The Path Unchosen: Helmut Walser Smith’s Germany, A Nation in its Time

Smith, Helmut Walser. Germany, A Nation in its Time: Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500-2000. New York: Liveright, 2020.

I’ve never considered myself to be especially interested in German history, despite my own German heritage and interaction with German history (both in Roman/early medieval terms and through a number of seminars in college, including Modern German History and 19th Century European Transformations). Heather, on the other hand, is fluent in German and in fact studied abroad in Heidelberg for a semester, and so it came as no surprise when I received a history of modern Germany by Helmut Walser Smith from her for Christmas 2021. As it turns out, I had read Smith before in one of my seminars, in the form of a horrifying yet fascinating case study of anti-Semitism in a small nineteenth-century German town (The Butcher’s Tale, for those interested). This new history thus reawakened much of my previous studies while simultaneously relating a narrative of German history radically different than any I had yet encountered.

It becomes clear from very early on in Germany that Smith’s work both is and is not a history of Germany. It is not a history of the years 1500-2000 in the classical sense; you will not find accounts of political maneuvering, military campaigns, or even the vagaries of religious evolution in any detail within its pages. Yet in a sense, Smith delivers a history of Germany perhaps more true to its subject matter than anything those other topics could offer. Germany is at heart a history of how Germany as a nation and as a secular unified space, rather than simply a geographical expression, came to be conceived of, perceived, and communicated through the philosophy, art, and culture of its time. In writing such a history, Smith attempts to demonstrate that the specific form of belligerent nationalism that we associate with modern Germany was a relatively late development, and one that was in no way foreordained. From the importance of modern mapmaking in describing physical space to the works of Goethe to a reappraisal of German attitudes towards the French Revolution and beyond, Smith illuminates a German nationalism defined by a humanistic, cultural love of fatherland rather than a militaristic, exclusionary hubris.

As much as I enjoyed this novel approach to a history of nationalism, it was not without its flaws, some of them fairly major. In choosing to only provide the bare minimum details of a geo-political history of Germany and focus on this softer, constructive nationalism rather than a militaristic one, Smith essentially elects to ignore any counterarguments to his material. Readers therefore have no way of knowing how actually prevalent or even feasible these alternate nationalistic ideas were in the absence of any discussion of their counterparts. The problem is further compounded by Smith’s highly selective presentation and use of evidence within his chosen domain; the decision to never mention Wagnerian opera in a cultural history is particularly glaring, while other decisions simply do not survive a test of logic. The prevalence of stores selling “imperial” goods for example does not, in fact, argue that imperialism was more crucial to the German state than previously recognized; likewise, the dearth of the actual word “nation” in the German Empire’s constitution is not a persuasive argument that it was not based on nationalism at its founding.

It is in the final two sections of Germany, however, that Smith’s work comes fully into its own as an elegy for the better angels of German nationalism, angels ignored, persecuted, and executed, in the middle decades of the 20th century. Any history of German nationalism must necessarily deal with the advent of National Socialism and the Holocaust, yet the previous four centuries of history that Smith has outlined make his detailed treatment of their events somehow even more tragic as what had been a vibrant nation slowly falls to emphasizing one’s duty to sacrifice for the nation, and then to the imperative sacrifice of others for some misguided notion of national purity. In so doing, Smith also re-orients Nazi genocide into its nationalistic, not racial, context, and emphasizes the sheer scale of civilian executions and war crimes persecuted by all levels of the German state during the Second World War. The decades-long implications of these events, too, are examined at length, from the widespread brutalization of Germany under occupational in the later 1940s to the nation’s turn in the late 1960s to truly examine its own role in genocide as it returned to a form of nationalism more similar to Smith’s original subject matter.

While it may not be what I first think of when I ask for a history of modern Germany, Germany, A Nation in its Time has in many ways revolutionized how I conceive of this nation pivotal to so many of the turning points of modern history. It may not always live up to my standards of argument in some of its particulars, but the whole transcends the sum of its parts. It is, for now, my go-to work on the Holocaust, and I recommend it to any curious about how Germany could both sink to the depths of depravity and rise to heights of principled European leadership all within the space of a single century.

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