Magazine article The Spectator

'Germany: Memories of a Nation', by Neil MacGregor - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Germany: Memories of a Nation', by Neil MacGregor - Review

Article excerpt

Germany: Memories of a Nation Neil MacGregor

Allen Lane, pp.640, £30, ISBN: 9780241008331

As I grew up half German in England in the 1970s, my German heritage was confined to the few curios my grandmother had brought here after the war: a signet ring, a cigarette case, a scrapbook with some missing pages.... She'd changed her name, she'd changed my father's name, the nation she came from lay in ruins -- but from this salvaged bric-à-brac I pieced together the story of my father's German family, a story they'd done their best to bury in the country they'd left behind. Through a range of objects, large and small, from the Gutenberg Bible to the Reichstag, the director of the British Museum has done much the same thing for Germany as a whole.

'Accompanies the acclaimed BBC Radio 4 series,' reads the blurb, and indeed the contents of this book are pretty similar to Neil MacGregor's radio series of the same name. If any series deserves a spin-off, however, it's surely Germany: Memories of a Nation . Each compact episode was a mini masterpiece -- succinct, yet full of meaning. It works just as well in print (and in three dimensions, in the current exhibition at the British Museum until 25 January). The objects MacGregor assembles (an Iron Cross, a Volkswagen Beetle, a billion-mark banknote) encapsulate Germany's triumphs and catastrophes, and give you some idea of why the Germans are the way they are today.

As he demonstrated in his History of the World in 100 Objects , MacGregor's curatorial approach suits any subject. However, as he says, it's a particularly useful way to tackle Germany, a country whose borders have shifted far too often to be defined by geography alone. He's especially good at explaining the complex histories of lost cities such as Danzig, Strassburg and Königsberg, now Polish, French and Russian, but all German a century ago. 'Germany, where is it?', asked Goethe and Schiller in one of their collaborative poems. 'I don't know where to find such a country.' The Teutonic bard Ernst Moritz Arndt thought he knew: 'Wherever the German tongue is heard... there is the German's Fatherland.' Trouble was, German speakers were scattered all over Europe, and uniting them meant... Well, you know the rest.

So what do you get from MacGregor's book that you don't get from the radio? A bit more detail, some pretty pictures and a chance to savour his sensible insights at your leisure. It's a tribute to his brilliance as a broadcaster that MacGregor managed to make such an engrossing series about a load of things you couldn't see, but it's nice to look at them all the same. …

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