Books: A week in books Boyd Tonkin

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When Will Hutton issued his diatribe The State We're In, he invited Rory Bremner to perform a brief turn at the launch. The impressionist began his act with with a cod 'greeting' from 'the man who controls the British economy: Guten Abend, meine Damen und Herren'. Oh, how we chortled. Well (as Feste says), 'the whirligig of time brings in his revenges'. Hutton's publishers at Cape may now suspect they'll have to brush up on their Deutsch. The house forms part of the Random House UK bundle Bertelsmann acquired, with its parent in New York, to create a pounds 9-billion media empire (50 per cent bigger than Murdoch's).

Perhaps, however, nothing much will change. Bertelsmann already runs Transworld with a light touch on the tiller. Meanwhile, almost no one beyond the book trade noticed when Macmillan fell into the lap of the Holtzbrincks of Frankfurt. The Germans may ride an economic behemoth, but (for reasons that need no labouring) they can still behave in public with mouse-like timidity.

Glance at the bi-annual guide to 'New Books in German' and you find the latest stars of Berlin and Vienna paraded like cattle in the ring to catch the eye of US and British publishers. 'All would do well on the English- language market,' plead these bookish bawds. In western Europe (though not in the east) the financial primadonna seems destined to remain a cultural wallflower.

A handful of British specialists do their best to set this imbalance to rights. As a corrective to the tabloid idiocies that befog our understanding of the country's past, Germanophobes should sample the four compelling narratives in Richard J Evans's Tales from the German Underworld (Yale, pounds 19.95). Evans is the outstanding social historian who last year released a magisterial polemic In Defence of History. This new book digs deep into the official records (and unofficial myths) of law-breakers and law-makers in 19th-century Prussia. These salty yarns of untamed rogues and vagabonds belie at every turn our 'stereotypes of the orderly and obedient German'.

Whether bad or merely sad, the Teutonic trouble-makers got away with what they could - which was an awful lot. We follow the sensitive art- teacher who turned his hand to forging banknotes; the tipsy vagrant who defied endless floggings to return to the streets of her home town; the bourgeois miss who 'fell', surprisingly softly, into life in a Berlin brothel; and, hilariously, the con artist whose many masks and winning ways met their match when he patronised a crooked dating-agency in - Dalston. Evans spices these tall tales from the archives with reflections on the gap between such louche lives and the clumsy platitudes we still accept about the past. A trend to 'stigmatisation and control', he says, met stiff resistance 'at every stage and level'.

Received wisdom paints Germany as a land where alles was reliably in Ordnung. Evans depicts a place where nearly alles went totally kaputt from time to time. Like all the best history books, this one both deepens your grasp of another way of life and overturns the fixed ideas that blocked your view of it. Publishers now running scared before the Big Bad Bertelsmann will find plenty of mischievous relief in here.