Honed to hit the right spot

A History of Modern Germany 1800-2000. First Edition - Germany Since 1815
February 24, 2006

In the immediate wake of German unification, and at a time when the place of the Holocaust in a long-run trajectory of German history was keenly debated, historians appeared reluctant to write new surveys of German history. In recent years, scholars have finally addressed this real need for a suitable introductory survey that could familiarise students with the nuts and bolts of German history while reflecting the rich historiographical debates of the past 30 years. Martin Kitchen's and David Williamson's books join a field that is fast becoming quite crowded. Nevertheless, both books are valuable and stand up well to the competition.

Kitchen sets out to tell a story, and he tells it well. His sentences are elegant and his narrative is enriched with striking facts and characterisations about the statesmen he portrays. In his introduction, he apologises for some inevitable oversimplifications, but he might not have bothered. For an introductory textbook, this is a complex and subtly written book indeed, but one omission is striking. Any good story has a beginning and an end, which make it easier for the reader to keep track of what is going on. It is difficult to discern a central theme in Kitchen's story, and the absence of a clear overarching theme or argument might make it difficult for students to follow the plot as they use this text from week to week.

Williamson is less concerned about narrative. His chapters are designed as units in themselves, with each chapter discussing a central controversy. They also contain key questions for students to bear in mind as they follow through the text. This book is extremely strong didactically. Where it is possible that Kitchen might lose the less attentive student, Williamson's leaner account is much more likely to appeal to students unfamiliar with German history, or with any history for that matter. He provides a straight telling of facts and a timeline for each chapter. In addition to this, Williamson also provides excellent argumentative sections. Together with the key issues discussed in the introduction and conclusion of each chapter, these allow students to develop their own arguments. Pedagogically, this is an outstanding book.

Both books present good, solid accounts. They outline a political history and, apart from one chapter in Kitchen's book, questions of class, culture and nationalism are considered mainly inasmuch as they inform political events. The conventionality of these accounts is probably a strength in an introductory survey.

However, both books share a flaw in that some of the most recent debates on German history have not been taken into account. There is no consideration, for example, of the copious research published recently on the 1848 revolutions, which has emphasised the revolutions' transformative impact on German political culture. Moreover, the authors might have taken note of the scholarly debates about German atrocities committed in the colonies and in the First World War, and the extent to which these foreshadowed the violence of the Nazi era. Finally, neither author discusses the rich literature triggered by the debate surrounding Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler' s Willing Executioners about the involvement of "ordinary" Germans in the atrocities of the Third Reich - both inside Germany and in the conquered territories of the East.

The strengths of Kitchen's book lie particularly in the 19th century. He is extremely good on the complexity of German party development, especially the ambivalent relationship between liberals and the state. Given the centrality of anti-Semitism in modern German history, Kitchen also does very well to accord Jewish communities their rightful place in the development of 19th-century German history.

If there is a major weakness in his account, it lies in the post-1945 period, especially in his discussion of the former East Germany. Tellingly, for the period 1945-63, the GDR is discussed in a chapter titled "The Adenauer era". In the following chapter on "Two Germanies: 1963-82", the GDR is considered in a mere four paragraphs.

Most chapters in Williamson's book are excellent, with an impressive command of the key debates students should be aware of. The periodisations of his chapters are also helpful: indeed, it would be tempting to design a lecture course parallel to each chapter.

Whereas Kitchen's account of the Weimar Republic in one single chapter might be helpful in overcoming oversimplistic periodisations, Williamson's discussion of the Weimar Republic in three chapters is much clearer and easier to follow.

I have only two concerns. First, Williamson gives short shrift to the Napoleonic period, a fact entirely excusable since the book formally starts in 1815. Nevertheless, Williamson does devote an entire chapter to the years before 1815 and, given the significance of this period for German history, it is unfortunate that this chapter is somewhat less incisive than the others.

Second, and much more important, the growth of anti-Semitism in the Weimar Republic, and in the Third Reich itself, does not get the coverage it deserves. Naturally, it is difficult to account for German history between 1939 and 1945 in a mere 23 pages. However, to devote only two pages to the Holocaust, but three pages to the different opposition groups to the Nazis, seems disproportionate. The Nazi era is also the only period in which the theme set for the chapter seems curiously out of date.

Instead of framing the chapter in the (by now) tiresome debate between intentionalists and functionalists, it might have been much more interesting to introduce students to questions relating to the involvement of "ordinary" Germans (and non-Germans) in the Holocaust.

Both books are good surveys, though students will benefit particularly from Williamson's account. It is clear for those who have never studied German history before, and through detailed footnotes (which Kitchen omits completely) students can learn to follow up with further reading.

Williamson's book is an ideal teaching tool, and one would be hard-pressed to find - or to write - a better introductory survey on German history.

Jan Palmowski is senior lecturer in European studies, King's College London.

A History of Modern Germany 1800-2000. First Edition

Author - Martin Kitchen
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 455
Price - £60.00 and £18.99
ISBN - 1 4051 0040 0 and 0041 9

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