Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

January Books 5) Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City, by Russell Shorto

I didn't mention it at the time, but A, F, and I went up to Amsterdam for the long weekend at the start of November. It's only two and a half hours' drive from here. We got in by mid-afternoon on the Friday, and wandered around the city for the evening; then on Saturday morning we got up very early to see the Anne Frank House, and finished up with the Nemo Science Centre before trailing home on Saturday evening. Parking is pretty horrible, but there are workarounds.

It was the first time I had been there for over 20 years - A and I had visited briefly in 1992, and before that I guess we had gone the odd time during the year my family lived in the Netherlands in 1979-80. But you can't live in this corner of Europe and be unaware of it - the year we first moved to Belgium, I remember hosting an American friend who had just been there for a week and spent two days lying on our spare bed detoxing, and occasionally emerging for water and toast; and work quite often takes me to The Hague, which is always somehow in the shadow of its brash sibling (cousin? parent?) up the road. And I've passed through Schiphol airport several times, but that really doesn't count.

Even in my jaded middle years, it's still a pretty exciting city, with a diverse vibrancy combined with a strong aroma of marijuana that you just don't get elsewhere. I'd have liked longer to browse in the bookshops, but was satisfied enough with introducing A and F to Indonesian food (we don't get that here, the south-east Asian cuisine round here is Vietnamese or sometimes Thai or Chinese) and our other cultural excursions already mentioned. I won't leave it another 20 years before I go back. (Apart from anything else, I really want to go to the Van Gogh Museum.)

Russell Shorto has followed on from his fantastic book on Nieuw Amsterdam, The Island at the Centre of the World, which I hugely enjoyed back in 2005, with a history of the original from which New York took its template. There was lots of stuff here I didn't know, like Amsterdam's medieval significance as a cult centre, and the importance of the East India Company as a financial instrument and as a means of enriching the average citizen. It's also interesting to see bits and pieces put together - the marginal position of Amsterdam allowed it to develop a spirit of tolerance and freedom out of sight of local warlords, until the entire city suddenly became rich (I summarise brutally but fairly).

Shorto doesn't quite prove his main argument (expressed in his subtitle), which is that Amsterdam functioned as a beacon of tolerance which nurtured the creation of liberalism and modern civilisation; it was certainly important enough in that process, but there are sadly many examples of intolerance in the city's history. He also doesn't really situate Amsterdam in its wider Dutch, Low Countries, North-West Continental Europe context after the first few chapters; the forest is out of focus for the sake of a particularly large and interesting tree.

But he redeems this by going even smaller and following some of the personal histories of people who have built the historical image of Amsterdam, done much more briefly and humanely than Simon Schama. Three of them particularly stick with me - Spinoza, Rembrandt, and Anne Frank. The first two of these are of course world figures anyway, but it's interesting and indeed important to go through how Amsterdam as a city shaped their work. Spinoza in particular comes across as a vital link in the story of civilisation. The third is a more intricate and intimate tale.

I'm old enough to remember Otto Frank appearing on Blue Peter the year before he died (the caption to that video wrongly says 1976, but it was 1979), and I vaguely remember reading the book and visiting the achterhuis in 1980. It's a really big thing now. The House opens at 9 am; we joined the queue at 0850, and there were nearly 200 people in front of us; by the time we got in at 0940, the queue was easily three times as long as when we had arrived. Get there early, folks; or pre-buy tickets (it was a holiday weekend so we didn't have that option).

And it's a gut-wrenching experience. You know what the story is; I wrote about it a few years back. The moments in the house that really turned me inside out were the pictures cut out from magazines that Anne had stuck on the walls of the tiny room she shared with the dentist, as colour from the outside world to lighten the appalling situation that they were in; and the post-war interviews with Otto Frank, a man who had lost everything but somehow turned his daughter's account into a triumph of the human spirit. I bought the Dutch original of the diary, and will read it soon. (One point that occurs to me now: the Frank girls, who moved to Amsterdam when they were 8 and 4, probably spoke Dutch with that very distinct Holland accent which I have begun to notice much more since I moved to Belgium. Their parents of course were German.)

Shorto starts and ends his book by interviewing Frieda Menco, a childhood friend of Anne Frank's, whose family went into hiding the same week as the Franks, but were betrayed at the same time, and who then unbelievably met up with the Franks again in Auschwitz. He follows through the history of the city in the late twentieth century, when the student protests broke out in the 1960s (against a mayor whose record in the Resistance was impeccable but forgotten). These are important stories too, particularly for gay rights (as that set of issues first became known) and integration of immigrants. But it feels like a slightly adolescent and oblivious footnote to the deadly drama of the Holocaust.

The book is paced slightly oddly as a result of Shorto's particular concentrations. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are not well served. But I think the average reader will forgive this; it's a history of the manifestation of a political idea, not a blow by blow chronology. (After all, Gibbon skipped most of the Byzantine Empire.) It's not quite as excellent a book as The Island at the Centre of the World, but it's still very very good.
Tags: bookblog 2014, world: netherlands, writer: anne frank, writer: russell shorto

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