I love maps. Am absolutely fascinated by maps. As a boy I had a map of the moon and a map of Mars decorating the walls of my room. Yes, I know. I am a nerd and am proud of it, too. Recently, I have read a book about maps, “How the world was mapped”, a book I can absolutely recommend. A bit Eurocentric, even Britocentric, at times, but what can you do – the heydays of mapping the world were the heydays of the British empire, too. But that’s not my point here. My point is that the main thing I’ve learned from that book is that maps are never objective. All maps are not more than bits of misinformation, incomplete, biased, not to be trusted sketches, that represent the wishful thinking of those who ordered them, the limited knowledge and abilities of those who made them and are perceived through the expectations of those who look at them.
As an example, here are a few maps that will not help you understand Europe but will perhaps help you appreciate its complexity.
As continents come, Europe is relatively small. But it has a rather odd shape, with huge penninsulas sticking out in the North, South-West and South-East, and it is jammed into the huge mass of Asia in the East, so there is no “climate of Europe” to speak of. In the far north, there are polar deserts, around the Kaspian Sea there are “proper” deserts. The Western edges of Europe are soaking wet, while the steppes in the East are dusty and dry.
Culture is above all language. Europe has a long history of nation-states, longer than any continent. That history includes repeated attempts to suppress and extinct cultural minorities, either physically, by shifting boundaries or by enforcing the dominant culture (and, thus, language). Despite all this, most European countries still poses a significant linguistical (and, thus, cultural) minority. The depth of this rift is best illustrated by Ukraine, where language boundaries are literally front lines.
Europe is the most densely populated continent. That, however, is just the average number. As in other continents, Europe’s population is largely concentrated in a small area, with swaths of relatively sparsely populated land in between. And even in the most populated countries, there are thinly inhabited areas, like the Belgian Ardennes, or the Massif Central in France.
For centuries, the politics of Europe has been, above all, politics of religion. East vs West, Christianity vs Islam, Catholics vs Protestants, everyone against the Jews. These ancient conflicts and fault lines are still there, even if they only masquerade as social, economic or ideological conflicts.
The division of Europe into regions is a mess. Just a few years ago it was clear – you had the Iron Curtain neatly dividing Europe in two. Nowadays? It’s anyone’s guess. Call Poland Eastern Europe and they’d claim they are Central Europe. I recently got in trouble for naming Finland a Baltic state. The CIA factbook does probably the most comprehensive job, dividing Europe into 7 regions, that, at least to me, make a lot of sense.