Baltic Framework

Our recent posts on governments in Stockholm and Schwerin are as good a reason as any to highlight Northern Shores, by Alan Palmer. (It’s published in the US as The Baltic.) I had intended to write a premature evaluation, but then I finished the book, which I picked up during a business trip to Helsinki, so this is slightly more considered.

Northern Shores offer a solid structure for building a working knowledge of Northern Europe. Who ruled what, when and, to a limited extent, why. Empires ebbed and flowed across and around the Baltic, and it’s easy to lose track. Palmer writes clearly on who owned what, who was related to whom, and he even has a decent go at the Schleswig-Holstein problem, which Palmerston quipped that only three people ever understood, one who was dead, one who was mad and one who had forgotten. (The Wikipedia article on the subject is, er, exhaustive.) Russians, Prussians, Swedes, Danes and Poles, with a smattering of smaller peoples, are the main protagonists. Or rather, the rulers of same, history in this case being the story of who was in charge of a given piece of property.

Which meant that I did not like large parts of the book. The first quarter or fifth or so I enjoyed because it goes back to the earliest periods for which there is historical evidence, describes Viking links with Constantinople, addresses northern paganism and covers other elements that give a good sense of how far and how peculiar a past this distant are, and how long Europe has been linked across its length and breadth. I learned a lot.

But then the majority of the book chronicles which noble houses fought when for what land. There’s more to it, of course, but that’s the main subject. I like the histories I read to have more of an argument, to have more of a narrative and to give a better feel for the places and periods in question. I suspect that at least part of my objection is generational; if I read Palmer’s account of an event in 1939 correctly, then he’s nearing 80, and we should all be so lucky as to write a book this good at that age. (One nice turn of phrase has the French candidate abandoning the Polish-Lithuanian throne to become Henry III of France; Palmer writes that “Warsaw seemed well worth a miss,” echoing Henry IV’s more famous formulation.) Still, that means Palmer’s from a generation when it was simply understood that kings and battles were the stuff of history, and I suppose that in recounting what he does, he’s making the argument that rulers and their conquests are what history should be about. For historians of later generations, however, the political framework is a good place to start, but certainly not all there is.

Another irritation is Palmer’s apparent assumption that contemporary nation-states are the inevitable and natural result of the region’s history. This is particularly clear in his writing about the emergence of Sweden. Why is Sweden a single polity with Stockholm as its capital? That is not a question Palmer seems to think worth asking; he is impatient with regionalism on the eastern half of the Scandinavian peninsula and approving of royal centralism. Why the one prevailed over the other is precisely what I would have found interesting; history is contingent, and exploring those contingencies makes reading history interesting.

I did learn a bit more about the interwar Baltic republics, and I learned that Poland was the first country in the region to throw its democracy away. And the book picks up, as one might expect from a British historian, when it turns to the Second World War. Viewing the conflict and the postwar settlement from a northern perspective is different, and emphasized again how much where you stand depends on where you sit. Finland’s experience demonstrates this admirably.

Booklist’s review of the US edition says The Baltic should “enjoy longevity in libraries,” which I think is about right. It’s good that the book is there, and if you want to check on something, you can, but reading it all the way through as a narrative is not something I would recommend.

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