The wine-beer line is an old political saw that greets the newly arrived observer in Europe’s imperial capital of Brussels. This imaginary tectonic fault line across the Continent characterises the countries of the wine-drinking south as charming, emotional, but essentially corrupt and ungovernable. By contrast, the beer-drinking northern lands are seen as hard-faced, generally charmless but broadly efficient and ready to pay more than lip service to democracy and good government. Like all good clichés, it has an element of truth about it.
James Hawes’s The Shortest History of Germany posits another simple but believable ‘theory’ of political geography – this one about why the Germans are the way they are. ‘Geography is fate’ was Herodotus’s dictum, and Hawes’s thesis is that pretty much every misfortune of Germany’s civilised west and south stems directly from its links to the intolerable Prussians.
Hawes argues that there are two Germanys: the western one – essentially like us – and the other, east of the River Elbe, where Prussians, Saxons and Brandenburgers live. These eastern Länder are inhabited by insufferable, pointy-helmeted, humourless, heel-clicking anti-Semites – the direct descendants of the barbarians. The history of Germany in a book whose cover boasts ‘Read in an afternoon, remember for a lifetime’ is the story of how these ‘bad’ Germans have made life hell by bullying the good ones.
Like so much else of Europe’s history, this hard-wired duality is traced back to the Romans. Tired of marauding barbarian attacks into Gaul across the Rhine, Emperor Augustus mustered the largest army Rome had ever assembled to drive the border east, stopping in AD 9 on the banks of the Elbe, later heading south to build another border along the western banks of the Danube.
Thereafter this became the defining fault line of German life – the west civilised by Roman culture and institutions, the east a dark no-man’s land of authoritarianism and instability. Fast-forward to the eighth century and it is the Franks, led by Charlemagne, who hold the fort of civilisation, in alliance with the Pope in Constantinople, creating the Holy Roman Empire and transmitting the cultural legacy of the classical era to the Middle Ages.
But Wagnerian storm clouds are gathering. A century later, the Teutonic Knights emerged east of christianised Poland. Warlike, pagan heirs to the old, un-Romanised barbarians and financed by traders in the Hansa towns along the Baltic sea, these Easterlings (from which, curiously, the pound sterling derives) came to form Prussia – at first, wholly unconnected with Germans in the west.
Hawes’s history goes on to reveal that the central fact of the next millennium of German history is an endless struggle for hegemony between the quietly industrious and developing west and the atavistic and endlessly aggressive forces of Prussia and its allies east of the Elbe. It was Bismarck, the quintessential bossy Prussian Junker, who created the modern state. Through his North German Confederation, he bullied the French into the war of 1870, and the western Länder into what was essentially a Prussian empire. Thus were the seeds of the two world wars sown.
If Hitler appears a contradiction – a product of Austria and the Catholic south – Hawes’s useful maps show that he could have come to power only with the votes of the east in a shape that exactly echoes the eventual outline of the GDR. Bavaria and the bierkellers of Munich, despite being the birthplace of Nazism, were rock solid against the movement, with the party failing to log even 25 per cent of the vote in 1933.
Poignantly, Hawes relates how Konrad Adenauer, the father of modern Germany after the Second World War, pleaded by means of secret diplomacy with the Allies to lock his half of the bifurcated state into the western alliance, for fear that dark forces would make an accommodation with Russia and drag it once again eastwards.
In his peroration, Hawes’s history rushes us up to the present day with a warning about the dangers of the new political parties of the east, the Eurosceptic AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) and, on the Left, Die Linke – both potential new agents of chaos and destruction. ‘The lesson is plain,’ he writes; ‘Prussia is dead. It must stay dead.
No doubt many true scholars of German history will take issue with Hawes’s book. It certainly feels more like polemic than history. But it is a suitably engaging, racy and scary read – I suspect I shall remember it, like Europe’s wine-beer line, for a lifetime.