Telling Trabbies from Junkers

Front cover of The Shortest History of Germany.
The Shortest History of Germany
James Hawes
Old Street Publishing
240pp £12.99

In the summer before starting university, I sat through a German grammar course led by a Frau Junker. She split up the days into rigorous sections with an almost Prussian air and a Protestant work ethic. Her seriousness was offset only by her loud, two-piece suits, which she alternated with strict regularity. She was the best German teacher I ever had, combining language with culture. We were shown pictures of a Trabant, quickly to be told that the word also means a satellite – and in that sense, take note, it is a weak masculine noun.

The ‘Junkers’ – or a landed elite of army officers – living east of the river Elbe, Protestants, Prussians and remnants of the German Democratic Republic are the sorry antagonists in James Hawes’ history of Germany. They have wielded disproportionate power in steering the course of the country’s history (insofar as, historically, Germany can be called a country). Today, they stand in the way of Germany saving ‘the West’ (by which Hawes means the EU).

It is a broad sweep of an argument and really starts as far back as circa ad 160. By then, the Romans had drawn up their border – the limes Germanicus – and ruled most of what we would now call ‘West’ Germany. The political commentariat nowadays likes to talk about ‘divided nations’. According to Hawes, though, the German territories have always been divided. German unification in 1871, he says, was a myth. The dividing line was – and still is – between East and West. ‘East Elbia’, Hawes’ catch-all term for eastern, Protestant and formerly Prussian parts of Germany, voted disproportionately for the Conservatives before the First World War. They voted for the Nazis in 1930-33: ‘No East Elbia, no Führer; it’s as simple as that.’ The GDR was merely the formal realisation of what it had long been: ‘the odd German-speaking man out in a Slavic Eastern Europe’. By 2009, East Germany was voting for extremist far-left and far-right parties, in comparison with the much more moderate West.

From this brash thesis it should be clear that Hawes is not an academic historian; nor does he aspire to be one. He includes good potted introductions to the Germanic sound shifts, the poet Goethe, and the latest thinking on the two world wars. From where, however, does Hawes derive his main inspiration? On the basis of the evidence presented here, from Hegel, Marx or perhaps Steve Bannon, for they all emphasise conflict as the essence of history. But Hawes is no Hegel. The superficiality of his overview would be forgiveable if there were argumentative rigour. He states that ‘as with Hitler – as with Brexit and Trump [are these really comparable?] – what makes people vulnerable to wild scares and promises isn’t just income, but culture’. He goes on to claim that ‘East Elbia, with its centuries-old mix of colonial fears and Lutheran authoritarianism, is well-dunged land’. Hawes has not written a cultural study, though. His is rather a sweep of statistics and a summary of the main political changes over time. These should be the start of the (highly controversial) cultural argument Hawes makes.

The Shortest History of Germany is more political manifesto than history: ungrounded speculation, and not what Hegel would call a ‘philosophical history’. If only Germany had never been re-unified! West Germans never voted for it, complains Hawes, and Germany’s ‘true’ history was ‘a place clearly distinct from Mediterranean lands, yet beyond all doubt an integral part of the West’ – the Federal Republic of Germany. Better if Germany now guaranteed a common Eurobond over splashing out trillions of euros on those old Prussians over in East Elbia. Hawes should note that the euro was not something Germans truly voted for, either.

I wonder why this book was not published for a German market. After all, it is Germans who will find it most provocative and for whom the thesis is so politically topical, with elections imminent. Although this history is fast-paced and refreshingly different, it is also seriously problematic. But then, I come from the Frau Junker school.

Seán Williams is Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the School of Languages and Cultures, University of Sheffield. He publishes and broadcasts on the literary, intellectual and cultural history of Germany.

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