David Blackbourn’s impressive Germany in the World, with its admirable breadth of knowledge and clean prose style, expands his 1997 work The Long Nineteenth Century: A History of Germany, 1780–1918, which focused on the period when Germany underwent what he calls ‘a crash course in institutional modernization under French auspices’. This new book examines how Germans have been actors in the wider world of goods, ideas and populations over the last five hundred years, and how these dynamic forces have acted on them. It is a book ‘filled with commodities – from pepper, spices, diamonds, pearls, coffee, sugar, tobacco … through the “colonial goods” of the nineteenth century and the cornucopia of cars, washing machines, and the other advertisers’ dream products of the twentieth’. And, of course, with remarkable people, for although idealist philosophy has gained a not-undeserved reputation for somewhat nebulous abstractions, the German genius is characterised by its intensely practical nature. While figures like Holbein, Hartlib and Handel were making remarkable contributions to our island culture, nameless Germans were improving navigation with maps and globes, honing surgical devices and working as all kinds of small traders and weavers (the plain-weave fabrics exported across the world used to be known as ‘osnaburgs’, after the German city of Osnabrück).
The book starts off just before the Reformation, with the advent of Gutenberg’s movable type and the printing and rapid spread of religious materials in the vernacular. ‘Printing was the German art and it was Germans who introduced it almost everywhere,’ he writes. At the end of the