The philosopher Karl Jaspers was dismissed from his university post by the Nazis in 1937 but refused to leave Germany, even though he had a Jewish wife. In 1946 he lectured at Heidelberg University on ‘German guilt’. Frank Trentmann introduces those lectures with a vignette of Jaspers at the end of the war: ‘In March 1945 he was sitting with his wife and two capsules of cyanide expecting deportation to the camps. Luckily, the Americans arrived before the Gestapo. Now, he worked his way through the different registers of guilt: moral, metaphysical, judicial and political.’ This passage indicates the qualities that make Out of the Darkness so compelling. Trentmann has a gift for lively and dramatic exposition. Yet his is a deeply serious work that moves gracefully between the moral challenges that are his central concern and the more familiar categories of politics, law and culture.
Trentmann is best known as a historian of material culture. His Empire of Things (2016) was an ambitious global history of consumption from the 15th century onwards. The new book does not stint on the ‘world of stuff’, as he calls it at one point, referring to the ambivalence many