Memories of a Nation

by Neil MacGregor

‘What are the sounds of Germany? Most people’s list would probably include, in ascending volume, and growing numbers, a Bach cantata, a Beethoven symphony, a Wagner opera and – loudest of all – the roar of the crowds as Germany wins the World Cup …. But just as much part of German-ness, I would argue, is another sound – the sound of metal on metal.’

If there is a touch of humour in the above quotation (or perhaps one of envy?), it is not to suggest that Germany: Memories of a Nation is a frivolous book. It is not. But Neil MacGregor has a nice, easy style of writing which makes a subject – one that could so easily be dull in another’s hands – vibrant and interesting. The extract makes the point, elaborated in the fourth section of the narrative, that Germany is renowned throughout the world not only for its music, but for its engineering skills.

First published in 2014 to complement an exhibition at the British Museum as well as a programme on BBC Radio, this book is a portrait of the the country, past and present, its people, language, art and industry. Director of the British Museum at the time of its publication, – he no longer holds the post – MacGregor does not, in presenting his history, shy from the controversial or, to some people probably, the sensitive when appropriate. Unlike the ghastly but funny Basil Fawlty of the TV sit-com, he has no qualms about mentioning “the War”, or any of the many wars that have raged across Europe for the past several hundred years, shifting borders, forming and reforming countries, often with disastrous consequencies.

Germany: Memories of a Nation is divided into six parts with no clear chronological structure. In the first, the author asks the question: Where is Germany? It identifies the two parts of the nation as it existed post 1945 and prior to unification in 1990. It takes the reader to important cities which were once part of the German Empire but are no longer German – Königsberg (Kaliningrad), Prague (Praha) and Strassbourg, and explains using currency why it is so difficult to define a German history.

‘Among the elements that hold together Germans of all regions and dialects must be reckoned the greatest of all German poets, and Faust, the rambling, unperformable cosmic drama which he wrote and rewrote through his life. There is a case for arguing that …. the Germans are one nation under Goethe.’

Part Two attempts to identify Germany through its language, the language (and literature) of Luther, of the Grimm Brothers, and of Goethe. It discusses the attempt by Ludwig of Bavaria to recreate a new Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (dissolved by Napoleon in 1806) by honouring the heroes of the past in his ambitious Walhalla project. Among other things, it discusses German sausages!

Part Three reviews the holiness or otherwise of the Holy Roman Empire. It describes the structure and activities of the Hansa and considers it as a model for European trade today. From Gutenberg to the Bauhaus to the Beetle, Part Four examines Germany’s unique contribution through the centuries to diverse range of industries, from clocks and watches to engravings and porcelain. It showcases the artistry of Albrecht Dürer, and tells the remarkable history of the Volkswagen car, part of the post-war economic miracle, as MacGregor puts it.

‘By 1939, all low-value denominations (of currency) had vanished. Enter the ersatz Mark and the ersatz pfennig, usually made not from metal but from paper. It was called Notgeld – emergency money.’

Part Five covers the career of Bismarck, the dark years of WWI, the currency crisis and the rise of the Nazis to power. Again, there is a focus on art, and how Hitler turned it into propaganda that backfired when the exhibition of so-called “degenerate art” in Munich attracted more visitors than the one of “wholesome works” only a couple of hundred metres away.

‘Two hundred thousand Jews moved to Germany after Helmut Kohl, in 1990, agreed to grant them immediate asylum and offered them financial assistance and every facility to integrate … Those Russian Jews chose Germany in the full knowledge of what had happened fifty years earlier, to the bemusement of many Jews elsewhere in the world.’

The final part looks at the history of Germany from 1945, how the Jews returned, and how East and West were finally reunited. It ends on an optimistic note with the rebuilding of Berlin as Germany’s capital city and the restoration of the Reichstag as its parliament.

I found this book a fascinating read. Having come to know, and to love Germany in the early 1960s, I thought there was little I could learn about the country. But I was wrong! There is so much still to learn, undoubtedly more than I could possibly absorb in one reading. Above all, I found Germany: Memories of a Nation to be a book about the artistic aspects of the country, as much as about its history – its painting, sculpture, literature and design. To paraphrase a comment made by the Guardian newspaper, MacGregor can make objects speak. His conversational prose is punctuated with interesting quotations by other historians, writers in other fields, and artists of all kinds. Its 600 or so pages are lavishly illustrated everywhere with photographs of people, paintings, coins, engravings and with explanatory maps.

For anyone interested in German history and in its people and culture, this book is a must.


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