A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People

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9780060934835: A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People

The word "German" was being used by the Romans as early as the mid–first century B.C. to describe tribes in the eastern Rhine valley. Nearly two thousand years later, the richness and complexity of German history have faded beneath the long shadow of the country's darkest hour in World War II. Now, award-winning historian Steven Ozment, whom The New Yorker has hailed as "a splendidly readable scholar," gives us the fullest portrait possible in this sweeping, original, and provocative history of the German people, from antiquity to the present, holding a mirror up to an entire civilization -- one that has been alternately Western Europe's most successful and most perilous.

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About the Author:

Steven Ozment is McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard University and the author of The Bürgermeister's Daughter; Flesh and Spirit; Ancestors; Protestants; and The Age of Reform, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Schaff History Prize. He lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

From The Washington Post:

Early on in this history of roughly 2,000 years of certain people living in central Europe, Steven Ozment describes his enormous task as the "Tacitus Challenge." Tacitus wrote his account of what he called the "various peoples of Germany" in 98 A.D., at a time when popular interest in the tribes was high among Romans. He recognized an opportunity both to instruct his fellow citizens in Germanic virtues and to warn them of potential Germanic dangers. Still, the northern tribes had done little so far to disrupt Roman affairs, and it took no more than 46 paragraphs to sketch their customs, character and geography.

But times have changed, and now a restrained 300-plus pages of text hardly suffice to meet the Tacitus challenge of providing an overview that mixes the "praise and criticism a complex people deserves." Still, Ozment works mightily to show that disparate developments in an ill-defined geographical area can indeed yield up a coherent tale of one people, the Germans. He begins with -- what else? -- the tribes encountered by the Romans, that whole intertwining complex of ancient Gothia that inspired Tolkien. Having disoriented the reader with Gotho-Roman encounters among leaders named Alaric, Athaulf and Attalus, he moves briskly through a succession of marginally more familiar characters who established the Merovingian, Carolingian and Hohenstaufen dynasties and are sometimes called Goths or Franks but increasingly, as the pages turn, simply Germans. By page 49, a sixth of the way through the text, with Tacitus's Germania hardly a memory and Charlemagne's mighty empire divided, as Caesar once partitioned Gaul, into three sections, we encounter "the foundation stones of a fragmented and competitive medieval German realm," in other words, Germany.

From here on out, it becomes a matter of following these Germans as they undergo fragmentation and consolidation, fall prey to predatory rulers and neighbors, divide by region, religion, class and gender, start wars and suffer wars and throughout it all, seemingly, write a great deal of philosophy and make a great deal of music. A book as extensive in chronological scope as this one amounts to an exercise in advanced pruning, of cutting off everything extraneous while retaining precisely what will make the whole lively and intelligible. Unfortunately, Ozment, who is a professor of ancient and medieval history at Harvard, is better at elaborating than pruning. His best work has been of the micro-historical variety, in which a lovingly recreated small world tells us about the larger world in which it existed. This big picture of Germany both leaves out too much, especially of the connective tissue that carries a story forward, and lingers too long on individuals, some famous (Bach and Nietzsche, for instance) and others clearly chosen because they are not famous (an odd sort of anthropologist character named Bogumil Goltz, who gets more pages than Friedrich Schiller; and an unnamed emigré pastor in Boston, who is quoted at almost as great a length as Luther).

Of course, illustrative individuals can play a role in even so synoptic a history as this, but it should not be at the cost of exploring their context more adequately. Added to that, many of the summaries of key moments in German development are borderline incoherent, a problem that becomes acute in the hasty account of the wars of the 20th century and Hitler's rise to power. It is perfectly defensible, even admirable, to offer a history of Germany not obsessively concerned with accounting for the origins of its 20th-century catastrophe, but a reader not already conversant with German history will find the frequent folding-back of the narrative line difficult to follow and the details of the story unreliable (for instance, the French "Maginot fortifications," not built until the 1930s, here block the German advance in 1914).

The book is strongest in describing the characteristic features of early modern Germany, as it developed the institutions of modern social and cultural life and suffered through torments of individual conscience and devastating war. It is weakest in showing just exactly how such experiences were formative. Ozment makes a number of references to the German dualist tradition, to German inwardness, to German "fear of anarchistic and hyphenated Germans," and to a German national movement and search for national identity, but he commits himself to none of these or other possible threads of continuity. In his effort to avoid the Luther-to-Hitler trap of writing history with foreboding music always playing in the background, he relies ultimately on banalities that could be true of many national groups. The Germans have been concerned since the 16th century, he says near the end, with "the ability to act collectively -- national unity -- and the right to act individually -- political representation." How true, but how true also of Frenchmen and Englishmen and Italians and, if we change 16th to 18th century, of North Americans as well. "Making the most of their surroundings became the German way of survival and self-discovery" -- could not the same be said of Huck Finn? This book is eminently charitable to the German people, and, in the end, minus the poets and philosophers, they look just like us.

Reviewed by Celia Applegate


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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