David Blackbourn

David Blackbourn’s books include The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany.

Princes, Counts and Racists: Weimar

David Blackbourn, 19 May 2016

In March 1932​, Thomas Mann visited Weimar in central Germany. For the last thirty years of the 18th century, this modestly sized town was home to Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Wieland, but by the 1930s it had become a hotbed of the radical right. ‘The admixture of Hitlerism and Goethe affects one strangely,’ Mann wrote in ‘Meine Goethereise’. ‘Of course,...

He speaks too loud: Brecht

David Blackbourn, 3 July 2014

In​ his Svendborg Poems, written in exile in Denmark in the 1930s, Brecht wrote: ‘In the dark times/Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing/About the dark times.’ His life was shaped by these dark times. He came of age during the First World War, became a successful writer in the years before Hitler’s rise to power, spent 16 years as an...

Great Man: Humboldt

David Blackbourn, 16 June 2011

Alexander von Humboldt was once called the last man who knew everything, the last generalist before an age of specialisation definitively set in. His work ranged across geography, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, climatology, chemistry, astronomy, demography, ethnography and political economy. When he died in 1859, at the age of 89, he enjoyed cult status as a scientific hero and genius....

In the Opposite Direction: Enzensberger

David Blackbourn, 25 March 2010

Poet, essayist, political commentator, dramatist for radio and stage, influential editor and publisher, Hans Magnus Enzensberger is one of Germany’s leading public intellectuals. He belongs to the same generation as Günter Grass and Jürgen Habermas, although he has been less bien pensant, less predictable, than either. His early poetry, lyric verse with a strong political...

Black Legends: Prussia

David Blackbourn, 16 November 2006

Too much history can be bad for you. ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ – that was Marx’s famous comment on France in 1848. When Nietzsche elaborated on the same idea in one of his ‘untimely meditations’, he had Germany in mind, the Prussia-writ-large created under the auspices of Bismarck. We have...

Over the long term, Germans have made a good job of confronting the criminal, genocidal character of the Third Reich. Historical writing, schoolbooks, literary works, public and political debate all point to an engagement with the years 1933-45 that came earlier and was more intense than anything we find in Japan, or in Austria, self-styled ‘first victim’ of National Socialism....

In Icy Baltic Waters: Gunter Grass

David Blackbourn, 27 June 2002

On the night of 30 January 1945, the former cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk off the Pomeranian coast after being hit by three torpedoes fired from a Soviet Navy submarine. The ship was carrying German refugees fleeing west before the advancing Red Army. As many as nine thousand people lost their lives (six times the death toll of the Titanic), including four thousand children and...

What happened last November in Florida diverted attention from Ralph Nader’s part in the outcome of the Presidential election. In Florida itself, where every vote mattered (I won’t say counted), he garnered 100,000 of them. And in New Hampshire, the only state in the North-East that Gore failed to carry – a state whose three electoral votes would have made him President even...

The Greatest Warlord: Hitler

David Blackbourn, 22 March 2001

Every reader of Don DeLillo’s White Noise remembers the academic niche that the main character has carved out for himself. As Jack Gladney tells it, ‘when I suggested to the chancellor that we might build a whole department around Hitler’s life and work, he was quick to see the possibilities. It was an immediate and electrifying success.’ Others were equally impressed...

Bitter as never before: Einstein

David Blackbourn, 3 February 2000

On Einstein’s 50th birthday in 1929, the chemist Fritz Haber wrote to him: ‘In a few centuries the common man will know our time as the period of the World War, but the educated man will connect the first quarter of the century with your name.’ This salute from one German-Jewish Nobel laureate to another was written six months before the Wall Street Crash helped to make National Socialism a mass movement, and it introduces some of Fritz Stern’s central themes. They include the impact of the First World War, which we can now see as the foundational event in the history of the short 20th century, the nature of scientific achievement in an age when science lost its innocence (but not its association with ‘educated men’), and that hardy perennial, the German-Jewish symbiosis. The mood of this essay collection is elegiac. The German edition was called Verspielte Grösse, or ‘Lost Greatness’, with the implication of something that has been gambled away. That something was the prospect of a ‘German century’, ended by what Stern calls a ‘stoppable self-destruction’.‘

How Wicked – Horrid: Two Duff Kings

David Blackbourn, 15 July 1999

To his mother, the daughter of Queen Victoria, he was ‘Willie’, or ‘Willy’. His sister Charlotte, with characteristic charm, gave him the pet name ‘Nigger’. To the British, the man who ruled Germany as Wilhelm II from his accession in 1888 until his abdication thirty years later has always been simply ‘the Kaiser’. Wilhelm has never attracted biographers in the same numbers as Bismarck or Hitler, but no fewer than three Anglo-Saxon historians have tried their hand recently. Thomas Kohut gave us Wilhelm II and the Germans in 1991; Lamar Cecil needed two books to capture the life, the second published in 1996. Now comes John Röhl, with the first of three projected volumes. Wilhelm himself, to whom modesty was always a mysterious idea, would doubtless have been pleased by the thought of a thousand-page doorstopper devoted to his youth. It is unlikely that he would have enjoyed its contents.‘

No Fun: Heinrich and Thomas Mann

David Blackbourn, 15 October 1998

Twenty years ago Nigel Hamilton wrote a double biography of the literary Brothers Mann, giving equal billing to the celebrated Thomas and the neglected Heinrich. It was certainly time to look again at Heinrich, whose importance as a public and literary figure had been taken for granted by an earlier generation of writers. Gottfried Benn called him ‘one of my gods’; Lion Feuchtwanger thought him the greatest of the writers who had set out not only to depict the 20th century but to change it. Hamilton made a strong case that Heinrich Mann deserved to be remembered as more than just the author of the book on which The Blue Angel was based.‘

How was it for you?

David Blackbourn, 30 October 1997

John Le Carré called it ‘the Abteilung’, but the real name of the East German foreign intelligence department was the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung, or Main Intelligence Directorate, and the man who ran it for almost 34 years was Markus Wolf. When the Berlin Wall fell, three years after his retirement in 1986, Wolf was courted by other intelligence services – West German, American, even Israeli – who hoped to exploit his vulnerable position. Instead he went to Moscow. Returning after the failed August coup of 1991, he was eventually tried in a Düsseldorf court and found guilty of treason. But the sentence was overturned by the German Supreme Court, on the grounds (argued by Wolf and his lawyer all along) that he could not be convicted of treason against a state of which he had not been a citizen. Now a star of the talk-show circuit, Wolf has produced a book that artfully blends cloak-and-dagger with apologia.’‘

Axeman as Ballroom Dancer

David Blackbourn, 17 July 1997

In future times people will look back on the death penalty as a piece of barbarity just as we now look back on torture.’ These confident words were spoken by a member of the 1848 Frankfurt Parliament, which voted amid cheers to abolish capital punishment, except in military law. By the spring of 1849 it had been ended in a score of German states, including Prussia. Like the liberty trees and torchlit processions that greeted the outbreak of revolution, ending capital punishment was a symbolic act. It was intended to mark the end of princely arbitrariness, show the state’s respect for human life and provide the cornerstone to a new, higher morality.

‘Famous for its Sausages’

David Blackbourn, 2 January 1997

‘Poor in deeds and rich in thoughts’ – that was Friedrich Hölderlin’s lament about his fellow Germans two hundred years ago. In one form or another the idea became familiar. Germany in the 19th century acquired a reputation as the land of poets and thinkers (the phrase was coined by Jean Paul), something that foreign observers viewed with a mixture of condescension and respect. Many Germans reacted more bitterly. Gervinus, Freiligrath and Börne were among the writers who likened Germany to Hamlet, a comparison instantly understood in a country that had come to regard Shakespeare as one of its own. Germans knew all about des Gedankens Blässe – the pale cast of thought. Others played on the same theme. For Heinrich Heine the Germans reigned supreme only ‘in the realm of dreams’; Marx sneered that they had only thought what other peoples had done. These contemporary cadences were surely in the mind of a modern historian, Rolf Engelsing, when he suggested that Britain had produced an industrial revolution, France a political revolution, Germany a mere reading revolution.’

When in Bed

David Blackbourn, 19 October 1995

Norbert Elias died in Amsterdam in 1990, shortly after his 93rd birthday. His achievements were recognised only late in life. He was 57 when he first gained a permanent university post, and his work was not widely known until the late Sixties. When the recognition came it was abundant, however: honorary doctorates, prizes and decorations from European governments. Far from basking in this acclaim, Elias stepped up his output, writing more books in his eighties than in all his previous decades put together. He also acquired disciples, especially in the Netherlands and Germany, who tended the flame after 1990 by issuing unfinished fragments and materials, such as Reflections on a Life. This contains a biographical interview first published in Dutch, and Elias’s ‘Notes on a Lifetime’, which originally appeared in German.

Uses for Horsehair

David Blackbourn, 9 February 1995

Goethe, Heine and Wilhelm von Humboldt did it, although not Wagner; Clemenceau did it on 22 different occasions; characters in Maupassant, Turgenev, Fontane and Schnitzler did it. In 19th-century Europe practically everyone was doing it, except the English. We are talking about fighting duels.

Theme-Park Prussia

David Blackbourn, 24 November 1994

In 1947, the Allied Control Commission pronounced the death of Prussia, symbol of militarism and knee-jerk obedience, and alleged progenitor of Nazism. It has stayed dead. The GDR was never, as some liked to believe, the continuation of Prussia by other means. Junker estates were broken up, and Prussia was distributed among the Poles and Russians as well as the Germans. Recent events are unlikely to change any of that. Restitution of property almost certainly does not apply to the former estates, and the Oder-Neisse line is fixed. Leningrad may have become St Petersburg again, but Wroclaw will not revert to Breslau. Meanwhile, the Hohenzollerns have much less chance of staging a comeback than several Ruritanian dynasties with an equally grubby record. Lord Vansittart and A.J.P. Taylor can rest easily in their graves.

Nazi Votes

David Blackbourn, 1 November 1984

Every picture tells a story – even the illustrations on the covers of books. Michael Kater’s cover shows a rather shabby, cabbage-patch Hitler attending a harvest festival in 1936, receiving the salutes of a crowd in which the faces of adoring women are prominent. The image is both revealing and misleading. The peasant costumes certainly alert us to the affinities between Nazism and provincial kitsch, and Hitler’s studied geniality also reminds us of his extraordinary personal popularity, always much greater than that of the party as a whole or of its other leaders. But the illustration is more likely to mislead if it reinforces the popular idea of a Hitler cult among women. Jill Stephenson, writing in the collection of essays edited by Peter Stachura, disposes effectively of what one recent writer has called ‘the sacrificial willingness of women to be Hitler’s devotees’. The complex and changing position of women in the Third Reich admits of no such conclusion, while it is certain that before 1933 women always gave less electoral support to National Socialism than men. Hitler would have done better without female suffrage, just as he would have done better in 1932 with first-past-the-post elections rather than PR.’

The Big Show

David Blackbourn, 3 March 1983

While Syberberg was making this film, over three thousand West German schoolchildren were asked to write an essay on the subject ‘What I have heard about Adolf Hitler’. The wording was not intended to elicit a prepared answer, but to trawl the everyday fragments and commonplaces gleaned by the children from parents and neighbours. The results prompted widespread hand-wringing in the serious press. Hitler’s birth was variously placed between the 16th century and 1933, his nationality given as Swiss, Dutch and Italian, his politics as Communist and Christian Democratic. Alongside sharp and telling detail (‘No more bicycle thefts’) came involuntary testimony to thoughts which had been put out of mind: the Jews had ‘had their ears boxed’; some had been killed (‘many hundreds’, ‘several thousand’), but they had asked for it, and anyway the Germans were not the only ones. Unacknowledged guilt perhaps explains why Hellmut Diwald’s reassuringly apologetic Geschichte der Deutschen was a recent best-seller. It certainly reinforces the moral imperative behind this film and explains some of Syberberg’s lyrical intensity. Mad Germany has hurt him into poetry, as it did Heine, quoted at the beginning and the end of the film. Syberberg wants to confront Germans with their collective responsibility for Hitler, conceiving his art as a ‘work of mourning’. As Susan Sontag notes in her introduction to this book of the film, he is close to the position of Alexander and Margarethe Mitscherlich, who argued in The Inability to Mourn that the Germans remain the victims of a collective melancholia which follows from their refusal to accept and work through the grief of their own recent history.

Imagined Soil: The German War on Nature

Neal Ascherson, 6 April 2006

‘All history is the history of unintended consequences, but that is especially true when we are trying to untangle humanity’s relationship with the natural environment,’ David...

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