Travels Through the Twentieth Century
A spellbinding history of 20th-century Europe that has the scope, pace and capacity to delight of an epic novel.
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 crèche 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.
“Fascinating, informative, sometimes exhilarating, often painful, and quite impossible to summarise... This is a splendidly panoramic picture of our common European home, a book to read through and then to dip into frequently...I thoroughly recommend his book”
Allan Massie, Literary Review
“A broader travelling history of the whole of Europe's 20th century. As befits a journalist with an eye for bad news, he also has much more to say on its calamitous first half than on its more successful second half... Mr Mak tells this part of the story vividly and in great, gory detail, moving from grim fields of battle (Verdun, Stalingrad) to places of revolution (Petrograd, Berlin), and on to ghastly charnel-houses of death and destruction (Auschwitz, Dresden)”
“An ingenious geographical-chronological structure ... It's impossible not to get drawn into this book”
Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph
“The pace rarely slackens and every page sparkles with insight”
“In Europe is not so much a work of history, nor is it strictly a travelogue of the present; it is part of a growing genre that is sometimes referred to as the 'history of the present', but might just as well be the 'presence of the past'. It is undoubtedly a spectacular and beautifully crafted piece of such writing”
Isabella Thomas, Sunday Times
“Moving across a vivid historical landscape, his portrait of Europe, in all her bloody barbarism and civilised glory, helps us confront exactly what we need to know....a timely book, and one we can't afford to ignore”
Michael Moorcock, Daily Telegraph
“This immense book is part masterpiece, part sheer exhaustion. The masterpiece part lies chiefly in its breathtaking invention”
Jan Morris, The Times
“Everywhere he goes, Mak is quietly ruthless in unmasking the acts of forgetting, selective amnesia, myth-making and historical obfuscation that persist...Mak is a truly cosmopolitan chronicler of shame and self-deceptions”
David Goldblatt, Independent
“His genius as a historian is his instinct for human stories... At moments in this monumental work...Mak is the history teacher everyone should have had”
Simon Kuper, Financial Times
“How eloquently Mak rails against the alliance of consumerism and bureaucracy! ... He has a great eye for telling detail... Only a powerful, humane and serious mind could give coherence to mass detail which, however arresting piece by piece, would otherwise soon become wearying... as much a journey around Geert Mak's head as it is a journey around Europe”