When West Berlin was still a Cold War island ringed by barbed wire, the inhabitants would occasionally quip that their half-city was the only place in the world where all four winds blew from the East. A metaphorical point of the compass also serves as the leitmotif for Heinrich August Winkler's grand travelogue, which charts Germany's 200-year-long journey to the pot of gold at the end of the "Long Road West".
Rather than trying to write a "total history", the professor at the reunited capital's Humboldt University has opted for what he calls a "problem history". It is focused on the notion that, in comparison with the "West", Germany experienced a "twofold historical belatedness". The country was "politically so far behind England (sic) and France", Winkler observes, that it became a nation-state as late as 1866-71 and had to wait another 50 years for the arrival of democracy. Why this was so and what this meant - and still means today - are the core questions informing this planned two-volume history of Germany.
Readers keen to find out whether the answers to these questions will justify the well-worn concept of a German Sonderweg - a unique path deviating from a norm - are told to wait until the end of the second volume.
The first volume does, however, start with an exposition of three basic phenomena dividing German history "from the history of the great European nations": the Holy Roman Empire and its mythology, the confessional schism of the 16th century, and the opposition of Austria and Prussia. The basic phenomena characterising other nations - such as Russia's Orthodox Christianity, Britain's island position or French Gallicanism - do not feature.
Although one would expect more from a systematic investigation of the alleged deviation of Germany's development, this threefold "Legacy of a Millennium" makes for a thought-provoking overture to a political history of modern Germany. Winkler is keen to stress that despite the first volume's ominous end date of 1933, the "vanishing point" for the whole work is "already at work" here: Germany's reunification in 1990. Not everyone will agree with this conscious choice of one of several possible vanishing points and the resultant highlighting of newly emerged prehistories. Is arguing that Bismarck's Reich now also belongs to the prehistory of 1990 really likely to bring about a subtler understanding of the years between 1871 and 1914?
The consciously teleological commitment in the introductory comments does not, however, leave many explicit traces in the main body of Winkler's account. Having sketched the historical legacy Germany accrued between Charlemagne and Hegel, Winkler gets into his stride and develops a brisk, lively and stimulating narrative. Winkler is a distinguished and productive scholar of many decades who can draw on an impressive body of his own research when discussing, for instance, Prussian liberalism, the functions of 19th-century German nationalism, working-class politics or the Weimar Republic.
His text reflects a mastery of a massive body of scholarly literature as well as mature, trenchant and fruitful thinking about the subject. Above all, though, this is a very personal account of German history. Far from being a textbook for those who want their information consensual and comprehensive, this is very much Winkler's version: decisive and with the irrelevant bits left out. The Long Road West snakes through an austere landscape of domestic politics, and there is little in the way of cultural, economic, social or international history to distract the reader.
The book is, moreover, magisterial not only in the authority of its arguments but also in the historical voices that resonate in its pages. Time and again, the text takes its cues from and engages with the interpretations of philosophers, theoreticians and thinkers: Hegel, Marx, Engels, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Lorenz von Stein, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, Rudolf Hilferding and Rosa Luxemburg, to name but a few. Thanks to the author's crisp and engaging prose, though, their ideas are communicated clearly and readably.
Alexander Sager's translation conveys many of the original's strengths and flows nicely. There are, nevertheless, some jarring phrases and a few glitches. Prussian arch-conservative Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau wanted to be king of Prussia only to be able to tell a lieutenant to close ( schliessen ) parliament, not to shoot ( schiessen ) it. And no self-respecting member of the militantly anti-Weimar Ehrhardt Brigade would have worn a ribbon with the republic's black-red-gold tricolour.
In spite of his focus on 1990 as Germany's ultimate destination, Winkler insists that how Hitler came to power remains "the most important question of 19th and 20th-century German history, if not of all German history". As a consequence, many of the evaluations offered in this volume chart the long decline down to 1933 and sound familiar to those acquainted with the lengthy Sonderweg debate of the 1980s: the defeat of the revolution of 1848-89 reinforced "authoritarian deformities'"; the absence of political liberties in the Reich was testament to the failure of German liberalism; 1878 amounted to a conservative refounding of the Reich; Wilhelmine politics was dominated by the unholy matrimony of reactionary Junkers and a feudalised bourgeoisie (a match brokered by means of the battle fleet); and starting with the Hep-Hep Riots of 1819, a vile seam of anti-Semitism ran through every epoch of German history.
Even though many of these interpretations were challenged more than 20 years ago and have remained controversial, the author rarely appears troubled by ambivalence. Occasionally, this leaves him on a sticky wicket, for instance when he concedes in a rather tortuous triple negative that the formula "a belligerent left and a peaceable right", when applied to revolutions of 1848-89, would be "less inaccurate than the reverse". There is also a surprisingly positive evaluation of the Reich's ability to foster a "feeling of German national community". By 1890, Winkler maintains, "the formation of the German nation-state could be regarded as complete."
As the book reaches the 20th century, the plot thickens considerably and the lean, essay-like style gives way to a detailed political narrative. Bismarck's dismissal in 1890 marks the end of chapter five (of seven). At this point, however, readers still have 254 of the book's 494 text pages before them, with the final chapter on the 14 years of the Weimar Republic - arguably an era Winkler knows better than anyone else - receiving a book-length 152 pages. Such unevenness of treatment is not only structurally problematic but points to the potentially distorting drawbacks of vanishing points and prehistories.
Such caveats notwithstanding, Winkler's account of the domestic politics of First World War and Weimar Germany is lucid, sophisticated and convincing. It leaves the reader amid the debris of a shattered republic and in a country enthralled by the Nazis' brutalised and unspeakably hubristic interpretation of the myth of the Reich. In a grimly ironic twist, ending with the Reich suggests that the first volume of The Long Road West , which opens with a biblical "In the beginning was the Reich", has come full circle.
The second volume, taking Winkler's history of Germany through the Nazi dictatorship and the years of division to the re-establishment of a united German nation-state, will have to show whether the road ahead is clear enough to discern a vanishing point through the fog of world war and Cold War.
Frank Lorenz Müller is senior lecturer in modern history, St Andrews University.
Germany: The Long Road West: Volume 1: 1789-1933
Author - Heinrich August Winkler
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 599
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 0 19 926597 6