2021 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I found myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 20 books, and for my efforts once again earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. Compared to past years my performance in 2021 was pretty lackluster with just 10 books read and reviewed for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Switzerland. This year for this first time I’ll be including something by a Norwegian author. 

  1. Becket or the Honor of God by Jean Anouilh (United Kingdom)
  2. Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland (Norway)
  3. Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes (Switzerland)
  4. Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer- The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames by Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer (Russia)
  5. The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (Spain)
  6. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini (Italy)
  7. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (Germany) 
  8. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Ukraine)
  9. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury (France)
  10. Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska (Poland)

Much like last year it was a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction with five books apiece. Four are translations from other languages, including Polish. Red Famine easily made my Favorite Nonfiction list for 2021 while Swiss Watching was a runner-up. Both The Invisible Guardian and Empire of Lies made my year’s Favorite Fiction list with Not All Bastards Are from Vienna along with There There as my favorite novels of the year.  

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Old Books Reading Project: Becket by Jean Anouilh

Years ago, each fall around the time of my birthday I used to spend a Saturday morning shopping at the Friends of Multnomah County Library’s annual used book sale. Almost always I walked out of there with more books than I knew what to do with but I didn’t care. I was happy.

One of those books I bought so long ago was a paperback edition of Jean Anouilh’s play Becket or The Honor of God. Published in 1960 it’s a dramatic portrayal of the friendship between Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England, Becket’s appointment by Henry to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury and the two mens’ tragic falling out leading to Becket’s eventual assassination in 1170. More than just some costume drama like so many great pieces of literature it explores a multitude of themes.  It vividly depicts how some friendships, even the most passionate ones can have tragic arcs and end horribly. It also shows the age-old tension between church and state, as well as the battles that frequently arise between the recently converted or recommitted and their less pious former confidantes.

At first I thought it was odd a Frenchman would write a play set in Medieval England. In the introduction, Anouilh recalls purchasing a copy of 19th century French historian Augustin Thierry’s History Of The Conquest Of England By The Normans at a book stall along the Seine. (One of “curious little stalls set up on the parapet where old gentlemen of another age sell old books to other old gentlemen and to the very young.”) Fascinated by Thierry’s account of fractured friendship between Becket and Henry and with encouragement by his wife, he brought forth a play mined from the depths of history. Rooted in the real events and larger than life personalities of 12th century Europe the play is not without its historical inaccuracies, of which the playwright freely admits in the play’s introduction.

Perhaps it’s only appropriate Anouilh would write a play set chiefly in England. Though geographically separated by the English Channel, in the time of Becket there was no clear-cut delineation between England and France. Thanks to their conquest of England a hundred years earlier, it was the Norman French, not the native Saxons who ruled the land, with Henry of the House of Plantagenet as sovereign. This blending of realms would lead to the Hundred Years War with English armies fighting countless battles on French soil. It would also result in Saxon resentment towards their French overlords, exemplified by Anouilh’s Saxon Becket (historically inaccurate since he was descended from Norman stock) sympathizing with the Saxon downtrodden while sparring with the ruling aristocracy, including his formerly beloved Henry.

In the end, this is also a play about the abuse of power. Throughout the centuries, right up to the present despots and those who style themselves as such have enlisted, or at the very least inspired agents to commit heinous acts on their behalf. Time and time again the Nixons, Putins and Trumps of the world have enlisted those around them to do their sordid bidding, always denying any direct responsibility for their actions. To paraphrase 19th century orator, lawyer and “Great Agnostic” Robert G. Ingersoll, nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. The play Becket, also entitled The Honor of God easily could have been called The Recklessness of Kings. As monarch Henry wielded considerable power, but at the same time sorely lacked in character.

Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler by Svenja O’Donnell

My quest to learn more about 20th century European history inspired me to borrow a library copy of Svenja O’Donnell’s 2020 family memoir Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler. Published in 2020, it tells the story of her mother, grandparents’ and great grandparents’ and the lives they lived in the German city of Königsberg (now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad) and harrowing escape just ahead of the invading Red Army during the final months of World War II leading to their eventual resettlement after the war in West Germany.

Born in Paris to a German mother and an Irish father, the British-educated O’Donnell has served as Bloomberg‘s UK political correspondent covering Brexit and other European developments. In her capacity as a journalist she visited Russian Kaliningrad, where she concluded the fall of Communism “brought heavy job losses” and the city “became a hub of drugs and human trafficking, with a rampant heroin problem and the highest rate of HIV in Europe.” Mindful of her family’s connection to the city from pre-Soviet times, during her assignment in Kaliningrad she phoned her elderly grandmother to let her know she was visiting the former Königsberg. Upon hearing the news her grandmother responded somberly there were deep family secrets she needed to be told. Then, over the next 10 years until her death Inge revealed to her granddaughter the details of a life lived long ago, and a world destroyed years ago by the ravages of war.

Born in Königsberg, as a 16 year old Inge was able to convince her protective Lutheran parents to enroll her in a girls academy in Berlin. Wishing to insulate her from the temptations of a big city, they were more than happy when she eventually moved out the school’s designated boarding house and in with a classmate’s family, knowing they’d keep a close eye on her. But before long the two girls were frequenting Berlin’s underground swing dancing clubs and enjoying all the exciting nightlife Berlin of the early War years was able to offer. But temptations arose closer to home as she fell head over heels in love with her friend’s older brother leading to her pregnancy. Sadly, her boyfriend’s father disapproved of her and to thwart any possibility of marriage used his connections to fast track his conscription into the Wehrmacht. Broken hearted, young and pregnant, in order to give her pregnancy and motherhood a thin veneer of legitimacy Inge had to settle for a wedding ceremony featuring an empty chair as proxy for the absent groom. Making maters worse, the father of her child was taken captive in the Battle of Stalingrad and languished for serval years in a Soviet POW camp.

Later, in the dead of winter, now as a young mother with an infant daughter in tow Inge and her relatives were forced to flee Königsberg as the Red Army juggernaut slammed into East Prussia, laying waste and exacting revenge. Evacuated by ship, her vessel narrowly escaped being torpedoed by Soviet submarines and thus avoided the same fate as the MV Wilhelm GustloffSafely in western Germany they sought refuge in occupied Denmark but left after the end of hostilities, in no small part due to the inhospitality of the local Danes, resentful of their prior treatment at the hands of the Germans. Back in a Germany shattered by years of war and occupied by the victors Inge attempted to build a new life for herself and her infant daughter.

Inge’s War is well written and satisfied my need for a good book on 20th century European history. Through the eyes of O’Donnell’s grandmother I was able to see a central European world long forgotten but with faint echoes that can still be heard today.

About Time I Read It: I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet

As you’ve probably guessed, while I’m always borrowing books from the library I don’t manage to read them all. Some books I end up returning without even cracking them open, and more than a few I’ve started only to return to the library unfinished. But even if I don’t finish a book, if it shows promise I’ll borrow it again later and try harder to finish it. Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad is one of those books. I started it back in August only to return it unfinished to the library three weeks later. Recently, I wanted to give Mekhennet’s 2017 book another chance so I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work. I’m glad I gave it another chance because I Was Told to Come Alone is a well-written, first hand account of life growing up in Germany as the daughter of Muslim immigrants and her rise to prominence as a world-class foreign correspondent.

Besides a talent for writing well, bravery and a dogged ability to uncover the truth, one could argue for a foreign correspondent to be successful such an individual should also be even handed, multilingual, and possess a keen understanding of other cultures. With that in mind this is the career Mekhennet was destined to pursue. Her father a Sunni Moroccan and her mother an ethnic Arab Shia from Turkey, Mekhennet’s parents met as guest workers in Germany. Underclass and a cultural outsider who experienced more than her share of prejudice, the young Mekhennet nevertheless applied herself. Intellectually curious, ambitious, and a desire to write, she began interviewing German political figures while still in high school. Later, as a college student she worked as an entry level journalist. Raised Muslim and fluent in Arabic, she quickly proved to be an invulnerable asset to her more seasoned colleagues as they interviewed Muslim immigrants and perused leads throughout Europe in the wake of 9/11.

In a career that’s spanned the better part of two decades Mekhennet’s travels have taken her across three continents, conducting interviews and investigating stories across Europe, North Africa, Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. During her tenure she’s reported on Al-Qaeda, the rise of ISIS, (including helping uncover the true identity of the infamous terrorist Jihadi John) Arab Spring, Syrian Civil War, 2015 Paris Terrorist Attacks and European Migrant Crises of the same year.

I Was Told to Come Alone is well written and considering English is her third or fourth language makes this even more impressive. What’s also impressive is her sense of fairness. As a Muslim from Germany, she’s experienced discrimination and as a result is sympathetic to the plights of her co-religionists living as immigrants or the children of immigrants in Europe. On the other hand, she takes to task Islamic extremists for their misogyny and refusal to respect the basic rights of others.

Admirable as well is her honesty and insightfulness when assessing the 2015 European Migrant Crises. Unlike some European leaders and aid officials she wisely pointed out while many of those seeking refuge were fleeing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, many were also economic migrants from across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. In addition, a sizable portion of them were not highly educated professionals but laborers conversant only in their respective native languages. Based on her observations she also revealed a few hailed from ISIS’s Islamic State. While not terrorists bent on wrecking havoc, nevertheless their sympathies for the Islamic State were apparent.

I Was Told to Come Alone is easily one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It deserves to stand beside other outstanding books by respected journalists about political developments in the Islamic world like Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War. Just like Black Flags and The Forever War there’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

About Time I Read It: To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw

As part of an ongoing research project I’ve been reading books on European history, especially that of 20th century. Back in September I read Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century and recently I borrowed through Overdrive Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949.  In 2019 I read its sequel The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017 and was duly impressed. I’m happy to report Kershaw did not disappoint me.

Like some cataclysmic three act play, the first half of the 20th century brought to the European continent World War I, the Depression and World War II. 50 years later Europe emerged from this bloody third act impoverished and broken. While Nazism and Italian Fascism had been vanquished, the exhausted Continent was left almost equally divided between East and West, and would remain so for another half century.

In To Hell and Back Kershaw addresses in detail everything I’d hoped: the run-up to World War I and its significant battles; the Paris Peace Conference and the new European order it spawned, including the punitive reparations imposed upon the young Weiner Republic of Germany; the rise of new forms of revolutionary totalitarianism in the USSR, Italy and Germany as well as a concomitant slide from democracy to conservative authoritarianism throughout much of Europe with the exception of Great Britain, France, the Low Countries and Scandinavia (in addition to other outliers Czechoslovakia and Eire); the Depression: and the Second World War’s origins, horrors and aftermath. He also discusses the period’s significant social, economic, technological and artistic developments.

Perhaps my most memorable take away from Kershaw’s book are the of destabilizing effects of ethnic tensions in Central and Eastern Europe. Restive nationalities yearning for independence or union with their neighbors, and long-oppressed ethnic groups perceived to be standing the way of national homogeneity would help spark not one but two world wars during the first half of the 20th century.

Meant as a blow against Austro-Hungarian rule over the region’s southern Slavs, in 1914 a Serb nationalist assassinated the Austrian Archduke and his wife. Backed with a blank check by its increasingly bellicose ally Germany, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia to punish and reassert dominate over its southern neighbors (and given the dual empire’s own multi-ethic composition, reassert dominance domestically as well). Russia, in turn would come to the aid of its junior ally Serbia and respond with force. Germany, coming to defense of Austria-Hungary would declare war on Russia also hoping to carve off a slice of its neighbor’s territory. Thus began the First World War.

By the 1930s the Nazis, a party that elevated race above state, would take control of a divided and dysfunctional Germany. Chief among the demands of Hitler and his cronies was the incorporation of neighboring ethnic Germans into the Reich. After annexing Austria he demanded, and was awarded the Sudetenland, home to a sizable German population. But after the German army occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia Great Britain and France learned they’d reached the limits of appeasement. Once Hitler began calling for the Polish Corridor and Danzig (technically a “free city” under League of Nations protection, overwhelming ethnic German but closely administered by  Poland) war looked likely. In 1939 when Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR to secure its Eastern flank war was inevitable. Poland was invaded from both West and East. Just like 20 years earlier, military aggression in Eastern Europe would spark a continent-wide conflict with devastating consequences.

This makes superb follow-up reading to other faves of mine, especially MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World , Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, Ross Range’s 1924: The Year That Made Hitler and Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II.

Speaking of follow-up books, I’m hoping To Hell and Back will inspire me to read both Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us and Tony Judt’s tour de force Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.

Please consider To Hell and Back highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Swiss Watching by Diccon Bewes

In the 2006 franchise reboot Casino Royal, James Bond meets his MI 6 contact Vesper Lynde on the train to Montenegro to be briefed on the details of his mission. After dinner they spar conversationally, each trying to size up the other. (And from an operational and sexual standpoint battle to impose their respective dominance.) Lynde wonders aloud if Bond is little more than a former SAS type with an easy smile and expensive watch. “Rolex?” she asks. Bond replies “Omega.” Both esteemed brands made only in Switzerland, a country long associated with high-end watches.

One wonders how a small, mountainous, landlocked country with few natural resources could be a global leader in quality wristwatches but also secure (and secretive) banking as well as delectable milk chocolates, all while enjoying centuries of political neutrality. Add to this a premier tourist destination, especially for the world’s rich and famous.

Over the years Claire of the book blog The Captive Reader has been one of my go to sources when it comes to books about Europe. (As well as the Interwar Period.) Last December in one of her Library Loot posts she mentioned Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes. Needing something representing Switzerland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I went looking for a borrowable copy of Bewes’s book and secured one through Overdrive. One of Financial Times’s books of the year Swiss Watching didn’t disappoint me. Like Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler is one of the year’s pleasant surprises.

Bewes, after falling in love decided to leave his native England and move to Switzerland to be with his boyfriend. Traveling from one end of the country to another his book is an intimate, intelligent and candid perspective on Switzerland’s history, culture and geography, similar to what his fellow Brits John Hooper and Tobias Jones did for Italy in their respective books The Italians  and The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country

Through Bewes’s eyes you see Switzerland as a land of contradictions, starting with the nation’s longstanding practice of political neutrality. For hundreds of years, even through two world wars Switzerland has avoided belligerency. Neutral but not pacifist, Switzerland is a leading exporter of military hardware, on occasion even selling arms to both warring sides. Traditionally, all Swiss all males are required to serve in the military. (Only recently was a nonmilitary service option added.) After released from active duty each reservist is required to keep a service rifle in his home, leading to Switzerland having more gun-related suicides than anywhere in Europe. (In hopes of addressing this disturbing distinction, the ammo is now safely secured in Swiss armories.) Lastly, the nation is crawling with fallout shelters, even apartments have a basement location where Swiss can ride out a nuclear exchange.

Politically, Switzerland is probably one of the most democratic nations on earth. Like most European nations it has an elected bicameral parliament but Switzerland boasts no president or prime minister with executive powers. The closest the Swiss have is the seven member Federal Council which serves as a collective head of state with a rotating Presidency that’s chiefly ceremonial. Almost all important legislation is decided by referendum, both at the national and local level. However, despite being one of the world’s few, if only direct democracies voter participation is surprisingly low. Because Switzerland’s path to citizenship is heavily skewed against immigrants and their children close to 20 percent of the population are non citizens and thus ineligible to vote. Another rarity among the world’s democracies, Swiss women didn’t earn the right to vote in national elections until 1971. Not until 1992 did the last Swiss federal state or Canton grant women the vote in a local election.

Landlocked and bereft of natural resources the Swiss would need to be creative if they were to be successful. Beginning in the 19th century the Swiss built a network of railways crisscrossing the country, connecting it to its larger, more resource and sea port blessed neighbors. High value products easily transported via rail, products like premium time pieces, cheeses and milk chocolates became lucrative exports. Calvinistic Geneva with its orderly, literate and industrious culture combined with a healthy respect for thrift and privacy would make the city, and the nation as a whole a banking Mecca. Innovation would be key to Switzerland’s success,  whether it be crafting a better cheeses, making chocolate more delectable by adding milk or manufacturing sexier wristwatches.  Like a determined prize fighter punching above its weight no wonder the small alpine country ranks 8th in the world for Nobel Prize laureates.

Originally published in 2010 and updated in 2018, like I said at the beginning Swiss Watching is one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It might even make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

The Best American Essays 2020 edited by André Aciman

I’m no stranger to André Aciman. In the summer of 2009 I read his 1996 memoir Out of Egypt, which had been sitting on my shelf unread for who knows how long. Five summers later it was his semi autobiographical novel Harvard Square I spent several warm evenings reading on my front step while watching the comings and goings of my fellow apartment dwellers. Even though I’d read just two of his books I considered myself a fan of his writing and looked forward to reading more of it.

Finding myself in the mood for a decent essay collection I discovered through Overdrive a borrowable Kindle edition of The Best American Essays 2020 edited by none other than André Aciman. Eager to see which essays Aciman deemed worthy of inclusion I downloaded it and went to work reading. I’m happy to say after finishing it Aciman’s choices did not disappoint me.

Annual anthologies like these are always a crap shoot. While some years better than others, on average each offering has one to three of outstanding pieces, with the bulk being pretty good while the remaining two or three selections not so hot. Fortunately, none of the essays Aciman selected are duds. Even my least favorite inclusions  had their moments. So hats off to Aciman.

Over the years I’ve read close to a dozen of these anthologies and Aciman’s introduction to this edition easily ranks as one of the best. Drawing from his deep well of erudition he explains what makes a great essay, serving up examples from Montaigne, Machiavelli and Proust. (If you’re looking for an impressive reading list, check out his interview 2015 interview on the Vox Tablet podcast.)

My favorites essays in the collection were ones with sharply focused narratives and specific topics in mind, akin to the long form pieces you’d find in Harpers, the New Yorker or Atlantic. While considered essays, they easily could be included in anthologies featuring outstanding writing in the fields of science and nature  or crime. Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece of prehistoric cave painting “The Humanoid Stain”,  Clinton Crockett Peters’s “A Thing About Cancer” – a novel look at the dreaded disease seen through the lens of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film The Thing  were two such pieces. Susan Fox Rogers’s essay on infamous 1920’s child murder Nathan Leopold and his love of birding was a fine science and nature feature as well as a crime one.

Much to my surprise just as it was with Jonathan Franzen’s edited Best American Essays 2016, a couple of my favorite essays touched on LGTBQ themes. Probably my favorite of these was the lead essay “How to Bartend” by Lebanese-American painter and writer Rabih Alameddine.  After being diagnosed with HIV he moved back to his native Lebanon to attend graduate school and pursue a “third worthless degree.” Needing cash he picked up a gig tending bar at an upstairs “faux upscale taproom with an English private club motif” complete with “pretentiously bound hardcovers in fake bookshelves.” Here half heartedly went about his job, pouring occasional drinks but preferring to be left alone to read novels during his normally slow workdays. Instead of a primer on good bartending his essay is a darkly humorous look at the difficult but ultimately satisfying process of finding ones tribe.

Instead of finding one’s tribe Alex Marzano-Lesnevish’s “Body Language” the focus is the long, painful process of discovering one’s gender, or if it be, non-gender. Even Peter Scheldahl’s life journey from midwestern bumpkin to NYC-dwelling art critic and mildly reckless aesthete recalls a passing gay affair, despite being an admittedly straight man with at least two heterosexual marriages and countless liaisons under his belt. (A degree sexual fluidity also rumored to be shared by Aciman himself.)

It feels like every annual essay collection contains more than a few contributions by authors looking back and reflecting on their long lives or the long lives of loved ones. As I grow older and slowly come to grips with my own mortality, and those around me I dislike these kind of pieces less and less, no longer complaining they’re products of an unwanted cottage industry. Instead, when I encounter such writing I grudgingly welcome whatever words of wisdom they offer while at the same time yearning for younger days.

But before I succumb to the ravages of old age, I’ll treat myself to a few more enjoyable anthologies. And as I do I’ll happily share my impressions of them with all of you.

20 Books of Summer: Dark Continent by Mark Mazower

A couple of years ago I was rummaging through one of those Little Free Libraries/public bookcases you find in so many neighborhoods when I came across a copy of Mark  Mazower’s 1998 book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. Happy to come across a book I’d been wanting to read, I eagerly helped myself.

Dark Continent is more than just a history of Europe in the 20th century. It’s also a deep dive into how and why democracy waxed and waned across the Continent during the 75 or so years following the end of World War I.

By the War’s end the great European land-based empires had collapsed and spawned a host of successor states across Central and Eastern Europe including the Balkans. In the beginning almost all were parliamentary democracies, complete with competing political parties representing constituencies across the spectrum. But by the eve of the Second World War democracy in Europe was a rare commodity. Authoritarian regimes were the norm be they the USSR, Germany, Italy or Spain. Even newly independent states like Hungary and Poland, while not overtly Fascist or Communist were run by hard-right strongmen.  According to Mazower these fledgling democracies inherited parliamentary traditions and structures evolved from years of battling autocratic monarchs. With parliaments powerful but cumbersome and prone to deadlock, and presidents and prime ministers unable to govern effectively they were ill-equipped to handle the challenges facing the states of interwar Europe: the Great Depression, sizable communities of ethnic minorities complicating the notion of a unified nation sate, specter of Communist takeover from home or abroad and newfound power of mass organizations of populist or reactionary nature to affect political change.

Complicating all of this was the decline of birthrates across the Continent beginning around the turn of the century. Although the killing ended with the cessation of hostilities a generation of young men had been slaughtered and would not be returning home to raise families. Therefore, unlike the period following World War II there was no baby boom and populations in the former belligerents either plateaued or continued to decline. Leaders and policy makers in countries across Europe feared a demographic implosion would prevent them from sustaining the standing armies and industrial output needed to compete against their rivals. Prefiguring today’s rising anti-immigrants sentiment in Europe and America many in interwar Europe thought it only a matter of time before they were swamped by their more populous neighbors either through immigration or military invasion.

Just 20 years after the last colossal European war another would engulf the Continent. While the democracies of Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, it was the authoritarian states of Germany, Italy and Russia’s successor state the USSR that shoulder the blame for restarting hostilities. According to Mazower the reasons are rooted in each of the three authoritarian states’ ruling ideology: German Nazis saw race as the only legitimate institution and the most Central and Eastern Europe states as artificial and illegitimate created by the Treaty of Versailles; Italy’s Fascists yearned for the glory days of the Roman Empire and coveted the lands of North Africa and the Balkans; Stalin and his fellow Soviets saw the modern state as a capitalist construct meant to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie and the sooner the USSR’s armies conquered its rivals, the sooner it could help spread the dictatorship of the proletariat.

By 1945 Germany’s dreams of colonizing Europe and Italy’s attempts to resurrect the Roman Empire lay in ruins. Five years of war, occupation, and genocide left the Continent impoverished and in shambles. Within five years an “Iron Curtain” had descended upon Europe, dividing the the Continent between two rival blocs. The West was home to an alliance of more or less democratic nations, allied with the United States and opposed to Communist expansion. To the East lie a collection of Soviet-imposed authoritarian states, collectively isolated and inward-looking. The dynamics of the stark division and the tensions it spawned would dictate European politics, foreign and domestic for the next 70 years.

In the West, once the cities and factories were rebuilt the region entered an unprecedented era of economic growth. With industrialization growing at a breakneck pace the ensuing labor shortages forced many countries to import workers from abroad. At first workers from Europe’s periphery like Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Communist outlier Yugoslavia migrated to the factories of West Germany, France and the like. Later, the call for workers went answered in more distant lands including Turkey, North Africa, and in the case of the United Kingdom the Caribbean and South Asia. Giving the Western economies a much needed boost, it would create long term questions over the nature of citizenship and limits of multiculturalism.

This time, in the West anyway, democracy did not wither up and die in the decades following WWII as it did after the previous world war. Learning from their past mistakes and traumatized by the horrors of authoritarian rule and foreign occupation constitutions were rewritten or retooled to prevent parliamentary gridlock. Structural changes were enacted to protect human rights and promote functioning and responsible governments. In hopes of preventing another Great Depression governments took a more active role in economic planning and enlarged the social safety net. (Ironically, both measures were first introduced by the authoritarian states of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Communist USSR.) A movement to foster closer political and economic cooperation among European nations would eventually give birth to the European Common Market and later European Union. (Again ironically, according to Mazower eerily similar to a concept floated by Nazi Minister of Industry and Production Adolf Speer.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain things weren’t so rosy. After Stalin’s death the reigns of power did loosed somewhat, but those in the Eastern Bloc enjoyed few of the civil and economic liberties enjoyed by those in the West. Forced industrialization promoted almost full employment, but wages were relatively low and desirable consumer goods scarce. Attempts to reform the systems from within were crushed in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1981. In hopes of propping up their failing economies Communist leaders in places like Hungary and Poland borrowed heavily from the West. In Romania, efforts to pay off these mounting debts led to crippling austerity measures resulting in a rapid plunge in living standards.

The 1970s and the decade following it would bring new challenges to Europe, both East and West. The oil shocks that bookended the 1970s spawned simultaneous inflation and economic stagnation, long believed impossible according to the rules of classical economics. Quickly dubbed “stagflation” the nations of Western Europe saw their economies contract and state coffers weaken and with it the ability to support social safety nets. Worse yet, European industries faced greater competition from East Asia in an array of product lines including automobiles and consumer electronics. In some countries the unemployed and underemployed cast unfriendly eyes towards local guest workers with nervous governments like West Germany’s offering to help repatriate them.

Meanwhile, at the far end of the Eastern Bloc, the once mighty colossus of the USSR began to stagnate and teeter. Unable to reform a doomed system, make it economically competitive and politically relevant on a global stage without inadvertently causing its demise Gorbachev’s USSR finally collapsed. During the last year or so of its death spiral, one by one the captive nations of Eastern Europe shed their authoritarian regimes, long since seen as illegitimate, incompetent and oppressive.

Dark Continent covers a lot of ground. Mazower’s prose can be a bit dense but he’s one hell of a researcher. A challenging read perhaps, but nevertheless informative. He’s left me with a deeper understanding of modern European history and a desire to learn more.

20 Books of Summer: Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson

With a ton of library books already in my possession and no shortage of World War II-related stuff in my personal library it seemed foolish to borrow one more library book about the Second World War. But after watching an excellent PBS documentary on Jewish American GIs in World War II I found it hard to resist a copy of Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler. Encouraged also by the many favorable reviews it received I put aside the rest of my reading material and gave Sons and Soldiers a chance. I found Henderson’s 2017 book hard as hell to put down and one of the most pleasant surprises of 2021.

Tragically, only a relative handful of Jews made it out of Germany before the Nazis fully unleashed the horrors of the Holocaust. Of those who made it to America, many were boys and young men forced to leave their families behind in Germany to face unsettling futures. After the US entered the war these same young men joined the US Army to fight the foe who’d treated them and fellow Jews as enemies of the state.

As soon as the Army realized the newly inducted men were fluent in German they were sent to  Ft. Ritchie in Maryland to become interrogators and military intelligence personnel. After taught German military structure and protocols, map reading, orienteering, parachuting and how to operate behind enemy lines each soldier was later sworn in as a US citizen, in part to reduce the risk of being executed as a German traitor in case of capture. In addition, as an extra precaution many carried special dog tags to conceal their religion, fearful of being killed for being Jews should they become POWs.

According to Henderson these brave young men provided the US military with mountains of invaluable intelligence, much of it timely, that wound up being instrumental in defeating Nazi Germany. That a group of people the Nazis worked so hard to murder would play such a crucial role in bringing about their destruction is truly ironic justice.

Just like The Forever War, Sons and Soldiers made for effortless reading and I whipped through it in no time. Definitely one of the pleasant surprises of 2021.

20 Books of Summer: Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska

Well, it didn’t take me long to deviate from my original 20 Books of Summer. Right after finishing There There I dived into Agata Tuszyńska’s Family History of Fear, casting aside any hope I’d stick to my carefully pre-arranged shelf of summer reading material. And why not? I need something representing Poland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Plus, I’ve had pretty good luck with family memoirs with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s A Mirror Garden, Marina Benjamin’s Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World as well as its follow-up The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn all being enjoyable reads.

When Polish poet and cultural historian Agata Tuszyńska was 19 years old her mother surprisingly confided to her they were Jewish. Tuszyńska, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, mines the depths of this secretive family history for her 2016 memoir sharing with the world stories kept untold for far too long.

With her grandfather languishing in a POW camp Tuszyńska’s grandmother and mother were packed into the crowded Warsaw Ghetto and subjected along with thousands of other Jews to the horrors of disease, malnutrition and abuse. The two would eventually escape, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the Nazis while avoiding betrayal by their fellow Poles, be they cruel opportunists or hateful antisemites. For days on end the two hid in secret rooms or backs of closets. (Bored with nothing to do her eight year old mother read in the dim light to pass the time. As a result after the war she frequently squinted, eliciting puzzled comments from her schoolmates.) Later, she grew up and married a college classmate who went on to be one of Poland’s premier sportscasters.

In Family History of Fear Tuszyńska shares stories of both sides of her family, Jew and Gentile. Her style leans towards nonlinear, jumping back and forth chronologically and familial.  Unfortunately, by the time I reached the final third of the book I found myself losing interest. Fortunately, my interest rekindled at the end. Her memoir closes with the ruling Communists’ antisemitic campaign against the nation’s few remaining Jews, ostensibly taken to combat “Zionism” in response to Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. (For additional insight into one of the darker and more obscure periods of late-stage Soviet Communism I highly recommend both Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year That Rocked the World and Gal Beckerman’s outstanding When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.)

I borrowed Family History of Fear from the library because I wanted not just a book about Poland, but also the Poland of years gone by. Today’s Poland is religiously and linguistically homogenous but a hundred years ago it was a diverse land. Before World War II 3 million Jews lived in Poland, more than anywhere including the USSR. Overall, Jews made up 10 percent of the country’s population including roughly of third of Warsaw. For many, especially in the countryside Yiddish, not Polish was their primary if not exclusive language. (Even in the capital Warsaw intermarriage was rare, and those who did were usually Communists.) Along its eastern borders were sizable communities of Ukrainians, almost all practicing Orthodox. But due to the ravages of war, genocide and Communist oppression that pre-war world of Poland has passed into history. Tuszyńska’s Family History of Fear is an elegy for both a family and a nation.