The Shortest History of Germany

Posted: February 26, 2019 in Book reviews
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9781910400739By James Hawes

I did my degree in history, yet oddly I’ve probably read more history books later in life than I ever did at University, which is something I apparently have in common with David Mitchell (as in Mitchell and Webb David Mitchell, not the guy who wrote Cloud Atlas—although maybe he’s developed a fondness for history later in life as well?)

The trouble with history is that there’s rather a lot of it, and a lot of history books—especially ones that cover a long period of time—tend to be large, often impenetrable tomes, which tends to put me off, so what Hawes does here is truly amazing, detailing the history of Germany from the time of the Romans, through to the era of Angela Merkal, in just a few hundred pages.

Sure, a lot of nuance is probably lost, but for that I could always drill down in more detail and Hawes’ book is a great overview that gives you a taste of German history and leaves you eager to learn more.

It is, at times, a depressing read. From the opening pages we learn that the Roman Empire was concerned about immigration, savages heading south to steal jobs and corrupt Roman culture. The more things change the more they stay the same, eh? And of course the rise of the far right and Hitler, which Hawes understandably goes into a lot of detail about, seems pertinent even today, but he notes that anti-Semitism didn’t start with Hitler, Adolf just took it to a hideous extreme.

We start with Romans and Franks, and Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor who united much of Western Europe from 800AD. Later we meet the Teutonic Knights who founded the region that will come to be known as Prussia, and one of the most interesting facets of German history is this conflict between East and West; the West predominantly Catholic, leaning more towards France and England, whilst the East was more protestant—Martin Luther came from the East after all. And so there’s a tussle for the soul of Germania, with one side alternately battling with/eager to emulate France, England and eventually America, and the other side obsessed by Poland and Russia, and in displacing the slavs, and Hawes makes an interesting argument that the worst thing that happened to West Germany was the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification.

Hawes’ prose is eminently readable, yet he manages to explain complex issues without ever needing to dumb down the material. If I had one flaw it’s with the maps, which in the paperback version have been poorly shrunk to the point where at times they’re barely legible, but this is a minor niggle. overall a hugely enjoyable, and hugely informative read.

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