A Crucial Civilization; Recounting Complex History of the German People

Article excerpt


It took Steven Ozment much courage to rewrite German history from antiquity to the present day - and beyond, if one includes his cautiously optimistic views on Germany's future. The challenge lies not only in identifying and putting into perspective key elements of a crucial civilization in the heart of Europe; it also, and more importantly, lies in the predicament resulting from Germany's perturbing role in the first half of the 20th century - first and foremost Adolf Hitler's war of aggression and, under its cover, the wholesale murder of European Jews.

This has reduced, in the eyes of many, Germany's long past to a tale of horrific deeds perpetrated within living memory. The result is twofold: There is on the one hand a general (one might say obsessive) fascination with Hitler and his cohorts, demonstrated on a popular level by relentless Nazi-reporting in the media; on the other hand, there is a not-so-benign neglect of things German beyond good technology.

The language used in the Iraq war - that the French should be punished, the Russians forgiven and the Germans ignored - points, in the latter's case, to a deeper issue.

That Mr. Ozment has succeeded in telling, in just over 400 pages, a captivating although complex German story speaks for the author's narrative talent and his ability to provoke the reader's mind with his unconventional findings.

Mr. Ozment belongs to a newer trend in social history, one that attempts to bring a bit of balance to a postwar, moralizing historiography - mostly American, British and left-liberal German - that was long disposed, in the author's words, to circle around a magnetic Nazi pole. In this restrictive view, Germany's past is turned into a hunting ground for Nazi forerunners and hapless democrats.

Instead, Mr. Ozment chooses a chronological approach to history, reading it from past to present, not from present to past, explaining developments not from their outcome, but from their formative steps. In this more objective, non-ideological approach, neither Nazism nor the Holocaust was predetermined in German history.

In his search for the causes of Germany's derailments in the past century - the stated purpose of his book - Mr. Ozment follows converging tracks as history unfolds. The first cause, a sense of driving frustration, originated, according to the author, in distant days when the Romans affixed the "barbarian" label to Germanic tribes, creating a lasting resentment for what Germans considered an unfair portrayal by hostile neighbors.

That grudge, doubled with the feeling of recurrent failure (although it was assimilated Germanic tribes who shaped post-Roman civilization), was to be confirmed in later centuries by Germany's inability to create political unity, and the incapacity of Germans to defend their borders against enemy invasion. It may come as a surprise that throughout most of its history, Germany was more the aggressed than the aggressor.

As to what has been called Germany's deficit in democracy and, as its corollary, Germans' obsessive discipline and subservience, Mr. Ozment turns to what he perceives as Germany's own mix of religiously inspired inner freedom, civic sacrifice and the respect of good governance.

For Germans, to quote Mr. Ozment, "it is not freedom, once attained, but discipline carefully maintained, that keeps a people free."

Concerning Germany's relationship with Jews, hardly anything, the author says, points to "congenital" German anti-Semitism. Germany had the largest Jewish community in Western Europe and its Jews, all things considered, did well - probably better than in most other Western lands. Mr. Ozment concludes that fascism and Nazism were something new in German history, "neither reducible, nor derived whole cloth from what preceded them."

It took the convergence of three crises of hitherto unknown magnitude (what Mr. …