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A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People

3.3 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0066209258
ISBN-10: 0066209250
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It takes erudition and verve to attempt a history that covers the life of a controversial people over two millennia. Harvard historian Ozment has plenty of both, yet the result is oddly unsatisfactory. Ozment (The Burgermeister's Daughter, etc.) quickly and wisely dismisses any notion that a history of Germany must be focused on the Third Reich. Instead, the travails of political disunity serve as his narrative anchor. Neither the ancient Germanic tribes nor their medieval and early modern successors could forge any long-lasting unity. Only under Bismarck did a unified political entity emerge, and it soon succumbed to visions of grandeur that resulted in two world wars and a Holocaust, renewed territorial losses and political divisions. Ozment's focus on disunity provides narrative coherence to a long, contentious and complex history, but the costs are huge. Particularly the early chapters read like "one damned thing after another" as a succession of tribal leaders, princes, kings and emperors march across the pages. So many important issues that might grasp a reader's interest are left out. There is nary a mention of economics, legal and social practices among the Germanic tribes, of women and working life. When discussing the Nazi worldview, the author has an unfortunate tendency to equate Jews and Christians as Nazi targets. It is certainly true that the Nazis were deeply anti-Christian, but the Jews were singled out for total physical annihilation. Ultimately, Ozment does not provide a history of the German people, but a tale of their rulers and a few leading intellectuals. 8 pages of b&w photos, maps not seen by PW.
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From Booklist

Like a moth to a flame, those who write general histories of Germany are drawn to the era of National Socialism. Some see the Nazis as an aberration; others find the seeds of totalitarianism as far back as the age of Luther. In this readable and absorbing survey of the Germans over the past two millennia, Ozment, who is McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard, thankfully avoids that trap. He refuses to allow a 12-year period of fascism to define a people or their history. Instead, he convincingly asserts that both liberal democracy and totalitarianism were novel experiments for Germans and the triumph of neither was preordained by German history. While some may be disappointed that Ozment devotes little space to the Nazi era, his analyses of the "barbarian" and Merovingian periods are fascinating and offer original perspectives on aspects of German history that are often given short shrift. This is an enjoyable and well-done work that is ideal for the general reader. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (March 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0066209250
  • ISBN-13: 978-0066209258
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,196,406 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Celia Redmore on May 25, 2004
Format: Hardcover
"A Mighty Fortress" undertakes to narrate the history of Germany as a cohesive story, beginning at the beginning and ending today. It is a mammoth task, covering over two millennia from the days of the Roman Empire: That is ten times as long as the United States of America has been in existence. The result is a massive amount of information packed into one book, but it does give an intelligence to events, which is missing when we randomly examine short periods of historical time with the benefit, and distortion, of our knowledge of the future.
Fortunately, the book spends more time on some periods of history than others. We are taken at a fast clip up to the Middle Ages and through some less pivotal times. But the author slows the pace and looks in fine detail at such critical persona as Martin Luther and Otto von Bismarck, both complex and contradictory figures. Placed in historical context, much of what seems short-sighted or self-defeating today becomes understandable when approached forwards from the past, rather than backwards from the future. In this way, familiar names develop the immediacy and vivacity that they must have had to their contemporaries: Dürer, Kant, Goethe, Hegel, Beethoven, Marx, Nietzsche, Grass.
The book contains eight pages of photographs and six maps. That is really not enough to follow the constantly changing borders of Europe and I found it helpful to keep a historical atlas handy. Less easily resolved was the author's practice of Americanizing names. This may have been a conscious choice to isolate us from pre-existing judgments about historical characters, but it would have been more forgiving to map in a footnote, for example, Ludwig von Yorck to Generalleutnant Hans David Ludwig Graf Yorck von Wartenburg.
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Format: Hardcover
The title to the book is somewhat misleading as there is very little in Steven Ozment's book that would be new to a student of German history and its history is not so much that of the German people, but rather of the great men of German history. Having said that, it is a very interesting read, capturing the scope and complexities of German history without being as dry as general histories often tend to be. Ozment is obviously very knowledgable about his subject matter and is able to convey that knowledge thoughtfully and succinctly. Some might argue that he does so a bit too succinctly as he seems to skim the surface of German history, never delving as deeply into any part of it as the reader might like him to. A novice to German history could easily become lost in his "Who's Who of German History" style and someone well-versed in German history could easily become frustrated by his lack of detail. Overall, it is a good read, but one might wish that he included more detail about the lives of the German people themselves and more detail on some of the events that he mentions rather than merely his theories about these events.
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Format: Hardcover
I find Germany history of all ages and eras to be a fascinating subject. This book is both a great introduction to German history for those who know little abou the subject and an admirable synthesis of overarching themes that seem to consistently pop up throughout German history. That said, I did feel at times that knowing about certain people, wars, themes, etc. did help me to understand the context of discussion in this book. However, as a general history, it is useful in for identifying areas that interest one as a reader for further study. This book could have used more maps and there was room for some expansion on early and medieval German history. Overall, however, this was a very enjoyable read. I was particularly pleased with the author's fluid writing style and the fact that the author did not focus solely or predominantly on one era (read Nazi Germany) but rather looked at the entirety of German history since the 1st century BCE to the early 21st century.
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Format: Hardcover
I have only half read this book but I find it falls short of my expectations. I've taken some European history courses in university and I find little so far that I wasn't already aware of. I was disappointed in the brief way in which the medieval period was dealt with (as if the 1000 years between the Roman Empire and Martin Luther could be summed up with one chapter of a book of German history). Also, I find it odd that the book never mentions the Hanseatic League and barely mentions the order of the Teutonic Knights and the effects of these institutions on German and Central/Eastern European history.
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Format: Paperback
I am astonished that Ozment is "McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History" at Harvard, winner of the Schaff History Prize, and a past finalist for the National Book Award. There are some amazingly incorrect statements in this book that, in my opinion, would be unacceptable if written by a high school instructor, much less a tenured scholar holding an endowed chair at one of the world's greatest universities. I've only got a BA in anthropology, and I find it hard to believe that I'm better informed about German history and geography than an award-winning specialist.

Several other reviewers have mentioned Ozment's bizarre contention that the Maginot Line was an obstacle to the German invasion of France in 1914. But there are numerous other incorrect statements that make one wonder if any of the people noted in the Acknowledgements ever read the manuscript, or what kind of input Ozment received over the book's three-year gestation from his students in History 1302.

I'll just point out a few misstatements from the latter part of the book here (besides Ozment's comment about the 1914 Maginot Line)...page numbers refer to the hardbound edition:

P. 237: "...Emperor Francis Joseph and his heir, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, surprised many of their fellow countrymen by pleading for a peaceful resolution [of the Serbian issue] short of war. Condemned as pro-Slavic, the two became targets of Austrian and Serbian militants." While Franz Ferdinand certainly was a target of radical Serbs, I know of no evidence that "Austrian militants" who opposed him marked him for assassination, which certainly is implied by the language.
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