Books: The last liberal hope of Europe?

Written By: Mike Parker
Published: July 18, 2017 Last modified: July 17, 2017

The Shortest History Of Germany
by James Hawes
Old Street £12.99

Say this for a grammar school education and a History ‘O’ Level – I know who Prince Otto von Bismarck was. Sort of. The 19th century machinations of Britain, France, Russia, Prussia and Germany (or at least, what passed for Germany before its unification with Prussia) was the core of the History curriculum, the Great Game a sort of croquet match played out over the fields of Europe, with Bismarck recklessly waving a sharpened mallet and wilfully ignoring the rules.

The route by which the unholy quintet got to where they were at that point was, from an educational point of view, left for the later enlightenment offered by a university. If (like me) you didn’t go that far, or your path led in a different direction, Bismarck probably remained a bewhiskered peak in the mountain range of history, his spiked helmet thrusting through the low-lying cloud of ignorance.

So how did a conglomeration of princely statelets whose main claim to fame was providing the world’s greatest empire with it’s post-Stuart Royal Families (OK, and producing Goethe), become the industrial and military power that started two world wars and attempted to exterminate an entire racial group of millions of people, but whose current leader (a Prussian, as it happens) has been described as “the last hope for liberal Europe”?

Well, Britain helped, by handing over the Rhineland’s industrial wealth to Prussia at a time when it might have offered the gift instead to a federation of those German statelets. The benefits the Rhineland provided enabled Prussia to overshadow the geriatric Hapsburg empire of Austria-Hungary, emerge as a military match to the Big Three, and eventually absorb (or effectively annexe) those German states. It was the Prussian military class (the ‘Junkers’) who used the Rhineland’s resources to fuel an aggressive foreign policy, leading to World War I; and it was Prussia that provided the vast majority of the votes, in the wake of the humiliating Versailles treaty, that put Hitler into power. It is still ‘Prussia’ that is the heartland of the AfD and groups further right.

The differing character of the ‘Germany’ lying between the Rhine and the Elbe, and the ‘Germany’ beyond the Elbe (Prussia, in other words, or the German Democratic Republic for a large chunk of the post-war 20th century) is at the core of James Hawes’ enlightening short history. He takes us back to the Roman period, when Julius Caesar had second (and third) thoughts about venturing too far beyond the Rhine and largely left the so-called barbarian “Germanii’ to find their own way into the civilised world … which they did successfully enough to conquer Rome and provide Roman Emperors (such as Alaric) and later (reminding them of this is a good way to annoy any French friends) spawn the Carolingian dynasty of the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne – or Karl the Great, as he might properly be titled.

What became Prussia was originally settled by Slavs, and they and the ‘Germanii’ have never fully integrated. Hawes, approaching his subject from a liberal conservative viewpoint, seems to regret the 1990 unification, and the move of the country’s capital from Germany’s Bonn to Prussia’s Berlin. His argument that ‘Germany’ is effectively, and naturally, pretty much the area occupied by Germanic tribes at the time of the Roman Empire, and Prussia a trans-Elbian, foreign appendage, is persuasive, even if, in modern reality, it leads nowhere.

The description of the post-war period, the economic miracle and the emergence of Germany as the champion of European integration is fascinating. Experts may quibble with Hawes’ interpretations, and dedicated students will want something more comprehensive and analytical, but as an introduction to the most important country in Europe today, this is a great read, and an ideal primer.

About Mike Parker

Mike Parker is Literary Editor and Production Editor of Tribune