Germany is not Germany at all

“The Shortest History of Germany” packs a powerful punch in a tiny package. From Caesar to Merkel, James Hawes delves into the “true nature” of Germany and reaches a bold conclusion: Germany east of the Elbe is the source of all recent German headaches – from starting (and losing) WW1 over Hitler to intra-EU tensions. West Germany is the “real” Germany, and Bismarck’s Prussian takeover was a huge tragedy – just as reunification in 1990 was a big mistake.

I’ve jotted down my thoughts of the book, which is thoroughly enjoyable, provocative and loaded with maps (and I love maps).  

A good friend of mine recently shook me out of my usual approach to picking up books to read. My customary method entails thorough reconnaissance in the form of explicit recommendations by friends, and/or reading some reviews in newspapers or on Goodreads. Only then would I order the book through Amazon or Audible. I bought The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes without resorting to any of the above. Instead, my friend dragged me to a brick-and-mortar book store (Waterstones in Brussels). It was their “Non-fiction book of the month”. It beckoned to me at the entrance. I picked it up, shuffled through the small pages, saw a bunch of maps occurring with remarkable frequency. Then I bought it. And then I read it in a single sitting.

It was this unusual approach that prompted me to write down my thoughts on the book in this blog. For once, my impressions were not coloured, guided or tainted by other people’s opinions. Refreshing. So what do I think of “The Shortest History of Germany”?

Story-telling + historical analysis => forceful, controversial conclusion

I am impressed with how much James Hawes has accomplished in just 226 pages of image-rich and small-format pages. To me, the book has three layers on which it can be appreciated:

First, the reader is served an engaging and accessible tale of 2,000 years of German history. I particularly enjoyed the many maps and the interspersed etymological facts (such as the English pound Sterling being derived from Easterling, referring to the reliable money of the Hansa merchants on the German Baltic Coast).

Second, the author supplements his historiography with succinct analyses of critical junctures that shaped the course of this history. One example is the recurring outward fixation of the Holy Roman Emperors on the Empire’s foreign holdings in Italy and elsewhere at the expense of inward focus on German unity and stability. These analytical points are frequently condensed into simple, parsimonious equations (as illustrated below), ripe for contention and discussion.

Third, and most crucially, Hawes reveals that his book is not merely a “German history for dummies”. The book’s title does not only refer to its readable coverage of 2,000 years of history in 226 pages. It is in fact a reference to the central hypothesis of the essay: “The shortest history of Germany since Frederick the Great [can be boiled down to] Western Germany disunited + Unified block of East Elbia = East Elbia has disproportionate weight in German affairs” (p. 210).

It is clear throughout the book that the story-telling (first layer) and historical analysis (second layer) of Roman, Medieval and Modern events in Europe are used to drive home the importance of the two components of the “causal equation” above.

The (explanatory) power of East Elbia

Quoting the Roman historian Tacitus on page 18, Hawes quickly reveals what he considers the “great lever of German history”, i.e. the uncertainty of how far east it actually stretches. The river Elbe is the focal point of Hawes’ historical narrative and argumentation:

In ancient times, the Elbe was where the Roman general Drusus in 9 BC ended his military conquest of Germania, allegedly because of a superstitious warning against venturing further east. In medieval times, the Elbe was to Charlemagne’s successors in East Frankia what the Rhine had been to Caesar: “It was a border you might be tempted to cross, but where the first priority was to simply hold against troublesome barbarians” (p. 38). In early modern times, after the devastating Thirty Years’ War, France was ascendant, and the countless tiny and disunited West German states between the Rhine and the Elbe were simply a useful buffer zone for the ambitions of the Prussian Hohenzollerns east of that mythical river. After the creation of Bismarck’s German Empire, the military caste of the Junkers east of the Elbe held the decisive sway in German politics. After WWI, it was especially voters east of the Elbe who voted for Hitler’s NSDAP. After the fall of the Berlin wall, the “real” Germany west of the Elbe has been taxed so as to subsidize the ex-GDR in the east. In recent years, it is especially Germans east of the Elbe who vote for Die Linke, for the neo-nazi NDP and for the Alternative für Deutschland, and who attack homes for asylum seekers.

“A seminal moment in the history of Germany and Europe”

Hawes puts forth these bold, “Elbe-centric” statements and causal links with great conviction. In the author’s view, Germany was not unified by Bismarck in 1871. Rather, the “real” Germany west of the Elbe, was conquered by Prussia (with the first part of this “conquest” being achieved at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 when Britain “foolishly” gave the Rhineland and Westphalia to Prussia in order to check potential French ambitions). The author traces the significant intra-German west-east differences and tensions in terms of religion, culture, economy and the attitude towards the state in the period 1871-1945. Thus, he makes a convincing argument that the Elbe substantially divided “Germany” as a construct already before the post-WW2 iron curtain partitioning by the Allies. The logical conclusion for Hawes is that there was no genuine “reunification” in 1990, because East Elbia was never compatible with West Germany. Rather, it was Prussia haunting the “real Germany” west of the Elbe “from beyond the grave”.

The real “us” and the real “them”

Hawes’ conclusion and political recommendations are clearly tinted by a romantic vision for Germany and Europe that yearns for the Empires of Augustus, Charlemagne and Napoleon. The “real Germany” should be unshackled from the alien East Elbia as in the days of Roman Germania, Carolingian East Francia and Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine. Hawes naturally points out that the European Union had its beginnings in exactly this sort of neo-Carolingian geographical setup. West Germany should end its economic subsidization of East Germany and instead look to its “natural friends” to the west and south and, for instance, act as a “guarantor for some kind of Eurobond” (p. 224).

Though it can seem eyebrow-raising at first, Hawes is not alone to present this sort of analysis: That the east-west divide cuts across Europe and across Germany has also been eloquently formulated by Ivan Krastev (along with a good piece on the difference between western and eastern conservatism), among others.

Still, I am not convinced that labeling everything east of the Elbe as “them”, cutting the ties and looking inward for the comfort zone of a demographically doomed “us” in the West is the right answer. Using these pronouns is of course very awkward for me with my eastern genes and birthplace coupled with my western passport and coming-of-age. I do appreciate Hawes’ historical analysis of this important geographical divide, but is it the right lesson to draw from history? That some borders – like the Roman limes or the river Elbe – are destined to remain permanent? That only the naïve and the idealistic believe in erasing them and spreading “our” coveted “western values” beyond the realm of Charlemagne? Even Samuel Huntington was less pessimistic, at least drawing the inescapable civilizational fault line further east.

It is pertinent to ask if Europe really would have been in a better geopolitical and economic state if Germany had not been (re)unified and if the EU had not been enlarged to the east. Because that is the logical conclusion of Hawes’ argument. And though counterfactuals are very difficult to present and evaluate, I remain convinced that Europe as a whole has benefited from looking beyond the Elbe. The economic success of Poland as compared to Ukraine is impossible to divorce from the path to European integration, and even recent, worrying slides on the judicial front are being checked by the EU’s institutions. Because of the EU, many states in Eastern Europe (e.g. in the Baltics) have been better at embracing difficult economic and structural reforms than Germany’s more “natural friends” west of the Rhine and south of the Alps. Within the EU, the tensions between North and South are no less important than the ones between East and West. And the tensions between centre and periphery are felt everywhere. Hawes is silent on potential approachces to these devilishly difficult challenges for Europe beyond his wish that Germany “[…] must now be embraced, as what it was always meant to be: a mighty land at the very heart of the West.” (p. 226).

Sharp, short and sweet?

In the end, the concise format and parsimonious causal arguments of The Shortest History of Germany are both its greatest strengths and its biggest shortcomings. The main point is driven with force and precision already from Tacitus and all the way to Merkel. The text is not encumbered by “on one hand…and on the other…” discussions like the one I shortly delved into above.

The Roman limes and the Elbe – all you need to understand the history of Germany – even Nazi votes, according to Hawes

I very much appreciated this approach. It made the book feel less like a tedious political science master thesis and more like an impactful essay. It is up to the reader to ask the critical questions and to discuss rather than outright accept all of the arguments and conclusions. And make no mistake, a critical mind is essential when reading Hawes’ book. I learned just as much from his points as from the questions he prompted me to ask (for instance, it is not quite certain that Sterling is derived from Hansa traders, as the Oxford Dictionary explicitly states). There is a lingering suspicion that the presentation of certain maps and figures are streamlined to underline the author’s points (see for instance the peculiar thresholds for the map above). And past and present divisions and distinctions within “the real Germany” in the west are left relatively untouched. But I don’t mind that an author is explicit about his purpose even if I end up disagreeing in the end.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I can highly recommend The Shortest History of Germany for anyone interested in European history, society and politics. It is a remarkable feat to produce something so accessible, so comprehensive and so thought-provoking that can easily be read in a single afternoon.

So I am really happy I was dragged to Waterstones on that particular afternoon with this twin-headed, red-black, west-east eagle beckoning to me at the entrance. Reading and subsequently reflecting upon a book without any preconceptions – good or bad – is definitely something I will do again.


The Shortest History of Germany. By James Hawes (2017), Old Street Publishing; 226 pages