- A History of Modern Germany 1800–2000
The author of this book is one of Canada's foremost historians of modern Europe. In previous publications on the German offensives of 1918 and Nazi Germany at war, among many other works, he has honed a writing style that is uncluttered and hard-hitting. In this [End Page 256] textbook, Kitchen is often able to sum up thorny issues in German historiography with a succinctness and flair that any historian would envy. He does so without ever dumbing down the content for students, who encounter, for example, 'satrapies,' 'plenipotentiaries,' and 'myrmidons' within the space of seven lines. Non-traditional sources such as the novels of Theodor Fontane often enhance the argument.
Nevertheless, students should not be left alone with this book, for three reasons. First, the author's presentation of facts is not entirely reliable. Three 'howlers' can be found on the first three pages: that Prussia was not even part of the Holy Roman Empire (most of it was), that Bismarck was appointed chancellor of Prussia in 1862 (his title was minister president: he became chancellor of united Germany only in 1871), and that Bismarck after 1871 pronounced Germany to be 'saturated' (the term is 'satiated'). Kitchen commits the classic mistake of using 'principal' for 'principle' – one of many errors that should have been caught in copy editing. He refers to the German secret police as the Gestapa (corrected to Gestapo only later). He claims that Socialist victories in February 1890 followed Bismarck's dismissal from office – in March. And it was not a Trade Bill in 1869 that emancipated the Jews.
The second difficulty arises because the author never met a titillating detail he didn't use. After we have previously been informed that Germania atop the Victory Column was 'amply busted,' chapter 12 puts on parade the key figures in the Nazi dictatorship by introducing them as thugs, reprobates, homosexuals, and drunkards. Of course they were all this, and more. But Richard Heydrich's historical significance did not begin with his dishonourable discharge from the navy, nor Sepp Dietrich's for his job as a bouncer, nor Heinrich Himmler's for being known as the 'Reich's Heini,' nor Joachim von Ribbentrop's for being an 'insufferably ill-mannered former sparkling wine salesman' whose boorish manner earned him the sobriquet 'von Brickendrop.' Kitchen consistently surrenders to the bons mots that may spice up a lecture when used judiciously but are too heavy for the main course of any discerning student.
This book's third and oddest idiosyncrasy is its penchant for drive-by attacks on feminist and postmodern historiography. After the experiences of women in Nazi Germany were neglected for decades, we read that 'feminists sharpened their pens' and came up with absurd caricatures of 'a society run by misogynist monsters, brutal machos, and mad scientists.' Three lines later we discover that 'level-headed social historians' intervened and the record was set straight. Such level-headedness presumably compelled the author to tell us that, whereas homosexuals were not safe in Nazi Germany, 'in Italy . . . there were plenty of beautiful peasant boys and fisher lads who were happy to oblige.' [End Page 257]
No reviewer turning to the last page of Kitchen's text could fail to see irony in the advertisement there for two other Blackwell titles, each of which is reliable, fair, and elegantly written: David Blackbourn's History of Germany, 1780–1918 and Mary Fulbrook's History of Germany, 1918–2000, both in their second edition. Another competing title that outshines Kitchen's is Frank B. Tipton's A History of Modern Germany since 1815 (2003). All in all, unless there is a market niche for a work that is readable and racy, Kitchen's book falls between two stools.