Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People

Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People

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by Steven Ozment, Adam G. Beaver

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The word "German" was being used by the Romans as early as the mid–first century B.C. to describe tribes in the eastern Rhine valley. Nearly two thousand years later, the richness and complexity of German history have faded beneath the long shadow of the country's darkest hour in World War II. Now award-winning historian Steven Ozment, whom the New Yorker has

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The word "German" was being used by the Romans as early as the mid–first century B.C. to describe tribes in the eastern Rhine valley. Nearly two thousand years later, the richness and complexity of German history have faded beneath the long shadow of the country's darkest hour in World War II. Now award-winning historian Steven Ozment, whom the New Yorker has hailed as "a splendidly readable scholar," gives us the fullest portrait possible in this sweeping, original, and provocative history of the German people, from antiquity to the present, holding a mirror up to an entire civilization — one that has been alternately Western Europe's most successful and most perilous.

A Mighty Fortress boldly examines Germany's tumultuous twentieth century in light of its earliest achievements as a prosperous, civil, and moral society, tracing a line of continuity that began in ancient times and has endured through the ages, despite its enemies and itself. Ozment's story takes us from the tribes of the Roman Empire and the medieval dynasties to the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. He shows that the Germans are a people who desire national unity yet have kept themselves from it by aligning with autocratic territorial governments and regional cultures. From Luther, Kant, Goethe, and Beethoven to Marx, Einstein, Bismarck, and Hitler, the country's leading figures have always tried to become everything and more than what ordinary mortals could be. In fact, Germans living centuries apart have shared in different ways a common defining experience that is unique to their culture: a convergence of external provocation and wounded pride, and an unusual ability toexercise great power in response to both.

In this work of penetrating, virtuoso scholarship, Steven Ozment captures the soul of a nation that is at once ordered and chaotic, disciplined and obsessive, proud and uncertain. Epic in scope, refreshing in its insights, and written with nuance, acumen, and verve, A Mighty Fortress presents the history of the Germans as the story of humanity writ large.

About the Author:

Steven Ozment is McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard University and the author of The BÜrgermeister's Daughter; Flesh and Spirit; Ancestors; Protestants; and The Age of Reform, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Schaff History Prize. He lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
It takes erudition and verve to attempt a history that covers the life of a controversial people over two millennia. Harvard historian Ozment has plenty of both, yet the result is oddly unsatisfactory. Ozment (The Burgermeister's Daughter, etc.) quickly and wisely dismisses any notion that a history of Germany must be focused on the Third Reich. Instead, the travails of political disunity serve as his narrative anchor. Neither the ancient Germanic tribes nor their medieval and early modern successors could forge any long-lasting unity. Only under Bismarck did a unified political entity emerge, and it soon succumbed to visions of grandeur that resulted in two world wars and a Holocaust, renewed territorial losses and political divisions. Ozment's focus on disunity provides narrative coherence to a long, contentious and complex history, but the costs are huge. Particularly the early chapters read like "one damned thing after another" as a succession of tribal leaders, princes, kings and emperors march across the pages. So many important issues that might grasp a reader's interest are left out. There is nary a mention of economics, legal and social practices among the Germanic tribes, of women and working life. When discussing the Nazi worldview, the author has an unfortunate tendency to equate Jews and Christians as Nazi targets. It is certainly true that the Nazis were deeply anti-Christian, but the Jews were singled out for total physical annihilation. Ultimately, Ozment does not provide a history of the German people, but a tale of their rulers and a few leading intellectuals. 8 pages of b&w photos, maps not seen by PW. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The aim of this sweeping new history of Germany is to examine the whole of the German experience instead of dwelling on the dark aberration of the Third Reich. Ozment (ancient & modern history, Harvard) has authored several important works on German history, but this new book may stand as his chief legacy. In a concise and readable manner, he surveys 2000 years of German civilization, from ancient and barbarian times through the present, highlighting key political and cultural personalities along the way to add life to what could have been just a dry overview. A central theme for Ozment is that "Germans have embraced ideals of order and authority without totalitarianism, and pursued freedom and equality without liberal democracy." Their historical experience has made them more wary of anarchy rather than tyranny, and so they have relied on "good order" and discipline to guide their politics throughout the centuries. Ozment regards the Weimar Republic and National Socialism periods as "novel experiments" that must be viewed in light of the long course of German history. Both provocative and accessible, this work will have wide appeal. The final chapter, "The Composite German," which covers Germany since World War II, would be ideal for comparative government courses at the college level. Recommended for most libraries. Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"Can a more than 2000-year-old civilization be defined by its last 150 years?" The answer here appears to be a qualified yes. German history stretches into deep antiquity, writes Ozment (History/Harvard Univ.; Ancestors, 2001, etc.), though it properly fragments into tribal subcategories: the history of the Ostrogoths is not necessarily that of the Franks, the latter the subject of an uncomfortable truth-namely, that France and Germany share common ancestors in a "common barbarian past." (A French scholar who pointed this out was sentenced to jail time in his homeland.) Why, then, do the French not speak German? Perhaps because, as Ozment observes, "By the standards of the ancient world, the Germanic tribes were magnanimous in triumph, allowing Roman language, law, government, and religion-Roman Christianity-to shape medieval Europe." Ozment's survey of German history packs a vast amount of information into a comparatively few number of pages, and it hits on all the expected high points: Charlemagne's empire, the Reformation, Frederick the Great's enlightened regime, the Bismarckian union of duchies, principalities, and free states to form modern Germany, while giving plenty of weight to the darker episodes, particularly the 12-year rule of Hitler. Can all of these historical data, and particularly those of more recent vintage, be used to construct a psychobiography of the German people, as so many have tried to do before? Ozment initially resists the idea, writing, "Germans are among the most difficult Europeans to fathom and the one European people without whom the story of that civilization cannot intelligibly be told." Yet by the end of this well-told overview, he is comfortable inwriting that the "present-day German is five persons in one, three of whom remain ineradicably German" and in hazarding the opinion that Germans of the future will be, if the past is a reliable guide, less given to individualism and more inclined to order, leading to "a tighter democracy by comparison with that of today." A useful and welcome survey, though some may take issue with Ozment's generalizations. Agency: Writer's Representatives
“Readable and absorbing. An enjoyable and well-done work that is ideal for the general reader.”
The Chicago Tribune
“Clever and fascinating.”
The New Criterion
“A masterly synthesis. (It) fizzes with bold hypotheses and subtle allusions. A heroic feat of scholarship.”
The Washington Times
“Brilliant. A highly stimulating book and a pleasure to read, combining serious scholarship with verve and good storytelling.”
First Things
“Insightful. . . . Persuasive. . . . Remarkable.”

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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6.12(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.13(d)

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A Mighty Fortress

A New History of the German People
By Ozment, Steven E.

HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 0066209250

The Barbarian Complex

Roman-German Relations in Antiquity

Germanic tribes established themselves in the eastern Rhine valley by the mid–first century B.C., by which time the term "German" (Germani, Germania) was used by the Romans. At this time the tribes were neither racially uniform nor transregionally united but composites, "loose and shifting amalgams of peoples," who formed no coherent Germanic front. Quickly settling, they lived within, or along the borders of, the Roman Empire by agreement with the Romans, swapping their services as soldiers, farmers, and tax collectors for land and security. Of these tribes the Franks, Goths, and Lombards developed historical identities by allying with leading, or royal, families and embracing their genealogical myths.

In these centuries non-Germanic tribes shared a similar barbarian experience within the Roman Empire, which casts light on the Germanic. From the start polyethnic tribes, Germanic and non-, demonstrated an ability to accommodate and incorporate the ancient Roman and Byzantine worlds. Roughly five centuries after their appearance, Romanized and Christianized Germanic tribes would raise a new, middle European empire and culture from the ashes of the old Roman one. Between the rule of the Merovingian Frank Clovis in the late fifth and early sixth centuries and that of the Saxon Conrad in the early tenth, Germanic cultures melded with Greco-Roman, Roman Christian, and Byzantine to create the Western Europe we know today.

Romanizing Germans

A trail begins in 113 B.C., when a Germanic tribe, the Cimbri, crossed the Roman frontier of Noricum, modern Austria, in a typically frustrated tribal search for food and land, and for the first time confronted and defeated a Roman army. Four years later, in 109 B.C., the same tribe, joined by another, the Teutones, appeared in southern Gaul and vanquished a major Roman army sent to turn them back. In 105 B.C. the tribes returned in still greater numbers, this time defeating two consular armies in one of ancient Rome's great military losses. By this point the Romans respected the threat of the barbarians probing their frontiers and sent a powerful new army to beat them.

Among the early observers of the tribes when the migrations resumed was Julius Caesar, the recent conqueror of Gaul, who described their governance as informal and inconsistent, their society communal and egalitarian, their military tactics haphazard and "ignoble," the latter a reference to their ability to "compose" on the battlefield (that is, surprise and ambush). The tribes were ruled by "leading men" (in West German dialect, kuning, "leaders of the family"), whom the Romans variously called principes, duces, and reges. Chosen by an assembly of noble and common warriors (the tribal host), only the most outstanding men, as determined by royal birth, family service, and exceptional valor, might hold that exalted position.

Insinuation and Rebellion

Over the last decades of the old millennium and the first of the new Christian Era, the Romans diminished the threat the tribes posed by brutally punishing their forays and finding ways to divide and coopt them. Among the latter were simple human temptations. For stretches up to perhaps thirty miles on either side of the Roman frontier, Roman and Germanic people mixed regularly with one another. Roman language, culture, and politics came to the tribes on the wheels of trading carts, as Germans exchanged cattle and slaves (the booty of battle with foreign tribes) for Roman bronzes, glassware, and furs. Before contact with the Romans, tribal leaders ruled more by persuasion than by coercion and maintained social peace by equitable divisions of land and wealth within the tribe. The new wealth gained from trade with the Romans worked to stratify tribal society, setting new rich against poor and encouraging disproportionate divisions of tribal land. Rome's autocratic government and senatorial lifestyle also impressed future tribal leaders, many of whom were educated in Rome.

Another obstructive Roman tactic was to encourage intertribal conflict, to which the tribes were already predisposed. In the eyes of their enemies, the barbarians' great strength was also a great weakness—namely, their lip-smacking taste for battle, which Tacitus, with some exaggeration, described as "a reluctance to accumulate slowly by sweat ... what could be gotten quickly by the loss of a little blood." That warrior spirit turned the tribes against one another before the Romans interfered, creating intertribal fissures for their enemies to probe. Over time, devotion to factional leaders rather than to duly elected ones, and the placement of group gain over tribal welfare, created freelancing retinues within the tribes. These were tight-knit gangs that gained superior status by raiding neighboring tribes for cattle, slaves, and other wealth-producing loot. Their victims retaliated against the tribe as a whole, adding foreign aggression to the internal disruptions caused by the retinues. Such native anarchy and tyranny also gave the Romans a foothold within the tribes, allowing them to bypass the protective order of leading men and warrior assemblies.

Finally the Romans sought to have their way with the tribes by transplanting the sons of leading men to Rome, where, to their material benefit, they grew up as Romans. Such transplantation was both by invitation and by hostage taking. Selected elite barbarians were in this way Romanized, many thereafter residing in Rome for the remainder of their lives, while others returned to their homelands as assimilated servants of the Roman Empire. It would be too much to call these repatriated tribesmen brainwashed, since as a rule they served the Roman Empire willingly, gaining new land and wealth for themselves while continuing to enjoy membership in the cosmopolitan Roman world. Where these pro-Roman chieftains survived their tribal enemies, they also helped make the barbarian world less threatening to Romans. As a result of such tactics and measures, most barbarians, Germanic and non-, living along or within the Roman frontiers, chose service over challenge before the fourth century ...


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Meet the Author

Steven Ozment is McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard University and the author of The Bürgermeister's Daughter; Flesh and Spirit; Ancestors; Protestants; and The Age of Reform, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Schaff History Prize. He lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

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Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For one volume this is a decent overview of German History from the time of Arminius to around 2003 or so. The last chapter is weak, and the author's predictions are a bit Utopian and filled with absurd nominalizations. It also would have been helpful for the author to be less lazy and have a decent bibliography, rather than the notes section at the end. Knowing many Germans, some of the pretentious paragraphs were good for a few laughs when I read some of them to them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am neither a German scholar nor do I speak the language. I have been to Germany numerous times on business and appreciate the 'new' Germany and agree with Ozmen about Germany avoiding the independent type individual, I also found his description of the various boundary formations of the German states and the history of the Holy Romany Empire to be enlightening and appreciated that the complete history is in one book. But I was dismally displeased and disturbed with his almost nonchalent treatment of the Jews during the Nazi period. He gave Hitler a historical, rational reason for Hitler's hatred of the Jews¿which is at variance with the same Hitler that Ozment, himself, describes in his brief bio of Hitler¿a man of the street, a hawker who knew how to inspire/incite a crowd. Not a thinker, but an unhappy, driven street pol. I also regret that he did not discuss in any detail the poor, conservative-based economic policies of Von Hindenburg, which probably helped set the stage for Hitler. Aside from that, while reading the part about Niezsche, I felt I was reading the inspirational source for the neocons around Bush.