books Archive

3 German History books being read by Germans

I have read and reviewed several German History books here on the site and of course they were always of my choosing, irrespective of the books’ popularity or newness.  When trying to come up with a book list for 2010, one of the questions I asked myself was, “What are the Germans themselves reading these days about their own history?”  

Because that is somewhat of an interesting question, I thought that it could, in itself, become the topic of at least one blog post.

So here I present to you the top three German History books — in the German language — being ordered at Amazon’s German store (  Of course, the Amazon ranking will likely have changed by the time you read this, so I’ll be specific and say that these are the top three as of 23:00 CET on 07 January 2010. Also, to be clear, I have not read any of these three books yet.

Here goes:

Guido Knopp, Die Sternstunden der Deutschen.  The title can be roughly translated as “The Germans’ Greatest Moments” (I enjoyed reading the commentary at the LEO online dictionary about how to translate “Sternstunde”.  Perhaps “Sidereal Moments” would be better? ;))  Knopp is a journalist/historian who has had a long string of successful television documentaries in Germany, in addition to several books (many of which have made it into English).  From its description, I see that this book celebrates German achievements such as the mass production and availability of  aspirin (Bayer is a German company), the introduction of health insurance, etc.  In all, one hundred events are chronicled, finishing up with the 2007 Academy Award given to the film “The Lives of Others” (also available at Amazon UK, CA and DE).  

As the description on the book’s Amazon page makes clear, only positive events are chronicled in this particular book.  I assure you Knopp cannot be accused of being a glorifier of German history — he’s also published books with titles such as Hitler’s Henchmen and The SS: A Warning from History.

When I saw that this book is tops in the German history category at, I realized that I’ve been seeing quite a bit more of this type of thing — celebrations of Germany — over the last few years.  I know some commentators have noted that Germany’s hosting of the 2006 World Cup — the Sommermärchen, or Summer Fairy Tale, as it’s called by Germans — may have marked a turning point in the German people’s perception of itself.  I lived here in neighboring Austria — with lots of German television — during that World Cup and I can say without a doubt that it was a very positive experience in which the Germans took great pride.

Anne Frank, Anne Frank Tagebuch.  This is, as you no doubt guessed, Anne Frank’s Diary (also at Amazon UK and CA.)  

I think you all know about this book!  Have you read it lately?  If you read it many years ago in school, you should know that the later editions might have material that you didn’t originally see, so it’s worth a fresh look.

I don’t think there is any kind of external factor — such as a film — pushing this book’s popularity right now in Germany, so I’m guessing it’s probably always among the top few in the German history category at

[UPDATE: I think it’s important to point out that, while I can understand why the book might appear in the “German History” category at — in addition to other categories, I would hope –, Anne Frank actually kept this diary while living in Holland and writing in Dutch, her family having fled Germany.]

And finally, Richard von Weizsäcker, Der Weg zur Einheit.  This book, the title of which translates to “The Road to Unity”, is Richard von Weizsäcker’s political memoir.  Weizsäcker served as the President (head of state) of Germany from 1984 to 1994, a decade which included the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the re-unification of the two Germanies (West and East) into a single Federal Republic of Germany (1990).  In their description of the book, the editors point out that Weizsäcker belongs to that ever-diminishing group which they describe as the “last veterans who saw the most important moments of recent German history with their own eyes” (my translation.)

Weiszäcker was 12 years old when Hitler took power in 1933, he served in the German army during the Second World War and later became an influential CDU politician, culminating in his two terms as president.  So he has indeed seen a lot of German history with his own eyes, and I’m sure his memoir therefore makes for good reading.  Unfortunately, it appears to be available only in German.

So there you have it, the three most popular German History books at Amazon’s Germany site.  The first celebrates German accomplishments, of which we know there are many.  The second represents tragedy and remembrance.  The third, I imagine, shines a light on both the awful and the promising notes of 20th Century German history.

Keep reading!


Bill Dawson

Mary Fulbrook, “Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989″

Mary Fulbrook, “Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989″

By her own telling, Prof. Dr. Mary Fulbrook (University College London) conceived of the idea of writing a GDR history already in the early 1980s. I’m sure at the time she thought of some of the inherent difficulties in telling the story of a society that was, relative to the West, rather closed.

Then came 1989 and the years thereafter, when an explosion of material became available. I would guess that the sudden mountains of documents were rather daunting to specialists in German history. But Fulbrook waded through them and came out with this excellent history in 1995.

The book is divided into three sections: “The Contours of Domination”, wherein the party and state security apparatus are discussed, as well as extra-party organizations or communities (Church, labor union, academia etc.) that helped maintain control in areas where the party did not reach; “Patterns of Popular Compliance and Constraint”, where the opinions of the general populace are taken into consideration, as well as some of the Party’s strategies to mould its citizens; and “Challenges to Domination”, which begins with the June 1953 uprising and recounts some other more minor instances of uprising, then leading in to the 1980s, when the dissent took root, became more open and eventually led (as one factor) to the downfall of the regime.

It’s easy for works of history to be too dry for (shall we say) common consumption, particularly those histories that are more "scholarly" than "popular", as is the case with this book. One device that can bring the reader in early — “hook him”, so to speak — is to start off with a good human-interest story. Fulbrook does precisely this by opening the book as follows:

On Wednesday, 21 September 1961, Sieglinde M., a sixth-form pupil in Anklam, Neubrandenburg, came to school wearing a black pullover. For this, she was expelled from school and forced to ‘work in production.’

And not just poor Sieglinde, but her entire class. They were protesting the new law requiring service in the National People’s Army. This incident — one which we who were raised in western democracies would consider trivial, harmless and maybe even a little bit silly — raised alarms at the highest levels of the GDR government.

When reading the book for the first time, I considered this opening story to be important because I believe there are many intelligent people out there — particularly now, in 2009 — who attempt to minimize the dictatorial nature of the regime. (Of course, the title alone, Anatomy of a Dictatorship, had already gone quite far in assuring me that Professor Fulbrook was not one to do so!)

She begins chapter two, “Structures and Mentalities of Power”, with this rather clear statement:

The GDR was a repressive state. It was a dictatorship.

Yet she hardly takes a purely moralistic approach, which is no doubt tempting to people such as myself. But of course she is that much better as a historian by not dedicating every sentence to a black and white interpretation of the GDR. As she explains, that would be ahistorical. It would be counter-factual, because the truth of the matter is that many in the GDR did not see their own dictatorship in such black-and-white moralistic terms. In all honesty I find that truth to be somewhat painful, just as it depresses me that many who live in the eastern states of Germany today are actually longing for some kind of return to the GDR. But facts are facts, and Professor Fulbrook reports them, as well she should.

I actually read the book several years ago, and I notice now that I had turned down corners of several pages where I found passages to underline. I’ll submit just one of them here for your consideration. She’s talking about the massive amount of information the Stasi retained about people. Computer technology in the east was behind, therefore everything was kept on paper and cards:

And, as [Erich] Mielke is alleged to have commented, cards and paper have the edge over computers when there is a power failure — an important consideration under actually existing socialism. [p. 49]

Am I mistaken in finding a subtle bit of humor there? I think she’s poking a bit of fun at the regime by pointing out a weakness, in this case the very real problem of power failures, while labeling the regime with the moniker they themselves enjoyed: "real existing socialism" (real existierender Sozialismus).

Later she adds:

In retrospect, the childlike proliferation of codes and secrets, the guidelines and procedures, and the files of trivial observations couched in the self-important jargon of bureaucracy, could on occasion almost appear quite comic, were it not so tragic for those whose lives and careers were blighted in the process. [pp 49-50]

If you the history of the East German Communist Dictatorship interests you, you will undoubtedly enjoy Anatomy of a Dictatorship. (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english])

(Photo is mine, available under the Creative Commons license. For details please see the photo’s page at Flickr.)