A nation for ever in Hitler's shadow

A Mighty Fortress
August 11, 2006

Although he is never mentioned, it is Leopold von Ranke who stands behind this book, with his celebrated dictum that "every epoch stands in a direct relation to God, and its value does not depend on what follows but is to be found in its own existence, in its own self". For Steven Ozment tries to do two related things: to argue that the history of Germany should not be written as a prelude and postlude to 1933-45, and to demonstrate that it can be done. He achieves the first task more convincingly than the second.

In the substantial introduction, rather whimsically titled "Looking for the good German", and the even more substantial conclusion, "The composite German", he has little difficulty in exposing the shortcomings of the approach popularised by Geoffrey Barraclough in The Origins of Modern Germany or by A. J. P. Taylor in The Course of German History . The latter famously opined that it was no more of an accident for German history to lead to Hitler than for a river to run into the sea. It is of course easier to be objective about German history 60 years after the end of the Second World War - Taylor and Barraclough finished their books in 1945 and 1946 respectively.

Chronologically, the treatment is uneven, although not unreasonably so. By page 65, or after less than 20 per cent of the main text, the Reformation has been reached. The pace then slows, with almost a third of the total being devoted to 1500-1789 and about the same to 1789-1890.

Predictably, given that Ozment made his reputation with a book on the Reformation and the cities, the most original passages deal with Martin Luther, his relationship with Frederick the Wise of Saxony, his appeal to German nationalism and his tortured theology, oscillating as it did between "self-transcendence" and "self-abasement". Indeed, that last theme becomes something of a leitmotif in Ozment's analysis of "the German mind", reappearing in secularised form in his lengthy discussion of 19th-century philosophers. Yet even in his discussion of Luther it proves more difficult than perhaps he anticipated, or intended, to escape from the shadow of the Holocaust, for appreciably more space is devoted to Luther's attitude to the Jews than to Luther's theology. Some of that space should have been devoted to Catholic Germany, which comes off very short indeed.

In every chapter there are insights to be admired, information to be absorbed and turns of phrase to be enjoyed. As his distinguished career implies, Ozment is an erudite and intelligent scholar. The puffs on the dust jacket indicate that he has impressed several colleagues (although only one of them is a historian of Germany). Yet the book as a whole just does not cohere. The shafts of light shine all the brighter for flashing in passages of enervating opacity. And if that last sentence seems overwritten, it is a marvel of simplicity compared with much of Ozment's orotund prose.

Time and again, the reader is struck by a metaphor that on closer inspection turns out to be meaningless. What is one to make of the following sentence, for example: "Today the canary sings in the German mine, assuring everyone that the mine is currently safe?" Who or what is the canary? What happens if it asphyxiates? The unexplained metaphor is then pursued with an even more baffling observation: "The canary is also likely to continue to sing the all-clear if Germans who have learned Faust's lesson fill the mine."

This is not an isolated lapse, nor is it cosmetic. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to elucidate the sense of the argument when one is mentally bracing oneself for the next verbal excess, knowing that it will not be long delayed.

This is how the section on Goethe is introduced: "Auschwitz and Vietnam are reality: A world beyond all contradiction and conflict is the stuff of dreams, and for those who cannot awaken from them, of nightmares as well."

And here is the only substantial reference to Wagner: "In the 19th century, Richard Wagner, director of the Dresden Opera House at 30 and a fervent supporter of the German Revolution of 1848-49, wore the latter's failure proudly on his baton." This is compounded by irritatingly twee section headings and by preposterous similes - for example: "William's communique diplomatically rejecting the French king's demand fell into Bismarck's hands like a zebra into the crocodile-infested Zambezi river."

One must wonder whether publishers still read books before they are printed. Judicious advice might well have saved the valuable core narrative and analysis from this disabling self-indulgence. One must also wonder how HarperCollins (the original US publisher) allowed it to go out into the world with such pitifully inadequate maps. At one point Wurttemberg swells to embrace almost all of southern Germany, at another it appears to have been annexed by Bavaria. If ever there were a country whose history cries out for cartographic assistance, it is surely Germany. At least HarperCollins had the wit to supply an appropriate illustration for the dust jacket. The English publishers have selected a painting of King Frederick III of Denmark opening his Parliament in Copenhagen.

There are two other single-volume histories of Germany available, by Hagen Schulze and Mary Fulbrook respectively, and they are both vastly superior to this deeply flawed volume.

Tim Blanning is professor of modern European history, Cambridge University.

A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People 100 BC to the 21st Century

Author - Steven Ozment
Publisher - Granta
Pages - 400
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 1 86207 759 2

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