Book Review: The Baltic

The Baltic: A Historythe baltic coverby Michael Northtranslated by Kenneth KronenbergHarvard University Press, 2015It may seem a strange thing for a professor writing a history of the Baltic to open his remarks by protesting that there's no such thing as the Baltic, but readers of Michael North's dense and interesting new book The Baltic: A History (newly translated into English, that is, from Geschtichte der Ostee, which appeared in 2011) will quickly take his meaning: North wants to differentiate his book conceptually from its archetypal regional-history prototype, Fernand Braudel's La Mediterranee et le Monde Mediterraneen a l'epoque de Philippe I. There's a much more ragged and fruitful heterogeneity operating here, Kronenberg points out:

The intensification of communication as a result of shipping and trade and the migration of population groups fostered transformative processes, which in some cases ran counter to developing power structures. As a result, supranational cultures, such as those of the Vikings and the Slave or the Hanseatic League, developed.

There are counter-running forces at work even in such an excerpt: one the one hand, there's that mention of the Hanseatic League, which is generally enough to make any amateur reader of history reach for the nearest Nero Wolfe novel, and on the other hand there's that tossed-off mention of “supranational cultures,” which is eye-openingly accurate and intriguing. Those amateur readers of history are in luck: the eye-opening and intriguing wins out in the course of The Baltic, despite dolorous mentions of people with names like Boguslav of Pomerania.North traces the long and frenetically eventful history of the whole Baltic region (a region most people in the world couldn't find on a map even with “you're getting warmer”-style hints? Anyone who's visited it will remember it, anyway, for the enormous variety of its beauties), from its tenth century launch into Western-stage major prosperity through all the various supranational governmental and mercantile collectives that held sway over a few Baltic countries for a few decades before being supplanted by newer players. The Vikings, the Balts, the Germans, the Russians, the Swedes – all leave their own distinctive traces on a region as cosmopolitan in its way as Venice itself.Virtually no aspect of this long story is neglected. All the various major Baltic capitals get their turn in the spotlight, and North covers not only the progress of architecture, warfare, and the herring market but also social and literary life (the chapter “Nordic Romanticism” is a stand-out overview) and the vying fads that swept the area from Bremen to Riga:

Seaside resorts … came into being in larger numbers in England in the 1770s and 1780s. The resorts at Brighton, Harwich, Margate, Southampton, Weymouth, and Plymouth were the start of a new bath culture, and so it should be of little surprise that the physicist and satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), upon returning to Germany from a trip to his beloved England in 1793, asked, 'Why does Germany not yet have a single large public resort by the sea?” His question touched off a debate about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the North Sea versus the Baltic Sea as sites for such a facility. Whereas the proponents of the North Sea praised is higher salt content, those arguing for the Baltic cited its lack of tides and relatively consistent water temperature.

North brings his story right up to the present day and the European Union, illustrating the whole while the remarkable ways the whole region was shaped first by trade and cultural exchange and only latterly by actual politics or nation-building. The book's list of References extends to a heartening and multi-lingual forty pages.