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In 1999, on the eve of the millennium, a book came out by the Dutch journalist Geert Mak with the evocative title, In Europe: Travels through the twentieth century. Eight-hundred-and-fifty pages long and taking in just about every country in Europe, from Ireland to Latvia, and from Finland to Greece, it was a genuine tour de force, described by Reaction’s own Allan Massie as “a wonderfully rich journey through time and space” and “a splendidly panoramic picture of our common European home”.
Mak’s modus operandi was simplicity itself. He would turn up in Paris, or Berlin, or London, or Rome – or Sarajevo – and talk to people, young and old, about what it meant for them to be citizens of the world’s most diverse and fascinating continent. They all had tales to tell. They spoke a bewildering range of languages and followed a variety of faiths, or none. Each generation among them had experienced great hardship as well as years of plenty. They had known absolutism, fascism, communism, anarchy, nationalism, total war and the slow, steady decay of certainty. They had endured the most momentous hundred years in all of human history and come out the other side as survivors, still loving their homelands and still, however dysfunctional it seemed, aware of a common identity as Europeans.
As Mak put it from his vantage point on the cusp of the millennium: “Every one of us, whether we like it or not, carries within us the amazing twentieth century. The stories will continue to make the rounds in whispers, generation after generation: the countless experiences and dreams, the moments of courage and betrayal, the memories full of fear and pain, the images of joy.”