Steven Ozment has written a sweeping history of the German people since the time of the Romans in a mere 325 pages — A Mighty Fortress – A New History of the German People. I just read this book, which was written in 2004, before the Angela Merkel era, so an update might be in order. Nonetheless this is a useful book. I was put initially put off by the language, which seemed unnecessarily dense at the beginning. Clearer language and a few timely references for some of the more obscure figures would have been helpful in the dense narrative.
However, the story of all the different regions coming together was impressive — if only it hadn’t ended up with the machinations of Bismarck, the awful comedy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the utter horror of the Third Reich. The discussions of Hitler’s coming to power, the Third Reich and the Holocaust were particularly interesting.
Today, it is beyond terrifying to see the parallels between Hitler’s appeal and the current state of American politics. After the thumping defeat in World War I, many Germans were scared, humiliated and looking for anyone who claimed to be strong. They seem to have decided that they were in such a state of crisis, that extreme action (and extreme rhetoric) were absolutely necessary. And, of course, they were susceptible to a candidate targeting scapegoats.
In Hitler’s case, this led to unprecedented tragedy. The people in a position to oppose him didn’t take him seriously until it was too late. It is hard not to hold the Germans who voted for him to account, because Hitler pretty much did what he said he was going to do. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, there was nothing inevitable about Hitler, but he was nonetheless voted into power. Fortunately for the world, Hitler considered himself a military genius (despite his paltry military record), and made a number of fatal strategic mistakes that brought the war to an end. Unfortunately this defeat came only after the deaths of millions upon millions.
Americans like to think that such tragedy couldn’t happen here, but the current election seems to be testing the theory. Today, a substantial number of American voters seem untroubled by candidates’ lack of foreign relations and military experience. It is enough for candidates to declare that American will regain its power and be strong, and then to trumpet the candidates’ lack of experience, common sense and humanity as virtues. Being a boor has somehow become an asset. Similarly the blanket targeting of Muslims, the bullying of opponents and a determined disregard for factual accuracy all hark back to tactics prevalent in Hitler’s rise to power.
The German people’s response to the Nazi genocide is inevitably unsatisfying. Even where guilt is acknowledged and reparations are paid, I’m left with the feeling that so many Germans, past and present, really don’t understand or accept that horrific crimes were committed in the name of the German people. There is a distancing and a lack of accountability. Hitler wasn’t just some curse Germany had to endure — he was elected and then supported for a very long time. As with many accounts of this period, this section of the book left me disappointed and unconvinced. My qualms aside, Germany has taken important steps to quash Anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi revivals.
The reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War brought the book to a close. The conclusion felt anticlimactic, and certainly didn’t anticipate Angela Merkel or Germany’s current role as one of the more humanitarian countries in Europe. I can’t help thinking how furious Hitler would be about all the immigrants flocking to Germany, and of course he would be even more furious about the welcome they have received. The scenario calls for a Mel Brooks treatment.
I did think A New History of the German People was an interesting book, and it probably deserves a second look. A lot of important material was set out in remarkably concise fashion.