MacDonogh explains that his interest in Germany goes back to his mid-teens (he was born in London in 1955), and while he has no family links with the country, he informs us that his mother does come from Vienna and he was born into a family with Central European, if not Teutonic, links. As a child growing up in London, he says he was aware from the beginning about the culture of German and Austrian Jews, thanks to periodic visits from and to his godfather: his grandfather’s childhood friend, Dr Alphons Barb, an archaeologist.

Barb moved to Britain in 1939 and died there 40 years later but never really assimilated. He had a deep interest in high culture and gave the boy MacDonogh many used German postage stamps, the two elements combining to inspire in the youngster a keen interest in Germany. This interest ranged from the construction of the Berlin Wall and the student uprising of 1968 to the brutal assassinations by the Baader-Meinhof Gang of terrorists, Ostpolitik and Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling before the monument to the Warsaw Uprising in 1970.

Brandt’s atonement came around the time of MacDonogh’s first visit to the country, as a 15-year-old. Now, he has spent decades closely observing Germany, divided and united, including what he calls very long periods spent there. Much of his life has involved talking to men and women in all walks of German life, from politicians, academics, writers and business people down to ordinary men and women in hotels and bars.

But, despite his interest as a historian in how the country’s past influences the present, he concedes his shortcomings: a lot of his time there was in the decade from 1987 and a disproportionate amount of that time was in Berlin. He is sketchy on the Ruhr or the north-west, has never been to world-renowned Heidelberg and knows little about German cars, business and football.

The book opens with a comprehensive historical recounting of Germany since 1949. This was a country with little or nothing left after defeat in the Second World War. It was a nation shrunken by more than a fifth by retribution. The figures are uncertain but Germany lost an estimated five million soldiers in the fighting and then another million as prisoners of war.

And there was the difficult process of denazification, which was not always pursued enthusiastically. How do you build up a country again if you cannot call upon many of the elite?

But West Germany’s revival from international pariah status was remarkably swift, with businessmen quickly emerging from the rubble, a new generation coming of age and eventually East and West being stitched back together. The country became today’s economic colossus and European leader, a leading light of the liberal, democratic, modern Western world.

MacDonogh says though that relations are often particularly bad with Germany’s German-speaking neighbours, such as “ructions” with the Swiss (though he gives no more detail), and apparently things are even worse in the complex relationship with the Austrians. These latter dismiss Germans with the slur “Piefkes” and complain about their overbearing manner and the bargain-basement tourists in Burgenland and elsewhere looking for sweet wine and Gemütlichkeit – but the Germans also bring money, by patronising small hotels and guesthouses.

Here, we find a fault in “On Germany” that is common to other books too: the bugbear of foreign words that are not always translated for the English reader. What is a “Piefke” and what does “Gemütlichkeit” mean? The former, Google tells us, is “an unpleasant nickname for Germans in Austria” (we had been able to guess that), adding that it is derived from a Prussian composer of military music, Johann Gottfried Piefke.

Gemütlichkeit, we discover, is a German-language word used to convey the idea of a state or feeling of warmth, friendliness and good cheer. That’s all well and good, now we know what it means, but the point is, when we’re reading a book we don’t want to have to stop and look up foreign words, and MacDonogh leaves us in the dark on several occasions. Some are explained, some aren’t.

But back to those relations with Germany. The author writes that Austria has altered its image in an effort to dissociate itself from the actions of the Third Reich, creating a non-German identity that emphasises Austria’s different dialects and specifically its Tracht, or regional dress (as MacDonogh translates, this time).

Similarly, after the Second World War, most Alemannic-speaking Alsatians in France thought it wise to desist from using their dialect, although there has been in a revival in recent years. In most cases, EU membership is said to have has cured the resentment that lingered after the various Nazi occupations.

The standard Dutch response to Germans used to be “Give me back my bloody bicycle”, but nowadays MacDonogh finds that many Dutch are not only happy to speak German but to spend time in the country and are great enthusiasts for German wine.

British-German relations are complex and are probably more affected by commercial rivalry or jealousy than any abiding rancour stemming from world wars, he asserts (Basil Fawlty may disagree). Negative attitudes towards a perceived German economic hegemony were almost certainly an important factor in the 2016 “Brexit” vote, the author believes, and he goes on to look at Israel’s and the United States’ relations with Germany.

“On Germany”, then, tells the story of a country reborn, not just the political side but also the religion, race, food, drink, culture, leisure and education that make the country what it is. And it is rich terrain: Germany was unified only in 1871, which means that its people continue to have deep-rooted regional affiliations. There are dialects, for instance, and the best German is reported to be that spoken in the centre around the Harz mountains, especially in Brunswick or Braunschweig.

Germany is generally a friendly place, MacDonogh has found, though still saddled to a considerable extent by its evil history. He finds no evidence that a faction is planning a Fourth Reich through economic domination. The Germanophile’s attachment continues, resulting in an all-embracing book. And, as shown by the football, some parts of the world are all too ready to dish out some schadenfreude should this singular country ever slip up.


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