Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

1

TOWARDS UNIFICATION

As German unification proceeded on its apparently inevitable course in 1989/90, and Chancellor Kohl scrambled with almost indecent haste to write his name into the history books as the second Bismarck, images sprang to mind of that previous unification, over a century and a quarter ago, and the consequences it brought to Europe and the world in the following decades. After Charlemagne’s First Reich, Bismarck’s Second and Hitler’s Third, were we now seeing the rise of a Fourth Reich of equally imposing dimensions and equally uncertain duration? Did the new and seemingly unstoppable drive to reunify Germany in our own day mark the resumption of a submerged but ultimately ineradicable tradition of German national feeling and identity? Or did it merely register a stampede for material goods by the East Germans, their consumerist appetites whetted by years of watching West German television advertisements?

Those who seek an answer to these important questions could do worse than turn to James J. Sheehan’s contribution to the Oxford History of Modern Europe,1 a series whose own origins are themselves now virtually lost in the mists of time. His is the seventh volume to appear in the series since the publication of The Struggle for Mastery in Europe by A.J.P. Taylor, way back in 1954. The series editors, advertised on the jacket as Alan Bullock and F.W.D. Deakin, have since become Lord Bullock and Sir William Deakin, and their task is beginning to look as endless as that of painting the Forth Bridge; if the current rate of appearance—at two volumes a decade, leisurely even by Oxford standards—fails to speed up, so much more modern European history will have happened by the time it is complete that a whole new set of books will have to be commissioned to bring the story up to date.

Part of the trouble is surely that the standard set by those authors who have so far managed to complete their task has been so formidably high. But Sheehan, although he appears to have been at work on German History 1770-1866 (1989) for only a decade or so, triumphantly maintains it. His book can easily stand comparison with Theodore Zeldin’s on France, Raymond Carr’s on Spain, or Hugh Seton-Watson’s on Russia. The range and

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