Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Some thoughts on bringing to life the Unification of Italy and of Germany in the Classroom



There was a tweet last night asking for advice on primary or secondary sources that could help bring to life the topics of the Unification of Italy and the Unification of Germany. Naturally, being a money-grubbing sort of fellow, I fired off links to my two Kindle pieces on the subject, and here they are:



However, I’m not sure they will bring a class-room to life in the way the tweeter intended. They were written originally to provide revision for able AS or Higher (Scotland) pupils who wanted to gee up their ideas and knowledge after they had mastered the text-book basics. Some kind friends tell me that they are also good as a rapid survey (they are short) for the interested general reader and as a first introduction for first-year university types. But they are at the tougher end of the spectrum for school-pupils though not, I hope, dull.

I taught these topics more or less every year of my career and experience did provide a few “enlivening” things that are worth sharing.

There was an excellent collection of primary sources on the period before 1848 when nationalism was getting a grip called “Metternich’s Europe” by Mack Walker. My copy, alas, fell to bits after 37 years and was binned when I retired. It is out of print, but here is the link to it on Amazon:


My most used sources from this book were Heinrich von Gagern’s letter to his father explaining why he were German cloaks instead of French fashions, Metternich’s letter to Tsar Alexander I explaining why nationalism was so dangerous, and Cavour’s article in “Il Risorgimento” explaining that “the economic rebirth of a nation can never be separated from her political rebirth” (or vice versa). For Italy there is an excellent selection in Derek Beales “The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy”. Late in my career I discovered a collection of sources produced by the German Historical Institute that is just outstanding: http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/home.cfm

For secondary sources one can look no further than “Europe reshaped” by JAS Grenville. Except that there is so much more good writing it seems a pity not to mention it. For Germany I recommend Fritz Stern: “Gold and Iron”, Golo Mann “The History of Germany since 1789” and David Blackbourn “Germany: The Long Nineteenth Century”. For Italy, anything by Denis Mack Smith. Much shorter and easier, and ideal for interested pupils, is “Europe: Vienna to Versailles” by LCB Seaman. None of these books is “worthy but dull.”

The most lively feature of the two stories is the intellectual and historical fascination, especially when placed in a long context, and I would introduce this early on in the course. For Germany the elephant in the room is, of course, Hitler. How did the most advanced new state in the world go so horribly wrong, and to what extent was it to do with the way Bismarck stitched together the German Empire. (I try to avoid the term “Unification of Germany” because that was the Bismarckian spin. He cut off Austria and Vienna. Bearing in mind that until 1918 there was a Saxon ambassador – well salaried – at the Prussian court, I see Bismarck’s Empire as a device to give tax-payers money to the Junkers.) but after 1989 there was another, jollier elephant in the room – the re-unification after the Cold War. I used to show video clips of (a) Germany wrecked in 1945 and (b) Germany rejoicing in 1989 and keep relating 19th century Nationalism to these.

Or the very long diplomatic context – going back to the ninth century – there is another Kindle piece by me about the Congress of Vienna: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Congress-Reassessed-A-grade-History-Lectures-ebook/dp/B009V3805E/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1382528602&sr=1-1&keywords=the+congress+of+vienna

As far as Italy is concerned the point is the great gulf between the official propaganda version of heroic nationalism sweeping the peninsular and the inevitable triumph of liberty, welcomed by all right-thinking people, and what actually happened. I would tell pupils early on about the Lega Nord, the modern Italian political party that wants to create Cavour’s vision of a modern, go-ahead state without the (as they see it) problems of the south. The propaganda version is well illustrated by the paintings of victor Emanuel in the Palazzo Publico in Siena. https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=siena+palazzo+pubblico&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=47dnUtrhCYKK1AWQ6YHgDQ&sqi=2&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAQ&biw=1280&bih=929#facrc=_&imgdii=NnjzxGyus_0b7M%3A%3BnoR1ke85pDihFM%3BNnjzxGyus_0b7M%3A&imgrc=NnjzxGyus_0b7M%3A%3Bm_JsmMpPpueawM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fupload.wikimedia.org%252Fwikipedia%252Fcommons%252Fb%252Fbb%252FPalazzo_Pubblico_sala_del_risorgimento_1.JPG%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fcommons.wikimedia.org%252Fwiki%252FFile%253APalazzo_Pubblico_sala_del_risorgimento_1.JPG%3B1600%3B1200

Of course Italy has elephants in her room too.

The obvious physical thing to brighten lessons on this topic is maps. Show them that it is not only geographers who do colouring in. They will certainly be surprised to see how far east Bismarck’s Germany stretched.

I also used to brighten my lessons with music. For Italy there is the happy chance that Opera was one medium that could evade censorship, and so was used to spread nationalist messages. I was privileged to hear Verdi’s Chorus of Hebrew Slaves sung by Lithuanian Opera a few months after the Russians had left, and it moved me to tears. At Verdi’s funeral in Milan the vast crowd began spontaneously to sing it. In Austrian-controlled Venice opera goers would shout “Viva Verdi” meaning “Vittorio Emmanuele Re D’Italia” and there was not a lot the police could do. If Verdi is too cerebral for your class, hit them with the William Tell Overture – an opera in which the bad guys are Austrians oppressing the Swiss.

For Germany I twice managed to organise peculiarly jolly lessons. With the Head of German (who happened to be a musician) and the Headmaster (who happened to be a Germanist) and the Director of Music (ditto) I gathered round the piano with my pupils and we sang German student nationalist and drinking songs. If that is not possible for you to arrange, watch the moment in “Casablanca” where the German singing is drowned out by the Marseillaise. That’s a good example of the way German nationalism turned sour. “Die Wacht am Rein” started as a defensive song in the French War scare of 1840, and only became identified with aggression at a later date.

Not to mention Wagner.

What wonderful topics these are! How lucky you are if you are still being paid to talk about them.



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