I never pack enough books when I travel. The worry about overweight luggage or carrying things I won’t need is just too stressful. So, on my last trip to Berlin, I got to the airport with only a chapter of a book left to finish… not nearly enough for my 11 hour flight home. Luckily, Tegel Airport has a bookstore. “The Shortest History of Germany” grabbed my eye right away, mainly because there was a HUGE stack of the book, but also because, my knowledge of German history is spotty and inconsistent. I’ve never taken a German History class and never sat down to read a complete history of Germany. The word “shortest” made me feel like I could tackle this book on the flight home. Luckily, “The Shortest History of Germany” by James Hawes is an engaging book that covers 2000 years of history in a way that draws in even the most reluctant reader.
The Shortest History of Germany Review
James Hawes’ “The Shortest History of Germany” really is short and to the point (especially the first 1000 years). He covers whole history of one of the world’s great countries in less than 230 pages. (Including images, charts and some diagrams). Germany’s history is covered in broad strokes, but there are enough details in the important moments to clarify and explain WHY some things happened without making you feel as if you are sitting through a lecture. Best of all, the writing style is conversational… as if the author is telling you a story over a beer (feel free to pour a beer or glass of wine to enjoy while you read).
Where James Hawes puts his heaviest emphasis is in the “limes”… no, not the tangy green citrus fruit… but rather the river borders that the Romans established in Germany. These limes or borders (the Rhine, the Danube, and the Elbe) come up over and over again when dealing with divisions in the German people. And this can get a bit heavy handed at times. In his history, the Elbe provides an eastern border, beyond which were originally Slavic peoples… then later Prussians. And that many problems pulling Germany together as one people come from the differences in East and West.
Still, overall, the Shortest History of Germany covers all the bases. The first 80 + pages is early German history. You get enough information to do well at Bar Quiz night, or even Jeopardy, but not so much that you are bogged down with names and dates. He begins with Julius Caesar who established the Rhine as the border of Germania (and the Elbe on the other side) and the battle with Arminius. Over a few hundred years the German people organized and ultimately Charlemagne ruled over Rome from his seat in Aachen. Hawes explains how the system of Prince-electors amazing power over the Emperor’s throne got started, and how it worked (yes, Emperor was an ELECTED title! not hereditary).
The bulk of the book covers the last 200 years. Hawes emphasizes the Prussians and the system of Junkers. (The Junkers were the noble land owners in Prussia). And to him, most of Germany’s desire for war comes from them. Maybe desire isn’t the right word. As he points out, these East Elbian (east of the Elba) lands were always under threat from Russia… and so there was a natural militaristic bend to that part of German Society. To protect the German people. The book covers the Napoleonic Wars and the 1848 Revolution in a bullet point style. This happened, then this, then this…. But with details that make you understand the how and why.
Thousands of books have been written on 20th century German history. What makes the chapters in The Shortest History of Germany different is their short-hand explanation. All of the information is there… from the treaties that bound Germany to Austria in World War 1, to the birth of Nationalism, to the great inflation, and the lead up to the rise of the Nazi powers to the aftermath. And there is a bit of armchair quarterbacking (why didn’t anyone learn not to try and invade Russia?). But Hawes covers the information well… without trying to make all Germans out to be bad guys.
The book ends in 2016, which means the final chapters deal heavily with the East West divide… first the Wall is up, then down, and then the attempt to unify the country. In his eyes, it doesn’t seem to have properly happened. The divide between East and West, both in finances, industry and in world view are so different. Still… it ends on a positive note.
Why Read “The Shortest History of Germany”?
What makes “The Shortest History of Germany” a worthy read is its accessibility. This is not a book for academics and scholars. It’s a book for anyone with even a passing interest how Germany became the great country it is. Who are the Germans, and what made them stay between the Rhine and the Elbe for all those years. What drove their politics, and how much part did religion have in shaping the nation.
Added bonus… you can probably finish the book on the flight over to Germany… and then tour the country with more knowledge than you can get from your guidebook.
The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes is Available in Hardcover, Paperback and on Kindle.
Order it here….
It is also available in German