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“The Dutch Debate: New Realities of the Netherlands”, focusing on the first country in 21st century Europe whose history of tolerance came to clash with its growing Muslim population. Eleanor Wachtel talks to journalist Geert Mak.
Geert Mak (born 4 December 1946 in Vlaardingen, Zuid-Holland) is a Dutch journalist and a non-fiction writer in the field of history. His ten books about Amsterdam, the Netherlands and Europe have earned him great popularity. His best-known work, In Europe, a combination of a travelogue through the continent of Europe and a history of the 20th century, has appeared in over a dozen languages. Geert Mak participates actively in Dutch public debate, as a staunch defender of the values of an open and tolerant society.
Geert Mak studied constitutional law and the sociology of law at the Free University (Vrije Universiteit) and the University of Amsterdam (Universiteit van Amsterdam). While still a student he acted as an assistant to the parliamentary party of the Pacifist Socialist Party (PSP). From 1975 to 1985 he worked as an editor of the left-wing weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, after which he spent some years as foreign correspondent for the progressive public broadcasting company VPRO and as a city editor for the celebrated national daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad. In 1999 the NRC Handelsblad commissioned him to spend a year travelling through Europe, reporting on his travels in a daily column for the newspaper that later served as the basis for In Europe. From 2000 to 2003 he worked as professor of metropolitan problems, a chair endowed by the city of Amsterdam. His lack of academic training as a professional historian has provoked criticism from some quarters within that discipline. On the other hand, the Open University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2004 ‘for his important and original contribution to historiography’. Two of his books have been acclaimed ‘Book of the year’ by the Dutch public. In 2008 he received the Leipziger Buchpreis zum Europaïsche Verständigung for In Europe, and the French government has appointed him a member of the Légion d’ Honneur.
Geert Mak first became known to the general public with his book Jorwerd: the Death of the Village in the Late 20th Century (1996; orig. title Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd) on the changing culture of a farming community in the 20th century, based on an account of a village in Friesland and the people who lived there. In Amsterdam: A brief life of a city(1995), he gave a lively account of the people of Amsterdam and their city down the centuries. De eeuw van mijn vader (My father’s century: 1999), a history of the Netherlands in the 20th century, based on letters and memories from Mak’s own family, became immensely popular, selling over half a million copies. Among the books he has published since then are In Europe. Travels through the twentieth century (In Europa; 2004, Pantheon; 2007) and The Bridge. A Journey Between Orient and Occident (De brug; 2007, “Boekenweekgeschenk”, Harvill Secker; 2008), an account of life on and around the Galata bridge in Istanbul, ‘a travelogue covering 490 metres’, in the author’s own words.
In 2005 he wrote a controversial pamphlet in response to the assassination of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Gedoemd tot kwetsbaarheid (Doomed to vulnerability) and the culture of fear that he believed had taken root in the Netherlands. The essay caused considerable consternation, partly because Mak compared the propaganda technique of the film Submission – linking the excesses committed by a few to the religion of an entire minority – to the imagery of Der Ewige Jude by Joseph Goebbels.
Reception In Europe
In Europe was the best-selling book by a Dutch author in the Netherlands in 2004, selling over 400,000 copies. The British reviews were generally enthusiastic, although for the professional historian or political scientist the book has little to offer: “In Europe hardly breaks new ground historically” writes Martin Woollacott in an otherwise positive review in The Guardian (14 July 2007). On the other hand, the Sunday Times wrote that In Europe was ‘undoubtedly a spectacular and beautifully crafted piece of writing’, and the Financial Times praised Mak’s instinct for human stories: ‘Mak is the history teacher everyone should have had’. John Lukacs saw in him ‘Europe’s portrait-painter, its impressionist, its poet-musician, the reader of its peoples’ minds.’ The work should be taken for what it is: something between journalism and travel literature. Publisher’s Weekly asks: “is it a history book, a travelogue, a memoir?”
Mak himself sees his work as journalism. In an interview with a Dutch journalism trade-journal he says: “my approach is journalistic. My books are filled with newspaper tricks”. Historians are generally cautious when it comes to judging Mak’s work. Hermann von der Dunk, emeritus professor of history at Utrecht University says about Mak: “it is well written, and historically correct, but it is not what I would call academic history. There is no analysis of historical development” (Academische Boekengids, March 2005).
A 35-part VPRO television series based on In Europe prompted some historians to point to errors and to comment that the makers were ill-informed about current debates in the field of history (Historisch Nieuwsblad, December 2007), criticism that was in turn rebutted by Mak and other historians. Nonetheless, this same Historisch Nieuwsblad twice acclaimed him ‘historian of the year’.