Monday, February 16, 2015

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“GERMANY – MEMORIES OF A NATION” by Neil MacGregor  (Allen Lane - Penguin, $NZ60)

            I’ll begin by doing what I often do when I don’t know how to open a review with a bang.
I will give you a bibliographic description of this book.
Neil MacGregor’s Germany – Memories of a Nation is a big and very solid hardback, about 600 pages in length. Feel the weight of it and you would imagine that you were holding something of the solidity of the Bible or War and Peace. But you would be deceived. Despite its weight, despite what a lethal object it would be if thrown across a room, Germany – Memories of a Nation is a book with as much photographic illustration and art-work reproduction as text. The text (roughly 300 pages of it, I’d guess) is very easy to read and the book is, in effect, more a browsable bedside book than a serious treatise.
Let’s explain how it came to be produced. Ian MacGregor is Director of the British Museum, and therefore supervisor of its special exhibitions. He made his name known to the wider public by scripting and hosting a BBC TV series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, in which he gave, in a popular way, the historical background and cultural context of artefacts and artworks. Germany – Memories of a Nation was put together to coincide with a British Museum exhibition celebrating for the 25th, anniversary of German reunification in 1989-90. It is also the subject of a BBC radio series by MacGregor. So, in effect, this is the hard-copy version of a radio documentary series – and you can pick this up by the way MacGregor frequently introduces comments from various experts on German art, industry, culture and history. Obviously these are the interview break-in spots from the radio series.
MacGregor’s technique is once again to take artefacts and physical objects which he can relate to general trends in German history – the Brandenburg Gate, say; or the famous portrait of Goethe reclining in Italy; or Durer’s self-portrait; or Cranach’s portrait of Luther; or a first edition of the Brothers Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales; of the great and wrenching etchings of Kathe Kollwitz. Some of MacGregor’s choices (like these six) are fairly inevitable in a book about Germany. The real pleasure comes from the unexpected ones. These include MacGregor’s long consideration of the “Valhalla” of eminent German-speakers (including Alfred the Great!), which Ludwig of Bavaria commissioned and had built. Or the wonderful story of how Ernst Barlach’s “flying angel” (a lament for the dead and bereaved in the First World War) was destroyed by the Nazis for its pacifist implications, but has been lovingly reconstructed in two German churches. [The Nazis really disliked the sculptor Barlach. Look up “Unlaid Ghosts” on the index at right, for my comments on the Hamburg war memorial]. Or porcelain from 18th century Dresden and how it became a form of currency enriching a minor kingdom. Or Riemenschneider’s wood sculptures of the four evangelists. Or a stein made of amber, representing a city (Prague) that was once largely of German culture. Or the ironwork motto over the gate of Buchenwald concentration camp, ironically designed by a Bauhaus artist whose work the Nazis regarded as “decadent”. Or a humble cart, used to carry household goods by German refugees fleeing from the east (MacGregor relates it to Mother Courage’s cart).
This book aspires to be some sort of cultural history of Germany, and as such MacGregor has some major themes. Of course one is the long fragmentation of German-speakers into the many states of the old Holy Roman Empire. For MacGregor, this was as much a blessing as a curse, as it developed among Germans the federal instinct, which allowed local and particular cultures to flourish. (MacGregor analyses this with reference to the many and diverse currencies that were legal tender in the Holy Roman Empire, just as he later illustrates the hyperinflation of the 1920s with a host of regional currencies.) Another theme is the ongoing clash of German and French military might, and the competing historical claims made by French and German cultures (Charlemagne or Karl der Grosse?). Then there is the North-and-South division (Protestant or Catholic? Prussia or Austria?). Above all, though, there is the difficulty in defining who or what exactly the Germans are. Is their nationhood a product of language and culture, or of defined states? And if the latter, then how successful have they been in retaining a sense of nationhood with all the many changes in borders and in types of state over the last 200 years?
Read as a history book, there is much here that will be very familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of German history. Who will be surprised to read of the Reformation, the Peasants’ War and the drastic effects of the 30 Years’ War in the seventeenth century, which killed a larger proportion of the German population than the two World Wars of the twentieth century did? Is there anybody who does not know of the mixed Enlightenment and Militarization of the Prussian State under Frederick the Great? Or of Bismarck’s successful campaign to trump liberalism by uniting Germany on Prussian lines? The collapse of the old empire at the end of the First World War, the shaky democracy of the Weimar Republic, with its bout of hyperinflation, the Nazis, the Holocaust, the post-war division of Germany, the “economic miracle” of West Germany, the Stasi surveillance state of Communist East Germany and eventual reunification – are not these all part of our collective memory and knowledge?
But there is also much that will be relatively unfamiliar. MacGregor is quite right, for example, to spend much space telling us of the humiliation Germans felt at Napoleon’s early victories over them, and how this was itself a great stimulus to German nationalism in the nineteenth century. Similarly, in a way that few English-language history books do, he relates the huge forced exodus of Germans from East and Central Europe after the Second World War – in effect a massive exercise in “ethnic cleansing” which involved some 14 million refugees – and how this placed great strains on post-war Germany as its borders were radically redrawn. And – most surprising of all – he gives an account of Germany’s long tolerance of, and accommodation with, Jews; for despite well-documented outbursts of anti-Semitism, and despite notorious diatribes such as Luther’s tirade against Jews, Germany was traditionally much more open to Jewish settlers than many other Western European countries. Therefore, in MacGregor’s reading, the Nazis and the Holocaust were in no way “inevitable” outcomes of German history. No wonder this whole bulky, but readable, volume closes with a reflection on Walter Benjamin’s concept of History as an angel flying backwards into the future – the point being that the future cannot be read or easily foretold from past circumstances.
As a compendium of diverse knowledge, as a reflection on specific artefacts, and especially as a collection of (literally) hundreds of illustrations, I greatly enjoyed this book and recommend it as a very accessible primer on German culture.
But I wouldn’t be me if I did not express some misgivings.
First (and I’m taking my cue here from a good review of this book that appeared in the English Literary Review in January this year), I think MacGregor skews his survey somewhat by his concentration on material objects. As the Literary Review noted, there is amazingly little on music in German culture. Many commentators would see music as the German art form, and the repertoire of so-called “classical” music would be drastically diminished if German composers were excluded. Similarly, aside from Goethe and one or two others, there is little on German literature (and absolutely nothing on German cinema).
Second, I do wonder about many of MacGregor’s exclusions, just as I did when I watched his A History of the World in 100 Objects. He tends to have a bias towards the culture of the north – the industrialised culture of Saxony and Hamburg and old Prussia and all those industrious and ingenious Germans who invented internal combustion engines and made modernity. The equally German culture of Bavarian (and Austrian) baroque and rococo art gets nary a look-in. In the process, and as he tells us what a wonderful thing German culture is, MacGregor often appears to soft-pedal the militarist nature of the north, even pre-Nazi, so that in his version Prussia is more Enlightenment than Blood-and-Iron, although the latter does get mentioned.
Third, I’m surprised he never invokes the term Sonderweg (“special path”) when describing the odd and tortuous way in which German democracy developed. The wretched term used to turn up all the time when I tutored a German history paper at the University of Auckland a decade ago.
I won’t leave my comment there, though. I wallowed happily in this book – in its images as much as its text – and recommend it as the skewed but highly informative and very entertaining primer that it is.

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