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Germany rises from her fall

17 April 2015

John Arnold reads an account of a country victorious in peace


Reluctant Meister: How Germany's past is shaping its European future

Stephen Green

Haus Publishing Ltd £25


Church Times Bookshop £22.50 

IF YOU missed "Germany: Memories of a Nation" at the British Museum, or Neil MacGregor's book about it, do not despair. Read this admirable volume instead. Lord Green writes so vividly that we scarcely miss the artefacts and illustrations; and the scope of his work is such that, if he had been a professor of German, it would still be a notable achievement.

As it is, he is a former banker and government minister, engaged as a priest in and with the structures of the Church of England. There is something Goethean, not to say Faustian, about his life and work.

The leading idea (Leitmotiv) is set out in the Preface. "There is no culture on the planet greater than that of Germany. No country has contributed more to the history of human ideas and creativity. No country has been deeper into the abyss. And no country has seen a more remarkable redemption and renewal."

We are taken through German history, literature, and culture from the time of Arminius (Hermann) in the first century AD to the present day in breathtaking sweeps, emphasising the moments not so much of achievement as of humiliation, which contributed to a sense of victimhood, especially with regard to "denied national identity" until the Second Reich in 1870.

Green highlights other factors, such as the development of an exaggerated sense of duty, obedience, and readiness for sacrifice, good in itself, but destined to have baleful consequences in the Third Reich, with its fusion of social Darwinism, racism, nationalism, and militarism.

The heart of the book, however, is the remarkable achievement of the Federal Republic since then in creating a stable, prosperous and admirable democracy, reintegrating the former GDR and exorcising the ghosts of Germany's past. The Stuttgart Confession of Guilt by the Protestant Churches in 1945 was a turning point. "The victim turned aggressor and abuser has found redemption and atonement . . . and become the reluctant leader in a new era for Europe."

By the arts of peace, she has attained everything she failed to obtain by the arts of war; and her history and geography fit her more readily than Britain for federal structures, regionalism, and coalition governments. Secular historiography alone cannot account for the fall and rising again of Germany; and Green does not shy away from deploying theological vocabulary and biblical concepts to probe its cautionary experience of tasting the fruit of the forbidden tree, the knowledge of good and evil, death and resurrection. 

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

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