Review of the book ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ by Neil MacGregor.

Germany_coverMy education in the history of Europe was deficient. Previously a ‘tech college’, my grammar school was very oriented to science and technology – an interest in history was not encouraged. And as for Germany, the world wars were too recent in the fifties for its history to be given much consideration at all. So I’ve only picked up the story of Europe bit by bit since then – on many European holidays and through reading. I was thus interested to see the recently published book Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor, a former Director of the National Gallery and of the British Museum.

MacGregor approaches his subject through the lens of major historical, cultural and artistic figures and takes us through key events and places in the history of the German speaking peoples of Europe.

Along the way, you pick up a picture of the story of the Holy Roman Empire, established by Charles the Great (or Charlemagne) in 800 in an attempt to remake the Roman Empire. In various configurations the Empire, comprising many small statelets, duchies, free cities etc, lasted 1000 years before Napoleon took over and effectively usurped it in the early 1800s – there had long been conflict between the French and German parts, each claiming to be the heirs of Charlemagne.

Defeating Napoleon involved building up of the Prussian state, which eventually lead to a unified Germany in 1871 under Bismarck and new Emperor Wilhelm I. His son Wilhelm II proved too wilful even for Bismarck, and eventually the world stumbled into the first World War in 1914. The Versailles treaty after the war imposed reparations on Germany and the newly formed Weimar Republic that eventually led to hyperinflation, which eventually opened the door to the Nazis and the second World War. The subsequently formed European Union was in effect another reconstitution of the Empire.

Particularly interesting is the story of the development and standardisation of the German language over the centuries through the key figures of Gutenberg, Martin Luther and Goethe. And the development of German myth through such as Albrecht Dürer, the brothers Grimm, the painter Caspar Friedrich, King Ludwig of Bavaria, the statues of German heroes at Walhalla, the composer Wagner.

There are also interesting snippets of information, like:

  • Dürer effectively established the first logo
  • Meissen porcelain was discovered by trial and error in a long attempt to copy the techniques long kept secret by the Chinese
  • the meaning of the black/red/gold colours in the German national flag
  • the German beer purity laws were originally about not using wheat, not about purity of the water used
  • money from the Rothschilds (Jews) was a key enabler of the defeat of Napoleon
  • after WW2 the Brits built the first Beetle
  • Prussia was actually abolished after WW2 and many of its people simply removed from their eastern lands – Königsberg is now Russian Kaliningrad
  • there is a strong affinity between the German myth and ancient Greece, which makes their treatment of the tribulations of modern Greece less understandable!

As you’d expect with MacGregor’s background, there is much focus on key artists and movements – the sacred sculptures of Riemenschneider, the evocative landscapes of Friedrich,  the etchings of Dürer, the Bauhaus movement, Klee and Kandinsky, the moving art of Käthe Kollwitz and sculptor Ernst Barlach.

Yes, I found this a very rewarding read, and the illustrations are excellent.

Many of my fellow countrymen in the UK should understand more about the history and culture of our European neighbours, and this book gives a very good focus on the German component.

Featured image is ‘The Solitary Tree’ by Caspar David Friedrich, via Wikimedia Commons

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