May 2010

Bonnie B. Lee

nonfiction

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

Many book reviews I’ve read by experts will nitpick minor details that the casual reader doesn’t care about, and then spend the next several thousand words telling you just how smart they are. This is not that kind of review. I can’t say -- after two German history degrees, and my parents having earned their advanced degrees there, and with my still having family in Berlin, and considering my first nursery rhymes were learned in German-language Kindergarten, and with Christmas memories involving peppery gingerbread and Stollen and Advent calendars and odes to my Tannenbaum -- that I wasn’t a little bit tempted. But Simon Winder didn’t write his book for me. Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History was written for those who view Germany with a beady eye of skepticism or a shrug of indifference -- and who then predictably make a predictably lame joke about Hitler. This book is seemingly his attempt to not only "revise" dusty old notions of Germany but to destroy them, like Wotan in a Meissen china shop.

I was programmed to like Germania, and I did, sometimes. The book may be problematic for many -- through 400 pages, you are accompanied by an irritatingly garrulous ringmaster in purple velvet waistcoat and top hat introducing the three-ring wonders of Eisleben here! And the exotic Carolingian emperors over there! Every perfectly normal thing -- deer, turrets, jigsaw puzzles -- for some reason needs to be bolded and underlined with an extreme qualifier. No German leader is anything but “delusive” or “idiotic,” every cathedral is “gloomy,” every town hall “creepy,” every statue “sinister,” and most obnoxiously, every slightly puzzling cultural artefact that he doesn’t want to engage with is deemed that completely unhelpful adjective: “odd.” Oh, those daft Germans with their dreadful spaetzle! How odd.

If you can actually get past Winder’s want-to-face-punch personality, and then his brimming enthusiasms, you'll find he does admirably organize an extremely complicated history into a single, readable, often enjoyable book. He takes you on a madcap romp from the frothing barbarians of post-Roman Empire mayhem to the Weimar Republic, 1933 (when he can ostensibly avoid the all-too-familiar "War," a story we know so well we could practically sing along to it like a shouty, classic-rock bar anthem). Though Winder claims to abruptly halt at 1933, the long shadow of the Nazis still darkens every cranny of his book. This may be unconscious, and unavoidable; the Brits have a longstanding obsession with their defeated foes, with a sneer of superiority never far behind (they did win, after all), and which has only increased in the past twenty to thirty years (i.e., when the English soccer team started getting seriously whooupped by the Germans).

But World War II may be the only familiar flotsam his reader has to hold onto in a sea of Wilhelms and Schlösser and -burgs. All German history is inevitably saturated with twentieth-century meaning. This does not, however, necessarily point toward some sort of homicidal Teutonic teleology. He is certainly not for exonerating the Nazis, but persuading us that there is more to Germany than just the Nazis.

So Winder begins in the forests, the animating spirit of German mythology, which has informed everyone from ancient warriors to Richard Wagner. From these misty dense woodlands he conjures up various German tribes and a mead-drinking, hammer-wielding saga to match. Close behind is his epic version of their Middle Ages. True, he says, the legendary Teutonic Knights’ aggressive expansion eastward to spread Christianity, and the building of, but never completion of, dozens of enormous Gothic monuments occurred in this period. But surely Charlemagne would never have identified himself or his kingdom as “German,” a concept that did not yet exist. The Middle Ages were ultimately a spotty canvas that left just enough glimpses of glory to be dramatically refurbished later on. (And we know where that goes…)

But getting to this easy conclusion takes far too long. Llike a very determined schoolboy, Winder tromps up and down hills to visit every remotely interesting medieval structure in every remotely interesting historical town. He is, admittedly, on surest footing when talking about buildings. Here he is on the Gross Comburg:

I found myself so obsessed with Gross Comburg when staying in the area that I would find quite spurious reasons for going back down the river for one more look, or crane my neck from the train in a frantic attempt to get another fix. It is an odd comment on how little we really know about the Middle Ages that the loveliest building in the complex, a squat octagonal Romanesque wonderwork, has left no trace of its purpose – a special chapel, a reliquary, a library? It is fair to say that this perfect building over which tremendous care and thought must have been lavished will always remain completely mysterious.  

It was at this point that the petty little professor in me was appeased, and then slowly concerned. See, Winder’s not a professional historian. Sometimes he’s only guessing, but his book is infused with so much verve and imagination that he might just actually get the reader curious as well. This was his goal to begin with, and his nauseating roller-coaster rhetoric may be an anxious schoolboy attempt to keep you alert and thrilled. Unfortunately, his approach doesn’t really work. Because at what point does a vivid imagination become just an excuse for superficial investigation? (And I don’t mean go the library; he’s read enough books.)

After laboriously climbing myriad steeples and spires he emerges skeptical, even scornful of German medievalism, signing off the whole thing as boring and self-important and hokey (so what was the point of all that, if not as a sidelong glance at nationalist socialism?), but then in the next breath he delights in towns like Schwäbisch Hall that are preserved “in a pickle” in its postcard-perfect medieval stage, a caricaturing that he meant to avoid.

If there is an argument to made here about German history, it is about the historical implausibility of nationalism. All history is local history; all German history is painfully micro-local history. Winder sets up Germany as the antithesis of centralized monarchical states like England and France. Until the recent past, a burgher’s loyalty was to Saxony or Bremen first, and perhaps to a notional German state only after that. Here is where modern propagandists used ancient myths to potent effect (at no point were all German-speaking lands ever united in language, religion, and ruler, except in mythology). And here is where we stop. We’re meant to fill in 1933-1945 on our own, but who will fill in the past six decades, what non-Germans and Winder live with today?

In the end, Winder hasn’t smashed many teapots, just rearranged the saucers and swept them with a feather duster. Frederick the Great did not cause the rise of Nazism; there is no essential Germanness to the horrors of war; Germany is not an uncouth settlement of Huns (pre-war, it was the height of Kultur). These statements and others may seem obvious to scholars and experts, but bears explicit repetition outside of university walls.

The whole adventure is therefore only worthwhile for the uninformed, mildly curious, and very patient reader, just as Winder planned. Unfortunately, those most likely to read this book are, like me, already converted to the cause. Winder claims that he is a Germanophile, and seeing this lengthy book, how could he not be? Even when he’s being casually prejudiced, he’s condescendingly affectionate. The Baltic region is a “Legoland” of tiered brick facades; one town hall is “a slightly squashed Swiss roll.” But such a superficial treatment at such great length is soon wearying, and his tone is so self-consciously unserious that I wonder if he’s really accomplished more than confirm that he is a Brit saddled with the same old inherited biases.

Most worryingly, though, is that for all his copious research and adoring babble, his only interactions are with buildings, landscapes, and books. He admits upfront that he speaks no German despite multiple efforts (a plight I very much sympathize with), but some sections are crying out for dialogue or at least some human contact. As a Brit, he of course prefers solitude, but his self-imposed isolation holds us at a distance, too. If Winder aimed to overturn alienating misconceptions about his beloved Germany, he has widely missed a great opportunity in an otherwise solid book. His zealous tourism is not enough to personalize German culture for American and British audiences. A foreign place comes alive through the people who are living its history and who are, in fact, its living history. Inside Winder’s head is an irrepressibly energetic place to be, but his book denies Germany a chance to be a vibrant living thing, too, not a historical anachronism with shuffling grey inhabitants in the background still longing for a non-existent glorious past.

Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374254001
480 Pages  

Bonnie B. Lee is editorial intern at Tin House magazine. She conducted thesis research in Lübeck and unlike the author loves Niederegger marzipan and Thomas Mann novels. She has also lived in England and feels no compunction when making broad generalizations about the Brits.