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The Course of German History

James Joll attempts to unearth the deep roots of modern Germany.

The study of foreign history presents particular problems, and nowhere more than in the case of Germany. Yet German history has a curious attraction: the more so because of its impact on our lives. The spectacle of the physical and moral collapse of a highly organized society in 1945 was an unforgettable one, and must have drawn many people, as it did the present writer, into an attempt at historical explanation. It was not only the Third Reich which had collapsed; many of the foundations of the Bismarckian Empire had crumbled. The industrial centres of Germany were at a standstill. The territorial divisions between the traditional states of Germany were being replaced by the boundaries between the lines of advance of the victorious Allied armies; vast areas in the East were being cut off and their populations expelled. If anything could be called the end of an epoch, it seemed to be this.

Yet in fact more survived the collapse than at the time one thought possible. The course of German history continues with one more catastrophe added to a long list. To understand contemporary Western Germany one has to go back beyond 1945, beyond Hitler and even beyond Bismarck, and to understand political events one has also to understand traditional psychological attitudes. One has, to take an example again from 1945, to reconcile the picture of a nation capable of the concentration camps and the destruction of the Jewish people with that of a number of simple and industrious individuals piecing together with amazing patience and skill some kind of life amid the ruins of their cities and the destruction of their homes. Here is a challenge to the historian’s psychological insight as well as to his specifically historical skill.

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