I’ve been reading this little 227 page paperback by James Hawes. It does a great job of outlining the history of Germany for a popular audience. Having had a severely deficient education in the history department, I feel that this sort of knowledge should be the baseline of all Europeans, whether Brexited or not. This is after all the history of the centre of our continent.
Take some of the key points:
- The Roman Empire in its greater form was established by Julius Caesar. In 58BC he gave name to the peoples beyond the River Rhine that he could not easily conquer: the Germanii. He even used them as bodyguards.
- Around 16AD Germanicus eventually claimed the territory between Rhine and Elbe for the Empire. This was not particularly secured and eventually a defensible ‘wall’ was built roughly along and to the west of the Rhine (The Limes).
- When the Empire began to fall apart there was eventual ‘renewal’ by Constantine 306-337, changing the focus of the Empire to the east at Constantinople. But the Empire gradually fell apart with successive waves of invasion from the east – goths, franks, huns, vandals and so on.
- After the fall of the Roman Empire the franks attempted renewal resulting in Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire around 800, extended beyond the Elbe to the Oder by Otto in 948, but this extension to the east was fragile and the place was run by independent lords who became known as known as Junkers. The HRA lasted for many hundreds of years of manoeuvering between Kings, Emperors and Popes.
- The peak was around 1229 when Frederick II briefly liberated Jerusalem without a fight. The teutonic knights that had helped pilgrimage to the holy land were given the new task of subduing an area in what is now Poland/Russia – Prussia.
- In 1356 the Kings freed themselves from the Pope and established control on future Emperors.
- The Reformation was begun by Luther on the Elbe and took root to the east, the west remaining Catholic. Conflict began. There was a temporary truce in Charles V’s Peace of Augsburg (1555), but eventually 30 years of war (1618-48) that destroyed much of Germany, but the Prussian/Junker state survived and prospered through great power machinations.
- Following the French Revolution of 1789, Napoleon effectively re-established the Holy Roman Empire – his hero was Charlemagne. He established the Confederation of the Rhine that got the west Germans organised again.
- After the first defeat of Napoleon, Prussia was ‘given’ some of these west German states, instigated by Britain – to provide a counterweight to a possible French resurgence.
- This was eventually crystallized by Bismarck into the dominance of an aggressive Prussian Germany. In 1870 Napoleon III fell into a trap set by Bismarck, and France was overrun in the subsequent war. A new German Empire was declared, and France lost territories. By 1887 the seeds were set for the coming 1914 world war, as France/Russia faced off against Germany/Austria.
- Following the end of WW1 the liberal Weimar Republic desperately tried to re-establish a functioning country despite the over-burdensome terms of Versailles. They were undone by the 1929 Crash, with resulting reduction in American support and rising unemployment. The Nazi party gradually arose from the East, where their main support lay, and eventually got into power due to misjudgements that they could be ‘controlled’. They could not, and WW2 came to complete the battle against Prussian dominance.
- The new West Germany was basically the old confederation, once a core part of the Roman Empire. The new East Germany was basically the residual Junker/Prussian state, Prussia itself having been obliterated.
- Following the collapse of the USSR in 1989, Chancellor Helmut Kohl engineered the recombination of the two Germanys, which has proved a major drain on the West German economy ever since. One has to wonder, was this wise? Polls show the East to be poorer, older and more right wing…
For me, this is a stunningly informative and thought-provoking book, putting in context much of European history and throwing light on modern events. (Apologies for my own oversimplification and misinterpretations.) Essential information really for understanding our world.
And of course, it is completely different from the Neil MacGregor’s Germany, reviewed a few years ago.