German History, 1770-1866
Bismarck, The White Revolutionary, Vol. I, 1815-1871, Vol. II, 1871-1898
Bürgertum in Deutschland
Die Deutschen in ihrem Jahrhundert 1890-1990
Letters to Freya, 1939-1945
At the end of his impressive biography of Bismarck, which was first published in Germany in 1980, Lothar Gall notes that it was during the period in which the chancellor dominated the political scene that Germany acquired its historical identity. This, he makes clear, has had unfortunate results:
The nation’s self-awareness still seems to be determined by the external configuration of the Reich as founded in 1871. Modes of behaviour, institutions, the way in which parties and groups see themselves and the terms in which social relations of all kinds are conceived still seem to be largely influenced by the traditions of Bismarck’s Reich, albeit in various refractions. Academic history is still focused primarily upon this period—even, in many instances today, in a peculiarly impassioned manner. Despite its often vigorous attempts at detachment, it is only rarely able, after a prolonged struggle, to bring itself to declare the period historically closed.
A striking illustration of this was seen after the Berlin Wall came down on November 9 of last year. When Helmut Kohl issued his now famous Ten-Point Program, the term that he used for his ultimate goal was the “reunification” of Germany, which all too plainly evoked the memory of 1871. In a notable article in Der Spiegel, Günter Grass immediately objected to the use of this term, arguing that it implied a return to attitudes and ambitions that could not be tolerated in a Germany that had just witnessed the first peaceful and successful democratic revolution in its history. That this had much effect upon people who still regard Bismarck as, next to Luther, Germany’s greatest man is doubtful. The authors of the books under review here would, however, be largely in agreement with Grass.
James J. Sheehan begins his important contribution to the Oxford History of Modern Europe by defining, as the essential character of the German past and the German present, its “diversity and discontinuity, richness and fragmentation, fecundity and fluidity.” Historically, he points out, what we call Germany is neither a fixed entity nor a state nor a clearly designated landscape. It has had many shapes and many histories,
histories that led Germans toward and away from one another, at once encouraging them to act together and making such common action virtually impossible.
This explains why German intellectuals are so constantly preoccupied with the national identity, which they never seem to be able to define to their own satisfaction, why German poets either bemoan the physical and moral fragmentation of their country, as Hölderlin did in his novel Hyperion, or make legends out of such rare demonstrations of unity as “the days of 1914,” and why German historians wrangle so interminably over the continuities and discontinuities in their past and present.
For the non-German chronicler this presents a formidable challenge, but Sheehan has risen to it successfully, in a book that will certainly become the standard account of German history from the end of the eighteenth century, when the only…
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