Germany: Memories of a Nation

Image of Germany: Memories of a Nation
Release Date: 
September 28, 2015
Reviewed by: 

Beginning with the Siegestor (Victory Gate) in Munich and ending with the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor seeks to understand four centuries of German history. MacGregor, director of the British Museum since 2002, has written a book noteworthy for its accessibility.

Despite the heavy subject matter and vast scope, Germany: Memories of a Nation is readable and aimed for a general audience. The accessibility and readability stems from the book's relationship with the museum context. From October 16 to January 25, 2015, the British Museum held a temporary exhibit with the same title as the book. In addition, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a program related to the exhibit.

The challenge focuses on the volatile question, “What Germany is?” Germany also faces a different relationship with its own history, since it came out on the losing side of two major world wars. After the Nazi defeat and total annihilation of the German urban landscape, the German people became more introspective and reflective about their own history.

MacGregor asserts that German history, unlike other national histories, is fragmentary without a coherent, overarching narrative. Over hundreds of copiously illustrated pages, he sifts through the cultural artifacts of German history. These include currency, porcelain, architecture, furniture, fairy tales, memorials, literature, clocks, automobiles, painting, and much more. Since culture is defined by everything society produces, the challenge is in the selection. Because of Germany's violent modern history, curatorial interpretation of the artifacts mirrors how the German people struggle to interpret their own past.

From the Holy Roman Empire to the reunified Germany, the borders have been fluid, ranging from the Rhine to the Volga. The Holy Roman Empire was a complex and convoluted political arrangement, simultaneously emulating the ancient Roman Empire and resembling an early modern version of the European Union. To outside observers, it seemed, to paraphrase Voltaire, neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. In fact, MacGregor disproves Voltaire's witty one-liner, asserting the Holy Roman Empire existed and thrived because of its ability to foster compromise. But even beyond the borders of the Holy Roman Empire, German settlements existed in Prague and Königsberg (modern-day Kaliningrad). Historical events have converted the German exclave into a Russian exclave.

Currency is used as an object lesson to explain certain events in German history. The first instance explains the inner workings of the Holy Roman Empire. Then there is a chapter on Weimar-era Notgeld. As the economy plummeted into the abyss of hyper-inflation, Germans created their own version of money. The Notgeld captures the feelings of the time, ranging from witty to artistic to racist.

While the scope is vast, the coverage lacks depth. This might be seen as a negative critique, but in this case, it is positive. MacGregor writes lively prose and accentuates each topic with lengthy quotes from fellow curators, historians, and individual testimony. This book succeeds because it offers a sampler to the curious. There are books on every single aspect discussed within these pages, but MacGregor's writing functions as a tease. It piques interest and fosters further investigation. With no shortage of books about Germany published this year, Germany: Memories of a Nation is a great place to start.