Americans are divided by their common language, Europeans are divided by their common history. Each nation, even today, tells its story in a different way. Each has its own myths and evasions. They rarely point out, as Mak does, that "Berlin can never be understood without Versailles, nor London without Munich, Vichy without Verdun, Moscow without Stalingrad . . . Amsterdam without Auschwitz."

Mak visits some cities over and over again, pointing out how dense are the geologic layers of change in modern Europe: "Midway through the twentieth century, in the 1950s, an elderly citizen of Berlin could have told you about the sleepy nineteenth century provincial city of his childhood, the imperial Berlin of his youth, the starving Berlin of 1915, the wild and roaring Berlin of the mid-1920s, the Nazi Berlin of his children, the ravaged Berlin of 1945 and the reconstructed, divided Berlin of his grandchildren. All one and the same city, all within the space of one lifetime." (In passing, one should salute the work of Mak's translator, Sam Garrett. The elegant English text reads as if it flowed effortlessly and wittily from Mak's own pen.)

Journalists are, by nature, professional pessimists. It does not make good copy to foresee a happy ending, if an unhappy ending is conceivable. Mak is a great historian, but above all he is a great journalist. He insists at the end of his book that Europe has no reason to expect the twenty-first century to be less miserably eventful than the twentieth. He fears that the European Union—rather like greater Yugoslavia—may turn out to be a temporary episode of intertribal cooperation between peoples who find it more satisfying to detest one another. Europe's success in creating a single market, a single currency, and a single talking shop could yet be crushed by its failure to create a single sense of purpose.

Read Britain's Daily Mail on the subject of the French. Listen to Poland's Tweedledum- Tweedledee leaders on the subject of the Germans. Ask the Danes about the Swedes. You will see that Mak has a point. The EU—unlike the thirteen colonies that banded together during Van Winkle's doze—has failed to create a sense of national, or even federal, allegiance. The summit I attended in Brussels stripped from a proposed European constitutional treaty, ditched by France and the Netherlands in 2005, all references to a common European anthem or flag or even constitution.

And yet I believe Mak's pessimism is exaggerated. His own book tells us over and over why a United States of Europe has not happened and could never have happened (despite the dreams of the early European idealists in the 1950s). "For there is no European people," he writes. "There is no single all-embracing community of culture and tradition. There is not a single language but dozens of them." This is true and, with luck, will remain true. Diversity, as Mak himself says, is Europe's joy as well as its burden. That need not prevent Europeans from accepting common laws, a common currency, and common policies—where it makes sense for them to do so. They already have, and do.

The transition of a morally and economically degenerate Eastern Europe to democracy and growing prosperity has not been easy. Without the EU, it might not have happened at all. The EU and the Council of Europe offered a set of rules and economic incentives for the emergence of human rights and free markets in the former Warsaw Pact. Much the same happened in the 1980s in the former Fascist dictatorships of Greece, Spain, and Portugal.

Mak accepts all this. He also complains about the EU's urge (now curbed) to impose a kind of bureaucratic uniformity on Europe. And yet he insists that the EU may be doomed to fall apart unless it creates a "common cultural, political and, above all, democratic space."

Here is the core conundrum of the European Union. It cannot be truly democratic, with directly elected leaders, until it wins the direct allegiance of its people or, more accurately, "peoples." It cannot win that allegiance until it becomes more democratic.

No matter. The EU will always be unpopular. It will always be a muddle. National identity will always remain primary. Just the same, a reversion to the old, savage, and unthinking nationalisms—so eloquently described by Mak himself—is now unthinkable. For all the occasional outbreaks of Euro hatred in Britain, Poland, and elsewhere, those nationalisms have been bound in red tape and made drowsy by dull compromise (simultaneously translated into twenty-three languages).

John Lichfield is the Paris correspondent for The Independent.

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