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30 August 2016 @ 05:41 pm
Review of Germany: Memories of a Nation, by Neil MacGregor, pub Penguin 2016  
I really, really like the way Neil MacGregor illuminates history by focusing on individual objects. He has of course done it twice: once creating A History of the World in 100 Objects (all in the British Museum where he was then director) and then in Shakespeare's Restless World, where he brought the plays alive, again via objects the man would have known and seen. In the process he shines a light on things you just might not normally think about, like the fact that the theatre name "Globe" was cutting-edge at a time when Drake had not long circumnavigated the world.

In his latest, he does again use objects, like coins, machines, Peter Keler's Bauhaus cradle (designed in 1922, still in production today), but also focuses on towns, motifs from folk tale, paintings and individual humans. But the method is the same: to zoom in on what may look like a detail and use it to illuminate something far wider. In the chapter "Snow White vs Napoleon", he examines the role of the forest in the German imagination and self-image, from Hermann's epic victory over the Roman legions in the Teutoburger Wald (AD 9), through the sinister forests of the Grimm folk tales and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, to the modern preoccupation with conservation which results in a third of the country, no less, being protected forest land, and has made the Greens stronger in Germany than anywhere else in Europe.

Sometimes too, the individual objects of his focus interact revealingly and movingly, as when we realise that Ernst Barlach's sculpture "Hovering Angel", created in 1926 as a Great War memorial, melted down by the Nazis for war material and recreated post-war from the original plaster mould, has the face of Käthe Kollwitz, whose "Grieving Parents", commemorating her own son's death in the Great War, we have already seen.

From the Europeanism of Goethe to the federal individuality of sausages, from Martin Luther reinventing a language to a handcart used by refugees after World War 2 but which, as he points out, is of so timeless a rural design that it could easily have been used for the exact same purpose during the Thirty Years War, this is as many-sided and illuminating a portrait of a nation and its history as I can imagine. It's also, like everything of his that I have read, immensely readable.