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Getting to know the neighbours: Germany and France

Book review: Peter Millar explores diverse Germany; and Ollivier Pourriol surveys French insouciance

Until recently, most bookshops I know in Dublin and London had sections on Germany that were staggeringly limited. If there were 10 titles, you could be sure eight were about Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust. If you were lucky the other two were about East Germany and its Stasi secret police. This focus on the – admittedly fascinating – half-century between Hitler’s rise and the Berlin Wall’s fall eclipsed everything that went before and since.

The last years have widened the gaze somewhat, but even the latest batch of British books about Germany says as much about the authors as their subject. One popular history book took the Eurotrash route, portraying Germany as a madhouse of nudists, Nazis and eccentrics; another short history rammed home simplistic theses with the petulant conviction of a British public school debater; a third idealised Germany beyond recognition as part of the author’s mournful reflection on Brexit Britain.

All these titles have their merits, and found their readers, but all used Germany as a Projektionsfläche – a projection screen for their own conscious agenda and unconscious needs.

Winter Nights

The Germans and Europe: A Personal History (Arcadia Books, £11.99), by Co Down-born Peter Millar, is pleasingly different. It is a straightforward book that presents Germany with the kind of enthusiasm Millar encountered at school and university, where far-sighted teachers opened his mind to the German-speaking world and its language.

Millar’s unique selling point is his early life as a young Reuters correspondent in 1980s East Berlin. As a rare western journalist behind cold war lines, he was welcomed into his local East Berlin bar and given an insider take that most of us can only dream of on life under real existing socialism.

Like an enthusiastic tour guide, however, Millar is not content to let us wallow in his nostalgia. Instead he has us up and out early on a whistle-stop tour of what was once the German Reich, from the eastern Königsberg – birthplace of Immanuel Kant and the presumptuous Prussian monarchy, now the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad – to Straßburg (now Strasbourg) in the west.

Those bookends – and a stop along the way in Vienna – underline Millar’s most important argument, forgotten in this crisis era of rising nationalism: for most of European history, the nation state has been an alien concept for many countries such as Italy and Germany. The latter is a belated nation from 1871 that collected kingdoms and principalities behind the Prussian house of Hohenzollern.

This diversity – along confessional and geographical axes – lives on in today’s decentralised federal system, something rarely grasped by newspaper columnists who obsess over “the Germans”.

Juggling act

Millar juggles ably the balls of diversity, history and their related dilemmas, in particular how Germans balance the moral burdens of 20th-century horrors with neighbours’ expectations – and fears – of German leadership in the EU.

His own Northern Irish background – where daily life is about negotiating contested history and identity – is clearly a bonus here. From his perspective, East Berliners were not how many of us have been conditioned to see them: prison state inmates in stone-washed denim and MacGyver mullets. Instead, they were a creative people who learned to master the high-wire balance and tension of a socialist dictatorship.

By comparison his memories of West Berlin, subsidised by Bonn and mythologised beyond recognition in recent years by Bowie fanboys, are of a “mock cosmopolitan exclave”.

Millar’s Reuters job allowed him a wide beat, from covering a Ballymena-Leipzig soccer match to being arrested with demonstrators in the dying days of East Germany. Here and elsewhere in the book, betraying his news wire background, Millar telegraphs in these stories with a “just the facts, ma’am” economy, stripped of atmosphere and emotion.

An interview with Otto von Habsburg yields a quotation of just seven words from the last in the Austrian-Hungarian imperial line. Meeting East German spy chief Markus Wolff involved many witty anecdotes, he tells us, while sharing none. The Stasi hid 29 microphones in his apartment and kept a sizeable file on him, he teases us, then moves on.

Millar’s historian hat doesn’t always fit comfortably. The Reichstag fire of 1933, used to copper-fasten Hitler’s dictatorship, is “now widely believed to have been a Nazi plot” – at odds with many leading contemporary historians, such as Prof Richard Evans. For Millar, the 1945 fire-bombing of Dresden was an unjustifiable war crime. Historian Frederick Taylor suggests the city made a greater contribution to the war – as a Nazi stronghold and arms facility – than the innocent china shop propaganda still fuelling many Dresdners’ lingering victim complex.

Mixed blessing

The book, falling somewhere between reportage, travelogue and historical summary, only scratches the German psyche while its non-linear structure is a mixed blessing.

Early chapters invite readers in by sparing them an intimidating edifice of unknown German history. Using city-themed chapters to pull in related topics can become confusing, however: the Berlin chapter jumps from the building of the wall to its fall via Hitler’s election as chancellor. The final chapters shovel in huge chunks of early history – the Romans, the Reformation, Charlemagne – while the Europe component of the title makes a belated appearance in the book’s final pages.

Among a collection of slips and typos (surprising for this, second edition): Millar says the Berlin Wall fell two days after it did, while the Austrian border to Germany opened 12 years after Millar claims.

Far more important, though, is his skill at putting blood in the veins of his subject through amusing and informative subsections on music, food, cars and sex. Yes, if you prick them, Germans do actually bleed.

Given Ireland’s need to liberate itself from Brexit Britain’s narrative on Europe, particularly on Germany, Millar’s book is a good place to begin filling in your own blanks. A second volume – colouring in his East German life merely sketched out here – would be a welcome filler-in of blanks in the English publishing world on daily life behind the wall.

Amuse-bouche

If Millar's embrace of Germany is a historical banquet, French philosopher Ollivier Pourriol's self-described "airport book", The French Art of Not Trying Too Hard (Profile Books, £12.99), is a self-help amuse-bouche. Exploring the concept of French flair, Pourriol believes the Anglo-Saxon application of reason – to sport, music or fashion – often falls short of the intuitive French approach of knowing when, instinctively, to discard the well-studied script or rulebook.

From René Descartes to Gérard Depardieu, Pourriol says this culture of collective improvisation, visible in sporting and artistic genius, has uniquely French components: distilling despair and pouring in the perspiration of powerlessness to create seemingly effortless inspiration.

By citing Argentinian pianists, German mathematicians, British athletes and Swiss sculptors, however, Pourriol weakens his own case that this is a uniquely French talent. Yet the art of making art is putting it together and, though Coco Chanel invented neither the colour black nor the simple dress, she combined them to stunning effect.

In this pandemic era of open-ended, isolated anxiety, Pourriol’s slim volume is an amusing, reflective and uniquely French take on John McGahern’s life philosophy: all will be well.

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