In the post-war period academics were about the only British writers who tried to deal with Germany – and then only historians such as AJP Taylor and Richard Evans or political scientists such as Willie Patterson. John Ardagh was the exception with his large book on contemporary German society - Germany and the Germans - which came out in the early 1990s but was quickly out of print. Those wanting to read about Germany had to make do with books about the Nazi period or knock-abouts such as Ben Donald’s Springtime for Germany – or how I learned to love Lederhosen (2007) whose German edition ("Deutschland for Beginners") I found a good read when I picked it up in a remaindered pile for 1 euro a couple of years ago.
About five years ago, things began to change with Peter Watson’s monumental German Genius and Simon Winder’s rather eccentric Germania. Now a trickle has turned into a stream with serious books such as Germany - Memories of a Nation (focusing on cultural objects); Reluctant Meister - how Germany’s past is Shaping its European Future; and Germany - beyond the Enchanted Forest (a literary anthology) vying for space on the bookshelves. Last year a long book actually appeared with the title The Novel in German since 1990 (which is actually the only one of this new stream now to be wending its way to me)
And Berlin's new role as a tourist hotspot has produced a variety of tantalising books such as Cees Nooteboom’s Roads to Berlin (2012); Peter Schneider’s Berlin Now – the City after the Wall (2014); and Rory McLean’s Berlin – Imagine a City (2014) – all of which await on my bookshelf for my attention
Curiously, however, still nothing on contemporary Germany to vie with John Ardagh’s book of 20 years ago!
These last few days, however, I have been devouring a large book which has just appeared - Death of a Nation; a new History of Germany - a delightful and enlightening read which I could hardly put down (despite the weight of its 700 pages). The provocative title gives a clue to the author’s approach – which focuses on the loss of German identity and lands since its heyday a century ago…..
This is a real history – whereas Watson and Winder concentrate on intellectual achievement and cultural monuments respectively. But it’s not your typical dry academic stuff! It’s highly committed and doesn’t pull punches – opening my eyes, for example, to the behavior of Czechs and Poles in the early part of the last century…..
And he really makes the history of the German lands (and key actors in both Germany and Europe) come alive in a way I have not experienced with other history books. Although I lived in Prague for more than a year in the early 90s, I never real understood the remnants I saw there of its German past (despite my 2 years of German studies at university)….Unusually for an historian he doesn’t hesitate to “contextualize” German brutalities by citing the extensive history of massacres perpetrated by Belgian, British and Soviet authorities in Africa, Russia and Asia.
The author states clearly in his Preface his intention to
" put in a much broader historical context the enormous human and cultural cost to Germany and German Austria of losing two world wars and the damage that has done to their sense of national identity"
This focus becomes clear in the second half of the book - which covers the fate not only of Jews but of the people who, in 2 World Wars, suddenly found themselves (by the massive border changes) living as minorities in foreign countries – a tale which has been ignored until recently in the huge literature of the second world war. As someone who has been living in central and eastern Europe for the past 25 years, I find this is an important and highly commendable objective and one rarely attempted by an outsider.
I have to confess, however, that my focus wavered in the section dealing with the death struggle of the Nazi regime (more than 100 pages after page 400). He had carried me with him until that point – and then lost me…too harrowing????
I will complete the reading and give a final assessment in a few days…….