A New Vision of Germany

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…

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