Friday, 23 August 2013

German bookshops, not like those at home

I went to Hamburg last week and was well intentioned to drop money on some books on the Befreiungskriege in 1813 as a context for the Waterloo campaign, the Prussian army of 1815 and how the remembrance of the Befreiungskriege and Leipzig in particular compare to that of Waterloo and the 100 Days Campaign. This is all the more interesting because Prussia (and some other German states) were the only ones involved in both battles.

Okay, five books on the Befreiungskriege is not all bad,
but the quality is mixed

The German brick & mortar book retail trade is dominated by the Thalia chain, which offers nice spacious stores with a reasonable general audience stock, including sizeable foreign language sections, and some local variance. However, their English language history section is as big as the German one.

The history sections of the independent book sellers I visited were comparable in size and scope, with the exception of the Heinrich Heine bookshop near Hamburg University, which was sadly renovating so it had only a small but interesting history selection on display. 

While the two big tomes are serious books for a broad audience, they differ in scope. Platthaus' a lively record of the actual battle, Krause's looking at the whole era of Prussian reform and ousting of French influence. Gabriele Hoffmann's book on the fate of Hamburg in 1813 and 1814 under the heel of Marshal Davout offers warm portraits of leading and not so leading participants through their private correspondence. Especially the contrast of Davout's harsh official commitment to the Napoleonic cause and his devoted but also business like relationship with his wife has struck me.

The two smaller books offer shorter introductions on the battle of Leipzig and Freiherr vom Stein. Von Stein was not only the reformer of Prussia after the 1806 defeat, but also the administrator of the areas 'liberated' by the allies in 1813. As such he had enormous influence on events behind the front in Germany, and the perspective of his regime will ahve influenced the choice of Dutch rebels against Napoleon in late 1813.

Colonial, Weimar and the mobilised nation

As a secondary objective, I was looking for books on WWI which, although in torpor, is still a topic a fancy taking on at some point in the future. But even a year before the commemoration starts, bookshops are eerily silent. Yes, lots of stuff on WWII, the Holocaust. Also lots of stuff on Prussia (general history) and Frederick the Great in particular. But the 1800-1923 period almost seems not to have happened.

Guido Knopp's history of Germany's overseas empire gives an interesting and well illustrated overview of Germany's 'Places in the Sun' in Africa and the Pacific, while also venturing into those promoting colonial expansion in Germany. The small Reclam series of cheap editions of classic books offers a bargain, which I could not resist an in depth history of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, which combined chronologic with thematic chapters. Lastly, Lutz Raphael's book looks at the social and political consequences of national mobilisation in Europe in both world wars and in between. Refreshing to have such a broad spectrum book from a non-Anglo-Saxon perspective.

I finally picked up a nice essay on the nature of war by French  philosopher Myriam Reveault d'Allonnes and an intreaguing book on the Art of Capitulation. It looks at the structure of society and war aims and how they determine the ending of wars. Could prove an interesting counterpoint to James Whitman's The Verdict of Battle and Russell Weigly's The Age of Battles. I have my problems with the concept of decisive battles, and these books give me some perspective.

Sadly, too little time
And finally a recommendation if you get to Hamburg and you're a military history buff and like in depth stuff on German (WW2) tanks, aircraft and ships. At the Bernhardt second hand book store you should have a field day. There´s much more than just WW2, but you catch my drift. It´s at Johanniswall 3, within 5-10 minutes walk from the Hauptbahnhof. Sadly not enough time and not on my subjects so I left empty handed.

So I was a bit disappointed with what I could pick up on my preferred subjects, but I ended up with a nice stack anyway.

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