Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor was Director of the National Gallery in London from 1987 to 2002 and of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015. He is now Chair of the Steering Committee of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. His best-known previous book is A History of the World in 100 Objects. That background goes a long way toward explaining his approach to German history in Germany: Memories of a Nation, a book that accompanied an exhibit at the British Museum and a radio series on BBC Radio 4. He builds ideas about history from concrete objects, using their nature and stories to illustrate larger themes in German history.

This book is a testimony to contemporary publishing technology, a latter-day tribute to Gutenberg’s heirs. There are some two-page spreads that are only text, but they are few and far between. Such a lavish use of images would in previous decades have been confined to art books or more traditional exhibit catalogues. Digital publishing means that several hundred examples are right at a reader’s fingertips, and at a reasonable price. While Germany: Memories of a Nation has some of the functions of a catalogue, it is more several arguments about Germany, illustrated not only by the author’s writing but also by pictures of the objects in the exhibit. These add up, first, to a corrective of how Germany is typically seen in Britain; second, to a reconsideration of Germany for general readers; third, to a quick guide to the contradictions in Germany history.

The first argument arises from the title of the book’s opening section: “Where Is Germany?” If Germany is not quite, as has been quipped about Poland, “a nation on wheels,” its location has not been nearly as fixed as that of other European nations.

In thinking about the intellectual history of any country, a good place to start is its oldest university, the place where that society first organized the public teaching of ideas. For France it is unsurprisingly the capital, Paris; for Scotland, the seat of the archbishop, St Andrews; for England, nobody really knows why, insignificant Oxford. For the Germanophone world, it is Prague, where in 1348 the emperor Charles IV founded the first German-speaking university. For centuries Prague, capital of Bohemia and occasional residence of the Holy Roman Emperors, was at the heart of German cultural and intellectual life. The Karls Universität, the Charles University, stands at the head of the great German university tradition. (p. 39)

MacGregor adds Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, to Prague in a chapter titled “Lost Capitals” to illustrate the history of cities that were key to German history but that now are claimed by other nations. “It is not just that the political boundaries of the German lands have always been many and moveable, but that from the early Middle Ages onward, German-speaking communities settled all over Central and Eastern Europe as a result of conquest, partnership, or invitation.” (p. 40) In this part, MacGregor glosses over the variety of German that were spoken across that range. Dialects from Frisian to Swiss to Bavarian to Transylvanian to Silesian to Volga German were by no means mutually intelligible, even if they were all some form of German. “Most of these [communities] were extinguished brutally in 1945, but in the German cultural memory they remain, like phantom limbs: once constituent parts of the body, greatly valued, now definitively amputated and lost. The only comparable phenomena are perhaps the long-established Greek elites in Constantinople and Alexandria, equally integral to the national cultural self-image, and similarly dissolved by the politics of the twentieth century.” (pp. 40–41) To those two I would add, on a more compressed time scale, Russian communities across the expanse of the former Soviet Union.

Königsberg was founded by Teutonic Knights on a northern Crusade to convert and subjugate the pagan Baltic peoples. It grew rich on the amber trade; in time, it was home to Immanuel Kant (and lent its name and geography to a mathematical problem that was a foundation of topology). It was also one of the capitals of the state that was initially Brandenburg, then Brandenburg-Prussia, and then just Prussia before it became the dominant state in the Germany that Bismarck united. The Electors of Brandenburg (a title that meant they were one of the select few who elected the Holy Roman Emperor) aspired to a royal title, but they could not be kings within the Holy Roman Empire. Königsberg was not part of the Empire, and so that is where the Hohenzollern became kings, before they became German Emperors.

In addition to Prague and Kaliningrad, MacGregor looks at Strasbourg, Straßburg, a city where both young Goethe and Metternich studied at a university that remained German-language throughout the eighteenth century, despite the conquest of the city and surrounding region by Louis XIV of France.

Many cities could be chose to support the argument that over the centuries, in a way inconceivable to the British, German intellectual, spiritual and cultural boundaries have not corresponded to political frontiers: but Strasbourg probably makes that point better than any other. It is impossible to write a cultural history of Germany without including this city, today linguistically, politically and administratively French. It was home to Gottfried von Strassburg, author of Tristan, a masterpiece of medieval German literature. As a great Renaissance German city, Strassburg provided the economic and intellectual for Habrecht’s mechanical achievements [MacGregor has previously described a magnificent astronomical clock, found in large form in Strasbourg’s cathedral and in small form in a model in the British Museum] and its printers and preachers helped spread Luther’s Reformation ot the whole of Europe. Here Herder articulated the particular, vivifying attributes of the German language. And in Goethe’s rhapsodic outpouring to the cathedral, Strasbourg stimulated the first great hymn to German cultural nationalism. (pp. 70–71)

Over the centuries following Louis’ conquest, Germans and French contested Alsace and Lorraine – Elsäss and Löthringen, from the other side of the linguistic divide – bitterly and bloodily. Today, Strasbourg is one of the seats of the European parliament. It’s a reminder not only of French determination to have key European institutions in France, but also of the legacy of terrible war that the European Union was designed to consign to history.

MacGregor ranges across German and European history to illustrate how they shaped and continue to shape each other. The Reformation emerged in Germany because printing with movable type was first developed there, and because the fragmented German states could not stamp out a movement — Luther was able to find sympathy in one court or another until Protestantism was too big for any ruler to vanquish. Printing with movable type was invented by a German who drew on the wine press technology of his native Mainz, varnish made by painters (quill ink was not suitable for printing), the metallurgy that had been developed over centuries in the Mosel and Saar valleys, paper that came up the trade routes from Italy to the Frankfurt trade fair every six months, and so forth.

Gutenberg’s technological, organizational and financial acumen lead to German traditions of technical achievement and precision manufacturing, hallmarks of the country even today. MacGregor touches on how porcelain making came to Europe, how metallurgy led to clocks and cars, and how a desire to make the world anew fed politics and art in Weimar — both drawing on the legacy of Goethe in that polity — as well as a backlash against that very modernism.

Art, technology, politics, belief, none were ever very far apart in German experience. MacGregor’s erudite exploration brings all of those contradictions and connections home to the reader. The massive illustration in the book places the examples close to hand, emphasizes that the arguments are not abstract, but contained in objects, enacted by people, through the centuries, and that some of the questions are still open today.

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