This radio series from the BBC and the accompanying book are excellent. This is because Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is excellent at using artefacts to illustrate and illuminate key moments, and as a starting point for reflection on wider issues. He did such a good job on the series ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. Here, his subject is narrower but no less interesting. His choice of a nation is also interesting since, as he shows across the series, the borders of Germany have been somewhat elastic over time.
I listened to the radio series when it was broadcast but also followed the programme by reading the chapter on the same day. It made for a fascinating experience; listening without seeing the artefact described maintains a focus on Neil MacGregor’s words but seeing the pictures in the book afterwards was equally as important. I suppose television wouldn’t find the space or time for such a series, or it would conflate everything into a chunk for the schedule. It works best as radio.
What I found most fascinating of all was to learn about the places that are now firmly within the borders of other countries, such as Poland and Russia, but which were once German. Strasbourg Cathedral was very important to that hero of German letters, Goethe, but the place of his affections is now clearly part of France.
In deciding to tell the story of German history, the connection with other European countries has been important. What is known by many in Britain about this country is often conflated to the years 1914- 1918 and 1939- 1945. MacGregor shows that there is much more to know while recognising that this is a country that has every reason to take history seriously.
‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?