The Third Reich hovers over German history.

Despite the careful, intelligent research conducted by countless scholars in numerous disciplines, those 12 years remain in some essential way incomprehensible. How, we ask—without ever being able to provide a truly satisfying answer—could more or less ordinary human beings have done what they did to other human beings in an attempt to create a racial utopia?

Because its unprecedented horror continues to escape our understanding, the Third Reich has colored how historians have looked at the entire history of modern Germany. The centuries before 1933 are seen—on some, often hidden, level—as paving the way to the Third Reich. The events of the decades since 1945 are seen, usually more explicitly, as somehow in reaction to the Third Reich. Indeed, after the mid-1960s, Germans themselves increasingly sought to come to terms with this horrific chapter in the history of their country and, in a great many cases, the history of their own families.

People living before 1933, however, did not live their lives in the expectation that the history they were experiencing and creating was heading toward the Holocaust—not even those who were National Socialists. Writing the history of Germany before 1933 as if its inevitable goal were the Third Reich distorts the history of modern Germany and reduces the richness and variety of the German past; there were many aspects—important and influential aspects—of the history of Germany that did not lead to Nazism, world war, and genocide. What is more, to view the history of modern Germany as leading inevitably to the Third Reich distorts our understanding of the Third Reich itself.

Nevertheless, even though German-speaking people did not realize that Germany’s history was heading toward the Holocaust, they too had a sense of history—expectations about the future based on past experience, present circumstance, their assumptions, hopes, and ideals.

For many 19th-century Germans, those expectations focused on the creation of a German nation-state, a polity that would include most, perhaps all, of those people who were ethnically and culturally German. That is to say, Germans themselves viewed their own history (that which was already past and what was yet to come) as moving in one coherent and consistent direction toward a future goal. The teleology of the people of the past, then, has encouraged historians to write the history of Germany teleologically—as leading inevitably to the nation-state, the Germany unified under Prussian auspices in 1871, and then to Nazi Germany.

William Hagen consciously seeks to avoid making the Third Reich, or even the nation-state, the end of German history. He rejects deterministic master narratives, although he identifies those that have defined German history and he explains their origins in (and consequences for) the history of modern Germany, as Germans themselves sought to make sense of the worlds in which they lived. But, as Hagen makes clear, Germans identified with different historical narratives at different times, and even at the same time. There was not one German history and one Germany, but multiple German histories and Germanys, all actual and possible. There were competing conceptions of what it meant to be “German.”

Hagen presents “a picture .  .  . not of a single Germany evolving through time, but a succession of polycentric national existences constituted both by commonalities and contentions.” And these national existences did not develop autonomously but “in continuous dialogue .  .  . with Europe, and eventually with America as well.”

Hagen presents four epochs—“four lives of the nation,” or what he calls four “German-speaking life worlds.” The first of these began around 1500 and came to an end with the French Revolution. This epoch can be defined as “the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation,” a political and administrative unit—not an ethnic collective—that represented and served the interests of transnational social, political, and cultural elites. With the advent of the Enlightenment and the emergence of centralized, national monarchies, this transnational administrative and political unit increasingly lost authority and significance, and three or four coexisting and competing “life worlds” emerged that, in the succeeding epoch, would become 19th-century conservatism, the 19th-century power state, 19th-century liberalism, and 19th-century Romanticism and historicism.

This second epoch identified by Hagen was the nationalistic and liberal life world of the 19th century that came to an end with the outbreak of war in 1914. With nationalism and liberalism brought together in the concept of national self-determination, ethnic identity was assumed to be the natural basis of political nationhood. This second epoch saw the halting and incomplete establishment of a unified Germany. Although the German Empire established under Prussian auspices in 1871 contained many ethnic Germans, it also included non-German speakers and excluded many ethnic Germans, particularly those living in Austria. And, in contrast to the expectation of German nationalists, it was decidedly illiberal.

The multiethnic Austro-Hungarian empire, for its part, was challenged by ethnic nationalism, the expectation and demand that the nation-state include all the members of a single ethnic group. The impossibility of founding ethnically pure nation-states in central Europe, the increasingly obvious fact that liberalism and nationalism were not (as had been assumed) synonymous, the growing power of the industrial working class, and with it the emergence of international socialism led to increasing internal and international tensions that came to a head in August 1914 with the outbreak of World War I.

The year 1914 thus brought the second epoch to an end and ushered in Hagen’s third epoch—the years of crisis between 1914 and 1945—which saw the German nations and national ideologies of the previous epoch destroy themselves in orgies of violence and death. Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary both collapsed in 1918 to be replaced by the weak democratic national governments of the Austrian and German republics. These republics, in turn, did not survive the economic and political turmoil of the 1920s, and were ultimately replaced by Adolf Hitler’s dictatorial state, which sought to unify Germans along racial, rather than ethnic, lines. The Third Reich lasted a mere 12 years before its catastrophic collapse in a genocidal world war launched to secure living space and a vast European empire for racially suitable Aryans.

Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945 gave rise to the final epoch defined by Hagen—the period lasting until the present day. Unlike their 19th- and early 20th-century predecessors, the two postwar Germanys were not based on ethnicity or race but on their economic, social, and political systems and on their alliances with the United States (in the case of the Federal Republic of Germany) and the Soviet Union (in the case of the German Democratic Republic). With the reunification of Germany in 1990, a new Germany emerged—not a nation defined by ethnicity, but “a citizen’s community,” with multiethnic and even post-ethnic identities. With the partial and not unproblematic integration of Germany into Europe, contemporary Germany can be characterized, according to Hagen, as something of a post-national polity.

A historical narrative that has a clear end goal, whether it be the nation-state or the Third Reich and the Holocaust, has the advantage of being consistent and coherent, and readers know where they are heading from the start. By eschewing that consistent and coherent story, and presenting contradiction and conflict in each of his four German life worlds, Hagen may frustrate readers who seek the power and clarity of traditional historical narrative. Instead of linear, inevitable history, he presents a polycentric, multiethnic, and contingent history. Coherence is provided more impressionistically, through the interrelationship of the various aspects of political, social, economic, and cultural life in each epoch.

Hagen presents readers with a historical mosaic. Indeed, his epochs are brought to visual life in the countless images that make up nearly half of the book. Through text and images, Hagen re-creates worlds of experience and does so in a dispassionate, reasonable, and readable way.

In part, perhaps, because the Third Reich is not treated as the inevitable outcome of the course of German history, but as one of several possible outcomes, Hagen’s treatment of National Socialist Germany is particularly fine. Indeed, I cannot think of a better brief account of the nature of the Nazi state and society—of the appeal of the racial community of the Volk, of the war to secure living space in Eastern Europe and its attendant genocide.

Here, as throughout, German History in Modern Times is balanced and, above all, sensible. Hagen incorporates the most recent historical scholarship and brings the reader up to the present day, including the financial crisis, the unexpected rise of the Pirate party, and the euro crisis. This is a superb, comprehensive, and comprehensible history of Germany, which was never, in Hagen’s words, “a monolithic unity.” Efforts to create such a unity by historical actors, most notably by the National Socialists, brought suffering, death, and destruction. The efforts of historians to see German history as evolving towards such a unity obscures the various actual and possible Germanys, the diversity and heterogeneity of central European life that, in the end, make the history of Germany, as presented here, so fascinating.

Thomas A. Kohut, the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III professor of history at Williams, is the author, most recently, of

A German Generation: An Experiential History of the Twentieth Century.

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