Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern

April 22, 2024
  • Studying history can be entertaining and engaging.

  • Gerald Power and Simon Winder at their best.

  • The first book in a trilogy on the history of Central Europe.


Simon Winder

Simon Winder achieves something highly unusual in Germania. He makes the history of Germany – a topic we all know is important though not exactly light reading –vivid, entertaining and even at times laugh-out-loud funny.

Here he is, talking about remote parts of Germany:

There are bits of Pomerania or Brandenburg of a near-Dakotan awfulness – closed-down, wind-battered moonscapes dotted with little houses of a kind usually described as ‘huddled’, but which have in practice moved on to a stage where even huddling has been abandoned as a survival strategy. These houses imply worlds so circumscribed that the only activity consists of the husband waiting to hear the sound of the wife getting the circular saw going to carve up some more winter cabbage, giving him the chance to run over to the DVD player and put on his favourite disc of horses mating.

I almost choked on my winter cabbage.

Winder, a British history book editor and occasional author, is surely a unique guide to two thousand years of German history. He adopts a firmly personal approach to his task, peppering his narrative with plentiful digressive anecdotes drawn from years of pottering about German towns, visiting quirky municipal museums and sampling the local brews and spirits.

Yet these digressions are not simply fodder for gags. For instance, his frequent rabbit-hole excursions into the curious world of the now defunct German royal dynasties – the world of the gothic castle, the Wunderkammer and the powdered wig – tells us much about the strange course of German history. It helps explains why Germany remained politically fragmented and weak for so many centuries, and why it remains a highly regionalised – even localised – federal state to the present day.

Winder begins with the advent of various eastern tribes to the great forested expanses north and east of the Roman Empire, tribes which would gradually coalesce into the German nation. He then takes us through the middle ages and the golden age of the German town; the Reformation era with its weird combination of creativity and bloodthirstiness; the Revolutionary years in which occupation by Napoleon’s France provided the vital shot in the arm for German nationalism; and the paradoxical mash-up of authoritarianism and liberalism that characterised the unified German Reich of Bismarck and the Kaiser. A final, poignant set of chapters on the First World War and its aftermath concludes the book. Winder understands that even an author of his calibre cannot hope to fuse history and humour when the Nazis occupy centre stage. It is, therefore, not a comprehensive history of Germany; but for those who know what happens after 1933, Germania offers a fascinating backstory.

Nor is Germania simply a chronological survey of dates and facts with added jokes. There are some substantial historical points that will make any reader sit up and take notice. Winder is refreshingly sceptical of the military prowess of the Prussian state of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, something more or less taken for granted in most introductory texts on European history. He also offers an emphatic statement of the impressive extent of Jewish integration into the pre-1918 Reich, and largely rejects a long-term explanation of the Holocaust as an atrocity with deep historical roots in German society.

Germania is based on a delicate tension between style and substance. And perhaps at times the former overwhelms the latter. Winder’s very personal approach, which often consists of him sharing his amusingly judgemental impressions of towns, ruling families and historical episodes, makes his readers, to an extent, the captives of these opinions. Now, clearly Winder has decided that an opinionated text, if conveyed with self-effacing humour and a sense of irony, will be more entertaining than a dry, impersonal account peddled by the average academic historian. And, of course, he is right (I am an academic historian, so I ought to know); but his style is more pleasing at the beginning of the book compared to the end. Schtick is, after all, schtick.

Of course, I did read to the end, just in case there was another reference to winter cabbage (no spoilers given).

Ultimately, if you don’t think humour and history mix, then this book is not for you. If you do, or if you’re open-minded enough to try, then take this book on a bus or train or plane. You’ll quickly find yourself engrossed in German history while even laughing out loud at Simon Winder’s unique taste for the curious and the bizarre in all things German.

Germania

Germania

Winder Simon
EnglishPaperback / softback
Pan Macmillan
ISBN: 9781529026153
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CZK 315
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Man Who Saved Britain

Man Who Saved Britain

Winder Simon
EnglishPaperback / softback
Pan Macmillan
ISBN: 9780330544450
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CZK 266
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Lotharingia

Lotharingia

Winder Simon
EnglishPaperback / softback
Pan Macmillan
ISBN: 9781509803262
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Danubia

Danubia

Winder Simon
EnglishPaperback / softback
Pan Macmillan
ISBN: 9780330522793
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Danubia

Danubia

Winder Simon
EnglishPaperback / softback
Pan Macmillan
ISBN: 9781529026160
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CZK 315
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