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Thursday, October 13, 2016

“Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History”, by Simon Winder

480 pages, Picador, ISBN-13: 978-0312680688

If ever an impressionist painter were to write a history of Germany, it could very well turn out like Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder, an idiosyncratic look at the history of German-speaking lands from their earliest days to 1933 and consisting of brilliant colors and bold strokes. While basically (but not always) a chronological telling of an almost lost and forgotten era, it is also interspersed with digressions and bits of autobiography which increase in length as the book proceeds. Winder was not trained as an historian but as a writer, and he is currently a publishing director at Penguin Books, but that takes nothing away from this fun piece of work, “fun” being a word that occurs frequently throughout the book, which is light-hearted, often hilarious, full of colloquialisms (the same ones recurring rather frequently), discursive, never short of an opinion and indeed sometimes opinionated and over-the-top (he calls Weber’s book on the Protestant Ethic “famously idiotic”, Napoleon III is rebuked for his “sheer childishness”, and the successor states of the Habsburg Empire were nothing more than “a mass of poisonous micro-states”; the word “mad” also occurs with a somewhat maddening frequency). It is also quite serious, in many ways insightful, cultured, affectionate but also critical, and fantastically knowledgeable.

Winder seems to have visited every municipal museum in Germany and found there many an object worthy of an illuminating paragraph or two in his travels. He has a keen sense of the history of the towns and the countryside and evokes what he has seen in wonderful passages, like this description of a church in Kutná Hora (once Kuttenberg) in the Czech Republic: “[o]ne of Central Europe’s strangest pieces of architecture wobbles into view, as you walk towards the old town, like a very grey version of the Emerald City. The spires of St Barbara’s Church are a set of vast witches’ hats, seemingly floating free of any town or indeed any base”. After having read that passage, Google it to see just what he’s talking about; over and over again I was pleasurably and immensely slowed up in my reading by looking up on Google Images the many little-known architectural features, artefacts and paintings mentioned by Winder – and these show how good his descriptions are. A wayward book indeed, which starts out seeming like an eccentric (and very British) travelogue but ends up as an often perceptive overview of German history. Winder starts at the beginning with the Germania described by Tacitus and ends in 1933 because he couldn’t bear to go further. Some of the book verges on cutesy (see how quaint the pre-unification German statelets were!) but some is perceptive history and powerful writing (the section on the Thirty Years War is hard to forget). He doesn’t have an answer to the Sonderweg – the German “special path” in German historiography that asks why the German-speaking lands didn’t followed the course from aristocracy to democracy unlike others in Europe – but then, who does? He does, however, look behind it, around it, beside it, and through it. By no means a systematic or in-depth history of Germany, and it wouldn’t help you write an essay on German history, either. However, if you feel that you don’t know much about Germany and that that you’d like to know more, then Germania could be just the ticket for you.

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