Jonathan Sumption

Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans

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A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People, 100 bc to the 21st century

Steven Ozment

Granta Books, pp. 400, £

It seems only yesterday that Margaret Thatcher was ranting away before an invited group of academics, journalists and experts at Chequers about the perils of German unification and the imminent subordination of all Europe to a nation of 80 million beasts, barbarians and bullies. The idea seemed distinctly odd even at the time, but not as odd as it seems now, after the passage of a decade and a half. Few of those present would have predicted that German unification would mark the beginning of a long period of relative economic decline, in which sclerotic institutions devised to achieve social cohesion and labour security after the second world war would undermine German competitiveness and push up its unemployment to levels not seen for half a century. Today, the feature of contemporary Germany which seems most striking from a distance is its political insularity and its stifling and oppressive social conformity.

Yet it is probable that most Englishmen, even of a younger generation than Mrs Thatcher’s, still instinctively share her view. This is due partly to the formative impact on modern Britain of the second world war, as immense in its very different way as the war’s impact on Germany. But it is also due in large measure to gross historical ignorance. In most British secondary schools, the period from 1914 to 1945 is taught to the exclusion of virtually all other European history. The pursuit of relevance has banished the study of anything earlier. Yet the danger of studying such a minuscule period of history is that it encourages people to extrapolate from a recent past that may in fact be quite untypical.

In the middle of the 19th century, the received image of Germany was of a nation of engagingly old-fashioned and hopelessly impractical romantics in picturesque costumes, with whom one could spend hours quaffing beer and talking philosophy. The archetype of national arrogance and aggression was Napoleonic France, which had within recent memory overrun almost as much of Europe as Nazi Germany did, and treated the subject nations rather similarly. Only a century ago, the Jews were more completely accepted, more prosperous and more secure in Germany than they were in any other Western country, including the United States, and made a more remarkable contribution to its national culture. The world centres of anti-Semitism were Catholic France and Tsarist Russia, not Germany.

What one regards as the abiding characteristics of a nation depends very much on where one starts. The Germany of Hitler is also the Germany of Luther, Bach, Goethe and Kant. Steven Ozment poses the right question at the outset of this excellent history: ‘Can a more than 2,000 year-old civilisation be defined by its last 150 years? Who were the Germans before 1848 and 1933?’

Ozment starts with the Germanic migrations of the second century BC which ultimately destroyed the political structures of the Roman empire. He brings the story right up to date with a review of Germany’s peculiar combination of unapologetic patriotism and nervous self-doubt under its current leadership. Any book which seeks to cover two millennia in just over 300 pages must inevitably indulge in a fair amount of generalisation. But Ozment is sensitive to the dangers. He never fails to point out how apparently conventional truths change over time. He never forgets that nations are not monolithic units but amalgamations of different interests and different traditions which are more or less influential at different periods.

He also recognises, more fully perhaps than a native German could, the importance of external influences. Germany has been moulded by its invaders to a degree which is true of no other European country: the Romans continued to transform German society even after the Germans had defeated them; Christianity was a largely imported commodity right up to the tenth century; the French conquerors of 1806 forcibly began the process of German unification, thus generating the monster which would later overcome them; the Allies in 1945 imposed a form of liberal democracy that has taken root in Germany in spite of the absence of anything comparable in the country’s indigenous traditions. These influences have often been associated with a tendency among the German elites to look elsewhere for inspiration. The Habsburg emperor Charles V once remarked that he spoke German only to his horse, and Frederick the Great certainly read more easily in French. That too serves as a valuable reminder that Germany has not always, or even usually, been the home of insular nationalism.

A Mighty Fortress is the title of Steven Ozment’s history. The phrase (eine feste Burg) was coined by Martin Luther to describe God, and was incorporated in one of the great German hymns. It seems odd to see it applied to a people as unsure of their position in the world as the Germans have been for so much of their history. But let us not quibble about titles. This book is a minor masterpiece of compression, intelligent selection and lucid analysis. For those who are not content with their own prejudices, let alone other people’s, it provides an outstanding introduction to the history of Western Europe’s least understood people.