Book Review: Germany Since 1945

By Pol O'Dochartaigh


Germany since 1945 is a concise and readable overview of German post-war history. Beginning with defeat and division in the immediate post-war period, East and West Germany are presented side-by-side. This decision to examine in parallel developments in the capitalist and state-socialist Germany works remarkably well: not only does it allow O’Dochartaigh to incorporate developments in Deutschlandpolitik into a broader narrative of political, economic and social change, it also throws similarities and contrasts between the two states into sharper relief.

Price: £ 19.99
ISBN: 0333964721
Publication Date: 2003
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The period 1949–61 is described as ‘economic success while cementing division’; the 1960s see the GDR and FRG take ‘separate paths’; the early-to-mid 1970s promise ‘new beginnings’ in the shape of Ostpolitik and Honecker’s reforms; and for the period from 1977–89, the emergence of ‘two nations’ is mooted. For O’Dochartaigh, post-war German history is a story of interdependence. ‘The GDR’, he writes, ‘tried to be a whole country and failed’. West Germany, for all its laudable attempts to overcome the legacy of Nazism’s ‘murderous narcissism’, could also only ever be ‘half a country’.
O’Dochartaigh provides a comprehensive introduction to the subject, and the user-friendly layout, clear style and useful maps are particularly welcome. Any student looking for a guide to the political machinations of the 1980s, or a concise summary of attitudes towards reunification will greet this book with pleasure. The concluding chapter, on united Germany since 1990, is a particular strength, bringing the reader past the 2002 elections as far as the build-up to war in Iraq in 2003. The appendices are an invaluable resource, covering federal election results from 1949–2002, holders of high political office in East and West, neo-Nazi electoral successes, recent state election results, and a comparison of eastern and western voting behaviour since 1990.

Inevitably, in such a concise book not all areas can be given equal weighting. In this case, it is social and cultural history that comes up a little short, unsurprisingly given the amount of political ground covered. The uneasy social stabilization and (relative) prosperity of the GDR in the 1960s get little mention. In the case of West Germany, both the socio-economic roots of 1968, and its long-term social effects are neglected in favour of more purely political factors. Of course, all surveys have their imbalances: here, football gets four mentions in the index, feminism none. However, a great strength of this book is its willingness to go beyond the familiar tropes of economic prosperity and the legacy of Nazism: O’Dochartaigh is excellent on environmental politics, and a section on foreigners in post-1989 Germany covers the issues of asylum, ethnic Germans and citizenship law.

Given that this book is aimed at undergraduates, it is a real pity that historiography does not receive more attention. Suggestions for further reading are limited to a fairly brief bibliography at the end of the book and references in the text are often to other English language syntheses. To give just one example: in view of this book’s comparative approach, it seems a shame not to draw the reader’s attention to Uta Poiger’s and Elisabeth Heinemann’s groundbreaking cross-border studies on popular music and single mothers in East and West. Surveys such as this one are a jumping-off point for the student, not an end in themselves, and would be greatly improved by the inclusion of suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter. However, responsibility for this should perhaps be laid at the feet of the editors of the series, ‘Studies in Contemporary History’, to which this book belongs.
A stronger historiographical element might also have enabled a broader comparative perspective. The confines of the book’s format mean that events in Germany tend to be treated in isolation. A discussion of the extent to which trends such as consumerism, environmentalism, or hostility towards asylum seekers should be seen as specifically German, or as reflective of European developments, could have profitably been included. Nevertheless, this book is a fine introduction to post-war Germany and will surely find many appreciative readers, both as an introductory text and as a
reference tool.