- Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Year: 2010
- Pages: 480
My heritage is about 40% German on my mother’s side; 50% is Dutch on my father’s, and the remaining 10% is a touch of Swedish. All in all, I’m a pale, solidly Northern European sort neatly lumped under a Proto-Germanic umbrella. Generally speaking, however, I don’t put too much stock in such things from a personal perspective, though I admit that Germanic languages are my favorite to investigate etymologically. I happened across Winder’s Germania entirely by accident, browsing the spring catalog of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and decided impulsively that I didn’t know nearly enough about the culture (and only lately a country) that I came from, however distantly.
My initial impressions of Winder’s new book—a Brit by birth but a Germanophile by happy accident—is that he would be writing a sort of travelogue of the Bill Bryson variety. In fact his, introduction suggested very little else: Germania promised to be less a history of Germany and more his own conflicted personal history with the German culture. His major and humorously-told caveat is to confess his complete ineptitude with languages, and therefore his inability to speak German (or anything else besides English, for that matter), and the reason for using almost no untranslated German words in the text that followed. An interesting choice, certainly, and understandable enough for the ostensibly personal nature of the book: here was proposed a history of Germanic culture filtered through the relatively un-German 21st-century author; Germanophile or not, this would not be a mere recitation of battlefields and reichs1, but something unique and wonderful.
I wish I could say that Winder made good on his promise, but it seems to me that the exact opposite came to pass. Though written definitely from a first-person perspective, there is little of Winder’s travels in Germany aside from his occasional mentioning of museums and other tourist attractions. The most personal the book ever got was the introduction, and from that point on became—I’m sorry to say—very much a rather bland recitation of battles and lineages, almost comically in the manner of the Old Testament2. One gets the sense that Winder has very definite opinions about these people and events, and he is never afraid to editorialize, but these are usually sidelong comments buried in paragraphs of other political minutiæ.
Under most circumstances, I wouldn’t even mind political minutiæ of this sort, except I felt as if the entire book was written for an advanced Germanophile audience who had passed some sort of knowledge prerequisite. In the course of Winder’s history, places and people come and go rapidly, and either the author doesn’t care that they lack context or explanation, or he already assumes we know about them. I was aware of the Hapsburg Dynasty at least in name, for example, but Winder’s writing seems to assume we’ve all at least read the Wikipedia entry; his comments and glosses don’t ever explain or define so many of these various places or concepts, and it’s entirely too frustrated to trail behind his historical narrative like this. I hardly expected this to be Germany for Dummies, but the degree to which Winder writes for an imaginary audience that already knows Germany as well as him is ridiculous.
Excepting much of the narrative as irrecoverably obscure and pedantic, some of Winder’s points were clear enough, and these were themselves interesting. This history of Germany purposely stopped in 1933, around the time the country fell into the morass of National Socialism. Plenty of ink has been spilled already about the Nazis, and that particular stain on Germany’s history haunts the country still. Winder wisely chooses to focus on the lesser-known history, prior to the point when Germany entered our collective imagination as a bogeyman or demon3; nevertheless, he often finds himself butting up against his cutoff point, to the detriment of his trail of thought, and in fact spends more time dwelling on Nazism than he intended—this is, I imagine, almost entirely unavoidable.
It’s deceptively easy to begin thinking of German (or Northern European) culture as a separate entity, distinct from that of France, or Britain, or the Roman empire. In truth, Germany is something of a mutt; “Germany”4 did not even exist until 1871; its first origins as any sort of nation-state was in the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne, and in fact most of Germany’s early dynastic rulers continued to view themselves as a political and cultural extension of this empire, and to some degree of Roman culture, even though the population by sheer numbers were culturally Germanic tribes. The shifting borders and cultural interactions during its history meant that German culture necessary rubbed shoulders with the Slavs (including Russia), Danes, Italians, Ottomans, French, and Hungarians; the quest to maintain or even define a unified Germany identity is virtually impossible.
Ultimately, I can’t help but feel disappointed by Winder’s book. Apart from noting his distaste for “traditional” German food and lampooning some of the variously accurate cultural stereotypes, Germania fell flat in terms of appearing a personal or personable look at Germany. Or perhaps it didn’t, but simply requires its reader to know much more coming into it than I did. Either way, I think that’s a failure of the author; in the latter case, there’s no indication that Germania isn’t a good cultural primer for the casual reader as opposed to a long “in-joke” for existing Germanophiles. I have no doubt that Winder is a smart man and a decent enough armchair historian, but Germania itself was a bit too fickle and abstruse a creature for me to recommend highly.
- Etymology aside: the German word “reich”, used as a noun (as in Third Reich), means “kingdom”, and comes obviously and directly from the Latin rex, meaning “king”. Oddly enough, the German word for “king” (könig) is not Latinate, but Proto-Germanic, and modern English gets its word “king” from the same source.[↩]
- And Frederick William I begat Frederick II, who was succeeded by Frederick William II, &c.[↩]
- In fairness, Germany was seen this way to some degree as early as 1917, but the two World Wars and the Germanies which instigated them were arguably of very different characters indeed.[↩]
- Interestingly enough, “Germany” is a Latinate word, first used when the Romans invaded the area; the Germans themselves call it Deutschland.[↩]