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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