The German lands: the maze in the heart of Europe

The German lands: the maze in the heart of Europe

Anyone who wants to understand the unification of Europe must open themselves up to the cultural and political traces of the German countries. Various forms of German were spoken in the heart of Europe for centuries. Domination and trade played a role, but also labor migration, such as ethnic Germans who moved to the Baltic area.

Tacitus wrote about the Germanic people around the year 98 De origin et situ Germanorum. By then the Romans had already lost the battle at the Teutoburg Forest. In the early Middle Ages, all kinds of Germanic tribes between the Rhine and Elbe took over the rule of the Roman Empire and population movements occurred. Ultimately, many territories had varying administrative and political connections, which began at a time when secular and ecclesiastical power were not yet strictly separated.

Near the Netherlands, German history was written in Aachen, where Charlemagne established the Frankish court and with it the Holy Roman Empire. German emperors were crowned in the cathedral for almost six centuries. The Cathedral is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which counts more than fifty German sights. A website lists eight major tourist routes that take you past all that heritage. You can plan many trips, including to Austria (twelve world heritage phenomena), Switzerland (eleven) and Hungary (eight).

Historical awareness

In The German Lands, a bulky book weighing 3 kilograms, the author talks about political and social developments as well as the cultural-historical and landscape features of regions that were administratively led by German-speaking monarchs. The struggle between the Habsburgs and the Hohenzollern – who ruled Prussia – as well as alliances with Russia are discussed. It also highlights how important the Napoleonic Wars were for the pursuit of a united Germany. Nationalist thinking ultimately wounded European society in the twentieth century, many traces of which can be found in this book.

How much the areas of rule have shifted again and again and how they differ is shown in the nine chapters The German Lands after devoting an introductory chapter to it. For example, the chapter on the cultural specificities of the Alamanni tells about the Frenchification of Alsace and also about the multilingual Switzerland that was created through a confederation in 1291 and eventually became a federal state in 1848 with 26 cantons. The Republic of Austria has only existed since 1955 and has nine federal states; Since 1990, the reunified Germany has had a total of sixteen states.

Luxembourg has a language war to a lesser extent than South Tyrol, but has had to cede areas over the centuries, while part of Tyrol belonged to Italy after the First World War. The rich cultural city of Trieste also became Italian, while the city fell under Austria-Hungary for almost six centuries.

With the necessary historical awareness, the author explains how, due to the legacy of the Habsburg crown lands, German speakers lived in, for example, old Czechoslovakia (Sudeten Germans) and current Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia (Carpathian Germans). The author does not mention that Ukraine has a minority of approximately 33,000 ethnic Germans, nor does he mention Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, who was born as an ethnic German in Banaat, western Romania. Also left unmentioned are renowned Jewish writers whose lives appeal to the imagination: Paul Celan (Bukovina) and Franz Kafka (Prague). In a book that mentions other great artists but also lesser names, it is striking.

There is no digression in crucial places. For example, De Boer, a former assistant professor of history at the University of Amsterdam, tells us that the quadriga on the Brandenburg Gate was triumphantly brought from Paris to Berlin in 1814, but not that Napoleon stole it in 1806 and the current four-in-hand is not original. Or he mentions the protest of professors in Göttingen against a constitutional restriction, but does not mention that the Grimm brothers were also among this group of seven. There is also more to be said about the Buddenbrooks house than that the Mann brothers lived there. And you would like to read more about Sigmund Freud than that he wants to ‘act in a strict scientific manner’. The anecdote would not be out of place that neighbor Ferdinand Porsche was testing his car on the slope of the Berggasse in Vienna and Freud could not stand the noise.

Legs and arms

Due to all its ambitions, the book also falls short, while as a cultural-historical guide it is insufficiently detailed. The sections on seasonal folklore that conclude several chapters seem somewhat forced and corny. A more precise table of contents could have highlighted these, while the indexes are extensive. The illustrations and especially the maps are clear, although some captions are incorrect.

Better editing could have made the text more flexible and, apart from a few printing errors and disturbing hyphenations, could have prevented slip-ups: “Rich people and the emperor quickly fled, the poor stayed indoors,” it says, unintentionally funny, about the plague in Vienna. What is more disturbing is that the bookseller Johann Philipp Palm was not the author but the publisher of the anti-French pamphlet for which he was shot. And Hašek wrote his picaresque novel about the soldier Schwejk not in German but in Czech, Anne Frank did not die in Auschwitz but in Bergen-Belsen, the Berlin Holocaust memorial does not consist of ‘black gravestones’, the register correctly mentions Lutz Seiler (author of including the novel Kruso) but in the text his name is Uwe Seidler and the n-word is inappropriate for Nikolaas.

The book is pleasant to read if the author’s story is not too compact. He extensively covers the Lusatia region of Brandenburg and Saxony, where bilingual place name signs for the Slavic minority are the Sorbs. They settled there as early as the sixth century, had to deal with Christianization and Germanization pressure under changing regimes and saw villages disappear due to the introduction of brown coal mining, especially during the GDR. I would like to add that in addition to ‘theatre, folklore and traditional costume’, the Sorbs also have a strong poetry tradition.

German is the most spoken native language in the EU. Geographical, economic, historical interconnectedness and proximity usually have a positive effect on the urgency to learn a language; In view of the geopolitical relations, great value should be attached to the German countries. This book is also a reminder of this, which invites you to explore a year of elections for the European Parliament in Austria and in German states.