Book Beginnings: The Apartment by Greg Baxter

One of my favorite book bloggers, Gilion, in addition to hosting the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 reading challenges also hosts on her Rose City Reader blog Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, sadly I’ve never taken part in Book Beginnings on Friday. That is, until now.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”


It’s the middle of December, and everything is frozen over. I arrived six weeks ago with an old, worn-out pair of brown leather shoes. One night I walked around the city with a girl I’d met, and the next day I bought myself some lined, warm, waterproof boots.

The Apartment by Greg Baxter is one of four books I picked up late last month at the public library. So far I’ve enjoyed this slim, well-received novel. Set in an unnamed Central European city, it’s hard for me not to like a first person account of a world-weary, forty-something American male seeking to put his years of military service and intelligence work behind him by pursuing the life of an expat with his new-found local girlfriend as guide.

Library Loot

I finished Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country and still making my way through Karl Tobien’s Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag. Last night I started Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street. Yesterday, I drove into town to get my second booster shot and on the way back stopped by the library to return a book. Even though I have a big stack of library books next to my bed I was is still in the mood to grab a few more, especially stuff of an international flavor.  

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlenes’ blog.  

These two authors hail from outside United States and are expats. Heather Morris was born in New Zealand but now resides in Australia. Borris Akunin, Russian-Georgian author and longtime resident of Moscow moved to London in 2014. 

  • Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris – While it seems like everyone is gaga over Morris’s The Tattooist Of Auschwitz I’m going to start with her 2019 follow-up. Looks like a good companion to Dancing Under the Red Star
  • Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel by Boris Akunin – A Russian cult leader is murdered aboard a steamship en route from Imperial Russia to Ottoman Palestine and it’s up to Sister Pelagia, a Russian Orthodox nun to catch his killer. A historical whodunnit set against the backdrop of 19th century Russian religious millennialism was too much to pass up.

About Time I Read It: A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

As I mentioned a few weeks ago my participation in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge so far this year has been pretty lackluster. In hopes of getting back on track I recently borrowed through Overdrive a copy of Keith Gessen’s A Terrible CountryWith Time calling the 2018 novel “hilarious” and declaring “to understand Russia, read A Terrible Country”  I felt confident I’d found the perfect book to represent Russia for the reading challenge. It became apparent after reading only a few pages I’d chosen the right book.

It’s the summer of 2008 and Russian-American New York City resident Andrei Kaplan is stuck in a rut. His girlfriend Sarah recently dumped him at a Starbucks. After spending years slaving away in grad school studying Russian literature and history he can’t land a job anywhere in academia. He’s running out of cash and tired seeing his former classmates land cherry professorships at prestigious universities or leaving academia altogether to make money hand over fist as hedge fund managers.

One day he gets a phone call from his brother Dima, an aspiring entrepreneur who frantically informs him he’s fleeing Russia and needs Andrei to fly to Moscow and look after their elderly grandmother. Without telling him exactly why he has to leave in the dead of night, Dima promises his departure is only temporary. In the meantime Andrei can live rent-free with their grandmother in Dima’s Moscow apartment while enjoying all the city has to offer. With his life going nowhere he obeys his familial obligations, sublets his NYC apartment and relocates to Moscow. Not long after his arrival he learns his grandmother, while physically OK for a 98 year old woman is in the early stages of dementia. After several phone calls with Dima Andrei suspects his brother’s commercial dealings have angered the country’s wrathful oligarchs and might not be returning anytime soon.

In 2008 Russia, while no longer ruled by the Communist Party suffers under an oppression all its own. With Vladimir Putin constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, technically, Dmitry Medvedev is president but most agree it’s Putin in the once-ceremonial role of prime minister calling the shots. Powerful oligarchs and FSB heavies throw their weight around privileged royalty. Russia’s oil exports has generated billions in petrodollars but has managed to enrich only a small, kleptocratic minority while at the same time inflating the economy and making everything expensive for everyone else. (Andrei, a New Yorker, is shocked by Moscow’s insane cost living.) Even though he was born in Russia, speaks the language and spent years studying its literature and history nevertheless after spending most his life in the United States he’s ill-equipped to deal with its rough and tumble culture and lacks the connections, professional and social to be at ease in the land of his birth.

Gessen’s novel resonated with me for personal reasons. As the son of dementia sufferer, I could relate to day to day challenges Andrei faced caring for a loved one in the early to moderate throes of the disease. The forgetfulness, cognitive decline and inexorable erosion of personhood experienced by his elderly grandmother I witnessed firsthand afflict my own mother.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Terrible Country and it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of favorite fiction. Essential reading for understanding Putin’s Russia and capable of delivering more than a few laughs.

About Time I Read It: Ukraine Diaries by Andrey Kurkov

With war raging in Ukraine, I went looking for something by Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov. Figuring if anyone could help me understand what’s going on it would be Kurkov, since I enjoyed his 2011 dark comedic novel Death and the Penguin. Even though about a dozen of his books have been translated into English little is available for me to borrow either through my local public libraries or electronically but as luck would have it I was able to secure through Overdrive a copy of his 2015 Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches From Kiev.

As advertised, the book is a collection of diary entries spanning late November 2013 to April 2014. Beginning with pro-European protests in November, Kurkov then recalls the violent clashes of the Maidan Uprisings leading to the removal of pro-Russian President Yanukovcyh. From there, his daily entries discuss Russian land-grabs in Crimea and Russia’s subsequent orchestration of separatist uprisings in the eastern Donbas region. Of course like anyone’s diary, there’s no shortage of occurrences more mundane like family birthdays, business trips and pleasant evenings with good friends.

One might possibly think a guy like Kurkov, who was born in what’s now called St. Petersburg and writes in Russian might be sympathetic to Russian interference in Ukrainian politics. Not a chance. He completely rejects any Russian attempts to dictate Ukraine’s future, let alone seize its territory.

As I read Ukraine Diaries I was struck how much it reminded me of an old, dog-eared mass marketed paperback I read decades ago one summer during my college years. Kurkov’s collection of mostly short entries, many of discussing Russian acts of political interference and armed aggression I found eerily reminiscent of The Czech Black Book. Originally published in 1969, it was an attempt by the members of the Institute of History at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences to document and publicize evidence of the USSR and its Warsaw Pact vassal states’ 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia to squash that country’s attempts at “Socialism with a human face.”

Right after finishing Ukraine Diaries I learned Kurkov now hosts a radio program on the BBC in which as an internally displaced person in Ukraine, “gives a personal account of daily life in war-torn Ukraine.” Even though I’m up to my eyeballs in podcasts and close to reaching my own personal saturation point when it comes to news about Ukraine I think I’ll give his Radio 4 program a chance.

About Time I Read It: Postwar by Tony Judt

As some of you might know, as part of my ongoing research I’ve been reading books on 20th century European history. Although I’ve read some great stuff over the years like Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 and its sequel The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017 as well as Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World and Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II one particular book has eluded me. For well over a decade I’ve been meaning to read Tony Judt’s 2005 tour du force Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. I’m embarrassed to admit its 900 plus page length scared me off. Then, by a stroke of good luck my online book club decided to read it and that was all the encouragement I needed. Due to its length we tackled the first half of the book one session and the second half a month later during our follow-up. Postwar was well-received by all participants, myself included. As high as my expectations were Postwar did not disappoint me.

I always struggle whenever I write about an outstanding book and believe me, this is no exception. I feel there’s little, perhaps even nothing I could put in a review that could do this book justice. Alas, to not say anything would do even a worse injustice. I feel foolish  regurgitating a long litany of Postwar‘s highlights since  the book’s title alone tells you it’s a history of Europe since the end of the Second World War.  But I must say something.

Even though I’ve spent the last few years reading up on 20th century European history Postwar taught me a lot of things. I had no idea the Korean War led to heightened tensions in Europe, as America and it Western allies feared Soviet-led forces would similarly attack West German in hopes of reunifying the divided nation. I also was unaware formal neutral countries like Ireland and Portugal were offered aid under the Marshall Plan. (In his assessment on the Plan’s influence in keeping Western Europe from sliding into the Communist camp Judt takes a contrarian approach. According to him despite the Plan’s huge price tag its greatest benefits were symbolic rather than financial.) Nor did I know the Soviets once pitched the idea of a united Germany, provided the reunified German nation was banned from joining NATO and had to adhere to political neutrality.

I could also talk about the many things I liked. For 50 years Europe was a divided continent with its eastern half subjugated and cut-off from the rest of the Continent. Insulated for years from the political, economic and social developments that swept throughout Western Europe some historians are tempted to take a more cursory approach when discussing the region’s history after the Second World War. Thankfully, Judt doesn’t do that. He treats both halves with equal attention. As I’d hoped, he hit all the landmark developments: Yugoslavia leaving the Soviet orbit, the Hungarian uprising, the Berlin Crises leading to the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Prague Spring, the rise and fall of Polish Solidarity and the eventual Fall of Communism. But he was keen to point out during the early postwar period there were Europeans who might have been thankful the Red Army held an iron grip over Poland and half of Germany because it prevented the Germans from reasserting themselves militarily and retaking territories lost after the war.

According to Judt, ironically it was this subjugation that helped bring while maybe not peace but an imposed stability to a region that had been highly volatile during the first third of the 20th century, supplying  the sparks that ignited not one, but two world wars. Unlike the more ethnically and religiously homogeneous nation states of Western Europe, those in the East that emerged after WWI were almost microcosms of the vanquished land-based empires that painfully birthed them. Either binational states like Czechoslovakia; multiethnic entities cobbled together and dominated by one party like Yugoslavia; or countries like Poland with a sizable non-Polish/non Catholic German, Ukrainian and Jewish populations.

But World War II and the period following it would unleash previously unimaginable horrors. Throughout Central and Eastern Europe Jewish communities were murderously destroyed. After the war ethnic Germans who’d been dwelling in the lands bordering Germany were forcibly deported and settled in a vanquished Germany. Poland and Soviet Ukraine swapped ethnic minorities in hopes of making their respective states ethnically homogeneous. The end result was a collection of linguistically, religiously and ethically homogeneous states unable to claim the territory of their neighbors in hopes of rescuing some oppressed nationality. Soviet troops and tanks imposed the peace and Socialist brotherhood, and the West being the new common enemy.

Other aspects of 20th century European history that many historians gloss over that Judt addressed in detail are both the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain, Portugal and Greece and the separatist/autonomy movements in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Basque region and Catalonia. In addition, his chapters on Thatcherite Britain, Gorbachev’s role pivotal in USSR’s implosion, and the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia were surprisingly good. (And by good I mean comprehensive while still being succinct.)

Postwar is an outstanding book and a must read for not just those interested in history but anyone wanting to understand contemporary European politics. Even though it’s just January I’m confident this book will easily make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider Postwar highly recommended.

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.

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.

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.