Mitteleur­opa Book

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Since 2010, I’ve spent a lot of time in Cent­ral Europe for work, often visit­ing places you would be unlikely to go as a tour­ist. For a while now I’ve been putting togeth­er a book of essays about these places, mixing travelogue with history and cultur­al discus­sion (I stud­ied German and History at univer­sity). It’s coming out next month (final cover design not yet final­ised), and pre-orders would be grate­fully received. 14 differ­ent essays with illus­trated intro pages, about 7 differ­ent coun­tries. Paper­backs are £12. UK post­age is free, inter­na­tion­al calcu­lated by weight.


Carni­val and Sautanz: Small town carni­vals, Kram­pus, the platon­ic ideal of pubs, forgot­ten corners of Austria, Austria’s Cath­ol­ic Fascism era pre-Anschluss, and Stefan Zweig
Real Life Zelda: Caves, moun­tains, herbs, monas­ter­ies, quests and home-made taxi­dermy,
Wien­er Blut: Habs­burgs, The Cold War, Freud, Schiele, Hunder­t­wasser, art school (and why they rejec­ted Hitler) and Falco

Czech­ia & Slov­akia:

Kafka Himself: The OG Sad Boi, a small circle of Prague, Czech punk, and liter­ary eating
Puppets of Prague: Stop motion anim­a­tion, black light theatre, Jan Švank­ma­jer, Jiři Trunka, Zdeněk Miler and why you should beware of pota­toes in the cellar
Xanadu: Brat­is­lava, the Cold War secrets of the Big Tesco, halls of mirrors, and mirages on the hori­zon


Lignite: Cheap nasty coal, life in the former DDR, the Stasi, 1980s Dresden, Ostal­gia, the former Check­point Alpha at Helms­tedt, Berlin in the 2000s, and modern day Magde­burg and Schönin­gen
Vergan­gen­heits­be­wäl­ti­gung: East and West Germany and Austria’s attempts (or lack of them) to come to terms with the Nazi era and Holo­caust, visit­ing Dachau and Mauthausen, and Primo Levi.
The Proud Repub­lic of the Swamp: Dittmarschen: no masters, no lead­ers, no kings, no hills, Otto Waalkes and the Ottiphants, field record­ings in swamps and canals, salmiakki and genu­ine soil samples from Wack­en metal fest.


The Versailles of Hungary: The mirror-world of the Austria-Hungary border, how the Hungari­an language works, Sandór Petöfi and the 1848 Revolu­tion, forgot­ten palaces, discount dent­ists and Vikt­or Orbán.
Terrorháza: Hungari­an fascism, the 1956 Revolu­tion and Khrushchev’s reac­tion, tour­ing the former secret police headquar­ters with the world’s most annoy­ing Amer­ic­an Army Dad,
Guly­as commun­ism & New Wave: 70s and 80s Hungary, Hungari­an New Wave music, and being trapped on a 80s Hungari­an Pop karaoke party on a boat on the Danube


Cent­ral Europe’s premiere micro­state, full of money laun­der­ing, €5 crisps, modern art, Balzers castle and seeing the entire coun­try via the no 11 bus.


Metelkova autonom­ous district, Žižek, prehis­tor­ic music, thun­der­storms and train jour­neys from hell.


Here is the intro­duc­tion to the section about East Germany.

Lignite is a type of low grade coal formed from compressed peat. It’s brown and greasy, has a tend­ency to self-combust, and contains a large amount of sulphur and impur­it­ies, creat­ing extra pollu­tion when burned. It’s cheap, nasty, dirty stuff dug from giant open cast pits, rather than from under­ground tunnels, leav­ing extremely visible scars on the land­scape. East Germany was the world’s largest produ­cer, and most of the country’s energy needs were met by burn­ing lignite, wheth­er in industry or at home. Lignite wasn’t effi­cient or clean, but it was very cheap and didn’t require paying for any expens­ive imports or updated tech­no­logy. East Germany doesn’t have any oilfields, and after the Soviet Union star­ted demand­ing hard currency (ie US dollars) in payment for oil in the 70s, rather than the previ­ously more gener­ous trade deal for East German products, they turned to using coal slurry water, or even more pollut­ing chem­ic­al tech­niques to turn coal into synthet­ic dies­el and petrol.⁠1  

When I was a child in the 90s, acid rain was a seri­ous envir­on­ment­al worry, and topic in school geography lessons. You might wonder why you don’t hear about acid rain much these days. A major reas­on in Europe is that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a huge effort to clean up the “Black Triangle” span­ning East Germany, Poland and the Czech Repub­lic, home to heavy industry powered by burn­ing lignite. At one point in the 80s, the pollu­tion and acid rain was so bad that it killed all the trees on the moun­tains in the area.

Closed down coalfields span the former border between East and West Germany, and the land­scapes on both sides of the divide are still pitted with giant holes from the open cast mining. The Hambach open cast mine further west near Cologne is still oper­at­ing as a giant open pit nearly 300m deep, and is the site of massive protests, about both the pollu­tion and the destruc­tion of the ancient forest there. The Ende Gelände⁠2 ecolo­gic­al move­ment has been attempt­ing to preserve the last remnants of the Hambach Forest and its rare bats since 2012 via civil disobedi­ence, block­ades and court battles, finally achiev­ing a protec­tion order for the forest in 2020. EG is frequently targeted by the far-right and anti-ecolo­gic­al AfD party⁠3, whose voter base is iron­ic­ally mainly in the ex-indus­tri­al and mining towns in the former East that were so badly affected by the coal pollu­tion.

In the UK we have a notori­ously reac­tion­ary loud-mouthed politi­cian known as “30p Lee”, due to him mock­ing strug­gling people who his party’s policies have forced into the posi­tion of surviv­ing on food bank parcels, claim­ing you can cook a full dinner for 30p4 and they are just lazy slack­ers. He recently asser­ted that only “odd weirdos” care about the envir­on­ment and coal is a renew­able resource due to being formed from fossil­ised trees⁠5. This was partic­u­larly egre­gious as he constantly talks about being a former coal miner himself. People star­ted mock­ing him online, saying what kind of coal miner doesn’t know that coal was formed under a completely differ­ent ecosys­tem millions of years ago, takes thou­sands of years to form new seams anyway, and is prob­ably impossible under modern climat­ic and bacteri­al condi­tions. The conver­sa­tion quickly shif­ted from “what an embar­rass­ment Lee Ander­son is” to the wonders of the Carbon­ifer­ous peri­od.

The Carbon­ifer­ous is like a Rousseau paint­ing come to life. Its name mean “coal bear­ing” and it covers the peri­od from roughly 360 to 300 million years ago⁠6.  For most of this time, the Earth was covered with trop­ic­al rain­forests and swamps spread over one huge super­con­tin­ent named Pangaea centred on the south­ern hemi­sphere, with an aver­age year round temper­at­ure of 20℃. The place­ment of the super­con­tin­ent created completely differ­ent ocean currents and weath­er patterns to  our current world, with intense super-monsoons. The trees looked more like giant ferns and horse­tails than modern trees, and most of them repro­duced via spores, like a mush­room. Flowers and fruit wouldn’t exist for anoth­er 200 million years. Even the sea water had a differ­ent chem­istry to today, and teemed with squid, worms, sharks, coel­acanths, and giant sea scor­pi­ons. An alien plan­et.

It is believed the air had a much high­er oxygen content than now- around 30% as opposed to the current 21%, and dry land was domin­ated by huge amphi­bi­ans and insects, which could grow far larger than modern ones due to the increased oxygen. The species of dragon­fly called Megan­eura had a wing­span of 70cm, about the same length as a human arm. The genus of milli­pedes known as Athropleura could reach 2.5m long, and weigh 50kg, leav­ing behind giant track marks still seen in fossils. Huge crocodile-like sala­man­ders known as Labyrintho­don­tia (maze-tooths) roamed the swamps as apex pred­at­ors of the giant cock­roaches and scor­pi­ons. No birds, no mammals, no dino­saurs, no flowers, just endless green swamps filled with huge insects.

Trees them­selves were fairly new, and there weren’t as many kinds of bacteria and fungi that could digest the tough lignin fibres in the trees as there are now, result­ing in huge peat depos­its in the swampy ground under the forests. Millen­nia of geolo­gic­al pres­sure turned this peat into coal, the high­er the pres­sure and heat, the more concen­trated and pure the coal seam.

At the end of the Carbon­ifer­ous peri­od, climate change and volcan­ic erup­tions resul­ted in much drier and colder condi­tions, result­ing in the collapse of the rain­forests. The centre of the super­con­tin­ent turned into desert. Large amphi­bi­ans struggled to survive in the new drier condi­tions, and reptiles took their place. Isol­ated patches of rain­forest remained, partic­u­larly on islands, but the frog’s para­dise⁠7 was over.

The essay then goes on to discuss life in the former DDR, the Stasi, 1980s Dresden, Ostal­gia, the former Check­point Alpha at Helms­tedt, Berlin in the 2000s, and modern day Magde­burg and Schönin­gen.


1 North Korea still produces synthet­ic fibres for cloth­ing from coal for simil­ar econom­ic reas­ons.

The Nazis also tried using waste products from a vari­ation on this process to make “coal butter” margar­ine in WWII, which was surpris­ingly tasty, but had an unfor­tu­nate side effect of giving you organ fail­ure. They mostly fed it to submar­ine crews who they didn’t expect to survive anyway.

2 “End of the Story” with an added pun about land usage

3 Who also claim that increased CO2 levels are bene­fi­cial

4 Around $0.37 USD or €0.35 at the time of writ­ing.

5 Much along the same lines as his friend Mike Graham’s infam­ous tv appear­ance where he tried to argue with an envir­on­ment­al­ist that you can “grow” concrete.

6 Dino­saurs wouldn’t appear for anoth­er 100 million years.

7 Frogs wouldn’t actu­ally exist for anoth­er 200 million years.

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