This is where I thank the OUP blog for alerting me to the Radio 4 series compiled by the Director of The British Museum, Dr Neil McGregor and seeking to distil 600 years of German history into 30×15 minute episodes. (The series is still available on iplayer for another 12 months, if you’re so inclined.)
The premise, which enables such concision, is the exploration of German history and culture through objects: one iconic object per episode. The series begins with the Brandenburg Gate and ends, completing its circle, with the Reichstag. Inbetween there is a diverse mix of the great (Charlemagne’s crown) the good (Barlach’s Angel), the small (the coins of the Holy Roman Empire) the seemingly insignificant (a diving costume),the literary (Christa Wolf’s debut novel) and the absolutely essential (beer and sausages) … although not a mention of toasted almonds. Tut, tut.
As brilliant as the series is, I found myself a little frustrated. I am a visual communicator and I needed to see these artifacts. Without the time to visit London to see the special exhibition at the British Museum (on until 25.01.2015), I decided to treat myself to the accompanying book. (At £30 it wasn’t cheap, but it was affordable and worth every penny.) I continued listening to the radio as I paged through the chapters, reading the more detailed text simultaneously Pictures I wanted, and I was rewarded with a visual banquet … of everything imaginable. Maps of Germany through the ages, portraits, sculptures, historical documents, objects of state, domestic artifacts. Tales of grandeur, tales of the everyday. Surprises. For example: I had no idea Germany used to stretch – legitimately – into Russia or that Kant never left Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) and so never set foot in the Germany of today. I hesitated only as the dark chapters of the 20th century approached but even here McGregor provided details that are stranger than fiction such as the irony of design in the Buchenwald concentration camp gate.
History has never been so immersive.. Nor do I think this book will be consigned to the shelves to gather dust. I’m pretty sure it will serve as a springboard to more German history and a contextualising reference to further German literature reading from this point on.