The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes

Germany - shortest history

James Hawes’ A White Merc With Fins captured London in the 1990s beautifully (or perhaps just captured London in the 1990s for me beautifully, minus the glamour, bank robberies and IRA dealings). He is also an academic; hence, two decades on, The Shortest History of Germany.

A split existed in the country we now call Germany – a constant tension between cleaving eastwards or westwards – long before the Berlin Wall went up. 

Prussia, the eastern German region, is the key to everything. Repressive and highly militarised, it was the nearest thing the philosopher Hegel found to his ‘perfect state’. Hawes doesn’t hold back: ‘Hegel’s influence on German nineteenth century thought, and on some thinkers to this day, is incalculably baleful’. 

Bismarck is often viewed as the most pragmatic of all statesmen; however, his alliance with Austria was not in Germany’s interest, but in Prussia’s. Bismarck thought it might lead to world war. (It did). “Bismarck wasn’t insane,” writes Hawes. “But he wasn’t really German either. He was Prussian.”

There was a dangerous – and erroneous – belief in “Prussian military genius and willpower”. There was a lot of strutting about in uniform and challenging people to duels – generally a bad thing.

The east was where Hitler got the votes that put him into power: essentially, in Hawes’ reading of it, a bunch of regional lunatics enabled Germany to throw itself into the abyss, dragging tens of millions of people in the rest of the world along with them.

It would be easy to lose your sense of humour here, but Hawes is often wryly funny. A picture of Rosa Luxemburg, one of the prime movers in German socialism, is captioned:

Note to modern cultural thinkers: as a radical, she has boldly raised in a public place the veil which, as a respectable woman, she naturally has tied to her hat.

With a similar lightness of touch, he says it might be best to think of Karl Marx as ‘a top-class journalist who was often strikingly insightful about the immediate past and present, but almost always entirely wrong about the future’.

Hawes obviously loves Germany and recently wrote a letter to The Times explaining why. It’s a pretty good list.


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