The volk east of the Rhine

The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany
November 29, 1996

A reliable single-volume history of Germany has been a desideratum for many years. Here it is. Martin Kitchen was a good choice to write it: he made his name as a military historian, has since expanded his interests to include economics, and he is as much at home in Biedermeier salons as he is in Hitler's bunker. Even without some 200 colour and monochrome pictures, this sturdy volume would be good value.

In a short book covering everything from Hermann the Cheruscan to Helmut the chancellor, it makes sense to stick to a no-nonsense narrative containing all the essential facts and dates. However, Kitchen varies his pace with the help of "panel features'' on social or cultural themes which might otherwise be bypassed. These glosses, up to five per chapter, provide excellent springboards for student essays or projects.

Less satisfactory are the picture captions - important in an illustrated history, since they contain information which is often not corroborated in the text. Some are misleading: Adolph von Menzel's celebrated tableau of Frederick the Great and Voltaire, "Table talk at Sanssouci'', has been reversed in reproduction, so that the caption identifies the wrong figure as the philosopher; the photograph illustrating the Munich putsch in 1923 claims that "a swastika flag flies over the city hall'', but there is no sign of one. Others are inadequate: the "soldier king'' of Prussia, Frederick William I, is charmingly illustrated with his pipe-smoking Tabakskollegium, but the caption does not identify the monarch. A pity, too, that the author did not take more advantage of the many colour photographs of the Nazi and postwar periods.

The bibliography is out of date (hardly anything published since 1990, even on the postwar period) and contains far too many books in German for a nonspecialist readership, though the author seems unaware that some of these have in fact been translated. Students will need to go elsewhere.

What of the text itself? Kitchen is sound on almost everything he writes about, and his blind spots are few and far between. One of them, alas, is German philosophy: Albertus Magnus, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, Schopenhauer and Husserl are not mentioned, Leibniz, Fichte and Heidegger only in passing. Kant and Hegel get picture captions and not much else, while Nietzsche is rapped over the knuckles for his "syphilitic mind'' and "appalling legacy''. There is a bias towards the last two centuries, but nothing, oddly, on the largest movement of population in German history: the expulsions of up to 15 million Germans from the East in 1945-46, and the way in which their resettlement altered the character of West Germany.

Kitchen is at his best on high politics: Bismarck looms much larger than Marx. War overshadows peace for much of German history, and here too he is in his element. There is a refreshing self-confidence and lack of political correctness in Kitchen's judgements about art, music and literature.

Given the limitations on his space, it is perhaps unfair to point out that Kitchen is silent or agnostic on some of the main disputes that have raged in recent German historiography. What, if any, are the "peculiarities'' of German history? Was the first world war the result of the German ruling caste's bid for Weltmacht ? Did big business conspire with east Elbian agrarians to topple the Weimar Republic? Did most of the German population actively or passively connive at the Final Solution? Why did East Germany collapse as and when it did? The author does not tell us. Perhaps these questions are not meaningful. If so, Kitchen owes us another, more discursive work in which he explains his positivism to his peers. In the meantime, this elegant volume fills a large gap.

Daniel Johnson is assistant editor (Op-Ed), The Times. He is working on an intellectual history of Germany.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany

Author - Martin Kitchen
ISBN - 0 521 45341 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 352

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