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Friday, February 28, 2014

“A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People”, by Steven E. Ozment


432 pages, Harper Perennial, ISBN-13: 978-0060934835

If you’re looking for a detailed cataloging of German history from the early tribes through the modern era, then A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People is not the book to read. Ozment is writing to an audience (it seems to me, anyway) that is already somewhat familiar with the major topics, events, and people of German history. That allows him to focus more on certain themes than on details, such as: the relationship between church and state and how it evolved in Germany; obstacles to centralized authority in Germany; how Germans have come to see themselves and foreigners throughout the centuries; the German balance between order and freedom; and, finally, the difficulties of writing about German history for historians in the post-Nazi era. On developing these, I think Ozment does a good job, and overall the book goes into wonderful detail in some areas, needless detail in others, and is painfully vague on the rest.

For example, he writes about seven pages on the Saxon Elector Frederick the Wise, one of Luther’s biggest supporters, while also spending about the same amount on the revolution of 1848, arguably one of the most pivotal events in German – and European – history (although he does refer back to it later, when discussing interwar and post-WW2 German governments). On the other hand, his discussion of Hitler’s rise to power is very well written, giving the reader a better understanding of the conditions in which the Third Reich arose, and what exactly many Germans found appealing about Hitler.

What I enjoyed most about the book was Ozment’s continual discussion of the German balance between individual freedom and autonomy, and the need for strong authority to prevent anarchy and ensure prosperity. Historically, Germans have seen freedom from chaos as being equally important as freedom from tyranny. His analysis of the German reaction to the French Revolution was excellent. He also aptly explains the German multilayered identity, with strong inclinations toward the local and the regional; this had been fostered by centuries-long existence of free cities and powerful dukes and princes. In the centuries when English, French, and Spanish monarchs were becoming more powerful, Germany’s monarchs were often preoccupied with foreign involvement, causing their absence and neglect of German affairs. That allowed Germany’s princes to become even more powerful, partially explaining why the country never centralized the way the others did.

Overall, the book’s analysis of German history is often lopsided, focusing too much on some areas, while being too skimpy with others. But Ozment develops and supports his themes with a well-researched and written book that will, at the end of the day, leave most readers better informed about Germany.

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