In Europe: travels through the twentieth century, by Geert Mak, kindle edition from £5.03, paperback from £8.39. Geert Mak is an objective storyteller, yet this book is an almost wonderful blend of history and travel journalism rolled into one. I say almost wonderful because the subject matter of ‘Europe’ is so blatantly depressing that to read it for an hour or two causes lethargy and sadness with the world. I can’t say anything more positive other than this book is incredible. The author, a renowned Dutch journalist, travels between the four great romantic cities of Europe in turn: Vienna, London, Paris and Berlin. He travels in 1999, and follows the century from the death of Queen Victoria right the way up to the present day.
His coverage of the First World War is journalism at its best: the balance between interview, fact, emotion and human experience is delicate and perfect. It isn’t an overview by any means, but it is a work of art, in which the author examines a subject in detail in every, distinct phase of the book. One chapter which is excellently written is simply the answers to an interview the author presumably had with the living grandson of Wilhelm II. His subject describes how he loved visiting Grandad Willy and the pro-fascist support that some members of his family showed in the 1930s. He described his relationship with his other relatives of ex-European monarchies: “a concert organised every year in an old palace”. The chapter ends with a bizarre story: “My grandfather’s coffin is kept on rollers in his vault in Doorn (a tiny town near Utrecht that Wilhelm II fled to after he was forced to abdicate) just in case the authorities ever want to repatriate his body.”
There is a real sense of nostalgia running through In Europe. Even as Mak describes the Hungarian peasants lifting hay and the old Church bell-ringers in 1999, we know, as readers 10, 11, 12 years after this book was published, he is already referring to a bygone era. Eleanor Ross