Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book review of 'Three Germanies: West Germany, East Germany and The Berlin Republic'.

This book review will appear in Political Studies Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, May 2014.

Michael Gehler (2011) Three Germanies: West Germany, East Germany and The Berlin Republic. London: Reaktion Books Ltd. 330pp, £16.95 (p/b), ISBN 9781861897787

No visitor to Berlin can understand the past or future of the city without understanding its division into east and west or efforts since 1990 to reunite it putting Berlin back as not only the German capital but as one of the great capitals of Europe and the world. So too is it impossible to understand modern Germany, its place in Europe and the world and its future without reference to its previous division. Yet all too often the history of Germany since 1945 is told as separate histories of East and West. With the Cold War fading into history and Germany an increasingly ‘normal’ state this approach is clearly outdated.

Michael Gehler’s history is therefore a welcome change. His chronological history begins with the emergence of East and West Germanies and the role they played in the division of Germany and Europe. Through a comprehensive history he draws out their parallel development highlighting commonalities as much as differences. Sections on the post-1990 Berlin Republic draw the history together. There is little new, its unique contribution being a joined up history. While the book provides some social, economic and cultural history it is on the politics that it is strongest. Sadly the legacy of the Germanies from before 1933 is given cursory mention. The book will be of use to those interested in Cold War history and Germany’s place in post-1945 international relations and European integration.

The writing, translation and editing of the book do not make it an easy read. The text conveys no sense of tension, crises pass by in a matter of fact way. Even the politics can be dry and difficult to follow; I was sometimes left confused about various political events. Most annoying of all is the delivery of the book’s wide-ranging detail. Too often details of events, institutions and individuals come across as a clumsy muddle. Worryingly I tired of noting small inaccuracies. Sometimes the balance can also frustrate. For example, the Baader-Meinhof Gang receives nearly five pages of discussion while a mere two pages are spent focusing on the Stasi despite the latter daily terrorising far more Germans for far longer with a deeper lasting psychological impact. Some prior knowledge of German history would therefore be helpful. As a joined up history then it is bold and welcome. Sadly the detail of the history is too often anything but joined up.