Boyd Tonkin: We need to talk about Germany. Politicians won't - but a fine historian can
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 31 May 2013
Boisterous but peaceable, German fans made over the West End of London into a nightmare clash of red against yellow last Saturday afternoon, before Bayern Munich beat Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final at Wembley.
Fashion catastrophes aside, the all-German showdown prompted some unusually fair-minded pieces in the UK press on the virtues of the nation's football. In finance as much as sport, the threat or promise of a German-directed continent looms. Not everybody warms to the idea, not least self-critical citizens of Europe's economic dynamo. See German Europe, by the distinguished social thinker Ulrich Beck (Polity Press), for a sharply dystopian critique.
In any case, we need in Britain to understand the German present – and future – in relation to our shared past. Politicians, and much of the media, will never try to help us in this task. Historians will. Just now, one in particular: Brendan Simms, whose new history of Europe since 1453 ought to sit on the desk of every politician, pundit and policy wonk who wants to say their piece on Britain, Brussels and Berlin.
Simms's Europe: the struggle for supremacy (Allen Lane, £30) marshals the great events and grand strategies of the 550 years since the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks with a breath-stopping assurance. Panoramic, multi-faceted, his sweeping, well-paced narrative balances Paris and St Petersburg, London and Vienna (and not forgetting Washington), with awesome command. This is top-down European history, diplomatic and political, seen from the soaring eagle's eye. But what an eagle; and what an eye.
Crucially, Simms views the German lands as the eternal fulcrum of change: "the heart of the European balance of power and the global system it spawned". As "Germany" (whoever ruled it) went, so did Europe; and as Europe went, for centuries, so did the world.
Simms's strongly "continental" approach to our role in Europe was evident from the mid-1990s, when his searing polemic Unfinest Hour flayed British inaction over genocide in Bosnia. Here he shows that England's, and then Britain's, key strategic concerns have focused on the lands east of the Rhine since the time of Henry VIII – who, in 1519, even sought his own election as Holy Roman Emperor. "There would have been a very different British Empire," had the electors plumped for Henry, "and perhaps also a more British Europe".
Even after the Reformation, events in central Europe drove British policy not only on the Continent but across the seas. It's one of history's nicer ironies that radical post-colonial thinkers happily inherited the "maritime" perspective on British history developed by their gung-ho imperialist forebears. Today's internationalist left, tired of the boring old EU, dreams that our destiny lies with China, India or Africa – just as empire- builders did. Simms shows we can't easily escape the historic pull of dull but epoch-making towns in Middle Germany - and the Low Countries.
From Drake to Nelson and even in the aftermath of 9/11, British overseas commitments always had one foot planted in European heartlands. Simms proposes in a pivotal judgment that "the new Muslim geopolitics of the 1990s" – whose outcomes we live with now - "was a reaction not to western meddling but to non-intervention in the face of genocide and ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia.
Other historians may contest his Middle European tilt. For now, Simms offers a bracing corrective to anti-historical fantasies of a Britain unmoored from Continental fates. He even imagines a new Europe emerging from the union of British arms and German dosh, with Britain as "the Prussia of the European project" while Berlin pays the bills. Now there's an agenda for the next Merkel-Cameron weekend at Schloss Meseberg.
Bridget returns – with a steal from Sir Noel
So Bridget Jones is back in October. She doffs her titular cap to Sir Noel Coward with a third novel called Mad about the Boy, which will see our loveable klutz tangle with these social media thingies. As Bridget's begetter Helen Fielding knows, there's no copyright in titles. The announcement had me fondly recalling not so much Bridget's mishaps as the list of divas who have interpreted the 1932 song: Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae, Eartha Kitt… By the way, the "boy" for Coward was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Amazon grows, and shows, its own
A few years ago, I heard the Turkish novelist and columnist Perihan Magden speak in Istanbul with all the chutzpah that got her labelled in some conservative quarters as (her words) "a national bitch". You can read two recent novels by Magden in English. Guess who publishes them? Amazon Crossing, the dedicated home for translations hosted by the online colossus.
This week, Amazon's publishing imprints unveiled a one-stop website (apub.com), and pretty impressive it looks: Crossing for global works, Little A for literary fiction, Thomas & Mercer for crime, Montlake for romance, 47 North for SF - the works. Then there are the Kindle Singles for precious and endangered long-form journalism. I yield to no one in distaste for Amazon's bullying on pricing and tax. But if I were a trad publisher, and I took a look at this site, would I worry? I'd be screaming.
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