Disco on Mak, 'Amsterdam'

Geert Mak. Amsterdam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. xiii + 338 pp. $31.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-00331-6.

Reviewed by Cornelis Disco (Department of Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands)
Published on H-Urban (September, 2001)

Geert Mak is a celebrated Dutch journalist and hereditary Amsterdammer. His publications and television appearances have brought a new eminence to the production of history in the Netherlands. Like the well-known work of Simon Schama, Mak's history unfolds as interwoven sequences of stories taking off from a wide variety of present-day relics and locations. With the publication of Amsterdam, a translation of his Kleine geschiedenis van Amsterdam (1994), Harvard University Press has made Mak's imaginative historical journalism available to an international audience for the first time.

Mak's book is an ambitious account of the development of Amsterdam from its founding in the twelfth century to the present day. This is of some world-historical relevance, inasmuch as Amsterdam dominated world-trade and finance during the Dutch "golden age" from about 1580 to 1675. Though Mak by no means dwells on this period, he appreciates the special significance of Amsterdam's glory days and the book is also an effort to account for Amsterdam's rise to prominence and its subsequent decline. Although this story has already been told, Mak's imaginative husbanding of resources and his unique quotidian perspective make this a different kind of effort to reframe the puzzle of Amsterdam's greatness and decline.

Amsterdam belongs to the genre of "urban biography" the basic premise of which is that cities have continuity and some kind of "identity" across time. In spite of morphological, demographic, political and economic transformations, the claim is that there are relatively deep structures which shape the city's development in ways that may distinguish it from others. These deep structures are originally accidents of location and history, but they persist across time and become determinants of further developments. Mak argues that in every age, but most especially in its "golden" one, Amsterdam's deep structure was a unique political and economic culture based on the creative assimilation of money-making to religious and ideological beliefs. This culture kept religious dogmatism and feudal despotism equally at bay, fostered a kind of tolerance based on negotiation and mutual self-interest, and encouraged the accumulation, rather than the ostentatious display, of capital.

These points have been made before--among others by Mak himself. But where others might have recourse to economic statistics and the contextual history of international power struggles, Mak sticks close to his journalistic instincts and consistently looks at the big picture through the eyes of individual Amsterdammers. These eye-witnesses in fact bear the burden of demonstrating Mak's thesis about Amsterdam's special identity.

Mak's talent for ferreting out material and textual sources and for re-presenting them as the everyday context of the past is without question the most remarkable feature of the book. Mak has an extraordinary talent for mustering clues: weaving archeological fragments, works of art, diaries, official records and whatever else comes to hand into incisive and sometimes poignant stories. These sometimes border on imaginative guesswork, (though by no means fantasy) but as Mak explains: "Our collective memory, whether or not it is receptive to the written word, is as loose as dry sand; apart from the most essential facts, the rest is guesswork" (p. 40).

Take, for example, the story of Else Christiaens. Mak begins by describing two small drawings by Rembrandt van Rijn which hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. They show front and side views of the corpse of a young woman strung up on a gibbet in the Volewijk, a place across the IJ from Amsterdam where executed prisoners were left to the elements and the carrion birds. Thanks to the work of archivalist Isabella van Eeghen, the identity of the young woman has recently been established. She was Else Christiaens, a Danish girl, 18 years of age, who had been in the city for no more than 14 days when on May 1, 1664 she was tried and convicted of the murder of her landlady. On the basis of the trial proceedings, Mak recounts the sad story of this new immigrant to the wealthy metropolis: a story of poverty, extortion, possible threats of forced prostitution, a violent argument which resulted in the death of the landlady, outraged witnesses and a trial marred by linguistic confusions. The verdict read: "To be garrotted on a pole until death ensues, and then to be beaten upon the head several times by the hangman with the same hatchet with which she killed the woman" (p. 98).

Mak artfully weaves this small vignette about an unknown servant girl, which certainly shows the golden metropolis at its cruellest, with a description of Rembrandt in his latter years. The older Rembrandt--out of favor, a widower, financially ruined, depressed--fascinated by this young victim of the city which now has also turned its back on him, once foremost among the outsiders.

Else's story clearly shows Amsterdam's celebrated religious and secular tolerance in a new and far less favorable light. Mak lets the readers draw their own conclusions but returns to this theme several times. One of the most gripping is the account of the German occupation during World War Two. The heroism of the Communist Party-inspired February strike against the deportation of Amsterdam's Jewish community contrasts sharply with the moral cowardice and even open collaboration of many Amsterdammers (and certainly of the Amsterdam police force).

Others of Mak's stories stick in the mind: the stories of the sounds and smells of medieval Amsterdam, the faces staring at us from sixteenth century paintings, the eyewitness accounts of the Amsterdam Reformation by a sixteenth century Augustinian friar fearing for his religion and his life, the mad writings of ex-mayor Van Beuningen at the close of the seventeenth century, the gossipy commentary of Bicker Raye on Amsterdam events a century later, the Eel Riot in the Jordaan in 1886, the February Strike of 1941, Gijs van Hall's fraudulent schemes to supply the Dutch wartime resistance with much needed finances, and Jasper Grootveld's "kabouter" movement of the 1960s. This is hardly all; indeed, wherever the evidence allows, Mak makes his points by telling stories, using "mere" illustration as the actual substance of the account and achieving continuity by noting connections to present-day locations and institutions, or by connecting aspects of the stories with each other.

However, if there is a problem with Mak's strategy of "historical journalism" it is certainly that of continuity and coherence. Telling stories takes time and pages and it is clear that there this history spanning nearly 750 years can only be told selectively. Given Mak's penchant for the maudlin and the bizarre, one suspects that the selection may have been based more on the availability of entertaining information than on strict relevance to the historical argument. Perhaps it doesn't really matter because it is impossible to do final justice to such a long and heterogeneous historical period anyway. The important question really is whether Mak is able to construct enough continuity among the stories to establish a plausible urban identity; to make it stick that in some sense the stories are all about the same entity, albeit one that has changed through time in many respects.

I think he succeeds in the first place because the stories--from the sublime to the ridiculous--all illustrate Amsterdam's unique and persisting penchant for moderation and compromise in the long run. To be sure there were doctrinaire principles and religious persecution. People were hanged and drowned, drawn and quartered even, but large-scale endemic massacres did not take place--even before the moderating effect of the reformation. In the end, living together, and above all, making money together has carried the day. This holds equally for the early-modern tolerance of other-believers as for the present day tolerance of purveyors of marihuana and hashish.

In addition to emphasizing this deep structure of accomodating principles to practical prosperity, Mak succeeds in integrating his book by enrolling witnesses from the same family over time or by juxtaposing the location of historical events with present-day landmarks. For example, speaking of a number of Anabaptists executed in 1535, Mak notes: "... the men were beheaded, and the women sewn into sacks and thrown into the IJ from the Haringpakkerstoren, near today's car park opposite the Central Station." Juxtapositions like this give a sense of immediacy and connection through time, for visitors to the city, but especially for Amsterdammers like myself who daily pass these spots.

The book is soberly illustrated in black and white, containing thirty illustrations and four maps showing Amsterdam at various stages of its expansion. The illustrations serve as counterpoints to the text and are well-chosen. Sometimes, in a manner reminiscent of Schama, they become explicit objects of contemplation as their contents are deconstructed in the text. The maps are indispensible for foreign readers, inasmuch as the text makes frequent reference to places and buildings.

Mak's book, albeit hardly a work of reflective historical scholarship in the sense of engaging in discussions of methods and sources in urban history, is nonetheless a praiseworthy endeavor in empirical scholarship. It is an inspiration to those of us looking for ways to revive the urban past as living history, rather than as a collection of dead resources. This method of "historical journalism" is however a highly personal one; it demands a detective's eye for detail and a writer's gift for wordcraft. Fortunately for Dutch readers, Mak's limpid Dutch prose is a treat to read, as the original version of this translation, Een kleine geschiedenis van Amsterdam amply attests.

More's the pity then that Harvard University Press seems to have cut corners in the preparation of this English edition. The translation (by Philipp Blom) only rarely does justice to Mak's fine prose style. Although it is competent, it too often succumbs to Dutch sentence structure and too literal translations, ironically marring the sense of balanced composition that Mak's Dutch texts inevitably possess. Much more care should also have been taken with production and proofreading. I counted no less than fifty errors including mispellings (even of proper names!), missing words, and other typos. In short, congratulations to Harvard Press on publishing this fine book, but shame on them for treating it so "stepmotherly" to use a Dutch metaphor which would not have missed translator Blom.

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Citation: Cornelis Disco. Review of Mak, Geert, Amsterdam. H-Urban, H-Net Reviews. September, 2001.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=5481

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