Simon Winder, Germania: A personal history of Germans ancient and modern (London: Picador, 2011 (2010))

Going down some harmless-seeming stairs, I was entirely surrounded by very old and complex crib scenes and a seeming infinity of wax Baby Jesus dolls. In the low, murky lighting it was hard not to imagine that the missing ticket-seller had run off to flip the mains switch. I would be found dead in the morning, as in one of those wonderful scenes in science-fiction films where the pathologist turns to the policeman and says, ‘This man didn’t die of a heart attack, Inspector.  He died of fright.’ Only then would they notice the thousands of tiny hand marks all over my skin. (210)

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On Maximilian I’s indulgence in:

“… the unbeatable hobby of designing his own tomb.”

A German friend gave me Germania as ‘background reading’ ahead of a major event in Munich. I began reading it one night, thinking it would put me back to sleep after some wakeful angst about keynote speakers and other trivia. Instead I started laughing at the wit, zest and imagination, conveyed in the kick-off quotation. Combined with razor-insight slicing through woolly misperceptions and movie-induced clichés, and a vast grasp of the subtleties and complexities of this complex country, Winder made himself one of my top three contemporary historians. And certainly the funniest; it takes deep learning to wear it lightly, and Winder skilfully distills the essence, ensuring we get the point without being bewildered by a kaleidoscopic patchwork of mini-kingdoms.

So in one of those dynastic swirls which I have generally tried to shelter the reader from, two daft and marginal bits of Lower Saxony suddenly went their different ways, with one branch, from its new bases in Hanover and London, ruling a large part of the world, and the other remaining daft and marginal. (197)

The aim of the book is to restore the full spectrum and relative sanity of Germany’s rich history before the spectre of Nazism commandeered it. Winder starts with the origins of Germany, ‘the sort of forests enjoyed by gnomes and heroes’, and ends with Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, albeit without skirting around the ‘disaster of the Third Reich’. As he puts it, he endeavours to ‘reclaim a bit of Europe which is in many ways Britain’s weird twin’ (1-2).

Twin? As a child growing up close enough to the end of the war to have effortlessly picked up chirpy anti-Hitler songs without any sense of their being peacetime insensitive (‘Whistle while you work, ‘itler is a twerp; ‘e is barmy, so’s ‘is army, whistle while you work’), and where children’s games included running around lobbing imaginary hand grenades at invisible Nazi enemies, or play-piloting a nippy Spitfire downing dastardly Messerschmidts, that gave me pause for thought, despite a number of German kings and princes having solved some crucial dead-ends in British royal heir-production.

In this richly detailed book, Winder also manages to hit the ‘refresh’ button in a multitude of pithy sentences that telescope an era, entity, movement or war into clear and memorable view.  This brings events and people to life which even when nominally familiar can feel like cardboard cut-outs on a rickety classroom-drilled timeline of dates and proper nouns.

On the Holy Roman Empire: ‘a mass of contradictions, idiocies and inspired compromises’. (27)

On the Crusades: Louis IX of France wandering about in a swamp in the Nile Delta, carried in a litter by four strong men with a special hole cut in the seat to allow his dysentary to freely and immediately express itself, sadly rather sums up the crusades. (67)

On the Mongol invasion: Hungary remained under Mongol supervision for a few years, but the invaders never returned and we will never really know why.  One ingenious and plausible suggestion was that in Mongol terms Europe was fairly marginal and boring – even the Hungarian grasslands, on the face of it ideal for their simple needs, were rather paltry when you already owned North Asia. (83)

On the Reformation: It is not an exaggeration to say that this was the single greatest revolt in Europe before the French Revolution. Scenes of scarcely credible savagery engulfed region after region. (140)

On the Thirty Years War (1618-48): It left between a quarter and a third of all Germans dead and even in relation to the 20th century must, as a percentage of the population, be the worst man-made disaster ever experienced in Europe … All the labyrinthine details of the fighting hold their distressing interest because of this futility: nobody gets what they want and everybody dies. (168-69)

People in the distant past, when constrained by relatively limited technology, can themselves appear constrained. Winder puts paid to that, giving a more nuanced and appreciative view of expertise in relation to available technology and technical knowledge. Referring to the state of mining in Germany in the Middle Ages, which we might imagine in primitive troglodyte terms, he recognizes a level of professional dignity and skill, suggesting:

That there was a level of day-to-day, sophisticated expertise entirely comparable to our own, that technology always operates in perfect synchronization with its users, and that these silver miners were just as capable, just as aware of their world and its dangers and limitations as we are. (95)

Winder also provides an entertaining exposé of his own deep but ambivalent attraction to Germany, which seems to have stemmed haphazardly from a decision by his father to change the family holiday from standard seaside fare in sunny places in Brittany and Normandy to Alsace, that ‘world-historical fault line’.  This first exposure, on a canal boat, hardly presaged a lifelong engagement with Germany:

Burping along in a tiny boat down a reeking canal through an almost featurelesss bit of scarred eastern French landscape … (5)

And he allows himself to delve into cultural sidings that are compelling, if not central to the vast historical flow, such as a form of self-hating obsession with the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ which became a craze as Europe began pillaging the world at scale:

This fuelled a sort of arms race, with Venetian suppliers pouring sacks of tropical detritus which could then have bits of precious metal and jewels stuck to it to make ever more demented table settings.  …. I am going on about these things too long – I pretend to despise them, but really I could only be happy with a nautilus-shell drinking cup. (187)

And I felt mildly reassured by his admission of a shared intellectual incapacity:

My own woeful inability to absorb abstract ideas would make me a flailing, threadbare guide to philosophy, a crucially important strand in German life. (277)

In addition to the exuberance and wit of his writing, Winder has a capacity to spring things into perspective, zooming in on apparently remote happenings and give them their full measure of impact.

Karlsruhe has the odd fame of being the town where Fritz Haber at the end of the 19th century worked out how to fix nitrogen, thereby inventing artificial fertilizers, thereby summoning into existence roughly a third of all humans alive today – a discovery that makes all others seem merely provisional and paltry. (202)

The Germans had invested heavily in the Boer states, but had been told by a British emissary before the war broke out that if they interfered the British would declare war on Germany, destroy all German shipping and blockade Hamburg and Bremen so that Germany would choke. This was an interesting and tactful preview of British behavior in 1914.  In that single threat was all the argument that figures such as Admiral von Tirpitz needed to build Germany’s own navy to prevent this happening. (373)

This book belies the convention that scholarship needs to be dull to be serious, if you define scholarship as combining deep knowledge, thoughtful insight and meticulous attention to a subject.  In that sense, this is a scholarly book which can make you laugh as you revisit what you thought you knew about a major European country.  If ‘scholarly’ concerns detailed footnotes and related clobber, then this is probably ‘popular history’.

And if school history lessons were more frequently taught with the clear-eyed verve Winder brings to his writing, we would probably develop a stronger and more subtle grasp of our past, and so be better equipped to navigate the present.

A Boy’s Own view of a father serving in the Royal Naval Reserve:

How I loved his annual trip.   He would go on nuclear submarines, minesweepers, aircraft carriers, fly as a passenger in Phantom fighter-bombers.  Clearly the whole thing was a laugh, and because the Cold War never went anywhere, it simply became a government-paid-for-way to eat huge fatty breakfasts, wear a devastatingly lovely uniform, drink a lot and fire guns.  He wound up with the James Bond rank of commander, with a gorgeous peaked cap and a jacket festooned at the cuff with the sort of gold stitching that makes fighting wars almost worthwhile.   He would send me occasional, curtly mysterious postcards with suitable pictures of jets and missiles and stuff, which gave me a cumulative, phony credibility at my boarding school.  (3)

On indulgence in nationalism, even someone else’s:

Of course, I am as ravaged by nationalism as anyone else.  All I have to do is listen to the quiet, intensely noble part of Sibelius’ Finlandia and I start to fall apart – appreciating the short season for picking cloudberries, grateful for the cooling summer wind that comes off uncountable Finnish lakes, the taste of cured reindeer on my tongue, shoulder to shoulder in epic defence of a country which, actually, I’ve never visited.  (301)

Germany as jigsaw

This may be the metaphor of the month: I keep imagining the aftermath of an explosion in a jigsaw factory.   And if you have ever struggled, as I am sure you have, to master the complexities of Germany’s statelets and graf-doms before Prussia shook them down into some kind of unity, you’ll feel comforted by this metaphor.

Source: Simon Winder, Germania (London, Picador, 2011), p. 39

Intellect as desert

Prince Albert’s interests outshining his fellow royals to such a stark extent suggests an alarming intellectual aridity. Reminds me of an alleged response by the King on being presented with Edward Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. ‘Another big fat book! Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon!’

Source: Simon Winder, Germania (London, Picador, 2011), p. 279

Europe as clammy climate

Europe’s emerging role in the 18th century signalled like a clammy change in climate… And if you think he gives Europe a hard time, you should see some of his comments about Britain.

Source: Simon Winder, Germania (London, Picador, 2011), p. 190

Brain as bathroom shelf

Simon Winder has more original phrasing than most library collections marked ‘History’, bringing events, people and places to life and dousing you with bracing insights, flushing out sentimental clap-trap historical ‘memory’. This imaginative comment on the limitations of human memory made me laugh, as did many passages in his marvelous book. It also allowed me to let go of the Merovingians without guilt.

Source: Simon Winder, Germania (London, Picador, 2011), p. 11

Diplodocus-filled hall

Evil-smelling incomers

Half-mummified rubbish

Haut-bourgeois scoffers

Hunting obsessed oddball

Jewelled-glove Catholicism

Light deprived nightmare

Map-fuelled idiocy

Mead-crazed ancestors

Mucus-flecked imprecations

Near-Dakotan awfulness

Salt-raddled farmland

Scarlet-faced predator

Sword-point conversion

Toy-town geniality

Vermin-packed mercenaries

Warlord-inundated Europe

Woad-covered Britons

Dear Reader, may you enjoy sweeping your eye over this tapestry of triologist invention while being spared all of the above.

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