In Europe is a heart wrenching, historically priceless, and utterly fascinating work of nonfiction. Part travelogue, part historical narrative, and part autobiography, it chronicles Dutch journalist Geert Mak’s year-long sojourn from January 1999–December 1999 around the European continent as a sort of “final inspection”. Far beyond simply recounting facts and dates, Mak beautifully individualizes and humanizes the often staggeringly horrific events that marred twentieth-century Europe. Mak’s seamless integration of historical factoids, firsthand interviews, and present-day impressions garnered throughout his journey make for a refreshingly original piece whose language and lessons continue to pervade the reader’s psyche long after the last page has been turned.
Commissioned by his employer, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, to tackle this daunting, monumental project, Mak’s articles appeared daily on the paper’s front page. Within In Europe, Mak flushes out of these articles into longer narrative pieces that fit into a cohesive work of nonfiction. Its narrative is framed as a historical journey, and as far as possible, Mak follows the chronological course of twentieth-century European history, “in search of the traces it has left behind.” Beginning in Paris in 1900 and ending in Sarajevo in 1999, Mak journeys throughout Europe’s major cities and countries with a frequently and deftness rivaling Jason Bourne. The essential question Mak seeks to answer throughout his travels and research is “what shape is the continent in, at the conclusion of the twentieth century?” Concluding his prologue, Mak reflects:
Traveling across Europe, all those months, had been like peeling off layers of old paint. More than ever I realized how, generation upon generation, a shell of distance and alienation had developed between Eastern and Western Europeans.
The dense, brick-like nature of this 834 page tome might appear intimidating to potential readers, but they would be mistaken to associate length with an overburdened, dense, and potentially dull narrative. In Europe possesses a unique structure that strengthens its readability. Each chapter finds Mak in a new European city, at a different point in European history. He finds himself in Versailles in 1919, on Normandy’s beaches in 1942, in Berlin in 1945, in Chernobyl in 1986. In each city Mak’s historical journey elucidate readers in the finer points of German mythology, the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Paris’s architecture, and poverty in London. Mak’s shrewd impressions and historical lessons are drawn from first person interviews with people whom “history left behind,” and shies not away from pasts that the powers that be would rather the world forget. Each country or city’s relationship and attitude towards its too-often insalubrious not-so-distant history is a theme that is consistently explored throughout the sinuous narrative. The dead bear no markers, and history is swept off the front stoop.
Every country and every political movement prefers to write a history that makes it feel comfortable, a portrait in soft pastels, a story that does no violence to the self-image. The losers are usually unable to paint any portrait whatsoever. They simply fade away, and their story is eradicated along with them . . . the dead have been hidden away beneath the soil, without a single marker. ‘Forget’ is the motto here. No one wants to rake up the past.
A laundry list of the insurmountable horrors permeating Europe in the first half of the twentieth century in the form of World Wars I and II, communism, and Stalinism comprise nearly two-thirds of the narrative. Far from being off-putting and too much for the reader to bear, Mak’s skillful narrative pacing and storytelling acumen lends In Europe a warmth and sympathy that belies the barbarity which haunted Europe in its darkest days. Mak’s vivid, descriptive language saturates and stimulates one’s senses. From Bielefeld, Germany—Anne Frank’s birthplace—Mak describes the sleepy German village as he found it in springtime:
Half-timbered villages smelling of fresh buns and newly ironed aprons. They are still there, unchanged, the rocks upon which Germany stands. The forests have their first light-green haze, the fields are brown, farmers are out ploughing everywhere, on the village square the little soldiers in the bell tower creak the hours away.
Mak’s eloquent language is no less stirring when he turns his attention towards the scars Europe’s two world wars and struggles against communism left upon the people and the land; he individualizes and puts a human face on the collective suffering of millions of people, such as he does with the Holocaust’s most famous victim, Anne Frank. The result is a poignant reminder that out of the millions dead, were individuals, families.
The Frank family home at Ganghofstrasse 24, is still standing, marked by a massive stone monument dedicated to the city’s young people—‘Her life and death, our duty’—and the same trees around it, now thick and old.
Following the end of the Second World War, Mak turns his attentions towards Russia and the Eastern Bloc, adroitly exploring the nuances of East versus West. Describing the aftershocks that befell Eastern Europe following the end of communism, from Gdansk and Moscow, he explores an almost-taboo subject: the quality of life has significantly decreased for Eastern European citizens since 1989. Slowly, the myth of the West is replaced by the reality of the West.
The collapse of the wall did not bring prosperity to huge numbers of Eastern European families, but rather shortage: at home, in the schools and hospitals, in every area . . . this clearly was not the ‘transitional period’ spoken of so widely in the West, but a decline in almost everything essential to daily life: salaries, benefits, food supplies, health care, education, government services and public safety.
As Mak cruises though Europe, though history, and out of the twentieth century—literally, on a ship christened the Marla—he ruminates on the impending European Union and all that unification implies and entails, on its shores and across the pond. Stating that “Europe’s weakness, its diversity, is also its greatest strength,” he reminds readers, lest they become complacent in Europe’s recent economic successes, that “Europe only has one chance to succeed.”
While at first glance, In Europe seems a daunting literary undertaking, it ultimately succeeds in documenting Europe’s tumultuous twentieth century with a sensitivity, deftness, and artfully engaging narrative that propels readers forward, through the years. With Mak as their guide, readers are privy to an unparalleled insight into the hearts, minds, and stories that defined a continent for a hundred years.
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