...invigorating ... In tracking down the variations of the German nation 'in its time,' Mr. Smith’s most original tools are maps: not metaphorical maps but actual maps ... Although Mr. Smith’s imaginative use of maps adds a new dimension to this account of Germany’s development, his work is primarily an exercise in intellectual history ... There is much to like about this book. If this is an old story, it is told in a new way. Germany: A Nation in Its Time is elegantly written and distinguished by sharp insights. Anyone interested in how, during the 20th century, the history of Germany came to be so horrible will be stimulated and entertained, if periodically appalled.
This magisterial study addresses the central question in modern German history: How and why did the country embrace a racial and cultural nationalism that ultimately led to war and genocide? ... for the last 75 years, Germans have developed what Smith describes as a 'compassionate, empathetic realism about belonging.' The 'nationalist age,' from 1914 to 1945, when the politics of identity turned horribly violent, is thus an exception. Smith describes its excesses—from the slaughter on the eastern front to the Holocaust—in moving detail, but he seems, like many historians before him, somewhat baffled by their ultimate cause.
In his absorbing and enlightening new book...the historian Helmut Walser Smith makes a convincing case that nations undergo so many complex changes that it is nonsense to assume that any particular period—including Hitler’s Third Reich—is wholly determined by the past, let alone a very distant past ... Smith argues that German nationalism resulted not from a long history of belligerence, but from a sense of failure and humiliation going back no further than Napoleon’s conquests ... The question Smith fails to ask is why, at a time when anti-Semitism was endemic throughout Europe, it became the dominant ideology only in Germany ... Though there is much to admire in Smith’s history, he is least sure-footed when discussing the twentieth century.
Smith rejects the notion that German history is the story of militant nationalism marching toward genocide, and instead focuses on cartographers intellectuals who, prior to 1918, often described the landscape and ethnography of Germany in pacifistic terms. This new perspective on German history should be welcomed by all libraries.
Even though Germans are now resolute internationalists, Smith concludes, there are troubling rumblings of a reborn nationalism in opposition to the German government’s comparatively open-door policy toward immigrants and refugees, so that 'public discourse now seems increasingly rife with prejudice toward outsiders' ... Fruitful reading for students of modern European history and the rise of nationalism.
Vanderbilt University history professor Smith...traces shifting concepts of the German nation across five centuries in this dense and erudite account ... Smith’s lucid prose and insightful character sketches keep the deluge of names, dates, and border realignments from becoming too disorienting. Readers with a deep interest in the evolution of modern Europe will relish this thorough revisionist history.