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Book Review: The Baltic

Title: The Baltic
Author: Alan Palmer
Number of Pages: 464
Physical Book or E-book: Physical
Genre: Nonfiction
Series: None
Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Review: This book took me a disgustingly long time to read, considering how fast I can normally plow through 400 odd pages. I know the official page count is 464, but about 50 of that is index and appendices that, if you've read the book, you can just use as reference as you progress and Palmer refers back to something or someone.

There are three maps in the beginning of the book with place names and a table of place names and how they changed during history. For example, Tallinn, the current capital of Estonia was Reval to everyone else up until about eighty years ago. And, of course, the ever famous changing names of St. Petersburg. But the maps are helpful for those like me who don't know much about Baltic geography. I've learned a bit recently with my Viking Studies, but we mostly focused on the areas outside the Baltic, so it didn't really stick.

Some of the Amazon.com reviewers have said that Palmer was trying to out more in this book than should be in one volume. Considering that David Kirby did break things up in his two volume set that covers 1492 until 1993 with a break at 1772, this argument could be valid. One thing I know: this books was incredibly dense with historic facts including names, dates and places. For that reason alone, the extra tables were helpful. Even with those, I still had to go back from time to time because I just couldn't remember who one guy was and, more importantly, what side he was on.

One note: though most people these days consider the Baltic to be Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, it actually also encompasses Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany and parts of Poland and the book, therefore, also includes those areas. While I was originally looking for some history covering Estonia especially (since I've been taken over by a strange fascination with the place), I enjoyed learning more about Northern Europe as a broad topic.

My primary grievance with this book was in the third chapter when Palmer talked about the Viking conquests in the Baltic. His understanding of Viking culture was weak in places and plain wrong in others. For example, in the first paragraph concerning the Vikings, Palmer says,"Originally the Vikings were little more than pirates who went a-plundering from personal greed." This is a grave misconception. While the Vikings could be a brutal people, they went raiding as part of their culture. The leader of a Viking village, the gođi, to keep his power, was required to show that he had wealth in food and supplies. When supplies ran out in the Viking territories, they turned to raiding. While many probably were greedy, it was not the only motivation.

Because of that mistake, I did take everything in the third chapter with a grain of salt as well as some of the descriptions of outside cultures. However, he did get a lot of other things correct, including the sacking of Lindesfarne by Viking raiders.

Because the Baltic is such a strategic location, this book covered a lot of military campaigns as well as commercial treaties. While that did bog things down (and probably contributed to how long it took me to read this book), it is something that anyone making a study of the area needs to know. I don't expect to remember all of the names, dates and places. However, when looking at maps and reading other books, I will understand the reason behind mentioned disputes of the Vilnius region and why the Øresund was such a historically important part of Danish trading capital.

This book was an introduction for me, giving me an idea of what other things I want to look into with further reading. However, this was an introduction to the *history* of the Baltic. There was little mention of cultural differences beyond the religions differences that caused a number of wars in Europe. It did almost nothing to discuss the linguistic divides and cultural heritage. While I learned that the Lithuanians especially used their culture to resist Soviet occupation, I'm still not sure what those differences are.

Furthermore, I feel that the post World War II coverage was spotty at best. Palmer did discuss briefly the influence of NATO, the Warsaw Pact, the Nordic Council and the Baltic Council, it felt more like an epilogue. Furthermore, the independence fights for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were covered only briefly and the aftermath of even that was only mentioned as an aside when discussing the setbacks to joining the EU. Since I am hoping to study how that very area has been effected by Post-Soviet economic forces, especially as related the eurozone, this was a glaring omission.

This book is not light reading. I recommend it for anyone looking for an all encompassing history of a dynamic region and as a stepping off point for further studies. However, I feel that it will only appeal to the history buff and the political scientist. As I am the second, I give it 4 of 5 stars.

Yearly Totals:
Number of Books Read: 5
Number of Pages Read: 1582

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