Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor

1930s-Germany-the-Land-of-Music

When I think about Germany, my first association is always war, followed by Nazis, followed by concentration camps. I imagine that most people who aren’t German would have the same response. So, when I heard that the British Museum was putting on an exhibition about German history and culture, and that there would be an accompanying book and radio series, I was excited to have the opportunity to widen my understanding of Germany as a nation and move beyond the limited view of the country as a place of conflict and terror. I was also interested to see how German people have, in recent years, dealt with their past, especially as there has been so much memorialisation of WWI in Britain lately. Our 20th century history and culture is very much bound up in notions of victory, of tenacity, of bravery, of standing up against evil; how must it feel for your country’s history to be laced with defeat, destruction and guilt? How is that worked into the narrative of a country’s culture, and how does that affect the way Germans feel about their nationhood? There was so much I wanted to find out, and I wondered whether Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, could answer all of these questions for me. I was delighted to find that he could, as well as giving me much more to think about besides.

The book is organised into six sections, working on a roughly chronological basis through Germany’s history, looking at its most famous sons and daughters as well as its considerable artistic, political, industrial and cultural contributions to the world. Each chapter within the six sections is hinged around a particular object and the story it tells, and all of these objects are on view in the exhibition. It is over 500 pages long, so I’m just going to pick out a couple of things that I found most interesting to tell you about. Firstly, I loved discovering more about the shifting make-up of Germany as a country. For hundreds of years it was a collection of states and principalities encompassing what is now modern day Germany as well as parts of France, Scandinavia, Russia, Austria, Hungary and the Baltic. Overseen centrally by the Holy Roman Emperor, each state was largely autonomous. There was no ‘Germany’ as we know it now, but merely a ‘German people’, linked by a shared language rather than a shared nation, history or culture. This disparate nature of Germany prevents it from having a unified version of history or cultural identity, especially as the constant re-drawing of the borders of Germanic states means that much of what were traditionally Germanic speaking regions are now fully assimilated into other countries. I have always taken it for granted that I can read a history book about England and find an easy, linear account of its development over time; German people do not have that privilege. Theirs is a history of states and regions, with their own cultures, customs and histories that vary enormously. This is seen most powerfully in the monuments in some German cities, which commemorate victories against what are now other parts of Germany. As such, one city’s hero is another’s villain; one city’s victory is another’s humilating defeat. The famous Valhalla monument to the heroes and heroines of the German-speaking lands, built by King Ludwig I, King of Bavaria, is a perfect example of this, with many of the busts placed inside having caused considerable debate as to their worthiness by people from different parts of Germany. MacGregor’s discussion of Germany’s historic make-up being a precursor to the EU was of particular insight, and reveals why Germany is such a supporter of it. Germany as a united nation has only existed for less than 30 years; it is in its blood to be part of a wider collection of states, held together by a common purpose. In comparison, many British people are vehemently anti-EU, and considering our long history of being an independent island nation, this offers an intriguing insight into how historical identities can subconsciously affect people’s emotional responses to governing bodies.

I also found it fascinating to read about modern German history, and the ways in which the guilt of the atrocities of Hitler’s regime have been handled. Germany is a country of very few war memorials, for obvious reasons, yet those that are in place speak of a nation profoundly ashamed at what it has been responsible for. Many of their most famous memorials are of weeping, grief stricken figures that exemplify a sense of loss and sadness, both for what the people had suffered – their children were killed too – but also for what they had caused others to suffer. Unlike in other countries, where statues and memorials commemorate victory and honour, Germany’s monuments commemorate their recognition of a need for change.  It is a brave nation that is willing to confront its troubled past and make a public commitment to ensuring that such atrocities never happen again, and in Germany now, with a new generation emerging who have not grown up in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, there is an excitement in the air, as the ability to forge a new national identity, free from the shame of the past, becomes possible.

This is genuinely one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and using it to guide me through the equally fantastic exhibition enabled me to really contextualise the objects that are on display and understand more fully why they had been chosen and what they revealed. Once I’d finished reading, I felt enlightened, educated and eager to find out even more. I can sense a trip to Germany coming up in 2015 – if only I hadn’t forgotten all of my GCSE German! If you can’t make it to the exhibition, which closes on the 25th of January, then I can’t recommend the book, and the accompanying radio series, which can still be listened to here, highly enough.

22 comments

  1. It’s interesting what you say about Germany. I think that the country should get rid of the sense of guilt due to the war and recollect that they have played an important role in culture throughout their history. with, for example Heirich Heine in poetry or Beethoven, Brahms in music to name just a few..

  2. An absolutely brilliant book, as you say. My book of 2014. How I envy you your visit to the British Museum.

  3. Wow, this was really interesting for me – being German, I find it hard to find the distance to really think about my country, to see us from outside. Can you understand what I mean? It’s most interesting to see how others see us.
    I am born in 1971. The guilt about the holocaust will accompany me all my live, even if it happened before my days. During my time at school, it was the big, recurring theme – and I am thankful for it. I am convinced we should never forget what happened.
    Yes, Rachel, I also sense a trip to Germany coming😉 Why not? We would love to have you – we have enough space in our house. We live one hour from Munich, and you could have your own room for as long as you like. I would love to take you around by car. Munich is full of monuments by Ludwig I (so funny seeing him mentioned here!) and lots of other stuff which might interest you. But I would highly recommend going to Berlin also – it’s full of history, naturally, and a totally different place from catholic, conservative Munich. And if you are already up north, Hamburg is one of the prettiest cities I know and is practically on the way to England from Berlin. I understand there are even ships to London…
    Please drop me a line if you need any assistance!

    1. What a fascinating viewpoint, Martina. I’m sad that you feel you carry the guilt of an event that happened before your lifetime – though I suppose there is a sense of guilt amongst British people even now about our colonial past. No country can claim it doesn’t have blood of some sort on its hands. How lovely of you to offer such a wonderful opportunity! I will definitely take you up on that if I make it over – there are so many places I would love to see, and Munich is one of them! I’ll be in touch!🙂

  4. “Germany as a united nation has only existed for less than 30 years” – you forget the 1871-1945 period…

    Thanks for the BBC/British Museum link, and to Neil McGregor´s book, apparently very good.

    One of the best books on this subject is Peter Watson´s The German Genius, quite possibly the best.

    1. Sorry, that was my bad phrasing – I meant in its modern incarnation, with its current borders. Thanks for the book recommendation – I shall look that up!

  5. I’ve been eyeing this with curiosity but, despite my love of German history, was a little sceptical of the book’s format/framing device/whatever you call it (I love a nice, linear approach to history, usually). But your enthusiasm has finally tipped it over into the “must read” category for me. And I hope you do make it to Germany in 2015! It is probably my favourite country to visit so if you’re looking for planning tips, just let me know!

    1. Oh I’m sure you’d love it Claire – it really is such a fantastic book and it is linear, so you get a nice sense of Germany’s progression rather than finding out random bits and bobs that you need to cross reference later on. Thank you very much – I will definitely email for advice!

  6. I was looking at this, but as I like my reference books to be hard copies, I did balk at the price…I do hope it comes out in paperback. Your review has made it a must-have for me. Just discovered your blog, which is wonderful.

    1. Hello and welcome! Yes it’s not cheap, but it is definitely worth it – the photos are beautifully produced and it’s a book you’ll go back to time and again, I promise!

  7. What a thought provoking post. I’ve always had the same associations with Germany, which seems a sad indictment of a country so rich in cultural history and which has brought so much that is beautiful to the world in terms of music and poetry and art. Let us hope that with the new generation a new identity can be forged which does not forget that which has passed, to prevent it from ever happening again. Thank you as ever for introducing me to a book that I would never have considered reading had it not been for your recommendation.

  8. Very interesting, not a book that would have jumped off the shelf at me but what an interesting account you have given here. As with all your recommendations you manage to make me sit up and take notice.

  9. I’m German and I’ve been listening to the radio series. I really enjoyed it – I was especially impressed by the way he uses literature to explain specific historic situations. (E.g. the way he starts and ends his show on the GDR with discussing Christa Wolf’s novels).
    He also captures quite well how the past always shapes contemporary political debates in Germany, be it about information privacy, stem cell research or humanitarian interventions.

    1. Yes – he is very good at looking at how the past informs so many of modern Germany’s debates and decision making processes. Germany’s history is just utterly fascinating – I can’t wait to learn more. I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying the radio series.

  10. I read a lengthy extract from this book that was published in a Sunday newspaper supplement, it made fascinating reading though I don’t see myself reading the whole book.

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