Germany – Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor

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Reviewed by Terence Jagger

This is a splendid book, a real celebration of Germany’s history, and its great contributions to our liberal western civilisation (as well as frank examinations of the opposite tendency), and a frank meditation on its failures, all delivered with aplomb, great lightness of touch, and enormous insight. It is really only part of a three pronged cultural feast – the other two being the British Museum exhibition of the same name (which sadly ended recently), and MacGregor’s series of short talks on Radio 4, available as podcasts at and well worth listening to, even if you have the book. The three strands complement each other excellently – the podcasts have the personal touch and are intriguing entry points to some fascinating aspects of German history, the book is a slightly fuller text with the great advantage of numerous illustrations of the places and objects being discussed, and the exhibition is slightly different, with many points of correspondence with the book, but much less interpretation and the advantage of presenting the real objects – particularly powerful in instances of sculpture, for example. The three together make for a powerful and exciting view of German history.

But this is not a history of Germany in any sense. It is a series of 30 essays in six linked sections, covering Germany’s physical borders and centres, the vision Germany has of itself and how that was forged, arts and industry, and a frank look at the terrible century and living with the past. Each is complete in itself, but are trees in the same forest and mean so much more when taken as a whole. But at 20 pages or fewer each, with many illustrations, these are very accessible and unforbidding.

MacGregor’s basic thesis is that Germany is unusual, even unique, among the European powers, in having no coherent narrative of its own history, due to both its fragmented past – it has, after all, only existed in anything like its current form for around 150 years, and has changed radically and catastrophically even in that time. It is a country without a core geography, and for most of its history with multitudes of different governments and types of government. A lively illustration of what he means comes from considering Kant, Goethe, Kafka – the nation’s greatest philosopher grew up in Konigsberg, now Kaliningrad, and never set foot in what is today Germany; Goethe’s vision of German genius was forged in Strasbourg, now a French city; and Kafka, one of the greatest of twentieth century writers in German, grew up in Prague as part of a small minority language group, even though the current Czech capital was the home of the first German speaking university.

The range of the book is outstanding – architecture, politics, arts, manufactures, religion … but the real joy is MacGregor’s authorial voice, which combines knowledge and analysis, wonder and pity. Here is his introduction to a section called Imagining Germany:

The stories we tell each other and the foods we eat bind our nations. A country as deeply diverse as Germany is held together as much by its poets, painters, prophets and philosophers as by its governments and frontiers. Goethe, Friedrich, Luther and the Brothers Grimm all contribute to Germany’s national stores of tales sacred and secular, mixtures of history and myth often seasoned with fantasy and humour. Together they have been key elements in building a national identity – along with beer and sausages.

And here is MacGregor on “Purging the Degenerate”, the Nazi effort to identify and eliminate the entartet, art which was degenerate and threatening to the German ideal:

The battle lines were drawn. And in the front line, improbably, was our vase in the shape of two gourds [a beautiful pale green vase by Grete Marks (born Lobenstein), c 1930]. Goebbels published a picture of the Grete Marks vase, which it was claimed, had “lost the simple vernacular beauty that belongs to the German countryside and the German people”. New designs by Hedwig Bollhagen, on the other hand, were “noble forms”. What Goebbels did not realise was that several of these “more German” forms were actually by the Jewish, Bauhaus-educated Grete Marks herself. The absurdity of the idea of a “degenerate vase” is compounded by the confused dishonesty of the process. … Grete Marks was one of the lucky ones. She survived, she found a life elsewhere [in England]. But the memory of the events, never articulated, never exorcised, continued to wound her – and still distress her daughter to this day. In Germany now, the memory of how the Nazis manipulated culture and history, exhibitions and museums, is strong. It has left an enduring hostility to government censorship, and produced a passionate commitment to artistic freedom, expressed with an energy rarely found in other European countries. [In Heine’s words,] “Where they burn books, they end up burning people too”.

I have enjoyed every minute of reading this book, visiting the exhibition, and listening to the broadcasts or podcasts. I cannot think of anyone who will not find much to enjoy and fascinate in this cornucopia, or of anyone who will not make fantastic discoveries.

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Germany is the only country in Europe where Terence Jagger can sometimes manage without a phrasebook.

Neil MacGregor, Germany – Memories of a Nation (Allen Lane: London November 2014, ISBN 9780241008331, 640pp, hardback, £30).

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