In 1999 Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist, was given an enviable commission by his newspaper: to travel throughout Europe in the last months of the century, reporting daily on the condition of the continent. His brief went further, however: he ‘would follow, as far as possible, the course of history, in search of the traces it had left behind’, in search, too, of witnesses to the best and worst of a century that had seen terrible wars, scarcely imaginable atrocities, and unprecedented social and economic development. He would travel through a century in which empires had collapsed, dictatorships been established and overthrown, and in which Europe had yielded its primacy to the USA while also creating new transnational political structures. In short, he had been given an extraordinary task, and a marvellous opportunity. This book, published in the Netherlands in 2004 and now very well translated by Sam Garrett, is the result. It is fascinating, informative, sometimes exhilarating, often painful, and quite impossible to summarise.
Mak left Amsterdam on the first day of 1999, the day the euro was launched. Before leaving he talked with the oldest Dutchman he knew, a man who had lived through the whole of the century. His friend gave him a book published in Amsterdam in 1890. It was entitled