Saturday, 21 May 2016

Germany : Memories of a Nation - Neil McGregor

Germany: Memories of a Nation
By Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor is director of the British Museum - boy must he enjoy going to work - and so is well placed to add to the developing genre of "history by artefact". This is far more than a museum catalogue; it is an approach to history that takes as its departure point a specific artefact, be that a building, coin or text (even a fairy tale) - and by seeking to explicate its provenance gain fresh insights into its historical context. In the Australian context a good example is Ochre and Rust by Philip Jones. In Germany: Memories of a Nation Macgregor applies this approach to the spectacular and terrible history of the big daddy of Zentral Europa - Deutchland.

MacGregor's approach is hardly value free. For a start, calling the book memories of a 'nation' is deliberately ironic. As anyone who finished high school in the 1970s knows there was a thing called the Unification of Germany, orchestrated by that wily old political operator Otto von Bismarck who successively punched out the Danes, the Austrians and the French to create the German empire which proceeded to give us the "short twentieth century", two world wars, and, indirectly, Soviet Communism. And before Napoleon did away with it, there was the splendidly ramshackle Holy Roman Empire, land of Snow White and Rapunzel.

And this is MacGregor's point - there is a nation called Germany; it dominates Europe -  but it has no coherent national story; the attempt to create one in the Wilhemian and Third Reich ended very badly indeed.  Indeed it is the diversity of the German speaking territories - poorly understood outside Germany -  which makes this a fascinating excursion.

MacGregor takes as his starting points artefacts as diverse as "lost capitals" - the ridiculously complex and yet somehow workable coinage of the Holy Roman Empire; and Grimm's fairy tales.  The lost capitals are Konigsberg (home of Kant and now in Russia) and Strasbourg (now in France) - which illustrate the instability of Germany's borders. The coinage demonstrates the diffusion of sovereignty across dozens of politically sovereign states ranging in size from a few thousand to millions of citizens. The fairy tales tap into ideas about German language and character. There is plenty more: Prussian  iron jewellery; Saxon ceramics and "degenerate art".

In the context of the Britex debate Germany: Memories of a Nation has a particular resonance because despite its title it assiduously undermines the concept of nation as  Macgregor organises his artefacts to argue  (for the most part implicitly) for the inevitability of Europe as a political and economic unity.

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