Monday, April 13, 2020

Book: The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes

Hawes, James. 2017. The Shortest History of Germany. London: Old Street Publishing.

This book delivers on its promise in both senses - it is indeed short, just 227 relatively small pages - and it is about the history of Germany. It achieves its compactness in part by zooming through the "initial conditions" up to the year 526 in just 26 pages, and then skimming the next thousand years in just 44 pages. Do not look to this book if you seek to learn about pre-modern Germany in any depth.

In 1524, the book slows down. The heart of the book concerns the most recent 500 years of German history, and the single overarching point that the book devotes itself to defending lends itself to an easy summary: Western Germans are great, but Prussians are big trouble now and have always been big trouble. Indeed, it seems that all the good things in German history come from the West, while all the bad ones, up to and including the "Alternative for Germany", come from the East. Perhaps.

Certainly the book does make a strong case that the East and the West differ in socially and culturally important ways.

Similar themes arise in this recent Economist (which called the book "a must-read" according to the blurb on the front cover) piece on East-West differences 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a parallel (gated) piece in the Financial Times as well as in this recent paper:


IZA DP No. 13032: The Separation and Reunification of Germany: Rethinking a Natural Experiment Interpretation of the Enduring Effects of Communism
Sascha O. Becker, Lukas Mergele, Ludger Woessmann

German separation in 1949 into a communist East and a capitalist West and their reunification in 1990 are commonly described as a natural experiment to study the enduring effects of communism. We show in three steps that the populations in East and West Germany were far from being randomly selected treatment and control groups. First, the later border is already visible in many socio-economic characteristics in pre-World War II data. Second, World War II and the subsequent occupying forces affected East and West differently. Third, a selective fifth of the population fled from East to West Germany before the building of the Wall in 1961. In light of our findings, we propose a more cautious interpretation of the extensive literature on the enduring effects of communist systems on economic outcomes, political preferences, cultural traits, and gender roles.


Note the first point in particular and note that, perhaps surprisingly, the paper does not cite the book. The paper is forthcoming in (as I write) the next issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

In sum, if you are interested in German history (or European history more broadly) the book provides a quick and provocative read.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
I accidentally bought two copies of this, one at the airport in Munich and one, on a different trip, at the train station in Mannheim.

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