27 April 2017, The Tablet

The good Germans A concise but bold and revisionary account of a country of two halves NICHOLAS BOYLE


 

The Shortest History of Germany
James Hawes

The shortest history of Germany I recall from my schooldays went to the tune of “Colonel Bogey”. Though it may not exactly have been history, it came close to being the sum total of knowledge about Germany in post-war Britain. If there is something schoolboyish about James Hawes’ daring attempt to remedy the ignorance of centuries in little over 200 pages, that is partly a consequence of its format. It closely resembles the “Very Short Introductions” published by Oxford University Press, with highlighted boxes, numerous illustrations and occasional inane graphics simplifying historical processes to an a+b = c formula. But do not be put off. This is not just an entertaining canter past the most prominent landmarks in German history from Julius Caesar to the refugee policy of Angela Merkel. It is also a serious, well-researched and radical rethinking of the continuities in German political life and their interaction with the rest of Europe. Its conclusion, that Germany is “Europe’s best hope”, may seem surprising. But it all depends – and this is Hawes’ distinctive thesis – on what you mean by “Germany”.

For Hawes, geography is destiny, and geography has decreed that there shall be two Germanies divided by the River Elbe, a “fault line” which manifests itself repeatedly in the history of Mitteleuropa, from the days of the Roman Empire down to the present. Westwards of that line lay, first, the area of Upper and Lower Saxony which Hawes depicts as semi-Romanised, and then the area within the limes, the Roman line of fortifications from the mouth of the Rhine to the Danube. All the major cities of Western Germany, apart from Hamburg, lie within or along that line, in a region that was part of the Roman Empire for 500 years.

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