“Can a more than 2000-year-old civilization be defined by its last 150 years?” The answer here appears to be a qualified yes.
German history stretches into deep antiquity, writes Ozment (History/Harvard Univ.; Ancestors, 2001, etc.), though it properly fragments into tribal subcategories: the history of the Ostrogoths is not necessarily that of the Franks, the latter the subject of an uncomfortable truth—namely, that France and Germany share common ancestors in a “common barbarian past.” (A French scholar who pointed this out was sentenced to jail time in his homeland.) Why, then, do the French not speak German? Perhaps because, as Ozment observes, “By the standards of the ancient world, the Germanic tribes were magnanimous in triumph, allowing Roman language, law, government, and religion—Roman Christianity—to shape medieval Europe.” Ozment’s survey of German history packs a vast amount of information into a comparatively few number of pages, and it hits on all the expected high points: Charlemagne’s empire, the Reformation, Frederick the Great’s enlightened regime, the Bismarckian union of duchies, principalities, and free states to form modern Germany, while giving plenty of weight to the darker episodes, particularly the 12-year rule of Hitler. Can all of these historical data, and particularly those of more recent vintage, be used to construct a psychobiography of the German people, as so many have tried to do before? Ozment initially resists the idea, writing, “Germans are among the most difficult Europeans to fathom and the one European people without whom the story of that civilization cannot intelligibly be told.” Yet by the end of this well-told overview, he is comfortable in writing that the “present-day German is five persons in one, three of whom remain ineradicably German” and in hazarding the opinion that Germans of the future will be, if the past is a reliable guide, less given to individualism and more inclined to order, leading to “a tighter democracy by comparison with that of today.”
A useful and welcome survey, though some may take issue with Ozment’s generalizations.