Englanders and Huns – How Five Decades of Enmity Led to the First World War
By James Hawes
Simon & Schuster – £20.00
In Neil MacGregor’s excellent new book, Germany – Memories Of A Nation (Allen Lane), there’s a passage (”For England – and later Britain – unity, if necessary enforced unity, was for centuries the aim and purpose of the state, the essential precondition of order and prosperity. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, on the other hand, was a polity of many parts, elements of an elusive whole, held together not by military coercion but by a network of shared assumptions and customary frameworks”) that justly summarises and juxtaposes many a polemic that has been put forth amid this equally compelling book by James Hawes.
But where the former narrates from that of a historical and highly considered political perspective, Englanders and Huns – How Five Decades of Enmity Led to the First World War, is, as it’s title might suggest, somewhat more symptomatic to that of the literary parameters to which it is answerable. A slight, colourful and rather loaded literary trigger perhaps, that is nevertheless, idiosyncratically informative while perhaps more importantly, entertaining (”Prussia seems inclined to behave atrociously as she had always done. Odious people, the Prussians are, that I must say.” Queen Victoria (in a letter to Albert)).
A facet, which in this day and ghastly age of smokescreen, celebrity (kn)obsessed reportage, is of underlying, commendable importance – of which the above quote from Part Two ‘(1865-6) The Last Summer Before Bismarck,’ is a fraught, yet simultaneously resolute example.
Seemingly well aware of said dogma then, much of Hawes’ academic assimilation and investigative deduction is of a similar persuasion throughout, which accounts for these eight parts – rather than eight chapters – being what they are: of a gutsy sound calculation, replete with a tendency to both bemuse and beguile.
This is apparent on many an occasion throughout these 405 pages, perhaps none more so than in Part One’s ‘(1864) The Setting of the Terms’: ”In a glorious piece of reverse logic, a pamphlet of 1861 declared that since only a united Germany could bring about a German navy, the existence of a German navy would be proof of a united Germany […]. If Germany only had a truly national government which cared about her lack of a fleet, she might do just as well as Britain […]. This subterranean history of German liberalism, as inconvenient to us today as it was baffling to the Victorians, has been lost on today’s historians, who happily blame the whole Anglo-German antagonism on those villains straight from central casting, the scar-faced, sabre-rattling Prussian Junkers.”
Alas, half a century before the outbreak of the first World War, most Britons saw ”the Germans as poor and rather comical cousins – and most Germans looked up to the British as their natural mentors.” As such, the next five decades were anchored within a framework where each came to think that the other simply had to be ”confronted – in Europe, in Africa, in the Pacific and at last in the deadly race to cover the North Sea with dreadnoughts.”
How things have quintessentially changed. Germans are by no means our ”poor, comical cousins.” They have instead, evolved into the all encompassing, economic powerhouse of Europe.
From the ‘Franco-Prussian War’ to ‘Bismarck vs the British,’ from ‘Fear and Loathing’ to ‘The Last Decade of the Old World,’ Englanders and Huns utilises different texts throughout – including Gothic that was used in assorted German publications. Also included is some underlining of words (such as the aforementioned quote by Queen Victoria) along with a number of formerly published cartoons to substantiate certain points – both in the English and German press.
Although what wraps Englanders and Huns rather turbulent subject matter unto a complete whole, is the actual essence of the German language itself.
As is mentioned in Germany – Memories Of A Nation (”what decides the continued existence of a people is not the place of residence but the language”), it is the very acceptance of ones’ own language that truly matters. Not separation or difference. Not GDP or the number of battleships a nation has at its disposal. Not church, economics or class infested bollocks.
Rather, it is the wondrous gift of language that truly accounts for a people being able to come together – as John Lennon once sang and James Hawes herein makes abundantly clear: ”With their backs to the wall, German thinkers concentrated on the only thing left: it did not mater, they claimed, what you believed, or under whose rule you lived – it only mattered what you spoke.