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A Social, Architectural and Cultural History of the Nordic Countries, 1700-1940
Reaktion Books, London, 2000. Hardcover, ISBN 1 86189 041 9.
Author : Neil Kent


As the full title of the book suggests, this is a comprehensive history of nordic countries spanning a wide period.

As a book displaying substantial scholarship, it is well suited to the the student of the region who wishes to dip into it to get his or her bearings on particular events or aspects of culture.

For example, Dr Kent's summary of the division of Schleswig is concise but does not eschew offering personal opinions :

"Only after the defeat of Germany were plebiscites held in Schleswig in 1920 on the matter of national self-determination: in the north of the duchy, 70 per cent of the population voted to be reunited with Denmark; in the south, 80% determined to remain within Germany. With the desires of of these regional majorities taken in to consideration, the thorny identity of the two duchies was resolved until the present day, a solution successfully surviving even the dislocations of National Socialism in Germany and the Second World War. A contemporary painting, Christian X Crossing the Old Danish Frontier (1921; illus.180) commemorates the return of North Schleswig and the king's first visit there after the German cession, on 10 July 1920. Riding a white horse and warmly greeted by the local population, the allegorical importance of the event seemed justly auspicious for the future of the region. Now ethnic Danes in German Schleswig-Holstein could attend their own schools and preserve their own cultural identity, while Germans in the north of Schleswig were similarly permitted to maintain their 'Germanness', one of the few success stories of post-war European self-determination."

Given that nordic culture spans geographically wide in the period 1700-1940, from Finland to Caribbean islands, from Greenland to Swedish Pomerania in what is now Poland, one can be particularly thankful for the comprehensiveness of the illustrations included by the author.

Indeed, the illustrations bring across the plurality of cultural influences on Scandinavia. The plates for Jean-Louis Desprez, a French-born artist and architect show the essentially classical and Mediterranean influences he brought to Sweden as the court architect in Gustav III's reign.

The book also throws interesting light on Karl XIV Johan's - himself French-born as Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte - interest in Norse gods, to the point of naming his only son, Oskar, after a figure of Norse mythology found in a fraudulent, epic poem by the Scottish poet, James Macpherson.

One awaits with interest Kent's next book in the publisher's series on Italy and his contribution to a forthcoming Cambridge University Press book, The Influence of Italy on Northern Europe.