posted on 21/01/22
This series of six talks does not shrink from difficult subjects, but neither does it focus unfairly on the gloomier side of things. This is the true pursuit of history, examining the past according to what is ‘remembered’, where, why and by whom. In this series, two of the four speakers are German (one born in the FRG and the other in the GDR), one a Berlin-based American and the fourth a historian of Anglo-Austrian parentage who was the Vienna-based correspondent for The Times covering Communist Eastern Europe in the 1980s (where it helped that he could travel freely as the professional horn player he also was).
They take place every Tuesday from 26 April to 31 May at 4.30pm (GMT +1) and, including Q&A, will probably last an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (26th July 2022).
Recent studies of Maria Theresa (1717–1780), ruler of the Habsburg dominions, have focused on her family and her 16 children, but she was a major figure on the European stage with lasting political achievements. There is hardly an institution of note in central Europe that cannot trace its origins to her reign. This talk examines the educational, medical and institutional reforms that placed her territories in the front rank of progressive polities, though there were lacunae in her Enlightenment tendencies.
Historians have often dealt cursorily with this campaign, the decisive battle of the war in which the Kingdom of Prussia defeated the Austrian Empire. It nonetheless saw the introduction of several modern developments and techniques in warfare and had a profound effect on the European continent which could be still felt a hundred years later. The battle was far from being the one-sided struggle so often described, and has an epic quality unique in the history of late 19th-century European warfare.
The legacy of Otto von Bismarck (1815–98), prime minister of Prussia and first chancellor of the German Empire, has attracted much debate. The man has been cast in every possible role, from founding father and political genius to empire builder and the root evil of Germany's trajectory in the 20th century. A recent campaign #OttoMustFall argued for the removal of the many Bismarck memorials still dotted around the country making a direct link between him and other contested imperial figures, such as Cecil Rhodes. This talk offers a more rounded picture of Bismarck, giving glimpses of his personality and development as a politician while also placing him into the wider context of Germany's tumultuous history as a nation state.
The Armistice in November 1918 ended more than four years of fighting and was greeted jubilantly in many European countries. In Britain it continues to be marked every year – but in Germany, peace was not welcomed with enthusiasm by all, and Armistice Day has never been observed. Popular narratives claimed that the war had not been lost, that the German army had been stabbed in the back. Many rejected the dishonourable peace treaty of Versailles; those who helped end the war were widely hated, and some paid with their lives.
At the end of the Second World War, Germany’s cities were buried under an estimated 400 million cubic metres of rubble. For many Germans, the new Germany emerged from this destruction through the near super-human effort of the nation’s ‘rubble women’ who, in the absence of men, cleared the rubble and rebuilt the country. This is something of a myth, however, constructed after the event. Historians who questioned it found themselves at the heart of a huge public debate which provides a fascinating insight into public memory in Germany. For today’s Germans their relationship with their history remains fraught.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ensuing unification of Germany and Berlin saw the latter selected as the seat of the new German Federal Parliament and centre of national government. Reorganised civically as a beacon of New Germany, based firmly on principles of democracy and humanism, the city was also physically remodelled to express these values. Architects and urban planners created radical schemes to convey this new identity, while simultaneously allowing place and form to acknowledge darker times. Today, while looking to the future, New Berlin remains fully aware of its responsibility to the past.
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