The director of the British Museum tells the compelling story of a traumatized country through objects and places that represent the enduring strength and hope of the people.
MacGregor (A History of the World in 100 Objects, 2011, etc.) examines the multifaceted makeup of what was formerly an enormously fragmented set of local narratives before an actual German identity emerged, most iconically with the Gutenberg Bible of the 1450s, which united the Germans in language and through which “Germany decisively affected the course of world history.” The author sees German history framed around "four great traumas” on German soil, each seared in the national memory by certain profound artifacts (such as the Brandenburg Gate and the rebuilt Reichstag): the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648); the invasion of Rhineland and Western Germany by French Revolutionary forces in 1792; the defeat of the Prussian armies by Napoleon and his triumphal entry into Berlin in 1806; and the devastation by the Third Reich. Somewhat erratically, MacGregor moves forward and backward in the chronology. He looks deeply at the early history of the wildly far-flung Holy Roman Empire via cities that once resonated in the German cultural memory—e.g., Königsberg and Prague, home of Kant and Kafka, respectively; and Strasbourg, notable for its stunning cathedral, which struck the visiting young Goethe as “what it meant to him to be German.” Objects such as royal coins, metalwork, and “white-gold” porcelain from Dresden tell much of that story. MacGregor traces the evolution of German identity through depictions of woods in literature (Grimm Brothers) and in painting; the image of the oak and iron cross, both later appropriated by the Nazis; and the creation of the flag and national anthem out of the revolutionary fervor of 1848 that celebrated constitutional freedom. Most importantly, the author finds post–World War II Germany hyperattuned to the need for memorials to victims of terror and oppression—e.g., via the work of painter and printmaker Käthe Kollwitz.
A comprehensive record jam-packed with visuals.