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28 August 2019

The Shortest History of Germany


I realise we have been a bit lax this year in suggesting books that might appeal for summer holiday reading; we’re pretty much at the end of the main summer holiday period, even if the weather in southern England is trying hard to make us feel comfortably Mediterranean. But here’s one (recommended to me originally by John Wolff) which is well worth a read.

James Hawes has written half a dozen novels and more recently a biography of Kafka and a couple of history books. There is a vague metals connection, incidentally, in that one of his novels, published in the mid-1990s, entitled ‘Rancid Aluminium’, was kind of based on Russian aluminium oligarchs. (Not a patch on ‘Czar Rising’, but then I would say that…………it is funnier, though.)

Anyway, his latest book is called ‘The Shortest History of Germany’, and if that sounds like an A-level crib, it’s certainly a lot more than that. The theme that runs through the book, and on which everything is predicated, is that Germany is actually two separate countries, or rather, given the multitude of different states, kingdoms, dukedoms and so on that have made up what ultimately became Germany, two blocks. One is the western-facing grouping, the bit that was in the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne and his successors, and the other is eastward-looking Prussia: a German-speaking oddity in a sea of Slavs, as Hawes puts it.

Socially and politically, Hawes sees the western part geographically defined as the bit between the Rhine, the Elbe and the Danube/the Alps, and firmly in the liberal, democratic camp of western Europe. The eastern part is everything to the east of the Elbe, and is more akin to the state-dominated authoritarianism that has typified Russia over the ages. (Have a look at Carl Zuckmayer’s 1931 comedy ‘Der Hauptmann von Köpenick’ for an entertaining picture of Prussian statism.)

Hawes’ book takes us from pre-history, through the Roman period, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, 30 Years War, Napoleonic Wars, Bismarck, World War One, Nazis, World War Two and right up to today, post re-unification. Every age, every conflict is effectively super-imposed on a map which shows - time and again - the Elbe as the fault line running through the unity (real or imagined) of the country. 

I’m not going to repeat the whole thing here, but this is a seriously interesting book, with a thought-provoking take on the present day. Does the fault-line of the Elbe still exert the same influence? Will the current re-unification be more successful - ultimately - than the Prussian-dominated era of theoretical unity between 1866 and 1945? And before you give the glib “of course” reply to that, think of this. Germany - like many other European countries - has extreme left and extreme right political parties lurking. Where do they gather their votes? Not in the west, mostly, the bit my generation grew up with as Western Germany. No, extreme left and extreme right garner most of their support in the old DDR - precisely the bit Hawes talks of ‘beyond the Elbe’. 

I don’t agree with everything he says, but it’s definitely a worthwhile read in a Europe where the fault lines appear to be re-emerging, despite all the reasons that they shouldn’t. 

(There was one sentence that particularly appealed to me: “It may be best to think of Marx as a top-class journalist who was often strikingly insightful about the immediate past and the present, but almost always entirely wrong about the future.”) 


‘The Shortest History of Germany’, by James Hawes, is published by Old Street Publishing, and is also available as a Kindle e-book.    

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