Historians often have to tread a fine line. On the one hand, there is the ideal of historical objectivity and unbiased research, however fractured this admittedly unattainable goal may appear to those used to looking through the postmodern lens of relativity.
On the other hand, there is a certain desire, in politics and society, for a particular kind of historical knowledge that serves as an anchor in an ever more complex world. Clearly, this desire tends to become all the more pertinent if the subject matter is of a very recent kind. While it is difficult enough for historians to dissociate themselves from their ideological viewpoints in general and to gain distance from a time that has passed only recently in particular, the problem of writing contemporary history is compounded when historians were part of the past they intend to analyse.
Heinrich August Winkler, emeritus professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, was born in 1938 in Königsberg (today's Kaliningrad). He has written two hefty volumes, amounting to more than 1,200 pages, trying to show the citizens of reunified Germany who they are and how their political existence came into being. Although determined to provide a scholarly account of 19th and 20th-century Germany, properly footnoted and soberly written, he makes no bones about the primary aim of his scholarship: clarifying Germany's national identity and relating a particular version of national history that "the Germans" are supposed to appropriate. As a matter of fact, he himself admits that the closer his study comes to the present, "the more difficult it becomes to draw a line between historical and political judgments".
Devoid as Winkler is of any postmodern leanings, however, he frankly declares that doing without judgments "is not an option". Indeed, as one of Germany's most renowned historians and one who frequently leaves the "ivory tower" to play the role of the political publicist and governmental adviser, he is determined to reach a wider public. In a way, having taken up a professorship in the new capital as early as 1991, just one year after Germany's reunification, he has donned the vestments of a national high priest more than once, explaining to "his people" their raison d'être.
Winkler's national history from the French Revolution to German reunification is a piece of political history in two respects: first, it is a piece of political education, nicely choreographed along the lines of the often tense relationship between "nation" and (liberal) "democracy", finally reconciled in the climax of a "democratic, post-classical nation-state". In a sense, it offers a scholarly apotheosis of reunified Germany eventually redeemed from her manifold "special paths" and enjoying the state of "Western normality" (this being Winkler's strikingly somewhat ahistorical yardstick consisting of *Britain's habeas corpus, America's Declaration of Independence and France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen).
Second, Winkler's national history is preoccupied with political events and developments, closely focused on the words and deeds of top politicians, but it is also concerned with the comments of leading intellectuals on key issues in German politics (what Winkler calls, in a surprisingly fashionable twist, "discourse history"). Since he contributed to the political "discourse" of the 1980s quite a bit himself, "the historian Heinrich August Winkler" also appears in the polyphonic choir of West German intellectuals.
Writing a well-researched if slightly uneven political history of the Third Reich, the Federal Republic, the German Democratic Republic and Germany's reunification process, with the years 1973-90 taking up half the second volume, is no mean achievement. Furthermore, Alexander Sager's translation echoes much of the author's stylistic strengths, notwithstanding some oddities such as offering "measure state" for Maßnahmestaat (prerogative state), "principled norm state" for Normenstaat (normative state), "special action groups" and "population supplantation" for the untranslatable Nazi terms Einsatzgruppen and Umvolkung.
At the same time, Winkler's Long Road West is redolent of German historicists of the 19th century, on the one hand pursuing sober primary source-based scholarship, while on the other hand being keen to invest the German people with a particular sense of national identity.
In many ways, this is a very German book. It remains to be seen of what use it will be to an English-speaking readership, other than a mere reference work for facts and quotations. Perhaps it will serve as a prime example of a (West) German intellectual trying to come to terms with a national past purportedly littered with "anti-Western" abnormalities, only too happy to write the appropriate master narrative for the new "Berlin Republic" after Germany's final arrival in "the West"
Riccardo Bavaj is lecturer in modern European history, University of St Andrews.
Germany: The Long Road West. Volume II: 1933-1990
By Heinrich August Winkler, translated by Alexander J. Sager
Oxford University Press
Published 11 October 2007