Book Review: Germany: Memories of a Nation

Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor

“Anyone who wants to understand Germany should read this.”

-Antony Beevor

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Art Historian Neil MacGregor’s work, Germany: Memories of a Nation approaches the complexities of German history through the lens of monuments, memorials, artworks, and everyday objects.  In doing so, MacGregor sheds light on modern Germany’s cultural values forged in the wake of its complex past, which includes a time of advancement before and during the Renaissance, a time of darkness during the Nazi era and the Cold War, and modern times in which it holds the position of economic powerhouse and a leader in the EU.

MacGregor approaches the topic of German history in his work through six parts.  These parts explore topics such as the extent of German culture in Europe throughout history, which far surpasses its modern-day borders; the unifying factors in Germany, such as a common language and fairy-tales; the more complicated aspects of Germany’s past that affect German national identity to this day, such as the development of the German national flag and the recognition of Karl der Große (Charlemagne) as a great German; German-borne technological advancements, such as the printing press; Germany’s descent into darkness, including the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era; and finally, Germany’s attempts at reconciling with its past and forming a new national image.

In general, MacGregor offers an incredibly thorough and fair exploration of German history.  Virtually no aspects of the German past are glossed over.  However, Memories of a Nation is far from a dry read; MacGregor’s choice in quotes and explanations of complex issues within the German national memory are easy to comprehend.  Furthermore, MacGregor utilizes an abundance of large, colored photographs within his text to exemplify the most important themes within his work.  For example, in Chapter 8, “One Nation Under Goethe,” in which MacGregor explores the importance of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to the German national identity, MacGregor offers the reader photos of multiple illustrations of Goethe’s works created by German artists over time, as well as a photograph of a sculpture of Goethe, which greets visitors to Germany in the airport in Frankfurt, Germany.

The combination of the above factors makes for an incredibly attractive read to both scholars of German Studies as well as the everyday person who may have a limited knowledge of German national history and culture.  My only criticism of Memories of a Nation is that MacGregor is sometimes a bit too idealistic in his exploration of cultural themes within Germany.  He tends to focus on artwork because of his profession, and as a result his depiction of the German psyche sometimes becomes too stylized.  Even taking that into account, I still have yet to find a more fair and detailed exploration of German history, and would therefore highly recommend Memories of a Nation to anyone who has any sort of curiosity about German culture and civilization.

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