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James Hawes on 5 Things You Don't Know About Germany... But Should

Posted on 28th March 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for April, James Hawes' latest book, The Shortest History of Germany, demands that we throw away much of what we think we know about German history and begin afresh. Here, in an exclusive article for Waterstones, he examines five key aspects of German history you (probably) don't know and reveals why learning more about Germany might have much to teach us about Europe today and the future of Western democracy.

In early 2015, Old Street Publishing asked me to write a very short history of Germany. It felt like a fun, interesting, uncontentious idea. Obama was in the White House, Britain was in Europe and Angela Merkel’s approval ratings were off the scale – astonishing, for a democratic leader entering her second decade in power. Rich, stable, liberal Germany had clearly laid to rest its 20-century ghosts. The other Germany was history. 

That was in early 2015. By the time the book was getting there, we had Brexit, Trump and Putin rampant. In rich, safe, liberal Germany a new political party arose almost overnight, home to people who talked openly of “taking our culture back”. In the general election of 2017, this party got 12.6% nationally – built on truly alarming scores in certain, very specific areas. Suddenly the drawings of the ancient flaw-lines within Germany which we’d placed throughout The Shortest History of Germany were looking uncannily like modern electoral maps. 

So will Germany now fall into the same populist vortex as America and Britain? Why not? After all, this is the very country where the Nazis became easily the biggest party, in democratic elections, isn’t it?

The answer is no. Because it turns out that German politics, like American politics, can best be under stood on historical maps, and those maps show a very clear story, which we tell in The Shortest History of Germany. Since Germany is going to be vital in how Brexit plays out, it really is about time we in Britain understood it. Here are five pointers:

1) The Germans restored the Roman Empire, and civilisation, to medieval Europe.

The armies of the late Roman Empire were thoroughly Germanised. The Franks, who ruled what we would nowadays call broadly the Rhineland, were heavily represented in the Roman armies. By c. 500AD they were Christians who set down their laws in Latin. This means that for people living in this part of Europe, there was hardly any gap at all between the fall of the Roman Empire and this new “Merovingian” hegemon. 

The culmination of this great continuity was when Charlemagne, whose traditional power base was the western German city of Aachen, was declared Roman Empire in 800AD. His official motto? Renovatio Imperii Romani, which says it all. 

Charlemagne coin (c) Wikipedia Commons

Charlemagne – clean-shaven and in classical profile

2) In 800AD only one recognised nation in the world was governed in a Germanic language.

Charlemagne ruled all present-day France and what we would later call West Germany. A dialect of German was his mother-tongue, but he ruled this multi-ethnic empire entirely through the medium of Latin, which was the language of governments, courts and the church. Everywhere else in Europe, the Germanic tribes had simply assimilated into local populations. Scandinavia was still an unknown, unmapped wilderness of pagan tribes. The only place on earth where a Germanic language was used in the government, church, and courts was England. 

3) “East Germany” was never part of Germany at all until around the time of Magna Carta.

From Charlemagne’s time onwards, western Germany was the very heart of Europe. Beyond the river Elbe were pagan, Slavic tribes who sometimes paid tribute to German kings but were never ruled by them. In 1147, as part of the Second Crusade, the Germans moved eastwards across the river Elbe. Progress was slow and what we now call Berlin was still merely a Slavic fishing village until around 1200. The German conquest of “East Elbia” was never complete – even today, a recognised Slavic minority still exists just north of Dresden. In the West, the Germans had always been in unchallenged possession of their own country; beyond the Elbe they were colonial incomers, in possession by force of someone else’s country. As always happens in colonies, the unchanging experience of ruling over different people who might one day rise up against you bred a particular, authoritarian, intolerant form of rule.

4) It was largely Britain’s fault that Prussia was able to conquer Germany.

In the 1700s, Frederick the Great’s open flaunting of international law raised all Europe against him. Prussia would almost certainly have been finished for ever as a power in Europe during the Seven Years War (1756-1763), but for the fact that Britain found it handy to keep open a second front against France, and so propped up Frederick with enormous subsidies. After the next great series of European wars, in 1814-15, Britain committed an epochal diplomatic folly in awarding the liberal, Catholic, commercially advanced Rhineland to Prussia. It was only this enormous gift of wealth and economic power which enabled Prussia to crush all Germany in 1866 and France in 1870. Germany from 1871 onwards wasn’t Germany any more. It was a Prussian Empire.

5) The western Germans never voted for Hitler. It was eastern votes that got him in. 

If everywhere in Germany had voted like catholic western and southern Germany, Hitler would never have made it. He was shot to national prominence largely by votes from the rural east in 1930. In 1932, those same regions led the swing which made the Nazis the largest party. At this point, a right-wing nationalist scheme hatched in East Prussia got Hitler appointed Chancellor. Hitler called a snap election for March 1933, now using all the resources of state power to swing or scare the electorate into giving him an absolute majority. In the east, it worked: great swathes of Germany beyond the River Elbe gave Hitler 55% or even more. But in the west, it failed. This left Hitler with under 44% in what had essentially been a two-horse referendum on him as Chancellor. But he also had the 8% won by his DNVP allies – whose votes likewise came overwhelmingly from the east. So Hitler scraped home. He could now present himself as the only possible leader of a stable government and begin his semi-constitutional “Seizure of Power”. No eastern Germany, no Führer - it’s as simple as that.

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