German history is uniquely awful: that’s what makes it so engrossing

A review of Germany by Neil MacGregor suggests that Germans have always been federalists and that the Holy Roman Empire which lasted 1,000 years was a forerunner of today’s EU

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

Germany: Memories of a Nation Neil MacGregor

Allen Lane, pp.640, £30, ISBN: 9780241008331

As I grew up half German in England in the 1970s, my German heritage was confined to the few curios my grandmother had brought here after the war: a signet ring, a cigarette case, a scrapbook with some missing pages…. She’d changed her name, she’d changed my father’s name, the nation she came from lay in ruins — but from this salvaged bric-à-brac I pieced together the story of my father’s German family, a story they’d done their best to bury in the country they’d left behind. Through a range of objects, large and small, from the Gutenberg Bible to the Reichstag, the director of the British Museum has done much the same thing for Germany as a whole.

‘Accompanies the acclaimed BBC Radio 4 series,’ reads the blurb, and indeed the contents of this book are pretty similar to Neil MacGregor’s radio series of the same name. If any series deserves a spin-off, however, it’s surely Germany: Memories of a Nation. Each compact episode was a mini masterpiece — succinct, yet full of meaning. It works just as well in print (and in three dimensions, in the current exhibition at the British Museum until 25 January). The objects MacGregor assembles (an Iron Cross, a Volkswagen Beetle, a billion-mark banknote) encapsulate Germany’s triumphs and catastrophes, and give you some idea of why the Germans are the way they are today.

As he demonstrated in his History of the World in 100 Objects, MacGregor’s curatorial approach suits any subject. However, as he says, it’s a particularly useful way to tackle Germany, a country whose borders have shifted far too often to be defined by geography alone. He’s especially good at explaining the complex histories of lost cities such as Danzig, Strassburg and Königsberg, now Polish, French and Russian, but all German a century ago. ‘Germany, where is it?’, asked Goethe and Schiller in one of their collaborative poems. ‘I don’t know where to find such a country.’ The Teutonic bard Ernst Moritz Arndt thought he knew: ‘Wherever the German tongue is heard… there is the German’s Fatherland.’ Trouble was, German speakers were scattered all over Europe, and uniting them meant… Well, you know the rest.

So what do you get from MacGregor’s book that you don’t get from the radio? A bit more detail, some pretty pictures and a chance to savour his sensible insights at your leisure. It’s a tribute to his brilliance as a broadcaster that MacGregor managed to make such an engrossing series about a load of things you couldn’t see, but it’s nice to look at them all the same. Rather than stock snapshots, he’s chosen some unusual and arresting images, such as Hitler reclining in a Bauhaus-style easy chair.

Ah yes, the Nazis. MacGregor doesn’t shirk the darkest chapter of German history, but he doesn’t let it overwhelm his narrative. This is primarily a book about the things most Britons don’t know about the Germans, rather than the things we do. We tend to see German Europhilia as an attempt to escape the shadow of the Third Reich. In fact, as MacGregor points out, Germans have always felt at home in federations. The Holy Roman Empire, which lasted for 1,000 years, was, in many ways, a forerunner of today’s EU.

German history is uniquely awful, and that’s what makes it so engrossing. My grandma’s mementoes yielded a wealth of secrets: how she survived the bombing of Hamburg and Dresden; how my grand-father was born in a Prussian schloss and went to prison for insurance fraud, then hid his Jewish friend in Berlin and helped him flee to Switzerland. It sounds like a melo-
drama, but I’ve met numerous Germans with equally lurid tales to tell. This book is about every German family. If you trace your own family back far enough, you’ll probably find some German ancestors of your own.

My son is growing up in a far less Germanophobic society than the England I was raised in, yet some of the old stereotypes remain. Germans are arrogant and humourless, he’s informed by his teenage classmates. Yet is it any wonder these prejudices prevail, when the German history he learns at school begins in 1914 and ends in 1945? MacGregor doesn’t ignore those 30 years when Germany descended into madness, but he puts this insanity in its proper context. If only other writers and broadcasters would learn to do the same. Germany: Memories of a Nation should be a GCSE set text. A child could understand it. And if a few more adults read it, we might begin to understand the Germans a little better.

MacGregor has also given us a quiet celebration of Germany’s remarkable postwar rehabilitation. As an act of reconciliation, and a work of scholarship, its value is immense. At Frankfurt’s Städel Museum a few weeks ago, the staff proudly showed me an empty space, vacated by their portrait of Goethe, currently on exhibition at the British Museum. You could tell how much its inclusion, and this whole project, meant to them. Thankfully, Germans no longer deserve their beastly reputation — and as a fairly frequent visitor to Germany, I’m happy to confirm that many of the more positive modern clichés (prudence, punctuality, self-discipline) are actually entirely true.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £24 Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Factcheck

    The world has been extremely KIND to the Germans, all things considered.

    • Hamburger

      I assume you are referring to the first half of the 20th century which was anything but Germany’s finest hour for which even the young today feel ashamed. If you go back further to the 30 Years War you would discover that the devastation of Germany was devastated. The world was not extremely kind then, all things considered.

      • Jambo25

        I agree entirely. For much of modern history, from the 1500s on, the Germans were probably the British’s favourite foreigners. Germany was a victim of aggression right up until the time of Bismarck. It was only really from the time of Wilhelm II that things went badly wrong in German history. Incidentally, as I’m typing this I’m listening to a Hungarian with a German name (Andras Schiff) playing 5 Bach piano concertos.

        • Factcheck

          Germany went the wrong way – had no democratic tradition.

          But there was nothing wrong with Germans that two world wars could not fix.

          And they did help Lenin seize Russia.

          • Jambo25

            Germany, prior to WW1 was scarcely less democratic than the UK. Britain was hardly a democracy, at all, prior to 1918.

          • Jack T.

            “Germany, prior to WW I was scarcely less democratic than the UK.” Excellent point, Jambo25, and in fact it was more democratic. In 1914 every adult male German could vote; in Britain at that time only 60 percent of its male subjects had the franchise.

          • Jambo25

            Germany had the formal structures of democracy but little of the actual spirit. Britain had much of the spirit but not the structures.

          • Factcheck


          • Thomtids

            And the promotion of unlimited immigration by the previous Socialist Administration “to rub the Rights’ nose in it” reflects a mature and considered spirit in the operation of an immigration policy of a (still) major World Power?

          • Factcheck

            German rulers were autocrats who could do what they liked irrespective of parliament. Universal suffrage was a delusion in that context.

          • Jambo25

            Not really true.

          • Factcheck

            Minus some tedious haggling over budgets in the Reichstag that required a bit of gerrymandering by the regime, true enough.

          • Jambo25

            So much so that a fair number of British Liberals and Labour people were very dubious about entering WW1 as they saw it as a war between ‘Liberal’ Germany and autocratic Russia.

          • Factcheck

            The same people later also probably thought Hitler had a good case. Fools there ever will be.

            Look, stop messing around. You know in Germany the Kaiser and a few of his cronies had a power no British politician could dream of.

            In Britain, Parliament had the last word and was sovereign. In Germany the monarch and his cronies were.

            Stop messing around and denying the obvious. Germany had no democratic tradition and was a racist tyranny of the aristocrats.

          • Jambo25

            In informal and formal terms enormous power remained with the British upper classes until well after WW1. The average British and German worker would have noticed relatively little difference in personal freedoms and lifestyle prior to WW1

          • Factcheck

            The upper classes in the UK have enormous power even today. Indeed, more now than they have ever had since 1945.

            But Parliament was sovereign in the UK in the era of the First World War, just as it is today. In Germany the Kaiser was an autocratic ruler by divine right.

            All your quibbling won’t change that.

            If the German worker did not know that he was an effing fool. As a matter of fact, that was a great age of political consciousness in Germany and many German workers, supporters of the Social Democratic Party founded
            with the blessing of no less than Marx and Engels, knew all this only too well.

          • Jambo25

            I’m merely pointing out that the material and human rights situations facing both British and German worker4s were pretty much the same.

          • Factcheck

            It was Germany which had a revolution in 1918 and not Britain. That tells us a lot.

          • Jambo25

            It was Germany which had a starving population and lost war in 1918.

          • Factcheck

            No. I am not convinced that the Germans would have insisted on such a big change of regime unless they had felt that the previous order was retarded, and it was the political system as well as the leaders who had landed them in a mess.

            I do not think if Britain had been defeated in the war and been reduced to starvation the crowds would have cried:

            “Death to parliamentary rule ! Let us have an autocratic king instead !”

          • Jambo25

            Germany was merely one of a whole number of European states and societies which experienced rapid and often violent political change in the aftermath of WW1. Hardly any moved in a democratic direction.

          • Factcheck

            Don’t get me wrong. I admire Germans – some of them – immeasurably. German culture is very important for me.

            Life would be very dull without Goethe and Schiller and Hegel and Marx and Lassalle and Bebel and Rosa Luxembourg and Thomas Mann and Nietzsche and Brecht and Beethoven and Wagner and even crusty old Bismarck whose sayings and writings are of hypnotic force…..!

            Half my mind has been formed by Germans.

            What went wrong most with the Germans was that they could not accept that some of the most valuable of them were Jews. If they had cooperated rather than the gentile Germans persecuting their Jewish bretheren to death, German culture would have conquered the world.

            Bu then one could say the same about the Bolsheviks and the Russian Jews !

            Moral : don’t fight with Jews. (I am not Jewish.)

          • Jambo25

            Join the club. As an historian I specialised (a bit) in German history. I looked for some long term explanation of the Nazi disaster. I now really believe that there wasn’t one; just a disastrous series of events in the fairly short term.

          • Factcheck

            Marx quipped that neither a woman nor a nation is forgiven for the inattentive minute in which she is overcome by a passing adventurer. (He was scoffing at French excuses that the seizure of power by Louis Bonaparte in 1851 was due to unfortunate and unforeseeable events.)

            No, I think there were powerful factors in German history that made Hitler possible. Germany did not have the successful democratic tradition of some other nations.

          • Factcheck

            Historians only talk of “a disastrous series of events in the fairly short term” when they have – forgive me – failed in their task of structural explanation.

          • Factcheck

            Russia was certainly autocratic but it was less powerful.

            I am not on anyone’s side in the First World War – they were all racist imperialists, even those who had parliamentary rule a home like the UK. I just want to make it clear that it is highly stupid to confuse the UK system with that of Germany and to think Germany had democracy because it had the universal vote. The votes were not equal in value.

            The best thing Germany did to get a better world was ship Lenin into Russia.

          • Jambo25

            1) The majority of the British population didn’t have the vote at all. 2) What votes people had weren’t of equal value. Certain voters had preferential voting rights due to wealth or education. We still had MPs representing very small numbers of people in the university seats.

          • Factcheck

            Parliament was sovereign in the UK. In Germany the Kaiser was an autocratic ruler by divine right.

            All your quibbling won’t change that.

            If the German worker did not know that he was an effing fool. As a matter of fact, that was a great age of political consciousness in Germany and the German workers, supporter of the Social Democratic Party founded in part by no less than Marx and Engels, knew all this only too well.

          • Chris Morriss

            They had good reasons for believing that at the time, but the Kaiser was an unbalanced (to put it mildly) sort of chap.

          • Thomtids

            Our involvement had nothing to do with “plucky little Belgium” being ground under the heel of the Huns’ jackboot but rather more prosaically because the British Cabinet were receiving vast sums of money from the Anglo-Persian Oil interests to commercialise the use of oil and it was perceived that the interests of the Country, and the Cabinet members like Churchill, a major trougher of foreign funds even then, were far better served financially protecting its oil interests. None of them paid the blindest interest in the millions of casualties that would occur. Nor did they, in reality, care one jot.

          • Factcheck

            The rich were so disproportionately represented universal suffrage was a joke. Every male had the vote, but not all votes were EQUAL.

          • Jambo25

            There was a differential franchise in the UK until post 1945.

          • Factcheck


          • Factcheck

            In Britain Parliament ruled. In Germany the Kaiser and his cronies. That makes a hell of a difference. Germany had no democratic tradition.

          • Factcheck

            Germans helped Lenin into power. That was undoubtedly a great feat.

          • Factcheck

            There was nothing wrong with Germany that two world wars could not fix.

            From roaring Wagnerites they have become cooing doves thanks to the Red Army and Air Marshal Arthur Harris.

            It shows you what can be done.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    German history is uniquely awful

    Why uniquely?
    Why is it different from any other history which as Gibbon pointed out is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind?

    • John Cronin

      Precisely. The Turks committed an almost total genocide of the Turkish Armenians. The French revolutionary forces committed a genocide in La Vendee: and somewhat later, killed about 7% of the entire population of Algeria between 1956 and 62. The Russians raped two million German women in 1945, and ethnically cleansed 9 million Germans from Silesia and East Prussia. The Italians probably killed 20% of the population of Libya under Mussolini: and as for what Cromwell did to the Paddies…well, lets not go there. The Germans are hardly unique in committing atrocities in the past: they seem pretty house trained and civilised these days.

      • MidAtlanticRidge

        ‘The Russians raped two million German women in 1945, and ethnically cleansed 9 million Germans from Silesia and East Prussia.’ So after the Germans destroyed Europe and killed over 25 million Russians, maybe the Russians should have handed out party favours when they reached Berlin?

        • Treebrain


          Whatever the Nazi regime did, nothing can ever justify the mass rape of German women, or do you think otherwise?

          If so, it would be fascinating to hear your point of view?

          • rjbh

            Spoils of War

        • Jambo25

          The Soviet state had, of course, killed 25% of the Ukraine’s population in the years immediately before WW2. It then carved up Eastern Europe along with Nazi Germany and deported and executed hundreds of thousands of “class and nationalist enemies”. I won’t outline the rest of the crimes the Soviet state carried out.

          • Factcheck

            The Germans got off very, very, very, very lightly.

          • Jambo25

            Apart from Die Vertriebene who were expelled from ancestral homes at the end of WW1, Volga and Baltic Germans who were ethnically cleansed by the Soviets prior to the outbreak of the German-Soviet war in 1941 plus the 12,000,000 + Vertriebene Germans ethnically cleansed from Eastern and Central Europe from 1944-50: often in the most violent and barbaric way.

        • rightrightright

          Those unfortunate German women were overwhelmingly the victims of the ‘Asian’ hordes moving in the rear of the Russian front-line troops. Russian front-line officers themselves who had no reason to feel compassion towards any German, warned the German populations of what would happen and suggested the women hides themselves.

    • edithgrove

      “just one bloody thing after another”, according to Alan Bennett

    • E Roberts

      “Uniquely” not in the sense that Germans were guilty of horrendous crimes (which is how you and responders below appear to have interpreted the phrase), but in the broader sense…

      German history (including crimes they perpetrated) is full of awful events that have no parallel in any other nation I know (with the possible exception of China): like many other central European nations, its people and territory were a football for the competing interests of surrounding nations, most dramatically and horrendously expressed in the events of the Thirty Years War.

      We Brits struggle to comprehend the uncertainty and desperation of entire populaces over centuries of collective memory when we have – largely through the accident of island status – enjoyed relative security and continuity in government for almost 1000 years.

  • AJAX

    Spot the ad for a book poorly disguised as an journalistic article.

  • Augustus

    “As I grew up half German in England in the 1970s….the nation she (my grandmother) came from lay in ruins.”

    Not true. The Wirtschaftswunder was well over by then and Germany was booming. In fact even in 1957, “at the founding of the European Common Market, Germany’s economic growth stood in contrast to the struggling conditions at the time in the United Kingdom.”

    • Jambo25

      German living standards probably overtook those of the UK in the mid-late 60s.

      • Swanky

        Not in East Germany they didn’t.

        • Jambo25

          But in West Germany they did.

    • Mr Grumpy

      He means immediately after the war. Actually it’s something of an exaggeration even so, as the big cities and industrial areas took the brunt of the bombing, whereas many small towns were completely unscathed.

      • Thomtids

        Like the little wooden fishing villages? They burnt really well and Churchill would have been thrilled by the mindless murder and mayhem he could inflict upon innocent civilians with little risk to Bomber crews.

    • Treebrain

      Excellent points that perfectly exposes the ignorance of William Cook!

    • John Carins

      The French were relatively unscathed. The real losers were the British tied to the American yoke.

      • Thomtids

        The French were a strongly peasant-based Economy with areas of British-style modern economic industrial practices. The EU is actually modernising a Mittel -Europa barely into the 20th Century.
        The British were and are tied to America by its War Debts from the periods of war throughout the 20th Century. And, latterly, Marshall Plan, and the financial chicanery employed by the EU to suck in world funds that an Altzheimer victim wouldn’t vote for, if they could, nor if they could understand the deeply false premise upon which the EU barely functions, the collusional basis deployed by the EU to deprive sovereign States of their freedoms under bogus “Laws” such as the much vaunted Freedoms that have created and further “Benefits Tourism”., reducing sovereign States to nothing more than convenient Trans-National Benefit Offices paying Eg Child Benefit to a parent in Britain for a custodial mother in Romania with non-existent children wherever the local standard of record-keeping has reached the standard of “1 + 1 = 13”.

        • John Carins

          Agree wholeheartedly.

  • mariandavid

    An utterly nonsensical review, which in reality is merely an irrelevant outpouring based on the reviewer’s viewpoint mirrored through selected aspects of his own family history. And I doubt very much if teen age boys describe, in his son’s school or anywhere else, Germans as ‘humourless and arrogant” – they are much more likely to enthuse over German creations such as Focke-Wulf 190’s and Tigers.

    • davidofkent

      Panzers, possibly, but I doubt that they will know them as Tigers. As for Focke-Wulf, surely that’s going a long way back for today’s youngsters.

      • mariandavid

        One would think so were it not for the ubiquitous computer war games of today!

      • doctorseraphicus

        Focke-Wulf is only going back as far as the Panzers; not to be confused with the Fokker triplane, of The Red Baron fame. But nevertheless I doubt many of today’s yoof have heard of them – indeed they are a less famous marque than any of Messerschmidt, Heinkel, Junkers, etc. The FW 190 was a particularly fine aircraft.

  • Barba Rossa

    One wonders why the Jewish friend fled to Switzerland when no doubt he could have shot a few Nazis…one suspects he may have been of military age.

    • rjbh

      had he been a Palestinian in Israel at least he would not be thrown in a Concentration Camp. but… Gaza is a Concentration Camp where the guards actually seek to harm the inmates. All we ever hear is “Poor Jewish person…. but the

      Boot on other foot now eh!

  • John Andrews

    A German friend explained his country’s 20th century tragedy with the comment that ‘you always get 110% from the Germans’. I took him to mean that there were fascist tendencies in many countries – but the Germans happened to be the ‘best’ at it. My version of his point is an ugly strain ran (runs?) in European society and it surfaced in Germany.

    • Barba Rossa

      Some might say the Scottish people were saved by some fancy footwork by Call me Dave no doubt he will live to regret it.

  • Swanky

    Sounds fascinating and important: thanks for the review.

  • Terry Field

    German history is uniquely awful!?!?!?!?!?!? What about the Chinese, the Russians, the French?!?!?!?!? A stupid and perverse lie.
    God the arrogance of the English!!
    German history is bad for thirty years.
    The country – despite the cheap quote – IS a readily definable condition.
    The German intellectual life, cemented by language, is clear and unambiguous.
    The British have entered a long period of mediocrity, of bitter arrogance, of profound economic and social failure, caused by a collapse of any sense of the value of the history of the country. That is your problem; face up to your deep inadequacy without trying to pretend that others are in a worse place when they so manifestly are NOT!

  • Barba Rossa

    Why did he help a “Jewish Friend” flee to Switzerland, why did this so called friend not stayin Berlin and kill a few Nazis?…Why did the Jew think, Other people can put their life at risk fighting the Nazis, I’m out of here.

    It’s probably a made up part, to encourage a wider readership.

  • NorthernGrouse

    They certainly think it is awful anyway. I went to school with a lad whose German Great Uncle had written a book with the title, ‘The Byronic Teuton; a Study of German Pessimism’. Unfortunately no copies survive as the entire stock was destroyed pre-publication by a fire in the London Docks started by Luftwaffe incendiary bombs.

    • Brimstone52

      Is that some sort of poetic justice, or perhaps it was deliberate to prevent British moral being boosted?

  • Frank

    Umm, just how true is all the above guff about Germans being federalists? I seem to remember that German unification was quite difficult to achieve in the 1850s, the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 was arguably triggered to show all those recalcitrants that unification had been a jolly good thing. This encouraged the Germans to think that attacking France again in 1914 would be another walk in the park, which led, etc, etc, etc.
    Having Germany deeply embroiled in an unwinnable undertaking like the EU is a good thing.
    In my humble opinion, I would much rather Germany went back to being a nice collection of little states that had no capacity to threaten anyone.

    • Manfred Krause

      I think the UK is in fact more in this precarious situation you seem to desire with all your wishes for Germany. Come to Germany and cast a not preconceived look at things currently happening in Germany.You might see that things are not so different from English affairs. – n.b My paternal origins are to be located in the UK.Things in German history couldn’t have been so miserable and thus exerced a certain attraction to people to come here -even people from the UK.

      • Frank

        Manfred, not sure I understand what you are trying to say. I am not anti German, I just don’t think that they have been and or are all ardent federalists. My grandfather and father fought the Germans in the last two big european wars, I have no desire to do this myself, hence wishing for a very peaceful Germany . Have a good Christmas!

  • Peter Gardner

    As Gustav Mahler, Thomas Mann and many others found, excessive self discipline can lead to breakdown. It rather depends on the ends for which it is exercised.

  • Robert Stack

    German history is uniquely awful? Have a good, hard look at the train wreck of British History.