Germany: Memories of a Nation, by Neil MacGregor, Allen Lane, 640 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0241008331
Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern, by Simon Winder, 480 pp, £6.99, ISBN: 978-0330451406
The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century, by Peter Watson, Simon and Schuster, 992 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1416526155
Chancellor Merkel and prime minister Cameron have recently been doggedly cultivating their relationship, including through family get-togethers at Chequers and in a German Schloss. This is happening as the old order in the European Union is looking increasingly listless and outworn, and the new order, whatever it is to be, has not yet defined itself.
The quality of British-German relations will be one of the defining influences on the European future. It is a matter, therefore, in which Ireland has an acute interest, both because of our political commitment to a thriving European Union in general, and because we are situated on a major fault-line along which break-up can occur.
For most of our EU membership, Ireland has enjoyed a flexible à la carte menu – British dishes on taxation issues, à la française for agriculture, a Scandinavian plate for peace-keeping and development aid, and so on. Our negotiators skilfully mixed and matched to provide, for the most part, very congenial fare. We are now entering a phase of more rigid fixed menus, and, it might be added, political chefs more attuned to short-order cooking than political haute cuisine. Our choices will be more difficult and constricted, and in some cases downright unpalatable.
There are few reasons to warrant great expectations from the Merkel-Cameron dialogue and many to justify modest ones. Both leaders are arch-pragmatists and have a good sense of the dangerous imponderables which British disengagement from the EU would introduce for both sides. They have therefore a strong incentive to do a deal, if they can. One possible approach might be to cast the Brussels machine in the role of sacrificial victim, to seal a new pact on subsidiarity, suitably “sexed up” and no doubt rebranded in terms less redolent of the Vatican.
On the other hand, their pragmatism means that both leaders are predominantly specialists in reactive and defensive policies. The chancellor espouses minimum necessary movement, which often means the latest possible movement. This strategy of choice offers her the advantage that her decisions are taken with the fullest possible reconnaissance of the forces in play and also deflects the odium she might attract through her decisions being seen as motivated personal choice rather than some external necessity.
The prime minister suffers chronically, and it may be, terminally, from a lack of political room for manoeuvre and is of necessity confined to similarly reactive policies. Hilary Clinton’s acerbic observation, made for President Obama’s benefit, that great nations need organising principles and that “don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organising principle, applies just as forcefully to the European Union. Chancellor Merkel is probably the European leader least likely to “do stupid stuff”, a quality rightly appreciated by her electorate. Sometimes though, the sum of many safe and shrewd tactical decisions adds up to a clear strategic failure, a truth the chancellor could garner from some recent Irish political careers if she ever had the leisure to study them.
The British and German leaders have to surmount their respective political constraints and limitations and to meet the challenges they share with other European leaders of finding a new political consensus, or renovating the old one, so as to offer European citizens something they can view with positive support and approval, in contrast to the present pattern of variously motivated but near universal misgiving. There is an important additional hurdle owing to the shadow of history which still falls over their relationship, most heavily, it must be admitted, on the British side. Here, however, there are hopeful signs of thaw and suggestions that the British-German relationship might be slowly reverting to what it was for most of history – generally benign and for periods downright admiring, as the Prussia Streets in various British and Irish cities still testify. A number of recent books reflect, and hopefully will reinforce, this welcome trend.
A recent Merkel-Cameron meeting was very appropriately held in the British Museum, in the context of an exhibition on Germany curated by the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor. MacGregor has pioneered the approach of using objects to narrate history, an approach borrowed by Fintan O’Toole in his successful History of Ireland in 100 Objects. MacGregor feels this artefact-led approach corrects the bias involved in overreliance on written sources, which tends to devalue or ignore many significant currents of history not so documented. He is particularly qualified to curate an exhibition on Germany, since he is completely at home in the language and culture, a familiarity that has its origins in a teenage stay in Hamburg organised for him by his parents. (The choice of Hamburg was based apparently on the belief of his Scottish Calvinist parents that this was the corner of the Continent likely to be furthest removed from the blandishments of Rome.) It is rumoured in Germany that Merkel’s visit had the ulterior motive of head-hunting McGregor to lead the proposed Humboldt Forum, a new cultural institute to be housed in the restored shell of the old Hohenzollern Palace in Berlin.
The exhibition was the subject of a much-praised series of broadcasts on the BBC and an accompanying book has now been published entitled Germany: Memories of a Nation. Six hundred pages long, profusely illustrated and weighing about half a kilo, this will not be a popular choice of reading for a Ryanair flight. Its ponderousness is, however, entirely physical. In style and content MacGregor’s erudition is worn lightly. He skilfully carves the potentially overwhelming mass of his subject into a series of more digestible themes and vignettes, adding his own occasionally quirky take on things. The book is not a history of Germany in any conventional sense, but its impressionistic approach is used to great effect to afford the reader a cumulative sense of the complexities of a society which has many glories to its credit, as well of course as one of the darkest and most abject interludes in human history.
Central to MacGregor’s analysis is the fluidity and shape-shifting of Germany’s past, which make a single coherent narrative of German history so difficult. The ultimate and profoundly ironic result of Hitler’s megalomaniac drive for expansion was a drastic shrinkage of German territory. For example, Königsberg, the city of Immanuel Kant and one which played a significant role in the fate of the Hohernzollerns, now exists as the Russian enclave Kaliningrad. The reflux of the German population –twelve to fourteen million refugees in all – in the aftermath of the war was an episode of such immense human suffering as to rival the catastrophes of the war itself, even if it did not register much in the wider world, the Germans understandably being seen as the authors of their own misfortunes. The same perception also muted Germans’ own treatment of the enormous human tragedy.
MacGregor is at pains to rehabilitate the Holy Roman Empire from Voltaire’s famous jibe that it was neither holy, Roman or an empire. He argues that at various stages of its thousand-year existence it was all three, and did exactly what it said on the tin. His thesis is that the chaotic impression one might take from a map or organisation-chart of the empire belied an underlying coherence, for example that its plethora of currencies were in fact based on common imperial standards, and less of a practical problem than one might think. The untidy, almost comic proliferation of political entities within the empire afforded a diversity which sheltered the civic culture of Goethe’s Frankfurt as well as the comic-opera minor principalities more often associated with it. Moreover the empire achieved the astounding feat of bridging the Catholic-Protestant divide, retaining allegiance on both sides of the Reformation split. It may be that the experience of overlapping or interlocking political authority which characterised so much of German history is a better psychological preparation for the modern world than the rigidly centralised state which Prussia, in emulation of France, and to some extent of Great Britain, imposed on it.
MacGregor’s discussion of the German language does full justice to the extraordinary literary genius of Martin Luther in singlehandedly forging a biblical translation which blended the dignity of style owed to the Scriptures with the verve and savour of colloquial German speech, thereby leaving an indelible imprint on the language. He devotes a chapter to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, arguably Germany’s most far-reaching impact on world history, and also the necessary pre-condition for Luther’s own world-altering role. The invention was not so much a eureka moment on Gutenberg’s part as a wonderfully inventive blending of several technologies already flourishing in the Rhineland – the wine-press, metallurgical skills, varnishing technologies – together with a reliable supply of quality Italian paper. Gutenberg’s triumph derived from his anticipation of many business and marketing techniques which subsequently became standard: he was more the Bill Gates of his day than the lonely inventor.
MacGregor’s chapters on individual artists are valuable essays in their own right, in particular the immensely humane Käthe Kollwitz, whose art so movingly conveys the human suffering of her era. (The Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny, set in the bare framework of Schinkel’s exquisite little Neueu Wache building in Berlin, houses a single Kollwitz statue of a mother with her dead child. Helmut Kohl, whose inspired choice it was, was criticised for having scaled the statue up from miniature to life size, but such pedantry is rebuked by the utter dignity radiating from the monument, surely among the most moving of its kind anywhere in the world.)
Another chapter is devoted to Tilman Riemenschneider, whom MacGregor compares to Donatello. An artist not sufficiently known outside Germany, his mostly limewood sculptures on religious themes have a grave, almost anguished dignity, an inwardness which MacGregor sees as foreshadowing the pietistic strand which was to become so significant in the German psychological mix. In spite of the vulnerability of the medium, a large body of his work survives, partly because of Luther’s greater toleration of images and partly because the complicated mosaic of the Holy Roman Empire once again proved an asset, operating against wholesale destruction of religious art such as occurred in Reformation England.
Of his generally illuminating treatment of various artists, that of Goethe is perhaps the least satisfactory. MacGregor does justice to his career as a public man and as role model of choice for German’ aspiration to be cultivated and urbane citizens of the world. The foundation of Geothe’s greatness was his genius in playing all the registers of the German language. That is difficult to convey without recourse to the language, a knowledge of which MacGregor does not presume in his readers. His treatment of music, the nation’s most original and superb contribution to world culture, is also rather scanty, given the role that art plays in German self-expression and self-image.
On the history of the Jews in Germany, MacGregor offers no overarching theory. One of the exhibits which touches on the issue is a gate from Buchenwald concentration camp, situated in bleakly ironic proximity to classical Weimar. The gate carries the inscription Jedem das Seine, “to each his due” (a translation of the Latin suum cuique, a motto featuring in various Prussian contexts, usually as an affirmation of justice). The Buchenwald lettering is in Bauhaus style script, held to be degenerate in Nazi eyes. The attractive idea that it was a two-edged irony, intended to console the inmates with reflections on the ultimate fate of their captors, is not borne out by the record of the artist, who prospered under Nazi patronage.
MacGregor cautions against seeing the terrible fate of the Jews as a linear progression from Luther’s notorious anti-Semitic rants right down to the Holocaust. The treatment of Jews in Germany was, by contemporary standards, comparable or better than that they receivedin most European countries. Frederick the Great shrewdly observed that “to oppress the Jews never brought prosperity to any country” and many German rulers harnessed Jewish organisational and financial acumen to manage the taxation of their subjects, arguably deflecting to these managers an odium in the folk memory which belonged more properly to the rulers themselves. The paradox of the Holocaust – to the degree that its victims were German Jews ‑ is that it was perpetrated against a community closely integrated into the fabric of society. MacGregor expresses bafflement, rather than proffering any deeper explanation as to why the scapegoating of Jews as the sinister and manipulative enemy within succeeded so disastrously under the Nazis. As a sign of hope he points to the increased immigration of Jews to Germany in recent decades, starting with some two hundred thousand Russians accommodated by Helmut Kohl in the 1990s.
If one had to recommend a single book to a cultured English-speaking reader anxious to “get” Germany it would be difficult to make a better choice than MacGregor’s very readable, well-informed and fair-minded account. It is necessarily selective, but intelligently so and its digressive approach is purposeful rather than haphazard. One almost hopes he does not take the Humboldt Forum job as there is still work for him to do in Britain in persuading some of his fellow intellectuals that Churchill’s tribute to Britain’s “finest hour” does not depend for vindication on demonising what is currently probably Europe’s most robust democracy. The German view, memorably articulated by the recently deceased former president Richard von Weizsäcker, is that the war culminated not in the defeat but in the liberation of Germany. That is surely the basis for a recovered British-German entente.
Simon Winder’s Germania, published in 2010, is another laudable, and happily popular, attempt to make Germany comprehensible to an English-speaking readership. Acknowledging a British tendency to shun Germany due to the enormity of Nazi crimes, Winder asks whether there is a point where this quarantine becomes too mutilating to Europe’s culture, in effect obliquely endorsing Hitler’s warped view of his own country. His aim is to reclaim a part of Europe which “for almost all its history has been no less attractive and no more or less admirable than many other countries … Germany is a place without which European culture makes no sense and for over thirty years Germans have been working strenuously to rebuild that culture in a way that while admitting the legacy of the Third Reich allows that earlier past to shine again.”
These goals are all the more praiseworthy in a British context, where the default setting is too often a reflex of hostility and caricature. Its persistence is probably due to many factors. The immemorial insular distrust of the continent is now a vehicle through which an inadmissible anger at Britain’s shrunken role in the world can be channelled in acceptable terms. The populist instincts of the tabloids dovetail with the concerns of their plutocrat owners to demonise a European system where, in spite of signs to the contrary, the virus of social-market notions might still be latent. There is also a woeful imbalance between German knowledge of British life and culture and the reverse awareness on the British side. One feels instinctively supportive of Winder in his mission to redress this imbalance and to dismantle ingrained prejudices.
Anyone who comes to the book after MacGregor’s will recognise many familiar landscapes from the MacGregor tour, so to speak. They will find however that the guide is no longer the gravely erudite museum curator, but a chirpy undergraduate type, who clearly read 1066 and All That at an impressionable age. Fearing no doubt that pedantry is an occupational hazard of German specialists, Winder goes to sometimes frantically jocular lengths to ward off contamination, occasionally sounding like Bill Bryson on speed. He has, moreover, a habit of interweaving his account of Germany with personal narratives of how he came to this subject, as if he felt deep down that he owed the reader a benign explanation for this bizarre interest. (In a delicious instance of life imitating his art, the editors of the German translation of the work omit large swathes of biographical passages and whimsical musings. This was not I think because Germans might find them offensive – they have a proven track record of tolerance and even masochism in this regard – but because they thought their readers would find them baffling or simply absurd.)
Germania is a book which suffers from significant drawbacks, some of which Winder acknowledges, some not. Nineteen thirty-three is the cut-off point for the narrative, which makes sense in terms of his goal of doing justice to the many elements of German history which he rightly feels should not be subsumed into, or retrospectively polluted by the monstrous Nazi interlude. It means however there is scant consideration of the central paradox of German history: how such an utterly depraved regime could emerge from such a very cultured society. A related weakness is Winder’s insouciant refusal to take any notice of German philosophy, which really is an essential factor in making sense of the development of the culture. The 1933 cut-off point also precludes any treatment of modern Germany, and its wholly admirable determination to confront rather than deny the terrible aberration of the Hitler years.
Another very significant weakness of the book is that Winder speaks no German. The complacent British (and Irish) assumption that the Germans all speak English holds true at most for business-style contacts. For the observer without the language, the German dialogue with themselves and the “inwardness” of German life remain largely a closed book: one is peering through a closed window rather than being present in the room.
In spite of these handicaps Germania is still a worthwhile read, even if it is better on buildings and monuments than on people. The author’s “anecdotal facetiousness”, as he describes it, is sometimes wildly self-indulgent – his treatment of German food is unfair, the rant about marzipan being particularly pointlessly silly. Winder’s free-association approach nevertheless offers a kind of mental travelogue which conveys a lot of worthwhile information and useful insights in an entertaining and light-hearted way. To take one example, his account of the game of snakes and ladders which characterised dynastic politics, where an untimely death or a lucky marriage could drastically redraw the power lines and reset all calculations, probably gives a better sense of the psychology and dynamics involved than that of many a solemn historian. He has an engaging weakness for out-of-the-way museums and monuments and the absurd, or sometimes instructive and touching, impact of their exhibits. Underneath the facetiousness there is also at times a melancholy sense of the cruelties and missed opportunities of history: dealing for example with the tragic unravelling of British-German relations starting in the early twentieth century the tone changes from satire to elegy. As befits his role as an editor at Penguin Books, his knowledge of German literature is extensive, and often invoked to illuminating effect and if his prejudices are unabashed on tangential things, they are rarely so on serious matters. He is an equal opportunity satirist but his attitudes are fair-minded at core, making him a sympathetic, if wayward guide on this particular tour.
For those who might find MacGregor’s book too sketchy, and Winder’s too frivolous, there is a remedy to hand in the shape of Peter Watson’s The German Genius. Watson, a British journalist who has written extensively on the history of ideas, shares the objective of the other two writers to rescue German history from being entirely engulfed by the Nazi catastrophe and subsumed into its narrative. His book is breathtakingly ambitious – to document all the significant currents of German thinking from the age of Bach onwards which he believes made Germany the smithy where much of our modern world was forged. It was, he maintains, more influential in the realm of ideas up to 1933 than any other country, not excluding the United States. Indeed Watson considers that to this day the United States speaks English but thinks German.
Even in a volume of almost one thousand pages it is no mean feat to reduce this mountain of information to a coherent and readable narrative. At times the book does seem to veer close to Henry Ford’s version of history as “one damn thing after another”, but for the most part Watson delivers a coherent narrative, enlivened by anecdote and eminently readable. It is German history as shaped by ideas and Watson is prodigal of information about these ideas in every sphere. He gives thumbnail sketches, complete with chemical and mathematical notations, on topics such as the discovery of atomic valency or the invention of set theory, but also, serviceable short accounts of almost every German thinker who contributed significantly to intellectual life, whom he usually brings vividly alive in their human foibles as well as in their genius.
Inevitably, in a book of such encyclopaedic scope, Watson relies overwhelmingly on collating secondary sources. Indeed it is as an encyclopaedia that the book can most appropriately be used, or as a dictionary of German biography, a reference work, in short, rather than one to be absorbed in a reading. For the intellectually curious it is a treasure trove of stimulating ideas and unexpected associations, as when he makes a link between Bildung and American philosophies of self-improvement. There are views which seem questionable – the somewhat uncritical treatment of Freud, for example, although he accepts that the Viennese psychoanalyst is now “much discredited”.
The cornucopia of information and interesting facts Watson showers on the reader does not provide any adequate explanation of the central paradox of German history, why all those prophets of modernity and pioneers of progress failed to forestall the barbaric and atavistic phenomenon that was the Third Reich. Or perhaps the inference is that defence against such horrors cannot rely on mere enlightened philosophy and must be entrenched in political structures. It can be argued that the idealistic bent of the Germans led them to undervalue or neglect the importance of creative confrontation and pluralistic politics in favour of more holistic but ultimately authoritarian concepts of the benign state embodying the common good.
Notwithstanding these cavils, Watson’s book should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Germany and its history. It is difficult to see how the subject could be given a more comprehensive and fair-minded treatment ranging over a spectrum of topics from the frontiers of scientific discovery to the roots of the famous quarrel between Wagner and Nietzsche or Pope Benedict’s theology of the erotic.
These books overlap in many aspects of their analysis. Their accounts of Germany all register a certain unsettling fluidity underlying the German experience, not only its untidily shifting borders and the variable geometry of its political organisation but also in the absence of serviceable national myths such as the fall of the Bastille for France or the Whig tradition for England. They see in the somewhat ramshackle structures of the Holy Roman Empire a benefit rather than a liability. (Watson indeed suggests that the proliferation of German universities resulting from princely rivalries was a significant factor in Germany’s intellectual ascendancy.) The advantages accruing to Germany from its geographical position as the crossroads of Europe were more than cancelled out by its mostly wide-open borders. These exposed it to the trauma of the Thirty Years’ War and encouraged other French interventions, which left an indelible imprint on the German mindset, in particular that under Napoleon. They aggravated too the terrible price which Germans had to pay for Hitler’s aggression.
The books agree also in highlighting Germany’s rich and admirable tradition of urban civic culture, whether in the Hanseatic League or in free imperial cities. They are a cogent plea to reengage with the whole of Germany’s complex history and not just the Nazi period. Admittedly that period is compelling on many levels. It offers the drama of an insignificant corporal rising to as near omnipotent dictatorship as a human can attain, narrated in Nazi propaganda footage which remains highly televisual to this day. It involved a world conflict of epic scope and unprecedented impact and, of course above all, the spectacle of almost unbelievable moral depravity and the destruction it unleashed.
Books such as these are so many signs of hope that the fog of war which has tended to blanket the modern British view of Germany is beginning to lift at last. The development is paralleled in the field of academic history, where English-speaking historians such as Christopher Clarke and Brendan Simms are making a significant impact for the better on German studies.
It is probable that the British debate on EU membership will only get real when the economic and financial lobbies become alarmed enough at the prospect of radical change to climb off the fence and seriously join the fray. That would relieve David Cameron of his thankless role as the solitary boy on the burning deck, if the electorate do not take matters into their own hands by pushing him overboard first. It is comforting to think that the more objective view of German history which is emerging will mean the climate in which he will operate will not be determined solely by Colonel Blimp.
Cameron’s need to change the EU menu puts him at an apparent disadvantage vis-à-vis Merkel, whose programme is merely to defend it. However she will also find that the status quo is not an option. Kissinger’s famous description of Germany as “too big for Europe and too small for the world” brilliantly encapsulates the dilemma every German leader has had to wrestle with, and Merkel will not be able to conjure it away through a stoic concentration on the practical issues on the immediate horizon.
If there is any consensus about the euro zone it is that its present basis – a kind of hybrid between a currency peg and a monetary union – will not provide long-term stability. There is not much mileage left in the German argument, familiar from religions throughout history, that the solution is repentance and a more perfect application of the rules. “The sutras are good but the monks recite poorly.”
It may be that the writing on the wall for current German policies will be a translation from the Greek rather than from the English. What is certain is that there is a new urgency in the need to understand the German phenomenon, not as an uncanny realm hatching new monsters to match the old, but as one of Europe’s healthiest and most reflective democracies whose very responsiveness to its people, again in a kind of Biedermeier phase of their history, may fail for impeccably democratic rather than sinister reasons to meet the challenges of sustaining the European project.
Seán O’Huiginn retired from the Irish diplomatic service in 2009. His most recent foreign postings included service as Ireland’s ambassador to Washington, Berlin and Rome. He also served in various capacities in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, including as head of the department’s Anglo-Irish division between 1991 and 1997.