In Europe: travels through the twentieth century

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9781843432265: In Europe: travels through the twentieth century

Geert Mak spent the year 1999 criss-crossing the continent, tracing the history of Europe from Verdun to Berlin, St Petersburg to Auschwitz, Kiev to Srebrenica. He set off in search of evidence and witnesses, looking to define the condition of Europe at the verge of a new millennium. The result is mesmerising: Mak's rare double talent as a sharp-eyed journalist and a hugely imaginative historian makes "In Europe" a dazzling account of that journey, full of diaries, newspaper reports and memoirs, and the voices of prominent figures and unknown players; from the grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Adriana Warno in Poland, with her holiday job at the gates of the camp at Birkenau.But Mak is above all an observer. He describes what he sees at places that have become Europe's well-springs of memory, where history is written into the landscape. At Ypres he hears the blast of munitions from the Great War that are still detonated twice a day. In Warsaw he finds the point where the tram rails that led to the Jewish ghetto come to a dead end in a city park. And in an abandoned creche near Chernobyl, where tiny pairs of shoes still stand in neat rows, he is transported back to the moment time stood still in the dying days of the Soviet Union. Mak combines the larger story of twentieth-century Europe with details that suddenly give it a face, a taste and a smell. His unique approach makes the reader an eyewitness to his own half-forgotten past, full of unknown peculiarities, sudden insights and touching encounters. "In Europe" is a masterpiece; it reads like the epic novel of the continent's most extraordinary century.

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About the Author:

Geert Mak is a journalist and historian, and is one of Holland's bestselling writers. His books include Amsterdam, In Europe and Jorwerd.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Amsterdam

When I left Amsterdam on Monday morning, 4 January, 1999, a storm was rampaging through the town. The wind made ripples on the watery cobblestones, white horses on the River IJ, and whistled beneath the high iron roof of Central Station. For a moment I thought that God’s hand had momentarily tilted up all that iron, then set it back in place.

I was dragging my big, black suitcase. In it was a laptop, a mobile phone I could use to dispatch my daily columns, a few shirts, a sponge bag, a CD-ROM of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and at least fifteen books to soothe my nerves. My plan was to begin with the baroque cities of 1900, with the lightness of the Paris World’s Fair, with Queen Victoria’s reign over an empire of certainties, with the upsurge of Berlin.

The air was full of noises: the slapping of the waves, the crying of gulls on the wind, the roaring of the storm through the bare treetops, the trams, the traffic. There was very little light. The clouds chased across the sky from west to east, like dark-grey riders. For a moment they wafted a few notes along with them, the floating single strokes of a carillon. The newspapers reported that Morse code had now been phased out completely, and that the slipstreams of low-flying Ilyushins at Oostend airbase regularly sucked tiles off the neighbouring roofs. On the financial markets, the euro had made a brilliant debut. ‘Euro kicks off with challenge to dollar’s hegemony’ was Le Monde’s headline, and that morning the currency had briefly risen as high as $1.19. But Holland that day was ruled by the wind, the last, untamed force that left its mark in all directions, north-east, south-west, a persistent slamming that had shaped the lakes and polders, the course of canals, the dykes, the roads and even the railway track along which I rode south, into the wet polder landscape.

The boy with the blue tie and the pleasant face sitting beside me snapped open his computer right away, conjured up a whole series of spreadsheets and began phoning his colleagues. His name was Peter Smithuis. ‘The Germans want a hundred per cent solution, the other Europeans only need seventy-five,’ he spoke into the void. ‘What we can do now is look for something like a seventy-five-plus option, and neutralise the Germans by putting them back at a hundred per cent anyway . . . Oh, mmm. Off stream since July? Be careful, you know how it goes, if we let them decide too fast, everything will grind to a halt.’

The rain clattered against the windows of the compartment, under the Moerdijk Bridge the ships danced on the waves, at Zevenbergen a tree was in very early blossom, a thousand red dots in the water. Beyond Roosendaal the pylons became rusty, the only trace of a border between prim Holland and the rest of Europe.
Before I had left I had a long talk with the oldest Dutchman I knew. Of all the people I spoke to that year, he was the only one who had lived through the entire century (with the exception of Alexandra Vasilyeva, that is, who was born in 1897 and had actually seen the czar and made her glorious stage debut at the Mariinsky theatre).

His name was Marinus van der Goes van Naters, but people called him ‘the Red nobleman’. He was born in 1900 and had once played a prominent role in the Dutch Social Democratic Party.

He told me about Nijmegen, where, when he was growing up, a total of two cars cruised the streets: one De Dion-Bouton and one Spijker, both handcrafted down to the last detail. ‘My brother and I would run to the window whenever one of them came by.’ He had never been particularly fond of those first car owners. ‘They were the same people you see these days talking into portable telephones.’

On class relations: ‘At a certain point we became completely enraptured by the new social order that was on its way. We wanted to talk to a worker, but we didn’t know any. Through acquaintances of an acquaintance we finally met a worker’s wife, who read something aloud to us from a newspaper. I still wonder why, if we wanted to meet one so badly, we didn’t just go up to a worker on the street and talk to him!’

On technology: ‘My friend and I were always fascinated by the phenomenon of electricity. We had read an adventure novel that talked about a machine you could use to talk to people without wires, no matter how far away they were. That seemed unbelievable to us. We installed lights, built telephones we could use to talk to each other two rooms away, we made sparks fly, we invented things, real inventions!’

My host took a book down from the shelf, its pages loose with age and use. Edward Bellamy, In het jaar 2000, Amsterdam 1890. ‘This is what we talked about, things like this.’ The story is a simple one: a nineteenth-century man falls into a deep sleep after being hypnotised and does not wake up until the year 2000. He finds himself in a city full of statues, fountains, covered walkways, gentlemen in top hats, ladies in evening dress. Thanks to electrical light, there is no more darkness. Night has been banished. Every home has a listening device, connected by an open telephone line to one of the municipal concert halls.

‘Here, read what one of those twentieth-century creatures says here: “At home we have comfort, but we seek the glory of life within society itself.” That was the kind of world we were looking for, in the year 2000. Money would no longer play any role. Every citizen would be safeguarded against “hunger, cold and nakedness”, products and services would be exchanged by means of an ingenious credit system, food prepared in huge, communal restaurants and delivered, if need be, by tube mail. The boys would be “sturdy”, the girls “fresh and strong”, the sexes would be free and informal in their dealings with each other, private shops would disappear, there would be no more advertising, publishing houses would be collectivised, newspaper editors would be elected by their readers, criminality and greed abolished, and – read for yourself – even the “crudest of individuals” would adopt “the comportment of the civilised classes”. Here, this passage: “Kneeling, my countenance bowed to the earth, I confessed in tears my unworthiness to breathe the air of this golden age. The long and sorrowful winter of mankind has come to an end. The heavens have opened to us.” What a book!’

The wintry light fell on the yellowed wallpaper of the study, the faded books on the shelf, the standing lamp with its cloth shade and tassels, my host’s strong hands, slightly spotted skin, his clear eyes.

‘What do I think about this century, now that it’s over? Ah, a century is only a mathematical construct, a human fantasy, isn’t it? Back then I thought in terms of months, a year at the most. Now I think in twenty-year spans, that seems like nothing to me any more. Growing so immoderately old spoils one. Time no longer fazes you . . .’
Chapter Two: Paris

The new century was a woman, they were all in agreement on that back in 1900. Take, for example, the drawing on the cover of the piano music for the English song ‘Dawn of the Century’, a ‘march & two step’ by one E. M. Paul. Amid golden clouds a woman balances on a winged wheel, around her float a tram, a typewriter, a telephone, a sewing machine, a camera, a harvester, a railway engine and, at the bottom of the picture, there is even a car turning the corner.

The European metropolises were feminine as well, if only in the lavish shapes of the thousands of little palaces of the bourgeoisie along the new boulevards and residential streets, with their curlicues and garlands in every ‘neo’ style imaginable, a ruttish profusion still found from Berlin to Barcelona.

So too the cover of the catalogue for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair: a woman, of course, a rather hefty one this time, her hair blowing in the wind, a banner in her hand. Above the gate to the fairgrounds, a plaster woman six metres tall, in a wide cloak and evening dress by the couturier Paquin. At the official opening, Émile Loubet, the French president, spoke of the virtues of the new century: justice and human kindness. His minister of employment expected even more good things: gentleness and solidarity.

The fifty million visitors traipsed from one miracle to the next. There were X-ray machines with which you could look right through men and women, there was an automobile exhibition, there was equipment for wireless telegraphy, and from outside the gates one could catch the first underground line of Le Métro, built in less than eighteen months from Porte de Vincennes to Porte Maillot. Forty countries took part. California had dug an imitation gold mine, Egypt came with a temple and an antique tomb, Great Britain showed off all the colonies of its empire, Germany had a steam locomotive that could travel at 120 kph. France exhibited a model of Clément Ader’s motorised flying machine, a gigantic bat with a thirty-metre wingspan; humans, after all, were destined to leave the earth one day.

There was a Dance Palace where a wide variety of ballets were performed, a Grand Palais full of French paintings and sculpture, and a building where the visitor could ‘travel’ around the entire world on a special ceiling for two francs, from the blossoming orchards of Japan by way of the Acropolis to the coasts of Spain, all depicted with extreme skill by the painter Dumoulin and his team. There was a cineorama, a variation on the panorama, where one could revel in the view from an airship or a compartment aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. The military section displayed the newest technologies in warfare: the machine gun, the torpedo, the gun turret, wireless telegrap...

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Mak, Geert:
Published by Harvill Secker, 27.03.2007. (2007)
ISBN 10: 1843432269 ISBN 13: 9781843432265
New Quantity Available: 2

Book Description Harvill Secker, 27.03.2007., 2007. Book Condition: Neu. 752 Seiten neu, noch in Schutzfolie, Versand spätestens am nächsten Werktag 432901 Sprache: Englisch Gewicht in Gramm: 1300 23,6 x 16,0 x 5,8 cm, Gebundene Ausgabe. Bookseller Inventory # 125235

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