Steven Ozment notes: 'Even today a tour of German history can be a circular journey around a magnetic Nazi pole, mesmerizing the general public and distracting historians and politicians.' Thus the pre-20th-century German past has become 'a hunting ground for fascist forerunners and defeated democratic alternatives'. Ozment points out the obvious fallacy: 'It is one thing to know the end of a story and to be moved by it, and quite another to tell that story from its known outcome.'
All true. Yet Ozment, a professor of history at Harvard, seems, despite himself, to remain in thrall to the mesmerizing power of the Third Reich. Chapters on Drer in the 16th century, and the Seven Years' War in the 18th, both include references to Hitler; a section on Goethe begins with a reference to Auschwitz. The author who insists we should look past the Third Reich refers to it constantly.
His book seeks an understanding of German history as far back as Tacitus's celebrated observations from the first century AD, when the Roman historian talked of German reluctance to accumulate slowly by sweat 'what could be gained quickly by the loss of a little blood'. Yet Ozment insists that Germany's 'record of civility and creativity is longer than that of its inhumanity and destructiveness'. …