Zamoyski, Adam

The Schleswig-Holstein Question answered NORTHERN SHORES: A HISTORY OF THE BALTIC SEA AND ITS PEOPLES by Alan Palmer John Murray, £25, pp. 448, ISBN 0719562872 * £23 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

To anyone who enjoyed Fernand Braudel’s masterly work on the Mediterranean or Neal Ascherson’s wonderful Black Sea, the idea of a book on the Baltic is an appealing one. It is Europe’s other great inland sea, fed by the snows of Scandinavia and rivers such as the Elbe, the Vistula, the Niemen and the Neva, ringed with cities such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg, Riga, Gdansk and Lubeck, surrounded by nations that have played a leading, sometimes devastating, part in the making of Europe.

Its recorded history opens with the Vikings, who sailed out of the Baltic eastwards deep into Russia, thence into the Caspian and Black Seas, threatening Baghdad as well as Constantinople, and westwards to the British Isles, the coasts of France, Spain and on to Sicily, not to mention America. In the late Middle Ages the Baltic was the scene of violent crusades which drew in not only land-hungry German knights eager to expand the frontiers of Christendom but also the chivalry of Western Europe, even a future king of England. It saw the flourishing of that first great European multinational, the Hanse, whose ports and trading posts spread over the entire region to dominate international commerce, be it with the ship’s chandlers of Hull or the Medici bankers of Florence.

Subsequent centuries witnessed a prolonged struggle between Sweden, Poland and Denmark for mastery over the region, for the dominium maris Baltici, with Russia joining in at the beginning of the 18th. The relentless westward spread of Russia provoked attempts at rolling her back into Asia, first by Charles XII of Sweden, then by Napoleon, with catastrophic and highly counter-productive effects in both cases. In the 19th century, the socio-economic transformation undergone by the lands around the Baltic was accompanied by a massive flood of emigration, which peopled swathes of the Midwest of the United States.

The emergence of Russia and imperial Germany as the superpowers on the European continent inevitably turned the region into the scene of some of the most horrible events of the last century. And if German imperial ambitions were buried in the rubble of Berlin (closer to the Baltic than London is to the Channel), it was in Gdansk that the first chips were hacked from the base of the Soviet monolith.

It is a story rich in fascinating and formidable characters – St Bridget, Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, Gustavus Adolphus, Queen Christina, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Lech Walesa, to name but a few, with walk-on parts by a far larger cast, including Nelson and Churchill (whose proposed Operation Catherine’ nearly brought about a Dardanelles-like disaster in the north).

Alan Palmer steers a skilful course through this maze of material, most of it unfamiliar to the general reader, and tells the story in clear, readable prose. Leaving aside too frequent minor mistakes and an ambitious yet slipshod policy on accents, this is a fundamentally sound overview. It is true that coverage of some subjects, such as the tortuous regional politics and ramifications of the second world war, is so laconic as to be confusing. But that is probably unavoidable in a work of this scope.

The main virtue of the book is that it fills many a gap. The reader will be thankful for the succinct explanation of the Schleswig-Holstein Question, and fascinated to learn the details of Lenin’s journey back to Russia in 1917. He will appreciate the informative passages on what went on in places such as Finland and the Baltic States while they were off the radar screen of Western attention, the sympathetic account of the failure of the democratic experiment in some of those and other countries of the region during the 1920s and 1930s, and the extraordinary story of anti-Soviet resistance in Latvia right into the 1960s.

This is first and foremost the history of the peoples surrounding the Baltic. The sea itself does not figure as the principal actor to the extent it does in Braudel and Ascherson, and Palmer does not conjure up a ‘Baltic world’ to match the familiar concept of the Mediterranean world. It may well be that there is no such thing, and that this particular sea did not introduce a distinct dynamic into the lives of the peoples inhabiting its shores.

Still, I would have liked to hear more about how it facilitated or inhibited the spread of the Renaissance and the Reformation, more about trade-borne connections, about Shakespeare in Danzig and Scotsmen in Elbing and St Petersburg, about the cult of the herring, about Kant (who only gets one tangential mention), about Ibsen (mentioned en passant), even about that curious mix of socialism and joyless sex, of Volvo and Abba, that made up the much-vaunted and widely emulated Swedish ‘model’ of the latter 20th century.

Copyright Spectator Jul 30, 2005

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved