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Book review: The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes

The Shortest History of Germany: James Hawes: 9781910400418: Books.

I mentioned this book in a recent post and read it with great pleasure the following day. I commend it to you. 


Sadly, most Brits only study the least appealing parts of German history. Arguably the only true historical consensus in divided post war Britain is that the Nazis were not nice chaps. I hope I can claim to have done better than that because I studied European History to A level and have also read a fair amount since for my own amusement but this book nonetheless covers parts of German history of which I knew little and understood less.


I have to confess that I had the mental stereotype of Germany; one of "state worship, puritanical zeal and scar-faced militarism" that the author feels the need to refute. In fairness that stereotype — apparently more Prussian than German — was in some cases reinforced by German colleagues with whom I worked closely in my career. That might be because they act up to it. Just as Brits abroad, when tired of pointing out that we're not all floppy haired effeminates like Hugh Grant, eventually give up and act the part to comic effect. I did actually attend meetings with an elderly German colleague who sported duelling scars, for example. No really. I know. I would have called myself racist to imagine him, if I had not actually met him.


Some of the most interesting parts of the books are about prehistory. The Romans invented Germany as a term to describe the disparate and unconnected mutually warring tribes who lived beyond the Rhine. Rather like the British made a polity (and later, mistakenly, two) from mere geography in India, the Romans invaded, recruited to their armies and civilised this imaginary ethnic group and then defined its furthest limit by giving up at the River Elbe. What I mostly learned from reading this book is that when we Brits respond emotionally to the idea of German-ness we actually have the people beyond the Elbe in mind. The "real" Germans (as defined by the author) respond to these trans-Elbians, interestingly, rather as we do. Hitler's support was largely to be found there as today is more of the vote for extremes of Right or Left. 


The era of West Germany was a Golden Age not just because of Marshall Aid and the Economic Miracle but because those pesky Trans-Elbeans were sequestered in the DDR living down to our mis-targeted stereotype. "Why are the Chinese so happy?" goes a modern German joke. "Because they still have their Wall". 


For much of our history Brits thought of Germans as cousins. The Common Law probably began in long forgotten forests in Saxony and English is arguably German garnished with French. It has been a long sad collapse from that familial feeling to the present unpleasantness of shouting "two world wars and one World Cup" at their football fans. 


I don't regret Brexit a bit but sadly it probably won't help with this estrangement, given how devoutly Cis-Elbean Germans believe in the EU. The best that those of us who like Germany (and not just its excellent cars and kitchens) can do is read this book, encourage fellow Brits to read it, play nicely with such German friends as we may have and hope. Mostly we should hope for our two nations to feature in each others history books more, and more peacefully, in future. When they shake off their misguided obsession with the EU (or more likely it collapses under them) we will still be neighbours and - let's hope - friends.


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Firstly, Tom, you say that "I would have called myself racist to imagine him, if I had not actually met him" and then in practically the next breath state that "For much of our history Brits thought of Germans as cousins"

it's either one or the other, but not both. Given that our Royal Family has more than quite a bit of German in it (note the name change from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor in 1914). Yes, we are cousins, in a way, and where did the Saxons come from if not Saxony? Are we talking about race as an ethnic difference? in which case there really isn't one vis-a-vis the Germans; or is it "race" as a cultural difference? In which case its culture and not race per se. A Black man, born in Britain is British culturally, but he is not caucasian, which most of the British People are. I only argue this point, because it is intellectually lazy to note any difference from a Briton to anybody who is not, as "racist" It's cultural marxism and we should stop playing their game.

I agree that most of the Germans west of the Elbe are much more relaxed than their Prussian brethren; their attempts to constantly apologise and to try and make up for the period 1933-1945 is now approaching self-destruction. I think we can all safely say the one country where there will never be anything remotely resembling Nazism is Germany. Their obsession with all things EU, with the idea of submerging their identity is short termism. They have to get out from under the EU skirt and stand up for themselves.

james higham

Yes, the Prussian versus German [especially Bavarian] mental outlook has been an issue with them for a long time:


Back in the late 1940s my paternal grandfather and one of his brothers who had also gone to war in WW2 were discussing over drinks what on Earth had motivated the Germans to vote for Hitler and fight an aggressive war. A practical man, he ended the discussion by suggesting they go to Germany to find out (no small venture in those days). They and their wives went there, hired a car and took a road trip. They drove around asking any Germans they could find with some English WTF they had been thinking. I remember him telling me how most were surprised to be asked but (once convinced he was serious) prepared to talk. Grandad's education was limited but I think his "holy curiosity" signalled something in him. Books are great but as the Germans say, "Probieren ist besser als studieren".

mike fowle

Interesting. I had some short holidays in Germany as a teenager and loved the place, although you probably see it at its best in such circumstances. I also admire and love German classical music above all others. I tried to read The German Genius by Peter Watson but found it heavy going. I'll give this one a go. Thanks.

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