Ulrich Herbert begins this exemplary study by observing that most outsiders see German history in the last century as the history of Hitler and the war and genocide he unleashed. Yet the Third Reich lasted for only twelve years of that period. Naturally it is hard to disentangle this brief episode from the longer history of Germany. Historians have been tempted to see the early part of the century as a prelude to Hitler’s reign and the half-century since the end of the war as a time of reckoning and coming to terms with a terrible past that refuses to go away. Among the many virtues of Herbert’s account is its emphasis on the other Germanies, both before and after Hitler’s rule, which were neither militaristic nor genocidal but much more like the rest of Europe. Only 10 per cent of Herbert’s book is devoted to the Third Reich, war and genocide.
Herbert’s central thesis concerns the problems Germany faced coming to terms with the sudden onset of ‘modernity’, which was brought about by national unification in 1871 and the rapid industrialisation and urban growth that followed, creating sprawling new cities filled with workers and employers who did not fit easily into the old society. The tensions generated by rapid change existed everywhere, but they were more difficult to cope with in Germany because it was a new state, divided by region, class and religion, in which ‘German’ identity was still in the melting pot. Under the spell of accelerated industrial growth, major scientific and technological breakthroughs (X-rays and motorcars come to mind) and the emergence of an avant-garde culture, Germany became, as Herbert puts it, ‘a laboratory for modernity’.
The crisis prompted by defeat in the First World War opened up profound divisions in German society. Differing visions of modernity competed with each other as Germans wrestled with the question of how to recover what now seemed a pre-1914 golden age. Overturning the Versailles Treaty and the shaming ‘war