Book Review: Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern

By Simon Winder


Having a keen interest in European History, studied Germany numerous times and travelled there extensively I was very much looking forward to getting my hands on this book and can safely say that, although this book is clearly not intended to be the last word on German history, for any readers wanting a learned, entertaining and lucid introduction to a notoriously complex subject, it should certainly be their first.

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Price: £8:99
ISBN: 978-0330451406
Publication Date: 2011

This book is essentially a vastly broad exploration that goes behind the scenery, paintings, pottery and architecture into an exploration of the history of Germany and the soul of its people with a pitch that is neither drily academic nor hip, researched and written by an author who is careful not to claim to be an expert but who is manifestly knowledgeable, sympathetic, balanced in his judgment and very independently minded.
The book starts in 9AD, with the tribal chieftain and original "Hermann the German" Arminius's defeat of Roman troops in the Teutoburg forest, and packs up in 1933 ("just as everybody who had made Germany so remarkable a place packs up"). There plenty of ancient history here, almost too much for me to want to write a review for my 'modern' history blog, no economic miracle of the 1950s, no student protests of '68, no terrorist crisis of '77 – crucial events to say the least, some would argue, for understanding modern Germany. Neither is there a lot of Geist: Kant and Hegel barely feature.
Having said that, even without the post-war dramas and the big ideas, it's a very entertaining read. Winder's might be a fairly conventional narrative kings-and-queens sort of history, but it has superb eye for marginalia and manages to illuminate some fascinating hidden corners. How many recent books on German history have, for example, bothered to look beyond the fascist rallies and war crime trials to appreciate Nuremberg's commercial history in the Middle Ages? For Winder, Free Imperial Cities such as Nuremberg are "the real heroes of Germany", pairing "toy-town geniality" with reason and cosmopolitan values: promising side roads that came to an dead end in 1933.

The author delivers himself of some magnificently opinionated statements. Most of these are history-related – the entire catalogue of European conflict between the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1648) and outbreak of the French Revolution (1789) is explained as 'the result of the ghastliness of scoundrels’ in powdered wigs. Others are purely aesthetic. The Episcopal palace at W├╝rzburg (with its superlative Tiepolo ceilings) may be 'obviously one of the wonders of the world’, he concedes, but it is nothing beside the 'dopey’ charm of the bishop’s palace in Bamberg, which, 'room-by-room’ is unquestionably 'more fun’. Likewise, 'the world’s worst architect’ is Bruno Schmitz, designer of a particularly pompous monument erected in Leipzig in 1913; though this put-down is mild in comparison to the tirade of invective heaped upon the errors of taste committed by Louis XIV.
More seriously, Winder is at pains to deny that there is anything in the German experience, still less in the German character, that led inevitably to the catastrophe of 1933-45. The Nazis’ invocation of the spirit of the Prussian king, Frederick the Great, Winder contends, was simply falsified history. However, even he rebels when he finds the new Prussian Museum in Potsdam is so downplaying the theme of Teutonic militarism that its exhibition centres on 'Prussian pressed-flower collections’ and monastic herbals.

As for the future if this book, it's got to be there on my shelves to refer to whenever I come across some new item I want to look up when reading books by German authors or books about Germany. My only regret is that the story ends in 1933.