A review of “The Shortest History Of Germany” by James Hawes

How could the almost 2,000 tiny statelets that came out of Europe’s Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 become a united nation for the first time in 1871 thanks to Otto von Bismarck before plunging the globe into two world wars which it lost before rising anew as the leader of the European Union and one of the largest and most successful economies in the world? This remarkable story is told in little over 200 pages with more than 100 maps and images in a clear and compelling narrative by British novelist James Hawes.

He divides his accessible work into four (unequal) parts: the first half-millennium (8 BC – 525 AD) when the Romans created the Germans (the term Germans was first used by Julius Caesar) and then the Germans took over Rome; the second half-millennium (526 AD – 983 AD) when the Germans restored Rome; the third half-millennium (983 AD – 1525 AD) which he calls “a battle for Germany”; and the fourth half-millennium (1525 AD – January 2018) which takes up two-thirds of the text.

One of the themes of the book is how, in spite of many, many territorial changes, the geographical idea of Germany has remained broadly constant over two millennia with the West Germany of 1949-1990 being extraordinarily similar to the Germani planned by Augustus Caesar around 1 AD, to East Francia at the Treaty of Verdun in 843 AD, and to the Confederation of the Rhine in 1808.

Another – contrasting – theme is the continuing cleavage between the largely Catholic and industrious west and south on the one hand and the predominately Protestant and poorer north and the east on the other. He maps onto this division the voting for Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s and the voting for the extreme left and right in today’s united Germany.

Hawes insists that: “Since 100 AD, south/western Germany has belonged to Western Europe. It was only in 1525 that a new, essentially non-western Germany appeared on the scene: Prussia”. He argues that: “The brief Prussian/Nazi era of Germany history – 1866-1945 – must finally be seen for what it was: a terrible aberration”. At the end of his excellent history, writing of today’s nation, he opines that “This Germany is the sole hope for Europe”.

One Comment

  • Adrian Askew

    Roger. I read (and reread) this book last year and I agree absolutely with your review. After much research this was the point where I began to understand the “difference” between Germany and Prussia


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