It is not easy to be funny about the Germans, and unusual to be affectionate about them. Germania, Simon Winder’s idiosyncratic but delightful book, manages to be both. Winder, a British publishing executive, has fed and embellished his obsession with Germany during the requisite annual visits to the Frankfurt Book Fair. His book is the result of diligent reading on endless train journeys to small towns with half-forgotten treasures—provincial museums, lesser-known castles, and palaces of the many minor dukedoms that litter Germany.
At the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony, that “wonderland of pre-1914 modern design” founded by the melancholic grand duke Ernst Louis, Winder hits upon the key to his fondness for Germany. It is his conviction that the real Germany can be found in the stuff usually absent from the history books: the obscure artists and the mad petty princelings, the herbalists and ornithologists and forgotten inventors whose artifacts stuff local museums. “It is this slightly marginal Germany that has survived, while the political and historical Germany has destroyed itself.”
While Winder takes a roughly chronological approach, starting with Tacitus’ famous account of the ancient German tribes as honorable, brave, and loyal to their wives, he has not produced anything like a conventional history of the country. And he ends, because of a fastidious revulsion, with the arrival of Adolf Hitler in 1933: “I can only mark my own distress by stopping this book here. So many of the threads that run through modern German history—a creative irony, edginess, glee, and oddness—are gone in a few weeks, wound up and replaced with a messianic infantilism.”
The book’s main themes are familiar, from the German obsession with Italy and Goethe’s “land where the lemon trees bloom,” to the German sense of victimhood in the Thirty Years’ War and during Napoleon’s time. Winder marks the usual contrast between those parts of Germany that experienced the Roman Empire (on the whole, still Catholic) and the north and east, which became largely Protestant. And in the eyes of some Germans from the Romanized Rhineland, the taint of barbarism remains; as Chancellor Konrad Adenauer observed, “East of the Elbe the Asian steppes begin.”
Winder notes the oddly doomed nature of German militarism, its occasional tactical successes overwhelmed by strategic defeats, along with the power of historical accident. In the early 19th century, few would have predicted that remote Prussia, rather than the more powerful Austria, would become the dominant force in the unification of the Reich. But after Napoleon’s defeat, European leaders at the Congress of Vienna awarded Prussia the Ruhr Valley—blithely unaware that the region’s coal and iron ore would make it the powerhouse of the continent’s industrial revolution later in the century.
Conventional history is not Winder’s strong point. His distinction is a self-deprecatory, ironic charm combined with a deep fascination with the country. This fascination may have odd roots. He writes of exchanging notes with a German school pal on how they celebrated their 16th birthdays. Winder’s family went out for a Chinese meal; his German chum celebrated by going to bed with one of his mother’s friends.
At the outset, Winder suggests that Germany is “Britain’s weird twin.” Though he doesn’t elaborate on this comparison, it’s true that just as English history is a blend of rustic, almost Hobbit-like charm and grasping imperialism, so Germany is usually regarded as an extreme example of bipolar disorder, oscillating between sentimental good Germans and ruthlessly bad ones; between jovial folk in lederhosen and ice-cold Teutons with saber scars; between Brahms and Buchenwald. Winder blames the food: “Like some circling, trapped beast, German cuisine is goaded by its climate into turning out endless sausages, turnips, and potatoes. . . . This is a relatively low self-esteem, ingredient-thin bit of Europe, hemmed in by other cultures with access to serious sunlight.” One suspects it is rather more complicated than that, if only because the supposedly sun-deprived Germans have installed more solar panels in their country than can be found anywhere else on earth.