Germany is so vital to the future not merely of Brexit but of Europe that one longs to be able to recommend a short book in English about its history which can be read for pleasure and not just for edification.
While living in Berlin from 1994-2000, I tried and failed to think how to write such a book. For the aspiring author is threatened by two fatal dangers. One is to get sucked into a whirlpool of worthiness: to treat the experts on Germany with such respect that one ends up sounding as platitudinous, pedantic, moralistic, long-winded, remote, evasive and dull as they tend to be.
The other danger is to seek excitement by dwelling on the horrors of the Third Reich. These, after all, occurred during the dozen years of German history with which readers of books and viewers of films in English are relatively familiar. But then the monstrosities of the Nazi period crowd out everything else one wants to say about Germany, and attain a disgusting and undeserved prominence.
A few years ago, Neil MacGregor, while Director of the British Museum, produced a brilliant series of 30 radio programmes, Germany: Memories of a Nation, which avoided both those dangers, and included much that any educated person would hope to know about German culture.
And at first, I thought James Hawes had avoided both dangers too. His book is certainly not worthy. It bounces along in a jaunty, amusing, incisive style from 58 BC to 1525 AD.
This survey can be read in an hour or two, for it takes only 70 very short pages, irrigated by frequent maps, diagrams and small photographs. Here one gets the whole sweep of things from Julius Caesar through Charlemagne to the Hapsburgs and Luther.
Hawes is at ease with the languages involved, and gives us a taste of the Brothers Grimm without becoming in the slightest bit pedantic.
But in the remaining 150 pages, which take us up to the present day, it becomes sadly apparent that his book is not a history. It is a polemic.
Everything that has gone wrong in Germany is blamed on Prussia and Protestantism. Under Bismarck, the Prussian officer corps conquered Germany, but did not itself become German.
Protestants were far more inclined than Roman Catholics to vote for Hitler, and it is their fault that he reached the top. The part of Germany which had belonged to the Roman Empire, and which two millennia later corresponded roughly to the territory of West Germany, remained civilised. Hawes ends his account with the words:
“This is the true, historic Germany: the ancient country between the Rhineland, the Elbe and the Alps, a land where state-worship, puritanical zeal and scar-faced militarism have always been alien. This Germany is Europe’s best hope. It should be treated, and it should act, as what it was always meant to be; a mighty land at the very heart of the West.”
Barbarism was perpetrated beyond the River Elbe by the Prussian Junkers, who took the money and armaments produced in the Ruhr, but used them to pursue their own schemes of conquest in the East.
Since German reunification, vast sums have been poured by the former West Germans into the pockets of the former East Germans, who repay this generosity by voting for extremist parties. Prussia’s heirs are again exploiting the civilised part of Germany.
This deplorable caricature at least helps to illustrate how bad relations between different parts of Germany can become. Modern Germans, anxious not to sound racist about anyone else, can still enjoy insulting people from other parts of Germany.
Konrad Adenauer, the Roman Catholic Rhinelander who was the first Chancellor of West Germany, when travelling eastwards was said to draw down the blinds in the train after it crossed the Elbe so he did not have to see “the steppes of Asia”.
But Hawes perpetrates a monstrous unfairness by lumping all Prussians, all Protestants and indeed all East Germans together. This was an error often made in West Germany: it was too difficult and embarrassing, perhaps even impossible, to discover what individuals had done in the period 1933-45.
Collective guilt made the past easier to suppress, but at the cost of inflicting an intolerable injustice on the many Germans who had defied the Nazis, as well as exculpating many who had given the Nazis enthusiastic support.
It is just possible that I nodded at some point, but as far as I can see, the Protestant resistance to Hitler, in which the most famous figure is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, goes unmentioned in these pages.
Stauffenberg (a Roman Catholic) and his fellow Bomb Plotters are mentioned, and acknowledged to be “truly heroic” and indeed “truly idealistic”, but even here, a note of dissatisfaction creeps in:
“Inexplicably, Stauffenberg and his comrades were unwilling to make an open fight of it, despite all being armed, even when they realised they were doomed. This rebellion of aristocratic soldiers was quashed with hardly a gun-shot to show ordinary Berliners that anything big was going on.”
Oddly enough, the ordinary Berliners are left out too. For they did not think much of Hitler, so do not support the thesis that people east of the Elbe were barbarians. In 1989, they poured through the Berlin Wall: a genuinely popular moment in German history.
It does not occur to Hawes to ask why west Germans are prepared, albeit with much grumbling, to subsidise their cousins beyond the Elbe, but not the Italians or the Greeks. The answer is that Germany is a nation, and the European Union is not.
Helmut Kohl, a cunning politician who did not wish to understand economics, presided over two currency unions. The first, with the former East Germany, has been made at great cost to work. The second, with the other members of the euro, has not been made to work.
And this second currency union was in German terms, profoundly undemocratic. The political class defied what ordinary people thought. We do not yet know how that story will end.
Prussian liberalism existed. Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, who after the war became one of the founders of Die Zeit in Hamburg, was one of its last representatives. It failed, but why did it fail? Hawes cannot help us here, for his generalisations admit of no shades of meaning.
If one wants a caustic account of the failure of German liberalism, one which infuriated such admirable scholars as Golo Mann, A.J.P. Taylor’s The Course of German History is still the place to start. In Taylor’s words, 1848, the year of revolutions, was the decisive year of German, and therefore of European history, for that was when “German history reached its turning point and failed to turn”.
Germany is now a liberal country, but one about which educated Britons understand very little. It is questionable whether the Germans even understand themselves very much. The classic account remains to be written.