One afternoon in May 2015 James Hawes received a call from Old Street Publishing, an enterprising independent. He was being invited to write a history of Germany, but there was a catch: no advance would be paid and it had to be very short, covering 2,000 years in 200 pages. Hawes is not a professional historian; he has a PhD in German literature and, in the mid-Nineties, received lucrative advances for his debut novel, A White Merc with Fins, during an era when cerebral, experimental literary fiction by men still had a putative readership. The novel was marketed hard, and Hawes published several sharp satires after it, but he was not able to sustain a career as a novelist. Today he teaches at Oxford Brookes University.
Hawes was intrigued by the Old Street proposal and accepted it on the condition he could write the book he wished. While studying old maps of Germany, he stumbled on what he considered to be a big idea: West Germany had not been an artificial construct because, as he wrote in a New Statesman essay in 2017, it was “the historical Germany, being almost exactly geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany”. The River Elbe was the historic border between Germany and the disputed territories beyond it. “By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus,” Hawes wrote.
To understand this ancient division – east of the Elbe were the Slavic but also the Prussian lands that once stretched into present-day Russia and Poland – is to better understand the history of Germany as well as its present discontents. Under Bismarck, Germany’s first chancellor, unification in 1871 did not produce a united Germany but a Prussian empire, with ultimately lethal consequences for Europe.
Hawes’s Shortest History of Germany is rather like the man himself: eccentric, engaging and erudite. And it was a surprise bestseller, with the author saying it sold 100,000 copies in both the UK and Germany. Now he has turned his attention to England and is once again obsessed with ancient borderlines and divisions, specifically the north-south divide. England, Hawes told me during our conversation via Zoom, has never fully recovered from the Norman Conquest, and the harrying of the north that followed it. A French-speaking minority created a “1,000-year-old cultural gulf, which separates the ordinary English from their elites”.
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England was “completely decapitated culturally and socially, and colonised” by the Norman invasion, Hawes said. The English have retained, across the centuries, a “very long sense of their elites being an essentially semi-foreign and probably treacherous class, who have none of their interests at heart, only their own”. This was manifest in the Brexit debate, an English revolt of the northern working class and the conservative shires against the metropolis.
For Hawes, the first sense of the consciousness of an English nation, or of an English people, can be discovered in the writings of Bede from the Early Middle Ages. “One has to be quite traditional about it and say when it gets written down it counts. That’s why it’s so fascinating that Bede himself, nine times in the Ecclesiastical History, thinks it worth mentioning, in what’s a relatively short book and it’s not about politics, that the English are divided into northern and southern.”
He thinks England’s equivalent of the Elbe is the River Trent; the historic dividing line between north and south. For Bede, south of the Trent were “the southern nations of the English in various forms, or the southern English or the southern Kingdoms. But to him you cross the Trent, which wasn’t bridged at all, don’t forget, until the mid-tenth century, and was virtually impassable for long parts of the year right up until Defoe’s day. It was literally a watershed in one way. Because it’s the boundary between two very different geologies and therefore two different agriculture economies.”
Under the rule of Athelstan, England became one nation for first time in 929. “Athelstan was and is regarded as the great uniter of the country. But the moment he died, it all fell apart again and his grandsons, they divided the country north and south again, after which you have Ethelred and the Viking invasions, by which time essentially the whole of the north of England, which now culturally includes Norfolk, is again speaking half-Scandinavian, and having totally different laws.”
Into the present day, Hawes believes that the break-up of the UK is now inevitable, which offers possibilities for an English reawakening. For too long a sense of Englishness, as the historian Robert Tombs calls it, has been submerged within Britishness, a process that began before the Act of Union of 1707, with the succession of the Tudors, who were part Welsh.
Hawes would mourn the end of the UK and of a civic, multinational British identity. “I was born in Wessex, brought up in Edinburgh, lived in Shropshire, have two Welsh-speaking sons and am married to an Irishwoman, for God’s sake. I am the British Isles, they’re in me. It’s a tragedy that could have been avoided. And the heart of the tragedy, the motor of the tragedy, is essentially England and its own divided nature. That has proved insoluble, so far.”
“The Shortest History of England” is published by Old Street Publishing
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed