Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil Macgregor

I actually finished reading this book some time ago, and my original intention was to try to draft a post to reflect on each part. But like Macgregor’s previous bestseller, A History of the World in 100 Objects, that proved impossible. There’s something worth writing about on virtually every page. Clearly I don’t know Germany quite as well as I thought I did.

The thing is that until the demise of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Germany didn’t actually exist. Instead, there were a number of sovereign principalities and city states, all of whom to a greater or lesser degree had the right to elect the Emperor (which, unusually, was not an hereditary office). Many were monarchs of other states and nations: The King of Poland and George I of England were both electors for the Empire. They were all entitled to mint their own currency, decide whether to be Protestant or Catholic and – more importantly – make their own alliances. This was crucial when Napoleon was running rampant through Europe; although he managed to take over most of Germany, the Prussian Court moved to its enclave in present-day Poland and set about creating alliances to defeat the French imperialist. Today, there are still monuments to commemorate Napoleon’s ejection from Germany and Macgregor explores most of them.

Despite opening with the Brandenburg Gate and the architecture of Berlin, there is more to this book than architectural monuments; Macgregor examines books, coins, tankards, statuary – even the development of German identity and language. In fact, that is one of the most fascinating chapters; the German speaking parts of Poland and the Czech Republic and how they were used by Hitler to force through his ideas of a Greater German Reich.

It’s very hard to find fault with this book; perhaps being necessarily selective would be my worst. It’s well written and beautifully illustrated (although the paperback edition has mainly black and white photographs, I suspect the hardback edition was full colour) and covers a lot of ground very quickly without leaving the reader feeling short-changed. Whether or not he’s done the subject justice is another matter, but I think that in keeping his book to one volume, he has chosen his subjects very well indeed.


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