Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor

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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.

Celebrate Good Times

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So, another year comes to a close. 2014 has been an interesting experience for me. I learned a lot, professionally and personally. It was tough at times, but in a way that has deepened and broadened and clarified my mind, and helped me gain some much needed perspective and contentment.

I have found that as I have left the university and early twenty-something years behind, where there is so much change and upheaval and opportunity, it can be difficult to adjust when life settles into a more permanent routine. After all, it’s hard to feel like your life is going somewhere when you’re literally not going anywhere. I’ve been in the same place for three years now, and being settled, being static, is a state I am still getting used to. I often have moments where I feel my life lacks excitement and purpose, and my wanderlust begins to kick in, calling me to responsibility-free foreign climes rather than the 9-5 in the Home Counties. It doesn’t help when social media is constantly showing me photographs of friends who are doing all manner of ridiculous things, like saving children in Uganda or kayaking their way around Scandinavia, or getting married on top of a mountain in India, or setting up their own internet company from their penthouse apartment in New York. In comparison, my photos, if I could be bothered to upload any, would consist of the pile of A Level essays I marked, a graveyard I visited or a rubbish cake that I made. I couldn’t be more boring if I tried.

However, as I have been mulling over my year and considering what I will take away from my experiences of the past twelve months, I’ve been amazed at how much I have achieved, and how much I’ve grown. I’ve come to realise that staying put doesn’t mean I’m not going anywhere. Far from it, actually. I don’t need to go travelling around the world to have adventures any more, because I have them every day just by going to work. Even though it is often exhausting and sometimes incredibly frustrating, I find such a deep sense of fulfilment and pleasure in teaching my students that I know, deep down, if someone offered me a free round the world trip tomorrow, I wouldn’t want to take it. Nothing could challenge me more. Nothing could inspire me more. Nothing could teach me more. Nothing could delight me more than the children in my classroom. They teach me more about myself and give me more inspiration than I could ever give them, and they change me for the better, every single day.

I’ve watched my beautiful, clever, brilliant, hilarious, amazing nephews grow another year older and another year wiser. I’ve made some fantastic new friends. I’ve visited two new countries. I’ve started a choir at work. I’ve read a lot of fascinating books and visited a lot of interesting exhibitions and seen a lot of wonderful plays. I’ve truly learned something new every day. I’ve had a lot of fun. I finally stopped talking about writing a book and actually wrote it, which I am enormously proud of, even if I am the only person who ever reads it. And, of course, I got to share all of these moments with you, and notched up another year in the blogosphere in the process, which is always an achievement worth celebrating. I might not have set the world on fire, but it’s been a pretty brilliant year nonetheless.

So, here’s to 2015…it’s got a lot to live up to!

Merry Christmas!

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Thank you for your patience with my sporadic posts this year. It has, as always, been such a joy to have you reading along, sharing in the highs and lows of my various endeavours and offering your ever considerate and insightful comments and advice. Please know how much I appreciate you all, whether you make yourself known to me or not. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and I’ll be back with a proper post very soon.

Life, etc

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So, it’s December. Already. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that life appears to speed up as you get older. The sense of anticipation, the wonderful fossil-in-amber feeling of suspended time between the nows and the longed-fors that I had as a child never seem to occur these days. Life just slips through my fingers like sand, and I am left at the end of a week, wondering how it can possibly be Sunday already all over again.

One of the many joys of being a teacher is that no day is ever the same, but unfortunately each day is also a manic maelstrom of activity that sucks you in as soon as you step over the threshold at 8am and doesn’t spit you out again until late in the evening, when you emerge, slightly shaken, slightly confused, and wondering where the day went, and why you still have a pile of marking on your desk. Of late I have been consumed with a feeling of great restlessness and dissatisfaction, and I think part of that is due to my job. I make 101 bad decisions every day, and always finish lessons wishing I had said this, or hadn’t said that, or had tried that instead, or had spent more time helping that child, or not been so harsh with that child. The speed of the day, and the pressure of having to perform in front of a class of children of any age from 11 up to 18 on the hour, every hour means that I have precious little time to really consider what I am doing until I have done it, and then I find myself in agonies of regret and full of plans to do better next time, which invariably fail because once again I didn’t have time to think properly before I was forced into action. This cycle of feeling generally useless, exhausted and guilty has felt rather relentless, and it is really quite wearing ending every day contemplating on being a bit of a failure at life. It’s been one of those months. I blame the darkness. T.S.Eliot definitely had it wrong when he said April was the cruellest month.

Reading has gone out of the window, because I’m finding it really hard to concentrate on anything. I’ve spent plenty of lovely weekends doing interesting things in London, but I can’t find the energy or the creativity to write about them. All of my spare brain capacity is going into the writing of my novel, which is finished, but I am now going through the soul-destroying process of editing, and self-doubt is proving incredibly corrosive to my confidence. I have come close to deleting the whole thing on several occasions, but I manage to pull myself back from the brink each time. I really don’t know how real writers do it. So, this is just to say, I suppose, that I am here…just about, but you’ll probably have to wait until the Christmas holidays before you get anything like a decent post out of me. Hopefully I’ll have cheered up by then.  Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is beautiful, by the way. Put it on your Christmas lists. A few lines of Marilynne every night is just about keeping me sane at the moment.

Vienna

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After reading Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, I was determined to go and visit Vienna. He made it sound like an absolutely beautiful city, with a fascinating history and cultural life. I’d always heard good things about it, and imagined it to be a majestic place, famous for music and royal palaces and its mixture of Western and Eastern European influences. I expected it to be somewhat like St Petersburg, and I had a picture of myself in a fur hat, wandering through deserted palaces and floating in and out of fancy shops, against a soaring soundtrack of Mozart waltzes. Inspired by these romantic notions, I booked myself a cheap short break to the city over half term, and started planning my visits to coffee houses, museums and sights of architectural interest with much excitement.

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I arrived in Vienna on a Sunday morning, and was shocked both by the extreme cold weather and the silence of the city streets. Feeling like the star of a zombie apocalypse movie, I wandered the streets between my hotel and the main square, Stephansplatz, amidst a background of eerie quiet. Despite my increasing concern that I had missed some major world disaster that everyone else was hiding from, I still managed to take notice of the unbelievably gorgeous mixture of architecture around me: from the art nouveau work of the turn of the century, to elaborate Baroque palaces, Gothic churches and more simplistic 17th century structures, everywhere I looked provided a treat for the eyes. When I finally made it to Stephansplatz, I was heartened to find not only a seriously impressive Gothic cathedral, but also several tourists, which reassured me that the world hadn’t ended while I’d been flying across Europe. Clearly, Vienna was just not the same kind of buzzing capital city I’m used to. I popped into the Stephansdom, which is a hauntingly beautiful church, before stopping for a traditional Austrian lunch of Tafelspitz at the delicious Plachutta, which was my first real taste of Austrian cuisine. Once fed, I wandered down the main shopping street, Kohlmarkt, which has many expensive shops as well as some of the most historic establishments in Vienna, which retain their beautiful original 19th century and art deco shop signs and frontages. At the top of Kohlmarkt is the Hofburg, once the palace complex of the Austrian Emperors, and further walking eventually leads to the now public palace gardens, where there was a big winter festival going on, and the stately Museum quarter. By this time it was late, and I had seen a huge swathe of the city, so I headed back to my hotel, both enchanted by what I had seen, but also surprised at how different from my expectations the city was. For it is certainly a city with impressive, stately buildings and a good deal of culture, but it is also one, in my experience, that is remarkably sterile. There was no life, no buzz, no sense of the throbbing heart of a nation that you get in London, New York or Paris. It very much feels like a showpiece for an Empire rather than a place for people to live out the drama of life on the huge scale one would expect of a vibrant and diverse capital city.

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Over the next few days I saw all the main sights. I loved getting the lift to the top of the Stephansdom and seeing the skyline of Vienna. I thoroughly enjoyed touring the elaborate Hofburg Palace and finding out more about the doomed Empress Sisi. The Belvedere Museum offered lovely views of the city and has a wonderful collection of Gustav Klimt’s paintings. The Opera District is very beautiful, and it was fun to walk through the long Naschmirkt market stalls and see the beautiful decoration on the famous Wagner Apartments that overlook them. The Secession Building is the most breathtaking example of Art Nouveau architecture I have ever seen. The Ringstrasse is a phenomenon; to think that this street of palaces and public buildings was constructed within such a short period is awe-inspiring, and gives Vienna its stately, elegant quality. I was thrilled to find the Palais Ephrussi, as read about in Edmund de Waal’s book: I could not truly comprehend the fact that one family used to live inside this enormous building. I spent a very pleasurable morning looking at the world-famous Hapsburg art collections in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, my favourites being the Velazquez portraits of the Spanish Infanta Margarita. I had a night at the opera. I ate lots of goulash and potato dumplings, and had wonderful coffee and cake at a number of famous Cafes and pastry shops. I wandered down many ancient cobbled streets and found a number of fascinating little alleyways and courtyards filled with beautiful shops and cafes. I spent a day at Schonbrunn, the Austrian Royal Family’s summer palace on the outskirts of Vienna, which was absolutely beautiful. It was a lovely, lovely trip. But I couldn’t help but feel that Vienna is not really the city I expected, nor the city for me. I like my capital cities buzzing with life. Vienna felt cold and slightly artificial, to me, and while I’m glad I visited, I don’t think I’ll be rushing back.

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