- The Baltic: A History by Michael North
This excellent, dense book joins a growing body of scholarly literature that forms “maritime history.” One should not mistake this book for any survey of the history of the Baltic state, for the state is not North’s point of reference but rather the sea itself (and succeeds in it to a limited degree). It is the story of the Baltic Sea and the humans who sailed across it with their goods and ideas. The edition published by Harvard University Press is a translation from the original German, done masterfully by Kenneth Kronenberg.
Ten chronological chapters make up this volume, corresponding to ten eras of Baltic history. The first three chapters are premodern and are divided approximately to ancient history, early medieval history, and late medieval history. Chapters 4–6 are early-modern, discussing “the Reformation and the Renaissance,” the era of “Swedish Dominance,” and the “Rise of the Russia.” The last four chapters are modern, devoting two chapters to “Nordic Romanticism” and “Revolutions and New States,” and two more chapters two “Sovietization versus Welfare States” and “Transformation and EU Integration.” This periodization allows readers who are unfamiliar with North European history to stay within the boundaries of their common vocabulary while still emphasizing the Nordic particularities of history.
In the introduction, North promises “a new perspective on the history of the Baltic and the surrounding region” after describing its “multiple perspectives and constructs.” He aims to discuss the Baltic as a “contact zone” of “cultural exchange,” considering the sea as “both connecting and separating the peoples living along its shores” as well as in the hinterland, since they “may not have crossed the sea themselves, [but] they were affected by the consequences of this contact both as producers and as consumers” (p. 8). Such goals are especially attractive in light of recent trends and scholarship and teaching of world history, which pay special attention to intraregional and interregional contexts, contacts, and encounters.
This dense volume is based on its narrative (and not on a broad analysis of structures) and includes swift travels over thousands of kilometers and hundreds of years. Counting on a synthesis of events, this book has two main limitations in this part: it is “German-minded” and lacks in coherence. Written originally for a German-speaking audience, it often takes for granted what might be common knowledge in German-speaking areas and yet delves into German history in depth that makes the narrative unbalanced. While it covers peripheral [End Page 288] regions as well, which traditional textbooks tend to neglect, its overemphasis on German history might be seen as an “adaption” to the original readership that was not amended when translated to English or as a way to compensate for belittling the German role by other textbooks. Another limitation of the book is the incoherence of the narrative. The rich narrative is full of facts, events, names, and numbers, which I feel do not live up to be a structured narrative, with readers being moved across timelines quickly back and forth, often required to make connections between events or to make sense of what they read by themselves. While specialists or general audience well read in the history of the relevant regions would probably be able to see through the “mess” and even appreciate its way of presentation, untrained readers will find it difficult to overcome such an obstacle.
I believe that the emphasis on connectivity and (successful) exchanges provides an overly-optimistic view of the history of this region, which knew blood and conflict perhaps twice as much as peace. It is true that even at times of conflicts trade often continued and occasionally even flourished, but the artificial emphasis on how the different actors cooperated, traded, and maintained the “ecosystem” might shadow the blood that was spilled into the sea, for it, and because of it. However, this is only minor in the work as the general narrative is very political history in nature (with complementing sections on social and economic history) and therefore does not...