Germany: Memories of a Nation, review: 600 years of history dispensed in 15-minute chunks

Radio 4's series gets the brain cells fizzing without pushing you over the edge

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The Independent Culture

It's taken me a while to get my head around Germany: Memories of a Nation, Neil MacGregor's mega-series on Radio 4, which arrives at the same time as an exhibition at the British Museum (where MacGregor is director).

Don't get me wrong, this is my kind of series. Broadcast daily and spread over 30 episodes, it is dispensed in small 15-minute chunks, enough to get the brain cells fizzing without pushing you over the edge and into a full-blown migraine. Even so, in dealing in the minutiae of European history, MacGregor makes no concessions to the less learned listener. A broad understanding of Germany's evolution is a given. Never let it be said that Radio 4 talks down to its audience. History for Dummies, this ain't.

And so, to get the full benefit of Memories of a Nation and its pocket-sized vignettes, I have found it requires repeated listening.

Happily, someone already clocked this, since each episode is available – and downloadable – online. The series is to be available indefinitely, which not only means it can be used as a public resource, but it allows us to pick and choose when we want our brains stretched.

And stretch the brain it does. MacGregor's format follows a similar one to his last series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, which comprised essays around single artefacts that gave context to a moment in time. Here the timeframe is considerably narrower. The presenter has taken 600 years of German history, explaining its political, social and intellectual progress using objects, art, literature and landmarks.

So far MacGregor has explained the significance of the Hanseatic League, a trading alliance of 90 cities, and how the religious sculptures of Tilman Riemenschneider articulated the sensibilities of a continent. We have heard about the unifying properties of the poems of Goethe, and how the Grimms helped to forge an identity for German-speaking people after their defeat by Napoleon.

If it all sounds deadly serious, well, it is, though every now and then there's a twinkle in MacGregor's delivery. There was some distinct smirking going on last week as he launched into a reflection on beer and sausages – "institution[s] that encapsulate German-ness in a way that everyone can engage with".

This week – and roughly halfway through the series – he moved on to Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, which was when "the modern world began". MacGregor wove much of his story around a Gutenberg Bible housed in the British Library. Published in the early 1450s, you might call it a limited edition – there are only 48 left out of the original run of 150.

He talked about how knowledge became accessible to the masses – previously making a book had involved killing animals for parchment, and the painstaking labour of a scribe – and observed how today, by bookmarking websites on our tablets and e-readers, we "remain unashamedly, irrevocably the children of Gutenberg".

Drawn together, and allowed to be heard at the listeners' own pace, MacGregor's series tells a powerful story of a country with multiple identities and myriad chapters, some of which are very dark indeed.

In using art and literature and buildings and books as his focus, the presenter has turned radio's most obvious limitation – its inability to show us stuff – into a virtue, allowing us to conjure them in our minds and transport them, without any heavy lifting, to a different time and place. Here, MacGregor shows us the limitlessness of knowledge and imagination. The least we can do is pay attention.