Germany – Memories of a Nation


Germany – Memories of a Nation
By Neil MacGregor
Allen Lane – £30.00

It is not enough merely to look into this camp. One has to go in, through this gate, and then look out in order to read the motto, boldly lettered in iron, which every prisoner who arrived at Buchenwald read as they looked back at the world from which they were being removed: Jedem das Seine (To Each What They Are Due).
‘At the Buchenwald Gate’

Having just finished reading Neil MacGregor’s quintessentially outstanding book, Germany – Memories of a Nation, I have to say, I do feel rather compelled to further inquire into so much of what has been touched upon amid these thirty, altogether, very enlightening chapters.

Other than the usual intense and in-depth (highly influential) trajectory of many a profound, literary work by the likes of Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant and of course, Friedrich von Schiller, author and Director of the British Museum since 2002, Neil MacGregor – whose previous publications include A History of the World in 100 Objects and Shakespeare’s Restless World – has herein written and compiled a truly wonderful book.

Apart from having the courage to finally tell it as it ought to be told – that there really is a whole lot more to Germany other than The Third Reich, The Holocaust and Oktoberfest – MacGregor does a commendable job in shedding both a menagerie of intrinsically informative, yet much sought after sparkling light, on an all too often, overtly maligned and misunderstood nation.

A prime and perfect example of this is more than evident right from the very outset, where already in the book’s ‘Introduction: Monuments and memories,’ he openly writes: ”All major countries try to construct a reading of their history that leads them, reassured and confident, to their current place in the world. The United States, strong in its views of itself as a ‘city on a hill,’ was long able to affirm its manifest destiny. Britain and France in different ways saw their political evolution as a model for the world, which they generously shared through imperial expansion. After Bismarck had welded the different constituent states into the German Empire in 1871 and then into the leading industrial and economic power of the continent, Germany might have been able to devise some familiar national myth. But defeat in the First World War, the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the murderous criminality of the Third Reich have made any such coherent narrative impossible. German scholars have struggled in vain to piece the different parts of the jigsaw together, but none has been able, convincingly, to fit the great intellectual and cultural achievements of eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century Germany and the moral abyss of the Nazis into a comprehensible pattern. This is in a profound sense a history so damaged that it cannot be repaired but, rather, must be constantly revisited – an idea powerfully visualised by Georg Baselitz’s tattered and confusedly inverted national flag.”

To substantiate the final sentence, said flag is reproduced in full colour on the opposite page. To be sure, most of the subjects discussed amid these 563 pages are accompanied by marvellous reproductions of prints, photographs and artwork (colour, and where perhaps more pertinent, black and white); while indeed, the first sixteen pages are made up of an array of germane maps – the first depicting Germany during The Holy Roman Empire c. 1500 and the last, that of Modern Germany showing Lander.

But what I really like about Germany – Memories of a Nation, is the fact that it really opens up the country in such a way that many if not most publications, for whatever reason, decide to ignore.

That’s not to say the overtly ghastly era of Hitler’s Germany isn’t addressed (it very much is addressed – at times, in an almost poignant, albeit robust manner to say the least. Hence, the above opening quote from chapter 25 ‘At the Buchenwald gate’ that is prefixed with the following: ”This place, charmingly set in the forest, is a place of national shame and international reflection. This is where the noble, humane traditions of German civilization – literary and legal, ethical and musical – were brought to nothing. The cruelty and injustice enacted here were part of a process which ended in the destruction of entire cities and societies from the Atlantic to the Urals, in death camps like Auschwitz, in the systematic murder of the Jews, and the killing of millions”).

That said, so much more of Germany is addressed.

Apart from it’s admittedly, turbulent and rather fragmented history – which, lest one be reminded, goes back a whole lot further than 1914 – also considered in this book is the country’s stupendous art, philosophy, writing and language; a facet which is adroitly brought to bear by MacGregor in chapter eight’s ‘One nation under Goethe’: There is a case for arguing that if Americans are one nation under God, the Germans are one nation under Goethe. And there is no doubt that it was Goethe, more than anyone else, who made Germany a language read – and spoken – by educated Europe. All round the world today the German government promotes its language and culture through the Goethe Institute.

Indeed, from the artist Albrecht Durer to the playwright Bertolt Brecht (whose play Mother Courage is expounded upon to such a radiant degree, that I once again, feel inspired to go see it); from the continuing, inexorable brilliance of Peter Keler and Wassily Kadinsky of the Bauhaus movement to ‘The Suffering Witness’ that was Kathe Kollwitz, Neil MacGregor has, with Germany – Memories of a Nation, quite possibly written the finest, most realistic, and perhaps most prevalent book on the country, in years.
To say it’s very readable, very inspiring and very important – would be a colossal understatement.

David Marx


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