Rewriting German History


Rewriting German History –
New Perspectives on Modern Germany
Edited by Jan Ruger & Nikolaus Wachsmann
Palgravce Macmillan – £70.00

‘[…] let us forget for a moment national disagreement, and remember that art is a fatherland common to all those who consecrate themselves to beauty’ and ‘that artists form a grand nation within humanity; let us remember that on the borders of the Rhine a monument is being erected that will be the glory of gothic architecture; let us prove our sympathy for this beautiful enterprise.’

As a keen reader of history, it’s always revivifying to stumble upon a book that addresses and approaches a particular subject from that of quintessentially different angle; especially if a veritable plethora of varying thesis and documents have already been published on the subject. In this instance, the turbulent history of Germany.

Revivifying is most definitely the case with regards Palgrave Macmillan’s recently published Rewriting German History – New Perspectives on Modern Germany, a book which offers striking new insights into key debates on the nation’s relatively recent past. Perhaps best described as an amalgamation of incisive research and manifest lively debate, these seventeen stimulating essays – written by a menagerie of fine academics – examine the inauguration of new writing(s) and ideas on Germany history since the Second world War.
In so doing, many of them suggest new and alternative perspectives in relation to the nation’s past, whilst simultaneously suggesting new directions for scholarship in the twenty-first century.

A mode of thinking which can surely, only be a good thing.

Notably right now, a most vexed period in German current affairs due to its open border policy towards refugees. A policy, which, to all intents and exceedingly well meant purposes, has unfortunately been stymied by the appalling events that took place in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. A city that, along with the likes of Berlin, Munich and to a certain degree, Hamburg, has always been at the very forefront of German politics and society.

An apposite example of this is addressed in this book’s second chapter, ‘Cologne Cathedral as an International Monument,’ in which Astrid Swenson interestingly writes: ”Considered ‘without doubt the most important historical church in the German memory landscape,’ Cologne Cathedral has long held a special place in the historiography on nationalism and culture. Its completion is often seen to symbolize the shift of German nationalism from a popular movement to a top-down, Prussian-led and xenophobic enterprise.”

Who’d have thought that such a profound, ”staggeringly ambitious” architectural monument to Christianity (which in itself, many would no doubt question), that was started in the year 1248 and took a further 642 years to complete, would be ”seen to symbolize the shift of German nationalism from a popular movement to a top-down down, Prussian-led xenophobic enterprise?

Had the original designers and inhabitants of Cologne known as much, would they have commenced building in the first place? And would they have continued?

Upon reading the following, it does make one question and wonder: ”A weak imitation to Amiens, the cathedral stood out only through its ‘megalomania.’ The once admired steeple appeared ‘monstrous.’ Built ‘almost anew to commemorate the victories of 1870,’ it was ‘modern Germany made in stone. Imposing in bulk, consistent in design, a triumph for the engineer, it is splendidly null; it looks as if it had never been prayed in, and its stiff tracery recalls nothing so much as a made -up tie.’ The completion project now embodied everything that was bad about Prussia, and it was used to illustrate fundamental differences between Germany, where institutions were imposed from above, and Britain where ‘for good or for evil, they are chosen by the people themselves.’ Suggestions were even made in the House of Commons to consider air raids against the building, if Germany did not stop the wanton destruction of monuments in Belgium and France. In turn, images appeared in the Cologne papers imagining the cathedral in ruins with the caption ‘let every individual help in keeping this horror far from home. Subscribe to the War Loan.”’

As mentioned at the outset of this review, it is indeed refreshing to read about things, people, events and buildings – that have somehow, subliminally, become idiosyncratically ingrained in our minds – from that of a totally different perspective.

The way Swenson (whose previous books include The Rise of Heritage: Preserving the Past in France, Germany and England and From Plunder to Preservation: Britain and the Heritage of Empire) has written about Cologne Cathedral, is indeed, a marvellous example of writing about something (relatively) well known with tremendous brio and variance.

In fact, almost all of these essays are of a similar persuasion, which accounts for Rewriting German History being such an invaluable and important book.

Broken into three distinct parts (‘The Local Nation,’ Culture and Society’ and ‘The Peculiarities of Nazi Germany’), these 325 pages cover an array of topics ranging from ‘The ‘Cleansing’ of Culture in Germany’s Lost East after the Second World War,’ to ‘Beasts in Human Clothing? Pimps, Moral Panics and the German Underworld,’ to ‘Justifying Genocide in Weimar Germany: The Armenian Genocide, German Nationalists and Assassinated Young Turks,’ to what is probably one of the most colourful, if not insightful essays I’ve read in a long time, ‘Dictators for Sale: The Commercialization of the Duce and the Fuhrer in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.’

In this fifteenth, eye-opening chapter, Bianca Guadenzi hurls a veritable grenade amid the staid norm of infamous, political acceptance: ”From the propaganda posters that plastered the walls of Italy’s main cities to the perfumed soap bars for sale in small street shops, Mussolini’s ‘strong jaw’ gazed upon passers-by with his stern and intimidating frown. He entered their homes not only with his stentorian voice over the radio but also on a number of small everyday items that appeared en masse from the mid-1920s onwards.

Less than four years later, German streets, shops and homes were invaded on an even larger scale by the presence of the newly appointed Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, whose image, name and voice were hammered into public consciousness by boisterous propaganda campaigns that used methods similar to those of selling a new soap, as Hitler himself had famously indicated in Mein Kampf. As a result, only a couple of weeks after the Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933, Hitler’s image dominated not only city walls and public offices but also featured on a staggering number of commercial products which flooded the German market – from medallions and porcelain mugs to tie pins and even lard drippings in butchers’ shop-windows.”

So there you have it; from Mussolini to Hitler, from Madonna to Rihanna – it really doesn’t matter how deplorable or dangerous, ghastly or treacherous; if the ad men want you to believe something, they’ll do their utmost to convince you.

And if the populace at large are stupid, myopic and gullible enough, they’ll buy into it – hook, line and concentration camp.

All the more reason to read this astonishingly well researched, brilliant (and I do mean brilliant) book.

David Marx


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