A Mighty Fortress: A New History Of The German People. By Steven Ozment

Trying not to mention the Third Reich - but doing it constantly
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Steven Ozment notes: "Even today a tour of German history can be a circular journey around a magnetic Nazi pole, mesmerizing the general public and distracting historians and politicians." Thus the pre-20th-century German past has become "a hunting ground for fascist forerunners and defeated democratic alternatives". Ozment points out the obvious fallacy: "It is one thing to know the end of a story and to be moved by it, and quite another to tell that story from its known outcome."

All true. Yet Ozment, a professor of history at Harvard, seems, despite himself, to remain in thrall to the mesmerizing power of the Third Reich. Chapters on Dürer in the 16th century, and the Seven Years' War in the 18th, both include references to Hitler; a section on Goethe begins with a reference to Auschwitz. The author who insists we should look past the Third Reich refers to it constantly.

His book seeks an understanding of German history as far back as Tacitus's celebrated observations from the first century AD, when the Roman historian talked of German reluctance to accumulate slowly by sweat "what could be gained quickly by the loss of a little blood". Yet Ozment insists that Germany's "record of civility and creativity is longer than that of its inhumanity and destructiveness". True, though perhaps the point does not need to be rubbed in quite so frequently.

He weaves art, politics and philosophy in interesting ways. He argues that, even in late-medieval times, German society was "more fearful of anarchy than tyranny". On the Thirty Years' War, he says that its "alternating tyranny and anarchy had deposited a huge residue of destruction and fear that would take decades, even centuries, to remove".

In one obvious sense, this book is a step forward from many histories. Modern Germany, not the Third Reich, is its final destination. Ozment's underlying argument is interesting and plausible, including the bald statement that "normal nationhood is Germany's best hope for the future". He notes that "Germans still remain latent barbarians, anti-Semites and fascists in the unforgiving minds of many", despite everything that happened in centuries before 1933, and in the 60 years since 1945. If A Mighty Fortress helps to modify such perceptions, it will have performed a valuable role.

Steve Crawshaw is author of 'Easier Fatherland: Germany and the 21st century' (Continuum)