Book review: In Europe, Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak

A well-thumbed copy of In Europe by Geert Mak

A well-thumbed copy of In Europe by Geert Mak

Europe is agitated and restless – it always has been.

In Europe, by the Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak, gives a century of context to today’s anxieties. It looks at the hundred years before the millennium, and through this window reveals the troubled heart of today’s Europe.

In Europe by Geert Mak

In Europe by Geert Mak – a big, brilliant and friendly read.

In Europe, Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett)
First Published by Atlas in 2004 as In Europa
First Published in Great Britain in 2007 by Harvill Secker
Edition pictured above published in 2008 by Vintage
ISBN 9780099516736
Cost £12.99

In Europe is a mix of travel writing and historical analysis, marked out with first-hand accounts and contemporary reports. It’s a chance to listen to Europe and to feel its scars. Geert Mak gathered the collection together as he travelled from country to country in search of memories and evidence.

Each section of this rich read was written for the NRC Handelsblad, the newspaper whose idea it was that their journalist should travel through Europe to record what he found in the last year of the millennium. His brief was to:

“… follow, as far as possible, the course of history, in search of the traces it had left behind.”

By ‘being there’ the author is able to layer life and today’s reality over what’s come before.  He takes us with him through cities and cemeteries, along great rivers, and into homes. We meet aristocrats and taxi drivers, soldiers and students in a patchwork of proud, individual countries where:

“… different stages of the twentieth century are being lived, or relived …”

The book, full of voices, heroes and victims, is pockmarked by numbers. Like small pieces of shrapnel they measure the damage, the dead, the wounded, the tortured, the missing … and the immigrants:

“… in June 1940, a quarter of the French population was on the run.”

Through stories we are able to understand the build-up to political tipping-points, and to see through others the personal consequences of what follows. It’s a big book in every sense but not one that requires specialist knowledge … it belongs to all of us:

“… the twentieth century has itself become history, our personal history …”

And somehow, out of this hundred years of triumphs and suffering, a foundation has been laid for a united European future. Geert Mak’s “inspection” reveals clearly the DNA and the dangers within that foundation.

“The problem is that all this leads to an endless flow of conflicts and misunderstandings.”

The hope has to be that so many fractured histories do not rule out a shared future.


This short video was made in October 2015. In it Geert Mak looks at the ‘perfect storm’ that faces Europe.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018

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