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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

'Germany - memories of a nation'

I've been signed off work while recovering from surgery. So with time hanging heavy on the sofa, I went to the iPlayer and downloaded all 30 of Neil MacGregor's programmes on Germany - Memories of a Nation. The series ended yesterday, and inspired me to blog about the part Germany has played in my own life. 

I've no hesitation in saying that this series has been among the very best radio listening this year. BBC Radio 3, Radio 4 and the World Service all give me huge enjoyment each day, so that's a big claim to make. Neil MacGregor is a consummate radio performer - suave, authoritative, interesting, personable, and with just the right degree of tentativeness in his judgments that makes you want to go on thinking about what he has said. Whether it is the Holy Roman Empire, Dürer's engravings, the death camps, hyper-inflation or beer and sausages, he has the gift of a born educator which is to make us curious. I hate to invoke what's rapidly becoming a cliché, but it does seem to me that he is something of a national treasure.

So what do I take away from these excellent programmes? Here are three (tentative) observations about Germany that have been taking shape in my mind as I've been listening. 

First, the infinite capacity of the German people for invention. I guess that what inspired MacGregor to embark on this series was the endless creativity of Germans in the arts, whether it is literature, painting, architecture, sculpture, music or performance art. Most of the 'objects' which act as focal points of the German story are art-works of various kinds: the coins of the Hanseatic city-state of Hamburg, the imagery on Weimar bank notes, a painting of Goethe, Gutenburg's Bible, Ludwig of Bavaria's Valhalla presiding over the Danube, the exquisite sculptures of Riemenschneider and Barlach, the Meissen porcelain hippopotamus, Bauhaus design, even the Volkswagen. The list is endless. Add to that a soundtrack drawing on German music from Bach to Weill and you have a true Gesamtkunstwerk, a 'complete art work' that embraces virtually all that human creativity is capable of. 

Of course, Germany is not unique in this respect. The same could be said of France, Italy, Spain, Britain and the Americas, not to mention the great civilisations of the Middle and Far East. We shouldn't try to evaluate the cultural achievements of one people against another. This was precisely the mistake Germany made under the Third Reich in its mindless pursuit of Wagner's 'holy German art' and its purge of all that the Nazis reckoned to be 'unGerman'. MacGregor quotes Heine's prescient saying, 'where today they burn books, tomorrow they burn people': what other people has ever treated its own heritage so callously? But no one is going to deny that the contribution of German-speaking peoples to the world's cultural legacy has been immense. Without it, we would be immeasurably the poorer. 

My second observation is perhaps a special case of the first. It's the German propensity for myth-making. It takes a certain kind of mentality to invent stories about your people that turn out to be pervasive and formative. In this, the Germans have been past masters. I'm thinking of how, after the collapse of Roman civilisation in Northern Europe, it was a 'German' (yes, I know it's an anachronism to use that word) who reinvented the idea of a people united under a single figurehead and bound to one another by common values and traditions. Charlemagne, or Karl der Gross (depending on whether you tell the story the French or the German way) created the notion of a Holy Roman Empire that gave identity and meaning to the disparate Allemanic world for more than a thousand years. His coronation at Aachen in 800AD launched a myth that even today has not lost its potency. 

This was just the beginning. In his turn, Luther's Bible helped fix the German language into a vehicle that could articulate the voice of a whole people, just as Shakespeare and the King James Bible did for England. The poetry of Goethe, the paintings of Kaspar David Friedrich and the folk-tales collected by the Brothers Grimm helped create the romantic idea of Gemany as a mythical northern land of forests, mountains, light, shadow and far horizons. Next came Bismarck whose Prussian determination forged the new myth of a United Germany, fought for with 'iron and blood', 'Deutschland über alles', meaning not world domination so much as putting 'Germany' as a nation above all other loyalties to region, state or locality. The Nazis' consummate myth-making about Aryan supremacy was only another iteration of a long series of imaginative re-inventions. Which is why, if I have a criticism of the series, I missed a programme about Wagner and his own capacity for mythologising, surely a key influence on the distorted vision of Hitler and the Third Reich.

My final observation is something I hadn't thought about before listening to these programmes. It's a throw-away remark MacGregor makes that while the public art of other nations celebrates their victories and honours their citizens' achievements, so much 20th century German art does the exact opposite. It memorialises shame, sorrow and defeat. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the Topography of Terror where the SS once had their headquarters, Barlach's grieving soldiers in the war memorial at Magdeburg, Käthe Kollwitz's heart-searching etchings of bereaved mothers are among many Gedenkstätten where contemporary German art memorialises the tragedy of its own story. There is a strain of melancholia in the German psyche that is exactly captured in Dürer's famous etching of that name, and which perhaps helps explain the paradox of its people. If every nation has its archetypal flaw, perhaps this is Germany's. (It raises the question of what the British or French flaws might be.... Scope for another blog?)

I was especially struck by one programme that focused on the gate of Buchenwald concentration camp, the 'beech woods' where Goethe used to walk. The inscription says, not 'Arbeit Macht Frei' as at Auschwitz, but 'Jedem Das Seine', 'to each their own'. It's a Latin saying quoted by Luther; Bach wrote a cantata with that title. The elegant contemporary lettering was designed by Franz Ehrich, an inmate who had been a Bauhaus artist. This to me captured the paradox of Gemany: how a dark shadow falls even in places of inspiration and beauty; or put it the other way round, even in the terrible crucible of suffering and death that Nazi Germany became, the creative instinct could never be extinguished. Someone bothered to affirm the best a human being was capable of, an unconscious protest against all that diminished and demeaned.

Today, 25 years after the Iron Curtain was torn down and Germany became a united nation once again, there are still painful memories of a dark past to be healed. In this respect, I think Germany has found a language with which to acknowledge, 'own' and speak about its tragedy and shame in a way that France, with its own conflicted story of defeat, occupation, Nazi collaboration and anti-semitism has found much harder. Armistice Day can help us all to feel and remember, not just loyally but accurately. That MacGregor's fine series concluded at the Reichstag on the threshold of Remembrance weekend and the anniversary of German reunification is surely an intended part of the narrative. It has certainly made this listener think - and be grateful. 


  1. As a result of your initial post, I've been onto iPlayer and favourite the whole series to listen to. But you may be interested to know that the programmes have also been adapted into a book form (print & Kindle) - available on Thursday: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Germany-Memories-Dr-Neil-MacGregor/dp/0241008336/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0
    Many thanks!

  2. Are you familiar with Käthe Kollwitz's mourning parents statue group in Vladslo Cemetery in Flanders ? Parental grief crystallised in one searing image. Käthe's son, Peter, doubtless ardent for some desperate glory lies nearby, killed in action in 1914.
    At any rate thank you for drawing our attention to this series. I will download the kindle edition