Gordon A. Craig, the American historian and Germany specialist, died in Palo Alto, California on October 30. With his passing we lose one of the most careful and sympathetic English-speaking commentators on Germany.
Craig was best-known for two works, German History 1866-1945, and The Germans (sold in German translation under the title Über die Deutschen). I haven’t read the first, but I have read the second book, which is often recommended to Americans who want to learn about Germany. It’s worth reading as a "psychogram" of Germans, although it is written from an academician’s perspective. You will learn plenty about Fontane and Morgenstern, but almost nothing about football or soap operas.
Die Zeit has a short appreciation of Craig by Volker Ullrich, which focusses on his career and his perceptions of Germany (my translation):
Craig praised Fontane’s novels for the skill with which Fontane brought to life the social reality and class conflicts of the times in the form of the novels’ figures. Craig emulated Fontane’s art not only by citing literary sources to bear witness to events, but also by practing the writing of history as a form of narrative literature. No wonder that his books were more popular here in Germany than the majority of his German colleagues’ works.
Craig felt quite a bit of affection for Germans, but they always remained a little strange to him, with their tendency to self-pity and their inclination to react over-fearfully to crisis situations. "Why do Germans always have to see the world so pessimistically?" he asked in a 1993 piece for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He also recommended a more relaxed attitude to the problems of German reunification — a recommendation that has lost nothing in pertinence in the meantime.
I wonder whether Craig’s question about pessimism was rhetorical, or whether he tried to explain German pessimism, which is one of the key distinguishing features of German society to all outsiders. It would be interesting to see someone who’s made such a careful study of German society attempt this, but unfortunately I can’t seem to find the piece online. If I do find it, I’ll be sure to post a nice crisp summary. And add some thoughts of my own, since that’s the point of this blog. Granted, I’m no award-winning historian, but…