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

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

Part I

PARADE OF THE GRAND NARRATIVES

The five essays grouped together in Part I all deal with attempts by established historians to write synthetic narratives of long stretches of German history, concentrating above all on the nineteenth century. The first of them discusses the volume in the Oxford History of Modern Europe covering German history from 1770 to 1866, written by the American historian James J. Sheehan. At the time the essay was published, the process of German reunification had only recently begun. The tone of the review reflects above all the concerns which that process was arousing early in 1990 in Britain and the USA, where worried commentators were raising the spectre of a resurgence of German nationalism and the rise of a ‘Fourth Reich’. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher invited a group of eminent specialists in German history to a meeting at Chequers, her official country residence, where there was wild talk of the Germans’ historic ruthlessness, aggressiveness and unreliability and the threat that reunification posed to the future stability of Europe. One of Thatcher’s most trusted Ministers, Nicholas Ridley, subsequently went on record comparing Chancellor Helmut Kohl to his predecessor Adolf Hitler. Although the historians at the Chequers meeting subsequently claimed they had been misrepresented, and Ridley was forced to resign his office because of the uproar that greeted his remarks, there was no doubt that apprehensions about the re-emergence of a united German state in Central Europe were widespread among Conservatives. On the left, too, reunification rekindled historic fears of fascism and great-power politics, while on the right it revived the myth of a Britain standing alone against the might of Europe in 1940, a myth which remains central to the ideology of the ‘Eurosceptic’ wing of the Conservative Party. An invitation to review a new history of Germany leading up to the first unification of the 1860s offered the opportunity to reflect on these fears, and to see what light the study of Otto von Bismarck cast on the rather different figure of Helmut Kohl. German History 1770-1866 emphasized the role of chance

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