Monday, September 28, 2009

In Europe by Geert Mak

Geert Mak traveled through Europe in 1999, visiting cities that played in the major events of the twentieth century. He had been commissioned by his paper to do so and his articles appeared daily on the front page. His travels followed, as much as possible, a history in Europe. In this book, each short chapter centers on an historical event of that city with additional comments on the city today.
In Helsinki, Lenin’s train ride from Finland is recounted. In Petrograd, we hear of the crushing of 720 major and minor revolts in one year. The old section of St. Petersburg is essentially frozen in 1917.
Tied in to Mak’s visits to Berlin and Bielefeld is a concise yet excellent account of the rise of the Nazis and how Hitler finally became chancellor. While in Predappio, where you can still buy Nazi and Fascist memorabilia, Mak writes of Fascism and its areas of similarity (and difference) to Nazism.
At Auschwitz, the stories he recounts are depressing. He ponders how much the Germans knew and who turned their heads to the awful truth. He also tells very encouraging stories of people who helped thousands of Jews escape.
The personal interviews Mak recounts are priceless. The reader gets to experience the events through the eyes of those who actually took part. At Stalingrad (Volgograd) we read the account of young German officer Behr, a supply officer on the eastern front in late 1942. In January of 1943, he gave a personal account to Hitler of the terrible conditions in that frozen war zone. “At that moment I realized that Hitler lived only in a fantasy world of maps and little flags. It was then that I knew for certain that we would lose the war.”
Reading of the actions of the French during WW II is depressing. A bright light in the darkness were the resistance fighters. After the war, almost all French collaborators were granted amnesty with many eventually rising to power on deGaulle’s post war government.
Surprising to read about was the Allied practice of bombing residential areas. The aim was to lower German morale but hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the process.
About two thirds of the book deals with the first half of the twentieth century. For someone like me who was born at the end of that period, the extended descriptions of WW I and WW II are welcome.
In the last part of the book Mak looks at the student unrest of the 60s, how Europeans deal with their past and move on, and how eastern Germans adjusted to “freedom.” Mak reviews the ethnic wars of the Yugoslavs, Serbs, Croates and others. How quickly we have forgotten these wars in the light of 9/11. “Kosovo has once again become a forgotten corner of the globe...”
Our forgetfulness is perhaps the reason I found this book so valuable. We need to remember. We need to again encounter the first person accounts of our past. Born and raised in the U. S., In Europe helped me to understand what Europeans have experienced in this last century.
I highly recommend the book. It’s big at 829 pages, but at 20 pages a day you can cruise through the book in a little over a month.
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