Germany’s biography from ancient times to the present

The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes Old Street Publishing Review: Des Breen

IN the 1990s, an American academic, Mike Godwin, came up with a tongue-in-cheek law stating that in any political debate the probability that someone will mention Hitler is equal to one. Meaning that, at some point, it’s inevitable.

The same is often true of books on German history. Even though their subject is a cultured people and a liberal democracy, when the Nazis strut their way onto the page, Durer, Goethe, and jazz-age Berlin barely get a mention.

James Hawes’ book, The Shortest History of Germany, doesn’t, to its credit, fall into that trap. Yes, the Nazis are here, but so too is a history stretching from the Germanic tribes who took on the Roman Empire, right up to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Germans were named by the Romans, specifically Julius Caesar, who, in need of an enemy to build a career on, marched his army northward looking for a fight. For a while, the German forests were the Vietnam of the Empire, with many a legionary meeting his death at the sharp end of a spear. After a number of battles, however, the tribes were beaten and settled down to become citizens of Imperial Rome, albeit the fur-clad slightly barbaric type.

Following the collapse of the classical world, much of German history turned into Game of Thrones, with warlords at each other’s throats throughout much of the middle ages. Here, Hawe’s book gets a little complex — the reader barely gets used to an Otto being on the throne before a Pepin takes over. It’s also full of leaders called Frederick who seem to fight everybody until a northern group, the Pruis, emerge dominant. It was these Pruis, or Prussians, who formed the backbone of the Reformation when Martin Luther objected to the rich buying their way into heaven.

Politics and religion combined, and, after vicious sectarian wars swept across Europe, the Germans emerged as a power — but not Germany, not yet, because no such country existed.

Looking at a map — and there are a number of them in the book — it’s easy to forget how recent a creation Germany is. In fact it didn’t exist until the 19th century, when, in another Game of Thrones’ touch, Prussia got an ‘Iron’ Chancellor called Bismarck.

At this point Hawe’s writing talent takes off — the author has a gift for simplifying complex politics. Under the guise of unifying the separate German states, Bismarck pushed for a Prussian takeover. Not only were small duchies whose names have been lost to history swallowed up — Schleswig-Holstein, Hesse-Kassel — but even Catholic Bavaria in the south eventually became part of the new Germany. After an 1870 war with France, German power reigned supreme.

However, the new country had enemies everywhere, even within, where a Leninist-inspired movement battled with the right for power — a battle which the right was to win. There would no great socialist millennium led by German workers. Oddly, it was at this troubled time that the country shone culturally: Nietzsche, Mann, Rilke, Mahler, Strauss, and visual arts movements like Die Brucke put Germany at the forefront of European culture.

World War I, not started by Germany, saw the myth of Prussian invincibility destroyed forever and, in the turmoil that followed it, the weak Weimar Republic could not halt the rise of an extreme right-wing movement, National Socialism, which spread out from Munich like a goose-stepping contagion. Another war, and another defeat, saw the country split in two. In the West, an economic miracle emerged under Konrad Adenauer, who, based at a new capital in Bonn, oversaw an astonishing recovery. The new West Germany even became a soccer superpower.

All changed utterly in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall crumbled, and a free, united Germany moved to the heart of Europe.

James Hawes’ book is comprehensive, vivid, and entertaining, although its brevity means it skims over events at a breathless pace. Despite this, if you want to understand a country on which much of the free world is now pinning its hopes, you could do worse than start here.


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