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Germany über alles

17 October 2014

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FROM Goethe to sausages, Germany: Memories of a nation (Radio 4, weekdays) is on an epic journey to uncover the history and myths that make up the German psyche. With Neil MacGregor fronting this series of 15-minute episodes, this has all the appearance of a Teutonic version of A History of the World in 100 Objects - and why not, since the latter series is regarded as one of the very best radio series of the past ten years?

This latest offering also has much to admire, although cultural history, so much bound up with questions of propaganda and national identity, is a good deal messier than the examination of a single object. The discussion of Grimm's fairy tales (Thursday's episode) was a case in point.

Germany loves its woods: one third of the country is covered in them, and they are protected by government laws. Germans particularly love their oak trees, which symbolise resilience in the face of destiny's storms. It was in the Teutoburg Forest that Hermann defeated the Romans - a story of German resistance which resonates down the centuries. So how does this marry with the psycho-geography of the Grimm stories, where the wood is the place where everything bad happens?

MacGregor's account of Martin Luther and his influence on the German language was more straightforward: as a religious figure, he may have divided people; but, as a writer who fashioned a new register in which the German language might operate, he was a great unifier. His neologisms and proverbial phrases suffuse German literature in the same way as English is full of Cranmer and Shakespeare; it was Luther's genius to find a mode of expression that was equally at ease with upper and lower German dialects.

When we speak of Brahms as a nationalist composer, we think in terms of an intellectual engagement with German culture. Such was the thrust of Natasha Loges's contribution to The Essay (Radio 3, Wednesday of last week), part of the network's Brahms Experienceseason. Brahms's choice of texts for works such as the German Requiem shows how different a musical mind his was from that of Richard Wagner, whose nationalism operated on a more visceral and emotional level.

This was an essay full of fresh insights. While doubts over the composer's racial profile did not damage his popularity with the Reich, it was partly Arnold Schoenberg's espousal of Brahms as a musical progressive which saved this composer from damaging nationalistic associations.

For those who believe that religious broadcasting is going to the dogs, comfort can be found on Premier Christian Radio, which has undertaken to re-broadcast Priestland's Progress (Saturdays and online at www.premierchristian-radio.com).

That listeners could be allowed 40 minutes of religious discussion without the interpolation of brain-cleansing passages of music seems hardly conceivable nowadays; but that is what the late Gerald Priestland offered up in the early 1980s. One might baulk now at the number of male professors featured; but one cannot but smile at the intonation of the youthful Rowan Williams.

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