Mike Sansbury, manager of The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley reviews Germany; Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor

ONE of the first illustrations in this huge, fascinating book is of the ruined city of Dresden. It is not, however, the familiar black and white image of a city flattened by aerial assault, but a painting from the 1760s depicting damage inflicted during the Seven Years War between Saxony and Prussia. This is the first of many occasions throughout the book when Neil MacGregor challenges our preconceptions of German history and attitudes.

This is an exercise which has many similarities with the author’s previous book, A History of the World in 100 Objects; MacGregor uses various items to represent different aspects of German history, and the my first reaction was one of surprise at just how many German artefacts have found their way into the collection of the British Museum. Paintings, carvings, flags, toys, so many different pieces have a tale to tell, and the author is adept at spinning a story around the most unprepossessing objects. The book has no straightforward chronological progression, hopping about from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the history of sausages, from the Hanseatic League to the creative activities of the Bauhaus, but the book is no poorer for this approach; in fact, the reader comes away having been immersed in almost every aspect of German culture, and this makes it much easier to understand how it must feel to be at the heart of Europe.

Along with this breadth of understanding the reader will also pick up some fascinating stories. The printing exploits of Gutenberg make for an intriguing read; just like the dreaded Kindle, his printed books had to have the same appearance as a handwritten volume if people were to accept them, and his success owed much to his study of the wine industry and his willingness to churn out pamphlets and “bind-it-yourself” books. Similarly the artist Durer was an early user of the identifying logo, while Martin Luther was instrumental in preventing the reformatory destruction which so blighted the religious architecture of other European countries, particularly our own.

Perhaps what comes across most strongly of all here is not so much Germany’s attitude to its past (which is inevitably problematic) but rather the way in which it turns to the future. The triumphal Brandenburg Gate was initially a monument to peace, only to be transformed after Napoleon conquered Berlin, but it has been left with its scars unhealed as a form of remembrance. The past is always acknowledged, and Germany seems to be looking forward in a spirit of peace and community, exemplified by Chancellor Brandt’s insistence on a one to one exchange rate with East Germany once the Wall had fallen (an event which, amazingly, took place over a quarter of a century ago).

It is a cliché, but while reading this book I really did feel as if history was coming to life. The Thirty Years War, the Hanseatic League, the Holy Roman Empire; these half-forgotten terms from school history lessons now seem to have more flesh on their bones. The best thing about this book is that it has made me determined to visit more of Germany, to see the cathedrals and castles, the towns and cities, most of all, to meet the people whose history this is.