Geert Mak is a journalist from the Netherlands whose travels in 1999 sent him across the continent to tell the story of the Twentieth Century from the significant places and landmarks. As well as being an inspired idea, the book is well written by a journalist and historian whose observations are revealing and enlightening. He moves from the major names to the unknown and from one end of the continent to another.
Since my history at school was based almost entirely on Britain (and the rest of the world only got a look in if there was a connection to Britain and the Empire) the Euro- centric approach of the book was refreshing. This is a travel book as well as a history; Mak writes about the details of his travels to far flung places and shows us the effect of being in the actual place where history was made. He also uses historical sources, such as newspaper reports, to show how events may be viewed differently after the passage of time.
He stayed in the hotel in Bavaria, Germany where the SA were murdered in the night of the long knives. Chernobyl, Dresden, Srebrenica, Verdun, Vichy, Amsterdam, Auschwitz, Guernica and Gdansk all appear along with places I had hardly heard of. The mark of history is on many of these names, to say them aloud is to bring the image of one part of history to life. In some cases, the towns, villages or cities must resent this association of their home with a part of history they would rather forget. It must be easier to be a tourist destination for better reasons.
The chapters are reasonably short and I read one a day over several months. It was the best way to read this book, as if I was reading his newspaper column on a daily basis. Geert Mak has written a masterpiece that will be read for many years as a definitive history of the continent in the 20th century.
‘In Europe’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?