“Extreme North: A Cultural History”
By Bernd Brunner, translated by Jefferson Chase; W.W. Norton & Co., 2022; 256 pages; $27.95.
Since antiquity, the North has occupied the European mind. For the Greeks, the legendary region of Hyperborea and the mythic northern island Ultima Thule offered a vision of an untarnished world, purer and closer to nature than that found in the city-states of their Mediterranean civilization. The North grew fearsome for the Romans, who extended their imperial reach far into it, yet lived in fear of the tribes that poured down from its wilder regions. Medieval Europeans lived in terror of pillaging Vikings from Scandinavia, yet today that same region of Europe is widely viewed as the most politically progressive and peaceful corner of the world, even as its myths, which were misappropriated by Nazi Germany, continue to inspire the most fervently racist white nationalists on the planet.
It’s a complicated history, with barely a fraction of it summarized above. And as the German historian Bernd Brunner demonstrates in “Extreme North: A Cultural History,” it’s a history that remains one-sided even for an author sympathetic to wider interpretations.
Let us first define what this book isn’t: it’s not a cultural history of the North. Brunner himself acknowledges that what constitutes the North is, by virtue of geography, difficult to define. What seems self-evident to Alaskans — we live in the North, after all — is a different concept to a refugee from Guatemala, or whom “north” means nothing more than Texas. If we’re to define the North as the Arctic and subarctic parts of the planet, however, as Brunner eventually gets around to doing, we still haven’t found the point of this book.
What “Extreme North” does seem to be about is the cultural response of Europeans, and especially Germans, to the idea of the North. For that, Brunner’s North is primarily Scandinavia (with occasional forays to Iceland). Greenland receives a bit of attention, while Alaska, Canada, and Russian Siberia barely warrant more than passing mention. The long histories of the panoply of Indigenous residents are all but ignored, with only a few listed by name.
From the start, Brunner seems unclear about where he wants to take this book. He opens and closes it in the cabinet of wonders kept by the Dane Ole Worm in the early- to mid-17th century. Filled with items collected from the North — including a narwhal tusk, which in those days still served as evidence of unicorns — the cabinet hints at the wonders to be uncovered by following the compass needle. The promise of those wonders is never fulfilled, unfortunately.
The early sections of the book summarize how mapmakers came to reckon with a part of the globe that remained largely unexplored by Europeans until recent centuries. Even the idea that the north should sit atop a map or globe only came into existence over time, we learn, and what lay in the region was the realm of theorists both fanciful and crackpot.
Once Europeans set out to fill the voids in their maps, Brunner’s account picks up pace, and readers join a parade of explorers, maritime captains, naturalists and ultimately tourists who traveled north, tending to find what they were looking for. Which is to say, a north that reflected their desires for it.
The 19th century was, in many ways, the zenith of Europe’s dalliance with its northernmost extension. Leisure tourism became accessible to an emerging middle class, coinciding with the popularization of Viking legends, seen as homegrown alternatives to the biblical tales set in the Levant. The North was put forward as the birthing ground of European culture, specifically Germanic culture, a misconception that would help lead Germany into the abyss the following century.
What Brunner barely touches on is the immense amount of effort Britain in particular was expending right then on exploring and mapping the Arctic, and how this expansion, often met with tragedy and failure, defined “North” in the minds of English, Canadian and American citizens, who learned to view the realm much differently than the Germans. And this is to say nothing about the impact the arrival of Europeans had on the Indigenous groups atop North America, Greenland, Scandinavia and Russia. The cultural history of the North is truly a history of a great many norths, often conflicting with each other, and while Brunner pays periodic attention to this fact, mostly he ignores it.
The book culminates in an examination of how Nordic legends, funneled through the search for a common identity sought by the varied Germanic peoples as they coalesced into a unified state, were exploited by Adolph Hitler and the Nazi leadership to create the myth of Aryan perfection. On this level, Brunner succeeds quite impressively. And he is explicit on the racist nature of Nazi views on northern culture, noting that “although Laplanders and Eskimos were denizens of the North, Hitler denied them any ability at all to create culture.”
Brunner doesn’t deny this ability on the part of the Indigenous, but he largely ignores it. He never explores the ways different people responded to the varied climates and ecosystems of the North, creating cultures in the process.
I don’t want to condemn Brunner’s work, it’s mostly quite good for what it is (although using the term “Eskimo” is an example of how he remains entrenched in a European outlook). In our present political moment, when misinterpreted Nordic myths are again feeding ethno-nationalist fever dreams, he’s issuing an important warning. Yet, if he’d paid more attention to the varied cultures of the North, he could have better refuted this misuse of history and culture. In attempting to show how Europeans have misunderstood and at times mistreated the North, he’s instead reinforced a very narrow conception of it. A different title or a broader focus would have served this book well. Readers can learn much from it, and it is lyrically written and translated. But they won’t finish it with an understanding of the cultural history of the North. It’s a good book; it’s just not what it presents itself as.