Rambling Man

Rambling Man

A modern-day Rip Van Winkle challenges the view that Europeans are too wrapped up in their past to move on.


The traveler comes in many guises. There is the truth seeker, the radical, self-consciously finding on the road a liberation from conformism and a way to novel truths and philosophies. There is the pilgrim, looking for regeneration from the shrine and the devotion and commitment required to get there. In the eighteenth century, those who could afford it embarked on the Grand Tour to worship in their own way at the sites of Beauty and Curiosity. All of these motives still get people out of their homes, to be sure, but another, at first sight odder, impulse is perhaps the most characteristically modern of the spurs to travel–the search for the past or its remains embodied in ruins and monuments. Worshiping history rather than faith or art, we make our pilgrimages to Gettysburg and Deerfield, or cross the Atlantic to pay homage at the battlefields of World War I or the hecatombs of World War II. Technology seems to intensify this wanderlust; the more the image proliferates, the greater the hunger for authenticity. But few can have taken the search quite as far as the Dutch journalist Geert Mak does in In Europe. The author of a splendid history of Amsterdam–one of the liveliest accounts of a modern city I know–Mak spent the last year of the last millennium crisscrossing Europe in order to see what remained of its most recent and bloodiest century. “I would follow,” he tells us, “as far as possible, the course of history, in search of the traces it had left behind.”

A blend of travelogue and historical narrative, In Europe thus attempts to take the pulse of the continent by retreading the old ground and seeing what–if anything–still stirs beneath. The “course of history” is a convenient fiction, to be sure, but it serves to launch an entertaining series of reflections. As January opens, our Baedeker-toting Dutchman tours the once-glittering bastions of the pre-1914 ancien régime–Amsterdam, Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna. February–the chilly depth of winter–sees him tramp through the mud of Ypres, then on to Cassel, Verdun and Versailles. In the old chateau at Doorn, he looks for the ghost of the kaiser in exile, then catches the spirit of Lenin heading through Stockholm and Helsinki en route to Petrograd. By May, as the weather starts to warm up, he has made it over the Alps to the souvenir sellers in Predappio, Il Duce’s birthplace, and then on beyond the Pyrenees to Barcelona and Guernica and the memories of the Spanish Civil War. The result is a sprawling, melancholic ramble in which memoirs, conversations and old-fashioned historical storytelling spring from chance encounters in bars and train carriages and spur authorial comment on the Europe that has been left behind.

As pilgrims know, legendary places vary in their potency. The great cities are too well-known, too dense in their significations, too energetically devoted to the present to lend themselves to quick takes, and Mak’s are basically pegs for entertaining stories of the fin de siècle and its aftermath. One-line efforts to capture a city’s essence rarely come off. To be told that Barcelona is “like a slovenly woman with beautiful eyes” alerts us to the nature of Mak’s view of his targets–the urgency of his desire to be seduced by them–but tells us precious little about the city itself. Smaller sites work their more oblique charm–the provincial Austrian graveyard that contains the tomb of a stolid Habsburg customs officer called Alois Hitler, the future Führer’s father; the wintry battlefields of the Western Front, where Mak fancies he can “see what they saw.” But of course, no place really allows one that; and what Mak is really after is not so much empathy as the emotional charge of some kind–any kind–of connection.

This proves frustratingly difficult to find, for it is exactly what time, ignorance and indifference are making it harder and harder to sustain. Belgian fields still surrender munitions and bones from the Great War, and the authorities still detonate unexploded ordnance the farmers bring them. But the once-frequent tours by veterans and their children are dwindling, and Mak worries how long the emotion of the conflict itself can survive the passing of the generations. In the Russian village where Lenin hid out briefly during the Revolution, the Mercedes of the new rich block the narrow alleys, and nothing records the great man’s passage. Outside Barcelona, villages abandoned since the Spanish Civil War are now used by the Dutch army to shoot commercials advertising its peacekeeping prowess. Mak’s journey turns into a lonely mission as he roams the continent for those few who care as much about the past as he does.

This is not easy. Monuments and memorials proliferated with the mass killings of the passing century, but more often than not they represent a hijacking of human suffering by political elites, and their heavy symbolism is not wearing well. In fact, aside from the curators and site guards who earn their keep from history, Europeans seem increasingly oblivious to the rich heritage of their own experiences. Far from having being turned into a heritage site, the continent seems to be charging absent-mindedly toward a safe if dull future. Sometimes the oblivion is clearly willed, but more often than not it is just that people are distracted, too busy to care. For many, the past belongs in textbooks; once out of school, they do not miss it. In one stopping place after another, Mak finds that the historical markers he expected to be preserved have been allowed to fall into decay and that his search for connection has been thwarted and blocked. Gradually he turns into a latter-day Rip Van Winkle. Wandering through Berlin, his head filled with thoughts of Joseph Roth, Fritz Lang and Kurt Weill, he notes that “one can search long and fruitlessly for the Berlin of the 1920s…for the wild city of Brecht, Lotte Lenya, Erich Kästner, Roth and all the others.” Vienna is dead as a provincial village. In Bavaria, lodging at the Hotel Lederer am See overlooking Lake Tagernsee–the very hotel where Hitler and his henchmen arrested the leadership of the SA during the Night of the Long Knives–he finds that “the true sense of living history will not come.”

Interestingly, Mak can’t decide whether or not this is a good thing. In some places, he is obviously frustrated, but at the Hotel Lederer he doesn’t mind: the hotel maids have been smoothing away for so long the evidence of Nazi violence that they have produced a seductive kind of tranquillity. Mak’s ambivalence is, I think, shared more widely. His uncertainty about whether history is a burden or a blessing strikes me as characteristic of the mood in much of Europe at present. He approvingly quotes Václav Havel to the effect that nations, like individuals, need a strong sense of identity for their psychic health. But it is not clear how much history helps. After all, Mak recognizes nostalgia as a modern condition, and he does not need to look too far to see how pernicious an excessive attachment to one’s own sense of the past can be; even as he is on the road in 1999, Europe is still grappling with its most recent war–the last of its bloody century–in Kosovo. Does historical memory facilitate liberation or killing? The answer is surely both.

Mak is no ostrich. As one would expect from such a fair-minded and openhearted observer of the turbulent contemporary Dutch political scene, he has no time for those who think the answer is just turning back the clock. When he meets Amayya Abu-Hanna in Helsinki’s main department store–“You’ll recognize me right away. I’ll be the only person who isn’t blond”–he laughs as she reads him the slogans from the spring catalog (“Dress like the rest; after all, don’t you have better things to do?”). But he is appalled to learn about the storm that erupted when this dark-haired Arab woman appeared on TV as a newscaster. What Mak mourns is not the vanishing of a more homogeneous society but the creation of one. For alongside his fairly conventional presentation of an unremittingly grim twentieth century, marked chiefly by coups, camps and the devastating impact of man’s inhumanity to man, one finds lurking in the margins of his journey a second history emerging–a history of the old rural Europe, of vibrant village life and thriving communities. He has visited this territory before, in the counterpart to his history of Amsterdam–a fine portrayal of a farming world in decline, Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in Late Twentieth-Century Europe–and it is the collapse of this world that he now sees all around him. The forces responsible for destroying this are not fascism, communism or the wars they brought; they are instead the same ones that have cut Europeans off from any organic connection with their own historical experiences–capitalism and “Western vacuity” and a “modern age filled only with materialism and a blind faith in all that is new.”

Not surprisingly, then, Mak is drawn to those parts of Europe that have resisted, or escaped, being sucked into the vortex of a globalized anonymity. And fortunately, if you know where to look, such places seem to be more common than one might have thought. “Europe,” he writes, “is a continent in which one can easily travel back and forth through time. All the different stages of the twentieth century are being lived, or relived, somewhere. Aboard Istanbul’s ferries it is always 1948. In Lisbon it is forever 1956…. In Budapest, the young men wear our fathers’ faces.” This presence of the past seems to linger in Eastern Europe in particular. Watching the mayor scythe the summer grass in the southern Hungarian village of Vásárosbéc, Mak finds it hard to believe he is living in the world of the euro and the Internet. The city center in newly independent Riga offers a shabby simulacrum of Western modernity, thanks to European funding, but slipping past the trendy Café Afrika and down the back alleys past the drunks, our author finds himself back in the world of peeling walls, mud, rotting hay–“scenes straight out of Victor Hugo and Émile Zola.”

For Mak’s postwar generation, there is something almost magical about the ex-communist East. If it once had the mystique of the forbidden and inaccessible, now it looks like a theme park preserving ways of life that vanished further west around the time of Mak’s boyhood in the 1940s and ’50s. Understanding and conveying its beauties is one of the main tasks this book sets itself. Yet Mak does not find it easy to see what is fresh and new about the region, and as he flits from place to place, stopping just long enough to enjoy the local museums and cafes, he retreats at times into cliché, apparently unaware that before him there stretches a long line of Western travelers who have been drawn to the sleeping Orient and lamenting its awakening and its modernization for at least a century and a half. Is it just coincidence that Mak finds the past still alive in those places that are strangest to him? I don’t suppose he would really say that in Amsterdam it is always, say, 1935. And for similar reasons, I doubt that an inhabitant of modern Istanbul really finds that its ferries remind him of half a century ago. After all, few cities have changed more over the past few decades than the old Ottoman capital. It is true that across Eastern Europe, the gulf has grown between those groups most able to adjust to the rules of the new game and those–the elderly, the working class, the peasants–who are suffering from the disintegration of the old socialist-era welfare safety net. But perhaps the forces making for change are more powerful and pervasive than they are presented here.

Mak is good company and rarely dull. He has a nice line in anecdote and an amused eye for human foibles. Who would dissent from his desire to rescue history from the curators, the academics and the heritage industry experts, and to inject it with the passion that will win it new devotees? When he spins his own historical narrative, whether in his own words or those of his various eyewitnesses, the story line is mostly a familiar one. But one doesn’t read him for that. In Europe conveys a sense of a continent on the brink of change, and bracingly challenges the conventional view that Europeans are too wrapped up in their past to move on. In fact, in this telling, it seems rather as if they have made a decision to cement their unity through a largely voluntary act of collective forgetting. Whatever their private memories, they no longer expect or want their political leaders to make capital out of history. Mak, who is as aware as anyone of the multiplicity of pasts that separate Europeans from one another, has reservations about this choice. But as the old haunted places start to lose their power, perhaps this represents a kind of emancipation. It would certainly smooth the way to a solution in Kosovo. Unfortunately, we are not quite there yet.

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