This event was top of my #edbookfest wishlist because James Hawes’s The Shortest History of Germany prevented Roy Jacobsen’s 5-star The Unseen from becoming June’s Book of the Month. I read with utter fascination. I thought I knew Germany quite well, but reading this book was illuminating to say the least. And having now discovered how little I knew, I’m in no position to agree or disagree with Hawes. I suspect his thesis is controversial to some and may ruffle a few feathers …
Referencing his 2006 novel Speak for England, which imagines an absurdist world in which Trump and Brexit are made possible, Hawes said “In a world that satirises itself, there’s no job for a satirist. So I decided to stop writing fiction altogether.” He agreed to write this book at the request of a friend, although he claims he would have made more money washing cars at traffic lights in the last 2 years. ” I had no idea of these discoveries, when I started out.” he said.
Distilling his book down into a 45-minute presentation, Hawes showed how, despite all the to-ing and fro-ing of history, the Roman Germania, the territories of the Confederation of the Rhine 1808, and the boundary of West Germany (1949-1990) were essentially the same, with the Roman Limes Germanicus and the Elbe forming a natural eastern border. East and West Germany weren’t divided only during the days if the GDR, but, given the history of lands to the East of the Elbe (East Elbia), firstly as land colonised from the West as part of the German Empire, and then overtaken by Prussia, they always were. More controversially, Hawes maintains, they remain so. Hawes proved the latter point by analysing voting patterns. Votes from East Elbia brought Hitler to power, and even today voting patterns there are substantially different from those in the West of the country with 22% voting for the hard left in 2013. Berlin is the only place in East Elbia to buck these trends.
Hawes, whose father was a Prussian Junker, has harsh words for the Junkers and their chancellor, Bismarck. The Wars of German Reunification were really the Wars of Prussian Conquest, he argues.
The brief-lived political entity that was West Germany is the real Germany; the one with Adenauer’s vision, close integration with the West. What Bismarck started was the great deformation, argues Hawes.
Kohl rushed through reunification in 1990 because 200,000 East Germans left for the West when the Wall fell. There would have been no East Germans left, had he not done so. The trillions of Euros that have since flowed from West to East (equivalent of a Greek bailout every year) aren’t achieving much, he argues. It’s the West dancing to “a half-remembered Prussian tune”, subsidizing East Elbia as it had to do during Prussian and Nazi times. Thanks in no small part to what Hawes calls “Merkel’s Strange Autumn” of 2015, Germany is now threatened by extremists on the left and right from the East (cf those voting patterns mentioned earlier), both wanting closer ties with Russia. Or perhaps the more realistic threat is a political coalition with either the NfD or Die Linke. Hawes is hoping that the winner of the forthcoming German election will remember the Germany where “state-worship, puritanical zeal and scar-faced militarism have always been alien. That Germany is Europe’s best hope.”
Otherwise the tottering West may be lost.