Germany (and France) On My Mind
by Rosie Goldsmith

Germany is on my mind – it often is. A country that both fascinates and frustrates me, I lived there for nearly a decade, studied the language, as a BBC journalist witnessed some ‘major German events’ (Berlin Wall! Unification!) and today still spend a lot of my life thinking/reading/talking about Germany.

This weekend in Paris, as Angela Merkel stands alongside the other leaders of Europe, defiant and determined not to allow terrorism to triumph, just a few days earlier she was here in London defending the EU in the face of the UK’s flip-flopping. How could we not defend European unity after this week?

This week, France and Germany have been on everybody’s minds.  And there’s been some thought-provoking, inspired reporting in the British media. The great liberal economist and columnist Will Hutton wrote in The Observer today (11.01.15):

“We are lucky to have today’s Germany. When Chancellor Merkel arrived in London last week, she came as the accomplished leader of Europe’s most successful liberal democracy. Germany’s economic strength is taken for granted; more subtly, we also take for granted that this is an essentially good country. It is not going to assuage any demons by behaving aggressively to its neighbours or blaming foreigners for any of its problems. It is quietly and determinedly going to attempt to anchor Europe in the same successful combination of liberal democracy, social solidarity and productive capitalism that it enjoys – and it has the economic and moral wherewithal to do just that.”

You may not agree with his views, but Hutton reflects a sea-change in how we in the UK engage with Germany today.  It’s no longer about Nazis and beach towels. During her London visit Chancellor Merkel toured the British Museum’s Germany exhibition, ‘Memories of A Nation’. I toured it last week too (though not at the same time!) I loved it. She loved it – and delivered her verdict to the British Press:

“I think it’s remarkable and very important. It shows the very fruitful mutual exchanges in past centuries between European nations and it also shows the common foundation of our history and the fact that this exhibition takes place in the British museum is also something that tells us a little bit about globalisation. This exhibition makes it possible for us Germans to, from a different vantage point, look at German history.”

As my colleague on The Guardian John Crace commented: “It was doubtful if Cameron would have dared be quite so thoughtful about a Britain: Memories of a Nation exhibition in a Berlin museum.”

Like me, Merkel probably fell in love with the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. Not only is he one of the most charming and erudite arts leaders and cultural diplomats in the country but – wait for it – he speaks fluent German, loves Germany and has written a remarkable accompanying book (with the help of my husband Max Easterman, I can proudly say). Neil Macgregor is an unofficial ‘National Treasure’. If he were to leave Britain ‘to run a major German institution’ (one of the rumours after Neil’s Love-In with Angela) then I too will have to pack up and return to Germany. ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ has been flying off the shelves. It is one of the fastest-selling history books of our time. Published by Allen Lane/Penguin it was on most of the UK’s Best Reads Lists this Christmas. In a period of plenty for history writing (cf. 100s of books about World War One), MacGregor’s British view of German history shines out with its lack of dogma, ideology or romance. Will Hutton comments: “MacGregor’s argument is that because Germany cannot take comfort or define itself by imagined past glories, it is free of imprisoning and destructive myths. It has become, of necessity, a force for good, too little recognised in Britain in part because we still define ourselves as a victor over Germany when it was evil.”

In the UK we are today reading more about Germany and more German literature than ever before. On my own shelves of about 30 new books to read or review – in amongst all the others – are 5 German books in English translation, and I cannot wait to read them: Julia Franck’s ‘West’; Jenny Erpenbeck’s ‘The End of Days’, Doron Rabinovic’s ‘Elsewhere’, Daniel Kehlmann’s ‘F’ and Timur Vermes ‘Look Who’s Back’.

This week I also came across this list of 10 German books published in English in 2014 from The German Book Office, courtesy of the Deutsche Welle: We have some books in common!

I’m especially looking forward to reading ‘Look Who’s Back’ – a ‘merciless satire’ on Hitler, translated into English by my brilliant colleague Jamie Bulloch. A satire on Hitler?! After the tragedies of the past week, the traumas of the past century: how could you Rosie, you may ask? But at the start of 2015, on the 90th anniversary of the publication of ‘Mein Kampf’, I can’t think of anything better to read.


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