A parade on the first ‘Day of German Art,’ marking the opening of the first ‘Great German Art Exhibition’ of works by artists approved by the Nazi regime, Munich, July 18, 1937

akg-images/Imagno/Austrian Archives

A parade on the first ‘Day of German Art,’ marking the opening of the first ‘Great German Art Exhibition’ of works by artists approved by the Nazi regime, Munich, July 18, 1937

This is a book about the Germans and their past. But it is also a distinctly British book. Britain has unfinished business with the history of Germany in a way other countries seem no longer to have, even those pitted against it more desperately through twentieth-century wars and aggression. For France the relation could be sublimated in subsequent common ideals of European harmony. Poland gained a formal settlement of accounts by a high-profile peace treaty. The US can claim a lion’s share in the international configuration of the present German state; whereas Russia has been chastened by the former Soviet Union’s ultimately ruinous attempt to hold a large part of that state down indefinitely. Even Israel could achieve a kind of closure with Germany.

Several authors have sought recently to engage with a still-mistrustful British audience and to set the record straight, from the authoritative but accessible scholarship of Christopher Clark to the lighthearted commentary of Simon Winder.1 Neil MacGregor is the most ambitious yet. He builds on a major exhibition that he curated in London and a radio series that he presented, both during 2014. And he uses much antique material that has been either under his own supervision, as director of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015, or survives in other London collections. It ranges through a plethora of paintings, drawings, medals, coins, banknotes, porcelain, goblets, and glasses, and includes—as we shall see—both a magnificent amber tankard from Königsberg and an intricate clock mechanism from Strasbourg.

MacGregor constructs no apologia for a people who were complicit in the enormities of Nazism (a complicity revealed anew of late to English-language audiences in likewise widely circulating accounts by Ian Kershaw and Richard Evans2). But he does seek to vindicate German history as a whole; indeed he urges this in part precisely because of the ways in which Germans now handle their past in memory. That culminates in the odd claim that history as perceived by the Germans uniquely, at least in European terms, looks forward, not back—a puzzle to which I shall return.

MacGregor employs a distinctive modus operandi, shaping his chapters around particular images and artifacts. It’s a technique already pioneered in his much-admired A History of the World in 100 Objects. Moreover, in the ensuing concatenation of microhistories, each item has its interpreter, or wider “expert” analyst (gratifying recognition for academics who are customarily relegated to footnotes!), the whole seamlessly woven together by commentary from MacGregor that is consistently insightful and adroit.

A favorite trope in this lovingly illustrated volume is iconic representation. Goethe, a writer of such totemic significance for Germans that MacGregor even ventures, in an American-inspired analogy, to speak of “one nation under Goethe,” appears as the dreamy aesthete in Johann Tischbein’s informal painting of him. Bismarck has a twofold presence, both as a supremely stylish empire-builder, in the famous depiction by Anton von Werner, and as the modest blacksmith who forged national unity. Dürer is symbolized by his prints of a soulful Melancholia and a stalwart knight errant (tokens for the moods of his nation, as is often thought) and an equally well-armored rhinoceros. MacGregor thrives on portraits and statues—even a whole Walhalla gallery of them erected on a bluff over the Danube by a prodigal ruler of Bavaria. His leitmotif is a celebration of the immensely varied contributions of the German people to Europe and the world by introducing his reader to the peaks as well as the depths of their historical experience.

The depths come near the end, since MacGregor’s treatment is loosely chronological. Yet Nazi terror lies squarely at the heart of his account. A haunting investigation of Buchenwald concentration camp is approached, literally, through the motto Jedem das Seine (to each their due) on its entrance gate. Here the enormity of Hitler’s regime was intensified by the grotesque juxtaposition to Germany’s humanist and classical heritage. Not only did the camp lie only a few miles from Weimar, well within range for a peripatetic Goethe a century and a half before, on his rounds as environmental adviser to the local duke; but—a shocking insight, this—the motto itself was carved by an inmate trained at the progressive Bauhaus school of architecture, art, and design, founded nearby in 1919.

A similarly arresting case study presents the Jews of Offenbach—with their synagogues as physical points of reference—whose congregation throve on earlier freedoms and which has now reconstituted itself so as to make even the Holocaust appear only an episode. Further rich testimony comes from the notorious 1937 Munich exhibition of “Degenerate Art,” as befits a show that was hugely popular, for the wrong reasons as the Nazi authorities would come to suspect. MacGregor comments poignantly that while the book is talking about objects, these are also the categories of people whom the Third Reich had been preparing to eliminate.


Alongside all this MacGregor sets the mass suffering of the Germans themselves, expelled in 1945 from huge tracts of their historic motherland in retribution for the crimes of their government, and the scenes of total devastation at home in the immediate aftermath of war. There too he chooses luminous imagery to make his points: the primitive wooden carts on which the refugees dragged their meager possessions, and the Trümmerfrauen, or “rubble women,” who in the absence of their lost menfolk had to accomplish so much of the clearance work.

Before and after this nadir, the German lands underwent two elemental processes of unification and reunification, the first immensely protracted, the second remarkably sudden. MacGregor’s goal is to present a history of the nation as currently perceived. That naturally privileges recent events and the nation’s capital Berlin, as the setting for much of the latest momentous drama. So the Brandenburg Gate and the neighboring stretch of the Mauer, the Berlin Wall, serve as emblems for the story of a Germany divided for forty years until 1989 (there’s a brilliant vignette of Friedrichstrasse rail station, a chief crossing point, as a locus for the operations of the East German secret police); and the nearby Reichstag features primarily as the home of the Republic’s current squeaky-clean democratic institutions.

However, the whole of the German past is on show in this book, and a gamut of locations across Central Europe as well. The maps that precede the text (far superior to the cheeseparing cartography usual in such general works) are equally distributed between every century from the sixteenth to the twenty-first. They immediately demonstrate how the country’s borders, so forcibly curtailed in 1945, had in earlier ages been open and flexible—but how the postwar partition into East and West also had its antecedents.

It was the nineteenth-century German state, hammered into a measure of unity and political order under Prussian aegis, that made possible the later hubris. Bismarck’s realpolitik created it, with his powerful rhetoric of “blood and iron”—albeit, as MacGregor reminds us, he originally used the phrase “iron and blood,” and it’s the metallic connotations that are most evocative of the new industrializing society that he accelerated into being. Yet an apparently antithetical current vied for dominance of the broad national movement that Bismarck harnessed for his strategic goals—Melancholia versus the Knight, in Dürer’s interpretation of the national psyche? The Romantic worldview was largely made in Germany.

MacGregor expounds it by means of the Brothers Grimm and their cultural legacy. Above all he notes the compulsive hold exercised over the German imagination by forests, suitably mysterious and forbidding. Here the painter Caspar David Friedrich supplies the visual imagery. MacGregor might, however, have added that rationally managed forests were also a German invention. A blueprint for sustainability that would later achieve global prominence emerged over much the same period from the lecture halls and model woodlands of pioneering arboricultural institutes in Saxony or Prussia.

Collective direction and individual imagination combined in the commercial and industrial resourcefulness that rendered Germany so formidable a power for both good and evil by the twentieth century. The erstwhile Hanseatic League, with its network of trading stations from England to Russia, embodied the civic freedoms and associated burgher values that are here exemplified in the municipal traditions of Hamburg and Bremen, unique survivals today—and with special vehicle registration plates to prove it—as “the last two medieval city-states in Europe.” MacGregor illustrates this with portraits of their merchants by Hans Holbein the Younger (himself a citizen of the Swiss canton of Basel, which then belonged equally to the German lands, and is surely, pace MacGregor, another enduring urban republic).

Engineering triumphs earn their place in MacGregor’s pantheon too, beginning with Johannes Gutenberg, who already built on a preexisting set of local skills and a perfect commercial location beside the river Rhine at Mainz, to market the first printed books with such remarkable business acumen. The same combination of technical prowess and promotional enterprise characterized other branches of German manufacture, for example the great clock-making tradition, from elaborate timepieces in Renaissance style to the humble cuckoo clock. Their latest apotheosis, MacGregor suggests, has been the Volkswagen car and its spectacular conquest of the American market, though that now abruptly seems to be matched by German proficiency in advanced technological deception.

The roots of Germany’s especially rich diversity lie in the old Holy Roman Empire, the millennial Central European Reich that endured from the ninth century to the nineteenth. Even MacGregor’s colorful maps, an aesthetic experience in themselves, cannot do full justice to the assortment of political entities, large and small, that comprised it. Brilliantly he uses the empire’s manifold regional coinages to illustrate the extent of devolved authority. (Later on he does the same with the picturesque forms of Notgeld, “emergency money,” in dislocated Germany at the end of World War I, and with the symbolism of deutschmark banknotes in the divided country after World War II.) He also finds homelier ways to make his point: he is neat and fun on the multifarious kinds of sausage (a Wurst map, he tells us, would have been too complex for inclusion) and brands of beer. Serious ingestion of alcohol is an age-old identifier of Germans in the eyes of others (not for nothing did all those drinking vessels find their way to London); and it was no idle matter either: in early-modern Brandenburg the whole tax regime was known as Biergeld, “beer-money.”


MacGregor calls the Holy Roman Empire a “triumph of creative fragmentation.” He illuminates it in another way by the career of Martin Luther—approached here through portraits and a very special copy of his Bible. Luther ruptured the country’s religious unity for good and all; yet simultaneously by his translation of the Scriptures he created a common language from the multiplicity of existing dialects. Without Luther’s German, future political unity would have been unattainable, even if for the present it sustained a continuum of speakers across borders hard and soft over much of the continent. The nation stretched so weit die deutsche Zunge klingt (as far as the German tongue sounds), in the words of a visionary poet writing in the immediate aftershock of the empire’s dissolution.

MacGregor doesn’t quite engage with Germans’ memory of the Holy Roman Empire as a whole. One of his canniest ploys, but a revealing one in this respect, is to feature not the venerable crown of its sovereigns as such, but a replica of it made for a Prussian occasion in 1914 when the original could not be borrowed. After the old empire’s demise in 1806 German patriots long reviled it as an effete institution deficient in national spirit—that, they thought, was why it had failed—and associated above all with the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century, which its debility had precipitated. In the aftermath of Nazism, however, the Holy Roman Empire’s cosmopolitan character came suddenly to be viewed as a virtue, at least among historians.

The Peace of Westphalia, which in 1648 terminated those three decades of conflict and—a century after Luther’s death—inaugurated modern Europe’s first great and lasting religious compromise, doesn’t feature in MacGregor’s book. Perhaps he decided that the Friedenssäle (peace halls) at Münster and Osnabrück are part of international rather than national commemoration. Yet there’s now a fascinating debate among specialists about whether the Holy Roman Empire in its last phase did turn into something like a proto-German state, a preformation of the later national community.3

‘Rhinoceros’; Meissen porcelain based on a sculpture by Johann Gottlieb Kirchner, 1730; from Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation
‘Rhinoceros’; Meissen porcelain based on a sculpture by Johann Gottlieb Kirchner, 1730; from Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation

The issue of Austria casts its shadow here. MacGregor says he has excluded Austrian memories (like Swiss ones), since they “would be very different,” while allowing that Austria’s “story has been…closely intertwined with its neighbour’s.” But it was long actually the same story. Look for the name “Austria” on MacGregor’s maps: it is rendered in a format identical to that for other constituent parts of the empire. Distortion is especially apparent for the earlier nineteenth century, where a spirited chapter on the Iron Cross decoration as a symbol of Germany’s struggle for liberation from French hegemony makes the effort appear to have been a wholly Prussian-led one. In fact Napoleon was defeated by a coalition in which the Habsburg lands of Austria played a prominent part; just as earlier France’s emperor could humiliate Prussia precisely because the latter had ignored calls to join a previous alliance and been left isolated.

MacGregor’s deft account of the revolutionary year 1848—with its three colors (the hallmark tricolor flag) and its two political philosophies, liberal and Communist, bequeathed to all subsequent German reform movements—again leaves Austria on the sidelines. Yet it was an integral part of the vision of the revolutionaries, and only excluded in the end by the force majeure of court and army factions around the Habsburgs. That dynasty then continued to assert its right to direct any constitutional settlement for the German lands until Austria was debarred, this time by defeat at Prussian hands in the 1860s. There’s a telling error of detail in MacGregor’s account of the German anthem, the “Deutschlandlied,” written in 1841 to be sung (as it still is) “to Haydn’s melody in praise of the Austrian emperor.” In fact Haydn had composed his tune a half-century earlier to celebrate a kaiser of the whole German Reich, as it then still existed.

Of course Austria’s Habsburgs concurrently ruled over other, non-German territories, and that helped determine their political position. Nonetheless the first enforced division of modern Germany, after 1866, was long felt by many on both sides of the new frontier as an incision into the living tissue of a common society and culture. Besides, if German memory has now come to leave out the Austrian dimension, and vice versa, the historian must insist that memory, or forgetting, is not enough: otherwise the skeletons in Austria’s own cupboard—and MacGregor adduces as a chief reason why it doesn’t belong in his book Austria’s failure to address its Nazi past with the same frankness that Germany has shown—could be thereby expunged from the record.

Much that is now deemed “Austrian” was thus part of a German experience, and earlier perceived as such. That Central European unboundedness—which MacGregor stresses—befitted a “Roman” empire that long retained permeable borders and universalist aspirations. It went too with mobile populations, settling and resettling across the region in ways that prefigured the cross-frontier migrations of our own day. When the tide finally receded from the wider German ethnic coastland, it left at first residual communities and then no more than the impress of a former culture. Nowadays these are what MacGregor memorably calls the “phantom limbs” of the German body politic.

One of them is Prague, Franz Kafka’s Prague in MacGregor’s vignette, which he does allow—more it seems than Vienna—to be part of the contemporary collective German memory. Another is Königsberg, with its amber artifacts and its philosopher Immanuel Kant, who never even visited any other part of Germany: a city now in Russia and rechristened Kaliningrad. A third is Strasbourg, so near (just across the Rhine) and yet so far for Germans today, where in 1770 the student Goethe, beholding the beetling tower of the cathedral, asserted its Gothic architecture to be as much a German national style as the workings of its clock manifested German mechanical ingenuity.

MacGregor’s book affords a necklace of burnished cameos, witty and cunning, intricately constructed, but always highly readable. They are aptest of all when they deal with art itself. Albrecht Dürer, the quintessential German artist, and long regarded as such, both abroad and at home, yields one such subject. Another is Meissen porcelain, invented for the ruler of Saxony by an incarcerated alchemist and factory-produced from 1710, which epitomized the baroque imagination in Central Europe as Dürer had done for that of the Renaissance, not least when it reconfigured the latter’s cumbersome rhinoceros in ceramic (see illustration on page 44).

Two hundred years further on again, MacGregor enthuses about the Bauhaus, exemplified for him by Peter Keler’s famous unadorned cradle. He is in his element—as the very model of a modern museum director—with this populist movement of elegant but functional design, while emphasizing its debt to the ideals of the old craft guilds. The somber commemorative sculptures of Käthe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach are likewise harnessed, as witness to the peculiarly German tragedy of World War I: devastating losses that nevertheless could not be properly mourned by a people branded as guilty of provoking the hostilities.

This visual record (which moreover makes the volume a joy to peruse) amounts to a dazzling rehabilitation of a neglected tradition: the Anglo-American world has rarely taken much account of Central European art. It’s correspondingly understandable, but an impediment for MacGregor’s wider purpose, that this cult of physical objects almost entirely leaves out music. By common consent German creativity has been distilled above all in its composers—and of course the notion of das Land der Musik is a key self-perception as well.

It’s notoriously hard to incorporate music into a broad and discursive historical treatment. A superb new comprehensive account of early-modern Germany makes only a single passing reference to J.S. Bach.4 Yet in places MacGregor seems to go out of his way to avoid the challenge. He selects the progressive Tilman Riemenschneider as representative of the German burghers of the Reformation age, rather than the conservative Hans Sachs and his mastersingers; the latter appear only in a walk-on part as exemplars of contemporary guildsmen. When MacGregor evokes the trademark sound of Germany, it’s the “music of precision engineering,” rather than that of a symphony orchestra.

Could he not have found grist to his mill in those once-ubiquitous miniature busts of Beethoven, or in the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, built to stage Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and other Wagnerian operas, and home of the original leitmotifs? The aural memory is, after all, as powerful as the visual; and MacGregor might at least have highlighted that marriage of words and music that constitutes the supreme achievement of German masters of the Lied—Robert Schumann, say, who imagined himself creatively as a blend of two contrasting personae, Eusebius and Florestan, replicating the Düreresque dichotomy of Melancholia and Knight. Besides, musical culture raises again the Austrian problem in acute form. The whole “Austro-German” musical tradition belies the idea of an internal border. The Saxon Schumann was no more “German” than the Viennese Schubert. Beethoven and Brahms moved south, Liszt in the opposite direction, but all within one cultural and even political continuum.

So there are absences in this book too. Yet it would be quite wrong for me to conclude on a discord. One of MacGregor’s many virtues is to make us think anew about the relation between memory and history. They are different things, though overlapping and indeed interdependent. MacGregor infers that Germans have developed a unique view of history, by choosing to remember what others might choose to forget, by acceptance of responsibility for the evils perpetrated by their predecessors. That’s certainly an avenue into the past, and an ample one. At the same time we should not overlook (even if MacGregor accords no mention to Leopold von Ranke) that the Germans also invented the profession of historian.

Thus it is today’s Germans with whom MacGregor begins and ends his investigation. They seem comfortable enough at home with their own domestic federalism, which embodies the regional diversity of yore; and abroad in the frame of the European Union, in some ways a quasi–Holy Roman Empire, about which they can again feel mildly patriotic. Although within Germany his book in translation now sells like hotcakes, and Neil MacGregor has just taken off to become the founding director of a new museum complex in Berlin, this is eminently a book for readerships outside Germany. Germans have much to teach us, not just through their kaleidoscopic past, but through the ways in which they continue to come to terms with it.