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Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Baltic: A History (2011) by Michael North

The "Baltic" as used in this book refers to the area that today encompasses the present states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the states of northern Germany. Norway is also discussed because of it's historic links as part of Denmark and Sweden.

The Baltic: A History (2011//2015)
by Michael North
Translated from German by Kenneth Kronenberg

  A newly translated German language history of the Baltic region?  YES PLEASE!!!!  I actually snatched this volume from the "new titles" section of the San Diego Central Public Library.  I've noticed the San Diego Central Public Library is quick to acquire general histories of unusual places.  It probably has something to do with the fact that the general histories of less unusual places have all been written long ago.

 For the purposes of this book, the main reference point is The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World by Fernaud Braudel, published in 1949.  Braudel was the dean of the "annales" school of history, which eschewed the "big man" theory of history in favor of a bottoms up approach that emphasized the material life of the largest part of the population.  Braudel was also a pioneer at looking across national and ethnic borders to write broader histories of larger areas.   Thus, the idea of a book like "The Baltic" to mirror "The Mediterranean" is one that is more than a half century old by now.

   The first fact to keep in mind about "the Baltic" is that it encompasses most of coastal Northern Europe, from German and Denmark in the west to Russia and Finland in the east, and including the Polish coast and a variety of states and statelets that occupied present day Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.   Those last three are interesting because they were among the last pagan hold outs in Europe.  The most interesting chapters, and probably the only subject that I would pursue further, is this conquest and conversion of these peoples by a grab back of German, Danish, Dutch and Swedish knights, priests and kings.

  North devotes a chapter to each historical period, and the basic fact to understand is that the cultural area of the Baltic was German speaking until the 20th century, despite the rise of Sweden, Russia and the Baltic states themselves.  This German heritage has been occluded by a number of forces- you have groups like the Swedish and Russians who are interested in establishing their own cultural bonafides on the world stage and the Baltic states themselves, where the tides of 20th century history forcibly removed the German influence.

  On a grand scale, the 15th and 16th centuries were relative times of peace (but plague filled) and the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were incredibly bloody and destructive.  Cultural currents were large and slow moving, and you can talk about Baltic Romanticism and Baltic Folk-Nationalism but not much else.  One surprise that emerges is the absence of direct French, English, Italian or Spanish influence.  These are the major players in almost any broad history of Europe, and it is a shock to read about an area where their influence was almost entirely filtered through Dutch, German and Scandinavian influences.  Thus, when you talk about a "Baltic Renaissance" you are talking about the Dutch Renaissance.   Modernist ideas come from Scandinavian architecture and furniture making.

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