Friday, February 18, 2011

The Baltic: A New History of the Region and its People (2005)

In this long-needed history of the peoples and nations surrounding the Baltic Sea, we pass through the legendary castles of Elsinore and Helsingborg to enter a unique landscape and culture. Acclaimed historian Alan Palmer traces the history of the Baltic region from the early Viking days and its time under the Byzantine Empire through its medieval prime when the Baltic Sea served as one of Europe's central trading grounds. Palmer addresses both the nationalist sentiments that have driven Baltic culture and the early attempts at Baltic unification by Sweden and Russia. The Baltic also dissects the politics and culture of the region in the twentieth century, when it played multiple historic roles; it was the Eastern Front in the First World War; the setting of early uprisings in the Russian Revolution; a land occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War; and, until very recently, a region dominated by the Soviets.

In the twenty-first century, increasing attention has been focused on the Baltic states as they grow into their own in spite of growing neo-imperialist pressure from post-Soviet Russia. In
The Baltic, Alan Palmer provides readers with a detailed history of the nations and peoples that are now poised to emerge as some of Europe's most vital democracies (~ Back Cover).

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I appreciate the effort to bring the Baltic region, with its rich history, culture and folklore, to more people's attention, as it tends to be sadly overlooked in favor of the major European players such as England, France, Austria and Spain. Russia is less neglected, but is usually discussed more in terms of her interaction with the great western powers or the Islamic world, rather than in terms of her relations with her small Northern neighbors. On the other hand, I think the book's objective is far too ambitious for a single volume. Palmer writes with enthusiasm, yet I found it impossible to read with enthusiasm. The author tried to cover too much material in too little space, and the result was a fatiguing feeling of jumping from topic to topic, coupled with a frustrating impression of skimming the surface rather than plumbing the depths. In addition, Palmer falls, at times, into tired clichés. I was irritated, for instance, by his reiteration of the often repeated, but unproven claim that Queen Christina of Sweden, the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, was bisexual (p. 112). In fact, there is a serious lack of evidence that she ever had any affairs at all. Nevertheless, the style is elegant, and individual passages can be quite gripping, such as these closing reflections upon the future possibilities of a traditionally turbulent region:

Great questions remain, rooted deep in history and yet unanswerable. Have the Baltic republics the wisdom and patience to absorb and integrate their Russian and Ukrainian minorities? What future has the Baltic if a Russian nationalist comes to power in Moscow? Is the bear tamed or merely sleeping? Yet it is reasonable, if unfashionable, to be optimistic. In today's Baltic, confrontation has given way to collaboration. Never before have so many international councils and agencies sought to preserve and promote co-operation across the inland sea. To the East another 'Baltic Way' is slowly taking shape, a route by road along the southern Finnish coast, around St Petersburg and on to Riga, Vilnius and perhaps Gdánsk. In the West two magnificent bridges - the 1997 road and rail link over the Belts that joins Zealand and Fyn, and the Øresundforbindelsen with its tunnel bringing Copenhagen and Malmö together- at last provide Adam of Bremen's girdle with a clasp. A Baltic that is at peace with itself holds out for Europe the prospect of unity and understanding (p. 406) . 

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