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Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History

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A unique exploration of German culture, from sausage advertisements to Wagner Sitting on a bench at a communal table in a restaurant in Regensburg, his plate loaded with disturbing amounts of bratwurst and sauerkraut made golden by candlelight shining through a massive glass of beer, Simon Winder was happily swinging his legs when a couple from Rottweil politely but awkward A unique exploration of German culture, from sausage advertisements to Wagner Sitting on a bench at a communal table in a restaurant in Regensburg, his plate loaded with disturbing amounts of bratwurst and sauerkraut made golden by candlelight shining through a massive glass of beer, Simon Winder was happily swinging his legs when a couple from Rottweil politely but awkwardly asked: "So: why are you here?" This book is an attempt to answer that question. Why spend time wandering around a country that remains a sort of dead zone for many foreigners, surrounded as it is by a force field of historical, linguistic, climatic, and gastronomic barriers? Winder's book is propelled by a wish to reclaim the brilliant, chaotic, endlessly varied German civilization that the Nazis buried and ruined, and that, since 1945, so many Germans have worked to rebuild. Germania is a very funny book on serious topics — how we are misled by history, how we twist history, and how sometimes it is best to know no history at all. It is a book full of curiosities: odd food, castles, mad princes, fairy tales, and horse-mating videos. It is about the limits of language, the meaning of culture, and the pleasure of townscape.


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A unique exploration of German culture, from sausage advertisements to Wagner Sitting on a bench at a communal table in a restaurant in Regensburg, his plate loaded with disturbing amounts of bratwurst and sauerkraut made golden by candlelight shining through a massive glass of beer, Simon Winder was happily swinging his legs when a couple from Rottweil politely but awkward A unique exploration of German culture, from sausage advertisements to Wagner Sitting on a bench at a communal table in a restaurant in Regensburg, his plate loaded with disturbing amounts of bratwurst and sauerkraut made golden by candlelight shining through a massive glass of beer, Simon Winder was happily swinging his legs when a couple from Rottweil politely but awkwardly asked: "So: why are you here?" This book is an attempt to answer that question. Why spend time wandering around a country that remains a sort of dead zone for many foreigners, surrounded as it is by a force field of historical, linguistic, climatic, and gastronomic barriers? Winder's book is propelled by a wish to reclaim the brilliant, chaotic, endlessly varied German civilization that the Nazis buried and ruined, and that, since 1945, so many Germans have worked to rebuild. Germania is a very funny book on serious topics — how we are misled by history, how we twist history, and how sometimes it is best to know no history at all. It is a book full of curiosities: odd food, castles, mad princes, fairy tales, and horse-mating videos. It is about the limits of language, the meaning of culture, and the pleasure of townscape.

30 review for Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Steve Kettmann

    A disappointing effort, overall. Here is my review for the San Francisco Chronicle: Germania In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History By Simon Winder (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 454 pages; $25) At first glance one assumes that Simon Winder has in mind with "Germania" something like an updating of the late great Gordon Craig of Stanford's "The Germans," a classic study by the onetime dean of American historians of Germany. Actually, not at all. Winder, who "works in publishing" in Britain, A disappointing effort, overall. Here is my review for the San Francisco Chronicle: Germania In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History By Simon Winder (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 454 pages; $25) At first glance one assumes that Simon Winder has in mind with "Germania" something like an updating of the late great Gordon Craig of Stanford's "The Germans," a classic study by the onetime dean of American historians of Germany. Actually, not at all. Winder, who "works in publishing" in Britain, may in one sense have set off, as the subtitle says, "In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History," but not in any sense you'd think. For example, as he mentions several times, self-floggingly, he does not actually speak German. That is, even after many dozens of trips to Germany over the years, he seems to have no ability to carry on any kind of conversation. To call this bizarre would be an understatement. And it's not as if Winder tries to make up for this lack by treading softly. He mocks Germans regularly, puckishly and pedantically. I laughed hardest when he referred to "horror at German food," as if the Brits could possibly cop an attitude in this area. Is the man insane? Compare a banger (blah!) with a Nurnberger bratwurst (excellent!). It was only as I made it several hundred pages into Winder's alternately intriguing and wearying descriptions of many centuries of German history, as revealed through trips to small-town museums and schlosses, that I finally understood: Winder has been a Germany obsessive for years and makes the offensive put-downs in proactive self-defense, given the vitriolic anti-German sentiment that to this day maintains a robust following in Britain. So maybe only then can Winder offer such arresting thoughts as his suggestion that the world would have been better off if his country had never gotten involved in the First World War. "If Britain had been neutral in 1914 it is hard to see how Germany could not have won the war in a fairly conventional way in a couple of years, thereby sparing the unlimited disasters that followed," he writes. "After all, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War almost everyone just got on with their lives, buying stuff and having families - and a Europe dominated by the Germany of 1914 would have been infinitely preferable to a Europe dominated by the Germany of 1939." He has a point. No botched peace, no Third Reich. Still, it takes an original - and brave - thinker to write that kind of thing down. (He says early on that he's happy "not to be a professional historian.") Given the continuing glee with which the British press often resorts to hate-mongering against Germans, even at a time when, according to Gallup, Germans are Americans' favorite non-English-speaking foreigners, it's a nice change of pace to get a whiff of Winder's highly unusual honesty. "The Germans saw themselves in the Great War as sitting at the heart of European heritage, fighting against a bunch of vulgar materialists (the British), pants-down revanchists (the French) and drunken savages (the Russians)," he writes. "Until 1914 most British intellectuals would have denied being vulgar materialists, but would have been happy to agree with the descriptions of their new allies and have conceded Germany's central place in European culture. "In 1914 this was knocked on the head with an immediate campaign across British universities to expunge 'German' thinking and block out any sense at all of Germany as a major culture, except perhaps in the far-distant past. It became, for obvious reasons, suspect to have any interest in Germany at all." The book spans many centuries, but wisely chooses to break off as Hitler seizes power in 1933. Winder can be too long-winded and vapid, as when he adopts a gee-whiz tone in remarking that in many European countries, the south is warmer than in the north, with the corresponding differences you'd expect. But Winder has real passion for his subject and a nutty flair for the original, and, best of all, he finds marzipan absolutely revolting. Steve Kettmann, a former Chronicle reporter, lives in Berlin and writes a weekly column on politics for the Berliner Zeitung. E-mail him at [email protected] This article appeared on page F - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...

  2. 4 out of 5

    Maia

    I have so many issues with this book that I don't know where to begin--but I'm glad I didn't buy it, only borrowed it. First off, let me say that as someone brought up by a historian dad who's always had an intense interest in Germany (though he himself is Italian) I found the lack of historical accurateness or academia here quite baffling--even non-historians writing historical books usually tend to rely on history! Also, as someone now married to a German and for the past 2 years living in Germ I have so many issues with this book that I don't know where to begin--but I'm glad I didn't buy it, only borrowed it. First off, let me say that as someone brought up by a historian dad who's always had an intense interest in Germany (though he himself is Italian) I found the lack of historical accurateness or academia here quite baffling--even non-historians writing historical books usually tend to rely on history! Also, as someone now married to a German and for the past 2 years living in Germany a lot of the time (and learning German--as impossible a language as it is) I was also completely puzzled and later disgusted by Winder's utter and unapologetic lack of interest in 1) the German language (even if he does excuse this by his so-called language obtuseness), 2) 'real' Germans and 'real' German's Germany, and 3) post-Nazi Germany (which is intrinsically connected to pre-Nazi Germany: the one by which he is ostensibly so fascinated). Both of these points--his lack of historical scholarism and his lack of knowledge/interest in 'true' Germanness--put the book at a disadvantage for me from the start, and I was skeptical throughout my reading of it. That said, there ARE quite a few interesting tidbits within it and if you're at loose ends in a bookstore, say, you could do worse than reading them. However, the best reviews on these books are those by Bonnie B. Lee on Bookslut and Steve Kettmann in the San Francisco Chronicle (just found out he's posted it here, too): they both point out the obvious. That this a book written by a Brit in a self-apologetic style (you need to apologize if you're British and have an inexplicable fondness for Germany) and almost exclusively for Brits, for whom even today after 70+ years--and especially, one would think, after the 'economic miracle' that left Britain far behind--everything German leads to Hitler, Nazism, and the war 'they' (the Brits, with our help of course!) won. The truth is, in my way of thinking, that WW2 for the Brits isn't just about Nazism--it's also about the end of their empire, the passing of an imperial torch to the US, and finalization of a British way of life. To that end, Germany is always to blame, isn't it? Bottom line, though: don't trust a book about Germany written by a nerdy Brit who doesn't speak a word of German, hasn't a single conversation with a real German, and doesn't even include philosophy or psychology in his exploration of what constitutes Germanness--impossible things to avoid, really, since both are not only 100% German products but entirely connected to what IS German. Furthermore, the "Personal History" subtitle of the book has got to be simply a publishing gimmick, because we never really get to understand just why this plump little British boy becomes so obsessed by a country and culture he's never had any connection to and we're given barely any 'personal' historical facts.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    One of the things I love about this website is the fact that you encounter all sorts of genres and books you may never have encountered before and titles which endear, charm or intrigue...yep Dan, you know who you are. Then there is that encounter with the opinions through reading others reviews of books you have read or are in the process of reading and this is often a wonder too as you read someone who has encountered the book and experienced it in a quite different way and it perhaps enables One of the things I love about this website is the fact that you encounter all sorts of genres and books you may never have encountered before and titles which endear, charm or intrigue...yep Dan, you know who you are. Then there is that encounter with the opinions through reading others reviews of books you have read or are in the process of reading and this is often a wonder too as you read someone who has encountered the book and experienced it in a quite different way and it perhaps enables you to get a different slant and think 'oh now I never saw it from that angle but yeah i see what you mean ' but then you also sometimes read reviews from people who appear to have read a totally different book to the one you opened and this is just a long intro to that comment. Some of the reviews of Winder's book seem to have lost sight of what the man quite clearly stated he was setting out to do and then moan when his book is not what they want it to be but is instead what he told them it would be. Anyway enough. Winder writes an entertaining and fascinating personal take, remember people a PERSONAL take, on the strains and stresses of the long road of german expansion and creativity. This takes him to delve into the odd and unique, the stupid and the wise, the foul and the fair all in quite equal measure though he does love the odd and the excessive it has to be said but he does stride through the centuries from the dark ages of the first millenium coming to an end to the Dark Age of Nazism beginning in 1933 and gives a windwhistle tour in a little over 400 pages of that huge swathe of battle, invention, religion, politics, alliance and disaster. If you are coming to the book for in-depth analysis you won't get it unless you wish for the analysis of odd collections and buildings but that is his way. He enables you to hoover up enormous amounts of fact and insight even without realizing you are doing so. Many people have compared him to Bill Bryson and there is certainly a good deal of similarity in the style of the throwaway line and amusing aside but it is all done in the quite clear atmosphere of Winder's love and admiration for the German people. He pokes fun at the lunacy of the proliferation of minor duchies and princedoms and the dynastic struggles which, even after the Unification of Germany as an Emperor in 1871, continued to dazzle and dance. Some of the Royal families had dynastic names you would kill; for my favourite being something like ' Schleswig-Holstein-Wollfenbuetten-Braumschweig'. Unfortunately I have looked through the book but couldn't find it again to spell it totally correctly but it was something like that. I am always fascinated by the history of royal Europe and this book is a feast for all the long gone minor royals who crept or swept or were totally inept in their posession of these thrones sometimes sat upon by impressive, intelligent and constructive regal bottoms and sometimes taken over by fools and thugs who seemed to communicate through aforementioned orifices. There is, in all this wealth of fun information and discovery a serious reflection on the nature of choice and history. Winder expresses his belief that the Prussia of Great War Mythology was no more vicious or murderous or grasping than the enemies ranged against it. The behaviour of the British in so many places or of the French and Italians and Belgians and Americans in less situations but no less arrogant oppression shows that to load the blame for the Great War on to Kaiser Wilhelm was crass, simplistic and untruthful. The aftermath, for him, of the Great War was not just the end of European Imperial ambitions with the domino effect of the end of Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German and Ottoman Empires dragging into a total mess most of the little petty states which cowered in their seemingly more powerful shadows (and allowing for the fact that theoretically the british expression limped on for another few decades), but was also the destruction of a whole way of envisaging society. In Winder's vision the transcultural nature of these weird hotch-potch entities which for years had been held together and co-existed was destroyed by shortsightedness and thus began the horrendous divide into ultra nationalistic madness which ripped Europe apart and with which we are still struggling. I am not sure if I would wholeheartedly go along with all of his theory but his attempt to unpick and fairly look at the actions of all the protagonists involved is impressive and thought provoking. I have read cynical comments that he stopped at 1933 so as to enable a new book to be commissioned. This seems to me to be an unjust and disingenuous criticism. His book expresses his understanding that just as the Black Death in 14th Century Europe seperates the Medievel Society from the renaissance and is a moment which divided one form of European life from its successor in a never to be fully reconnected way so the end of the 'Ancien regime ' of imperial and royal Europe with the disaster of the 1914-18 war destroyed and obliterated not just the silliness of wigs, uniforms and crowns but also a way of life which could, if it had evolved, prevented so much monstrous evil and the ravages which scarred the world but which was now vanished forever. This may or may not be a theory the reader runs with but it is, as i stated at the start, a PERSONAL view of Winder and can only be disagreed with not disbelieved. For him the Germany of which he was writing disappeared with Hitler's destruction of the Weimar republic and thus the book's purpose came to an end. This is not a book in which indepth history is studied. Indeed its not a detailed examination of anything but rather is it the opportunity to meet another man's love and see him explore it; sometimes joyously, sometimes sadly but never boringly. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Dan Sumption

    So many reviewers of this book get caught up with the fact that the author claims not to be able to speak German. OF COURSE HE CAN SPEAK GERMAN, albeit not as well as he would like to, he is just being terribly, _terribly_ British about it. This is a very quirky, very personal, utterly British, history of and travel guide to Germany. And I loved it. It's full of fascinating information, and endearing prejudices: I chuckled at his repeated Basil Fawlty-like assurances that he is not, under any cir So many reviewers of this book get caught up with the fact that the author claims not to be able to speak German. OF COURSE HE CAN SPEAK GERMAN, albeit not as well as he would like to, he is just being terribly, _terribly_ British about it. This is a very quirky, very personal, utterly British, history of and travel guide to Germany. And I loved it. It's full of fascinating information, and endearing prejudices: I chuckled at his repeated Basil Fawlty-like assurances that he is not, under any circumstances, going to mention The War (usually just before he goes off on a long tangent talking about the war). In these moments he is always at pains to mention the myriad exceptional circumstances which were necessary conditions for the rise of Fascism, and it is clear that what he is trying to do is to break down the blind association between Germany and Fascism that has been inculcated in several generations of Britons. The book is, of necessity, incomplete and inconsistent: happy to linger over some obscure and eccentric museum piece while skipping over anything that doesn't take the author's fancy (or, as is the case for example with marzipan, dwelling too deeply on things which he despises). Despite (and often because of) that, it is delightful to read and you will finish it knowing far more about German-speaking Europe than when you started.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    The author starts out with some mildly funny humor, describing his first visit to Germany as a kid: An afternoon in Baden-Baden, the nearest German town, was another. My parents had never been to Germany before and were patently uneasy with the whole idea, not helped by my sisters and I wandering through the streets yelling ‘Dummkopf!’ and ‘Achtung!’ at each other and whistling the Great Escape music in a way that probably didn’t promote post-war healing. Another interesting take was the impact The author starts out with some mildly funny humor, describing his first visit to Germany as a kid: An afternoon in Baden-Baden, the nearest German town, was another. My parents had never been to Germany before and were patently uneasy with the whole idea, not helped by my sisters and I wandering through the streets yelling ‘Dummkopf!’ and ‘Achtung!’ at each other and whistling the Great Escape music in a way that probably didn’t promote post-war healing. Another interesting take was the impact of Roman history on German history. The Romans were conflicted about Germania. I have to go find Tacitus’ book Germania: (view spoiler)[ The Roman empire had famously been unable to subdue the Germans, with its northern border stabilizing along the Rhine and Danube. Generations of German nationalists saw the Germania as the founding document of a German nation one of ‘pure blood’ (in Tacitus’ catastrophic phrase). Tacitus contrasted the Germans’ specific virtues with their effete, immoral, toga-wearing neighbours’ failings. The Germans are rugged, swift to anger, oddly honourable, simple and good fighters albeit fighters who get rubbed out when they are stupid enough to-engage with the Romans head on. The text delicately balances its impressions so that the Germans are formidable enough to explain why they lie outside the Roman empire and yet savage enough for it not really to be worthwhile subduing them. The tone is reminiscent of British anthropologists describing Africans until very recently giving them the same puzzlingly narrow range of designated activities (fighting, feasting, procreating) followed by great stretches of torpor. (hide spoiler)] Winder makes an effective case that a “pure-blooded” German probably is a misnomer: In practice Germany is a chaotic ethnic lost property office, and the last place to be looking for ‘pure blood’. As dozens of tribes arrived, left, intermarried and exterminated one another, it became impossible to know who spoke German as a sort of birth-right and who just decided it would be sensible to learn it and whether the birth-right German had switched from Frankish or Danish or indeed Obotritan a generation before. Soon after these parts of the book, I began to be annoyed. As Winder kept going, his descriptions of architecture, museums, history, customs, areas of Germany were all condescending or irreverent in a not entertaining way. His description of German food is one example—he doesn’t make it appealing. Having lived in Germany for almost 6 years, I also do not agree with his characterization: (view spoiler)[ If there is one subject on which pretty much anyone British or American will agree, it is horror at German food. As we ping some blend of sugar, salt and fats in the microwave or munch on curry flavoured tortilla chips (a current British enormity), we will shake our heads about the unique awfulness of what Germans eat, topped off with a joke about what goes into the sausages. At this point I’ve probably been in more Ratskellers than most people in the world, and sometimes I can almost feel myself metamorphosing into a fat-necked, glassy-eyed and complacent townsman in traditional costume, wiping the back of my head with a napkin as I launch, breathing heavily, into a further, monstrous plate of thick bacon, sauerkraut and pan-cooked potatoes, drained down and emulsified by vast bocks of lager or a candlelight-filled glass of Riesling. Sadly my own almost tearful, nostalgic enthusiasm for German food is not in practice shared by most Germans. Indeed, I am sheltered from the true impact of this stuff. Intermittent visits to Germany make huge bowls of ‘farmhouse-style’ potato soup or ‘hunter-style’ stew highly entertaining but if I were doomed actually to live somewhere like Bamberg and settle in, it is clear that on such a diet I’d be both rapidly bored and (running not very far behind) quite quickly dead. Even in the most lovely surroundings and nothing can perhaps be more lovely than Lubeck’s Ratskeller, with its little wooden booths and crazy heaps of paraphernalia hanging from every surface it is hard not to notice that many fellow guests do seem in shocking condition. Massive figures with girths and complexions like Gert Frébe’s Goldfinger and beards covered in bits of lager foam and pig are not perhaps ideal role models. (hide spoiler)] I have too many fond memories of Germany and Germans to continue. This book is so annoying that I’m not learning or retaining anything. 1 Star

  6. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    The thesis of this book is that the Nazis manipulated and warped German traditions and culture in a way that has obscured the centuries that preceded them. Moreover, the horrors of that outrageous time command an inordinate amount of attention in history because of their outrageousness and world-altering effects. Therefore, it takes concentrated effort to engage with the rich but somewhat neglected history (at least within popular, mainstream history) of Central Europe from the time of the fall The thesis of this book is that the Nazis manipulated and warped German traditions and culture in a way that has obscured the centuries that preceded them. Moreover, the horrors of that outrageous time command an inordinate amount of attention in history because of their outrageousness and world-altering effects. Therefore, it takes concentrated effort to engage with the rich but somewhat neglected history (at least within popular, mainstream history) of Central Europe from the time of the fall of Rome to the rise of Hitler. Our author is making that effort for us. Our "wayward" historian is an intrepid and determined traveler with an articulate sense of irony and humor, as well as a genuine enjoyment of the bizarre. He does well at conveying the intricate web of places, families, and traditions that have dotted Central Europe like confetti for most of history. However, if you don't already have at least a general overview of knowledge of German history, which is pretty complicated, you will be overly confused. The author is British, so he comes from a tradition where the average schoolkid probably learns a lot more about European minutiae than American students (who probably know more about US history than he does, so there ya go). If I hadn't taken German as my language in high school and taken European History I & II for my teaching license, I would have found the book a little confusing. He jumps from topic to topic in a vaguely chronological but incomprehensive exploration of Germany. I really liked this book and would recommend it for those who want a book that addresses but is not primarily about Nazis, but it shouldn't be your first book of German history.

  7. 4 out of 5

    John

    I'm a real fan of the author after reading Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe. His quirky, self-deprecating sense of humor is one you'll either love or hate; audio narration is an outstanding fit. I'm a real fan of the author after reading Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe. His quirky, self-deprecating sense of humor is one you'll either love or hate; audio narration is an outstanding fit.

  8. 5 out of 5

    David Corleto-Bales

    Very interesting, funny, poignant and brilliant book on German history, from the Dark Ages to 1933; Winder is a British "Germano-phile", which is actually kind of rare. He journeys all over the sprawling, central European mass of Germania, a region not fixed onto the boundaries of the modern country and explores the great figures of German history, like Charlemagne, who was mostly French, or Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor who was kind of, well, Belgian, if such a thing really existed. He looks in Very interesting, funny, poignant and brilliant book on German history, from the Dark Ages to 1933; Winder is a British "Germano-phile", which is actually kind of rare. He journeys all over the sprawling, central European mass of Germania, a region not fixed onto the boundaries of the modern country and explores the great figures of German history, like Charlemagne, who was mostly French, or Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor who was kind of, well, Belgian, if such a thing really existed. He looks into cultural practices, food, architecture, art and although he cuts off the book at the coming to power of Hitler, the Nazis and the two world wars are rarely left out of any chapter, the sadness and bewilderment apparent from someone who admires the Germans of how their country was consistently led astray by mediocre butchers like Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler. This is a great European travel book and history for anyone interested in Germany. Winder's writing is so elegant and smooth, (and witty!) that it's like drinking chocolate milk while getting a massage. Covers in detail confusing aspects of history like the rise of the Franks, the Crusades, the Hanseatic League, the 30 Years War and more!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Terra

    I originally bought this book for my little sister (who speaks and studies German) while in Berlin, but after snickering profusely at the first few pages I glanced through, I ended up reading the thing. It's filled with an exceedingly British brand of snarktastic humor that appeals to me (in books, at least). I don't know exactly how much I learned from it in terms of actual facts, though I suspect various pieces of information about German history stealthily sneaked into my brain as I read. Mos I originally bought this book for my little sister (who speaks and studies German) while in Berlin, but after snickering profusely at the first few pages I glanced through, I ended up reading the thing. It's filled with an exceedingly British brand of snarktastic humor that appeals to me (in books, at least). I don't know exactly how much I learned from it in terms of actual facts, though I suspect various pieces of information about German history stealthily sneaked into my brain as I read. Mostly it's Simon Winder ze Brit on Germany, not The Objective History of Germany--and he tells you that up front, so it's not annoying. I think it might be a better read for someone who has a grasp of the Standard Version of German history so that they could enjoy this as a sarcasm-filled commentary alongside said Standard Version. However, I in my dumminess was entertained just fine. It follows only a rough chronological path and can get a bit repetitive at times, and he does have his favorite riffs (you may not be able to deal with the adjectives "daft" or "loopy" or maybe even "disgusting" for a couple of days), and I'm preeeetty sure he made a few words up, but overall, you kinda gotta love a book that makes you laugh out loud. Amirite?

  10. 5 out of 5

    James (JD) Dittes

    I admit that I'm a sucker for "subjective" history books--as long as they're not about my own country. Winder is very opinionated--particularly about German food and just about every Land north of Hesse--yet he brings such insights into art, history and architecture that the reader cannot help but learn more about German history. One admirable trait of this book is its effort to describe the lunacy and interelations of the hundreds of German kingdoms and duchies that made up the Holy 'Roman Empi I admit that I'm a sucker for "subjective" history books--as long as they're not about my own country. Winder is very opinionated--particularly about German food and just about every Land north of Hesse--yet he brings such insights into art, history and architecture that the reader cannot help but learn more about German history. One admirable trait of this book is its effort to describe the lunacy and interelations of the hundreds of German kingdoms and duchies that made up the Holy 'Roman Empire. Widner's efforts to do this make the book seem haphazard at times, but the contribute so much to the richness of what he is trying to describe. This book is a visual feast, and it needs to be read with a computer nearby. I found myself turning time and again to Google Images to look up an artwork or building referenced in the book (the Magdeburg Cenotaph was one such revelation). What I liked most about this book is that it is a launching place from which Germanophiles can find more elements of this fascinating culture to investigate.

  11. 5 out of 5

    David Cheshire

    On one level this is an amusing travel book around the Germany of the scores of tiny medieval city-states whose dottiness charm and fascinate the author; the reader must simply follow on behind in awe of his weird and obsessive learning. But there are also some mind-blowing bits of more modern historical insight. Building an insignificant naval base in the 1850's but then calling it 'Wilhelmshaven' left the nationalistic Germans with no choice but to build a navy to go in it; hence followed Angl On one level this is an amusing travel book around the Germany of the scores of tiny medieval city-states whose dottiness charm and fascinate the author; the reader must simply follow on behind in awe of his weird and obsessive learning. But there are also some mind-blowing bits of more modern historical insight. Building an insignificant naval base in the 1850's but then calling it 'Wilhelmshaven' left the nationalistic Germans with no choice but to build a navy to go in it; hence followed Anglo-German naval rivalry and the war that shaped world history. Also the long unemployment of the Germany army after Bismarck's three swift little victories of the 1860's reveals the shallowness of German "militarism"; they venerated but didn't actually use their army, so couldn't wait to do so in 1914. And a wonderful description of their silly colonial empire which promised "a certain amount of coffee and an infinity of coconut matting". This gives a flavour of the larky, entertaining style of the author who is a thoroughly engaging companion as he guides us through this other, older, gentler and forgotten Germany. The same author gave us in an earlier book the thesis that the cult of James Bond was invented to help the British through the trauma of losing the empire. This is history as it should be - unstuffy, fun and (in a good way) slighly demented.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rennie

    I expected a humorous portrayal of modern Germany alongside historical context, but when a sense of humor appeared it was more weird and offensive than anything, like in one instance the author wrote that unattractive people spend a lot of time looking at maps. Maybe a stereotype I've so far never encountered? (Or just personal bias because I consider myself not unattractive and also interested in maps, but there are plenty of other occasions when he makes sweeping and seemingly random generaliz I expected a humorous portrayal of modern Germany alongside historical context, but when a sense of humor appeared it was more weird and offensive than anything, like in one instance the author wrote that unattractive people spend a lot of time looking at maps. Maybe a stereotype I've so far never encountered? (Or just personal bias because I consider myself not unattractive and also interested in maps, but there are plenty of other occasions when he makes sweeping and seemingly random generalizations.) He also frequently refers to many things, from monuments to the recreational activities of historical figures, as "stupid" without adequate explanation - he just finds all of these things stupid and likes to say so. Also ugly and boring, he describes many places and things as those too. He insults so many aspects of German culture and history that I never actually understood why he enjoys Germany in the first place. Life's too short to spend it kicking around places that you hate! When he did discuss historical aspects, they were either so drily written or with such esoteric asides that they were difficult to follow. It had some value in a few interesting lines or facts here and there, but if I hadn't been on a trip with only this book to read I wouldn't have bothered (nearly) finishing it.

  13. 4 out of 5

    David Dinaburg

    I will occasionally take a Saturday afternoon to walk the twenty-odd blocks to Times Square and let the crowd subsume me; it is a useful diagnostic in determining the half-life remaining of one’s tenure in Manhattan. Once you cannot maintain a feeling of Zen after purposefully thrusting yourself into the heart of the beast, it might be time to start seriously inquiring about sedans and suburban property values. It’s mostly awful in Times Square: oozing with tourists, their heads buried in maps; I will occasionally take a Saturday afternoon to walk the twenty-odd blocks to Times Square and let the crowd subsume me; it is a useful diagnostic in determining the half-life remaining of one’s tenure in Manhattan. Once you cannot maintain a feeling of Zen after purposefully thrusting yourself into the heart of the beast, it might be time to start seriously inquiring about sedans and suburban property values. It’s mostly awful in Times Square: oozing with tourists, their heads buried in maps; locals with faces glued to phones—the former oblivious to the flow of foot traffic from ignorance, the latter from apathy—stop-and-go families abruptly changing direction, spinning wildly as their coteries dissolve or reform in the most obstruent crosswalks and sidewalk curbs they can find. The crowds contain a heady mixture of buskers and costumed strangers, the wildly expanded “Naked” brand of musician—Cowboy, body-paint-only Burlesque—shoulder to shoulder with the hip-hop-centric entrepreneurs jabbing their LPs into the hands of the unaware and easily startled. Once the disc is in your hands, oh foolish traveler, a demand for cash on delivery is sure to follow. Any attempt to return the proffered merchandise is met with a terse, hands-off unwillingness to accept the goods. So, what? Are you going to drop the cd and scamper away? Stiff them in a deal that you were unaware was transpiring? Caveat emptor, Times Square visitor. Or, better yet, simply caveat. The knock-off Bewchacca the Waakies, the Almost-Elmos, the Hello, Kitties stricken with encephaloid gigantism are all there to horrify children for as many years as those dingy aftermarket costumes hold together. And unless you’re comfortable with a bat-themed person following you to the open maw of the nearby Olive Garden, don’t stop for pictures; theme park it may feel, but these costumers aren’t being paid by the Times Square Collective. They’re just out there, shaking down rubes and capitalizing on the vagaries of intellectual property regulations and impulsive shutterbugs. But Times Square is alive; a featureless, smothered and compressed caricature of the city itself, but blaring and vibrant. Exciting. Like a zoo, or a rollercoaster—safe, simulated danger—designed to thrill and overstimulate. At least until some small mechanism goes really wrong: the velociraptors escape; the weight of too many unmoored, seething demands for attention overwhelm the visitor. It’s not somewhere anyone can be for too long. And so it is with Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History: a distillate of German history, compressed but animated by the voice and character of a lighthearted, enthusiastic narrator:The Roman empire had famously been unable to subdue the Germans, with its northern border stabilizing along the Rhine and Danube. Generations of German nationalists saw the Germania as the founding document of a German nation--one of ‘pure blood’ (in Tacitus’ catastrophic phrase). Tacitus contrasted the Germans’ specific virtues with their effete, immoral, toga-wearing neighbours’ failings. The Germans are rugged, swift to anger, oddly honorable, simple and good fighters--albeit fighters who get rubbed out when they are stupid enough to engage with the Romans head on. The text delicately balances its impression so that the Germans are formidable enough to explain why they lie outside the Roman empire and yet savage enough for it not really to be worthwhile subduing them. The difficulty with the Germania is that it is in many ways a fantasy, although the book’s absolute isolation means we will never know just how much so. ‘Germania’ implies a clear geographical and ethnic part of the world, but since the text’s discovery centuries have been spent, sometimes with terrible results, trying to live up to an entity that in practice wobbles and veers about almost mockingly. Clearly many of the virtues, including the ruinous ‘pure blood’, are only there to provide contrast with what Tacitus saw as the corrupt, polysexual shambles of Rome and are not meant as serious comments on the people who back in AD 100 lived in a vaguely understood and hostile bit of Europe. We will never be able to disentangle when Tacitus is passing on information based on a serious source (he never went near the region himself) or when he is simply making a smart point for home consumption: were German men really devoted and faithful to their wives, or is Tacitus just needling his friends? It isn’t worth trying to parse the facts from the narration; if you find yourself not enjoying the tone—the recondite speculations, the frequent digressions—then skip the whole thing. You’ll miss out on spending four hundred pages with a jovial fellow, though, whom you may feel more familiar with than the whole of German history by the end of the book. That’s a good thing, because the author is fun and funny, but that isn’t to say you won’t pick up bits and pieces of interesting and impressive facts throughout the journey. And it is a journey—a long one. It crawls along a few dozen centuries, dragging the reader through some rugged terrain. It has the feeling of a historical tour, a language-immersion study abroad program, replete with that in-over-your-head sense of drowning, of never getting it, until comprehension is quietly shored up through gentle repetition. The first or second time the Bamberg Rider is cited, the references tend to glide overhead. But after the tenth or fifteenth day marching through the textual world of Germania, a callback to Bamberg—a quick reminder that it is home to the birth of the European tradition of warrior statues stoically astride equally statuesque horses—feels familiar, a collective reminisce from a shared memory. Rarely does Germania rest on its laurels, avoiding the lackadaisical trap of insider nudging— “Hey, remember that statue we talked about before? That was great, right?”—instead, layering each trip to Bamberg with it its own sights. Particularly memorable was the insouciant needling of the Imperial Hall:This huge, fabulous room was subjected to many years of labour by the Tyrolean painter Mechior Steidl to create the ultimate illusionist ceiling painting of the empires of the world, flanked by giant portraits of the usual scattering of German Emperors. There is one point in the floor where you are meant to stand and experience the full illusion of hundreds of figures, clouds, clumsy allegorical elements and so on whirling up into the air. The beauty lies in the way that the illusion doesn’t work at all—the colouring and figures are all rather babyish, and very far from creating the sort of vertiginous lift that was Cortona’s or Tiepolo’s specialite de la maison. The result is a sort of queasy disaster with the opposite illusion--that by standing on this specific spot you are in danger of being crushed by a heaving mass of glowing tat. It is—in an environment where you are being barraged by generally brilliant and exciting works of art—a thrilling relief to encounter a grade-A disaster and speculate over the years of awkward silences and insincere praise which must have followed its unveiling. It’s educational and glib and ever so entertaining. The flippancy is a welcome bulwark against the pall of darkness that clings so readily to texts concerning historical Germany—the inevitable march into hyperinflation, the national doom wrought by an infestation of Naziism, the schism birthed by partitioning a sovereign national landmass amongst the ethos of the world’s superpowers. It is unavoidably heavy. And while pert through and through, Germania does not shy away from bleak or sensitive discussions of a land wracked by war, broken by its conquerors, thwarted in its ambitions; not with severity or triumphal gloating, but with its signature breezy tone:Until the collapse of the winter of 1918 the most significant revolutionary act had in fact been carried out by the German imperial authorities themselves, with the decision to allow Lenin out of Switzerland and on to his remarkable destiny in Petrograd (the same ministerial group—a cornucopia of smart thinking—had recently come up with a plan to contact the Mexicans to ask if they could attack the USA, and get Texas, Arizona and New Mexico back as their reward—a low-comedy telegram gleefully intercepted by the British and shown to the enraged and ever less neutral United States).The same lighthearted tone that can lob gibes at the war said to end them all somehow never rises to become dismissive or derogatory. The point of view is slightly askew, coming at the reader from a roundabout angle to devastate prior—inevitably sophomoric—beliefs or interpretations of what the grist in history’s mill is truly made from. Many moments dawned, reminding the reader of the gradual drift of, say, their image of the doctrinaire primary school Christopher Columbus—a selfless scientist proving the noble truth, against a legion of naysayers, of a round earth—but skipping past the collegiate counter-cultural “Columbus, genocidal maniac,” stance to settle into Columbus the Italian trader: looking for a sea route to riches, acting as a mercenary for Spain because no one else would have him. Germania might then approach this tepid comprehension of historical events by shifting the focus onto Columbus’ titular U.S. federal holiday—how it was created in the early twentieth century as a branding move to make Italian immigrants seem like part of the cultural fiber of America and not a weird cliquish sect of foreign outsiders—before circling back into a genial censure of Columbus the erstwhile explorer and demographic stand-in. Probably with some saucy quip, which I deign not to attempt. The weight of a cultural pressure—be it Italian-Americans creating their own historical tradition, Germans overcoming a past rife with disunity or the English propensity for sanguine imperialism—can be a labyrinthine birthright or a gossamer legacy:This is [Germany’s] Speyer’s extraordinary cathedral—a much damaged, much repaired but still overwhelmingly potent thousand-year-old pile of stone, as much a great survivor of a lost civilization as Machu Picchu or the Acropolis. Germany is dotted with such survivors, gnarled and bashed up, but pressing down in the modern era as goads and irritants, strange reminders of a prior German greatness. I think it is not unfair to say that the Middle Ages for modern England are fairly unproblematic—a set of dramatic monuments (Durham Cathedral, the Tower of London and so on) held in affection as remarkable repositories of national and local consciousness. Nobody seems to care hugely that they were built by colonial occupying forces—the genial, rolling tide of the English narrative ignores such complexities. The events of the English Middle Ages have little remaining impact except at the level of cosy stories, generally focusing around Robin Hood and Maid Marian—itself, oddly, a tale of colonial subjection in which Hood is battling for the right to have England ruled by a hearty and amiable foreigner (Richard the Lionheart) rather than a creepy, lying one (John). There is a compelling daffiness to all this, where even the most ludicrous setbacks (e.g. the Hundred Years War) become part of a brightly coloured tapestry of noble-browed achievement (the Black Prince, Agincourt, the Order of the Garter), moving the reader on to the next scene of Greatness. Aside from the crush of bodies, Times Square is sequestered from the sort of historicity that dots European countrysides; the closest it comes to an accurate representation of the past is someone grubbing for tips in a Spiderman costume; Spidey—originally borne of a time when SoHo was transitioning from gutter to artists' gutter—would not have raised eyebrows crawling in and out of a window. I posit that modern Spiderman would be priced out of the SoHo neighborhood that his 1960s incarnation traipsed through. A 2010s equivalent—probably Brooklyn’s BedSty, is where the endless movies should plop him. Crowd-sourced cellphone photos and relentless Instagramming have probably destroyed his career opportunities, to boot—is Spiderman more anachronistic than even Captain America? Please note that I didn’t force an anachronistic/arachnid joke on you. You’re welcome. Meanwhile, back in Times Square… The pageantry of the New Year’s Eve ball drop is an almost laughably juvenile temporal festival, compressing the passage of a year into a convenient ten-second burst. Unless you want to be there in person—in which case, pack some diapers: the gated pens, which begin to fill eight to twelve hours before midnight, contain no toilets. And if you leave? Better luck next year. What a delightful final act of the year—micturating upon yourself. The suggestion of diapers is not levity, but an honest logistical solution that is distressingly common. Nearly a century before the tradition of peeing yourself in public to celebrate the passing of another calendar year was founded, Germany was establishing another past-facing, philhellenic series of monuments: As part of that great wave of early nineteenth-century love of everything Greek, Prince Ludwig of Bavaria decided that when he became king he would build a copy of the Parthenon on a hill above the Danube and make it into a hall for heroes, a Walhalla, filled with busts sculpted by the greatest sculptors of the greatest Germans in German history, as judged by himself and some of his friends. The interior is about two-thirds Enlightenment magic and about a third everything that’s freaky about Germany. Light pours in on a neo-Greek cuboid, stern caryatids, sumptuous marbles, a ridiculous statue of King Ludwig. Only after a few moments of mental stabilization it is possible then to focus on the point of the place, the row upon row of white-marble busts, like some classicizing science-fiction vision of cryogenically frozen geniuses awaiting the signal for their brain to reactivate. Ludwig understood ‘German’ to mean ‘Germanic’ or even ‘kind of Germanic’, so Swiss, Dutch and even Belgian heroes can get in (Rubens looks particularly implausible). Most of what I’ve seen of Rubens’ work was in the Prado, so, sure, putting a Flemish painter who lived in Spain in the hall of German heroes seems strange. But then again, the Chamber of the House of Representatives in D.C. is decorated with relief portraits, more of whom are French than British; caliphs than popes; figures from antiquity than Americans. Ludwig I set the tone to culturally usurp and enshrine greatness, regardless of nationality, in his white marble busts. And at that, another ember of understanding sparks to life, given form through colloquial repetition—the Walhalla, the busts—these have comfortable familiarity of already. Madre de dios! Yo entiendo—and then you realize that the classroom itself wasn’t the sole classroom per se during your time abroad: In a sort of asteroid belt of low-grade German princesses and narrow, petty, moustachioed princes, there was enough room for something really surprising to happen. Most absolutely alarming in this respect was pretty little Sophie Augusta Frederica of the laughable territory of Anhalt-Zerbst, a place so small it could hardly breathe. Her father was a Prussian field marshal and as a helpless pawn in plans to boost Prussian-Russian relations in the 1740s Sophie was shunted off to Russia where, after several ups and downs, she married the Grand Duke Peter, learned Russian, became Russian Orthodox, had Peter killed and wound up as Catherine the Great, devastating the Ottomans, the Swedes and the Poles and carving out immense new territories from Latvia to the Crimea. Indeed, a case could be made for her being the single most successful German ruler of all time, albeit not one ruling Germany. Oddly, but appropriately, she sits in Ludwig I’s hall of German heroes, one of the handful of female marble busts. She probably did more than anyone else to make Russia into the totally unmanageable super-nation that was to prove such a mixed blessing to Germany over the coming two centuries. So that’s it. That’s where Germania shines. It’s fun and it teaches you things simply by talking to you, over and over, in the native tongue of genuine enthusiasm. Commit yourself to getting lost in its pages, but be warned—you might be there for a while.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    Germany. The industrial and economic behemoth of the modern Europe. But it hasn’t always been that way. In this book Winder takes us way back into Germanys past, as far as the Romans even, before bringing up to the relatively modern age. The Germany of this age was a frontier of the Roman empire, similar to the far north of England; over the line were the barbarians. There is still architecture from those days too, that has survived countless wars and skirmishes. Until relatively recently, 1871 i Germany. The industrial and economic behemoth of the modern Europe. But it hasn’t always been that way. In this book Winder takes us way back into Germanys past, as far as the Romans even, before bringing up to the relatively modern age. The Germany of this age was a frontier of the Roman empire, similar to the far north of England; over the line were the barbarians. There is still architecture from those days too, that has survived countless wars and skirmishes. Until relatively recently, 1871 in fact, Germany was a patchwork of princedoms, mini states and bigger empires, some really tiny too. Sometimes they all got along, but frequently they didn’t. As he travels around the country he reveals snippets of history about the places he visits. There are tales of battles, disputes, religious leaders whose remains were displayed in gibbets around the town (the gibbets are still there too), of aristocrat princes and barons and the castles and cathedrals that they built. He does avoid recent World War 2 history, partly because the history that the Germans prefer is prior to that too, and also that they are countless other books on that conflict. He does brush gently against it, looking at the events that lead to Hitler and the Nazis seizing power in the 1930’s. I was quite looking forward to this one, as I had enjoyed reading another of his called Danubia. That book was interesting, and also witty and fairly often really funny. Sadly this one didn’t seem to have that lighter humour that it really needed to lift it. IT is stuffed full of fact and anecdotes, and come across as being fairly well researched. Worth reading if you have a fascination with Germany, but may not be for everyone. 2.5 stars

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lyn Elliott

    This would have been so much more satisfying if Winder had been able to resist what he calls 'Anecdotal facetiousness' which takes off into manic self-indulgence from time to time. He's clearly aware of this, as he tells us quite often that he's gone too far in a spiral of speculation and needs to get back to the subject in hand. He leaps into silly value statements that sound as though he just hasn't taken the time to think of an accurate descriptor. For example he calls Hitler, among others, ' This would have been so much more satisfying if Winder had been able to resist what he calls 'Anecdotal facetiousness' which takes off into manic self-indulgence from time to time. He's clearly aware of this, as he tells us quite often that he's gone too far in a spiral of speculation and needs to get back to the subject in hand. He leaps into silly value statements that sound as though he just hasn't taken the time to think of an accurate descriptor. For example he calls Hitler, among others, 'pathetic'. Pathetic? This sounds like a 12 year old talking about someone down the pecking order at school. 'Fun' is an adjective that appears when Winder finds something curious, grotesque, ridiculous or in some way an object of derision. Museums, place names, minor duchies all count as fun. Another sloppy repeated descriptor is 'creepy'. I can't help thinking that if Winder works in publishing as an editor, which he does imply somewhere in the book, he should have turned his skills to his own work. So why did I give it a 3? Because he has read a huge amount of material on Germany and travelled extensively there, thought about what he has read and seen and has many interesting observations to make. His overview of the emergence of what we know as Germany from hundreds of little counties, dukedoms, principalities and kingdoms is succinct and relatively easy to follow, not like some of the more serious histories I have attempted over the years. Having got this light work under my belt, as it were, I feel better equipped to tackle something more solid.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Marijan Šiško

    Was a little better. Anyway, i understend why some people were disappointed in this book. because they had expectattions. if you approach it without expectations, you'll be amused and be given an opportunity to learn quite a bit. But if you expect a classical history< book, or a travelogue, of course you'll be disappointed. This book is a german history from a personal point of view. All the mediaeval burghs, over-ambitious cathedrals, little versailles(es?), all the funny little states, all Was a little better. Anyway, i understend why some people were disappointed in this book. because they had expectattions. if you approach it without expectations, you'll be amused and be given an opportunity to learn quite a bit. But if you expect a classical history< book, or a travelogue, of course you'll be disappointed. This book is a german history from a personal point of view. All the mediaeval burghs, over-ambitious cathedrals, little versailles(es?), all the funny little states, all the things that lead to german nationalism. (Ever heard of Schaumburg-Lippe? Google it), give me a craving to pack my bag and go on a solo tour of forgotten german towns. If only I could take a year off. Five stars. As far as I'm concerned, well earned.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Leo

    An interesting read. It's about the author personal relationship with Germany, not a story of Germany like I initially thought. This book touches on some aspects of Germany's history but it requires you to know the facts beforehand. You can tell the author is very enthusiastic about all things German, sometimes even to a fault, the book seems dedicated to tidbits of German history, places and people that don't amount to much in the big picture. There's interesting stuff but also some that seems d An interesting read. It's about the author personal relationship with Germany, not a story of Germany like I initially thought. This book touches on some aspects of Germany's history but it requires you to know the facts beforehand. You can tell the author is very enthusiastic about all things German, sometimes even to a fault, the book seems dedicated to tidbits of German history, places and people that don't amount to much in the big picture. There's interesting stuff but also some that seems defined to be forgotten the moment is read.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Janice Durante

    I've often thought it unfortunate that so many people refuse to consider visiting Germany. Simon Winder's lively, quirky valentine to the country could change a few people's minds -- if only they'd give him a chance. I know what you're thinking: The food's bad, the climate's so-so, the language impossible, the history dark. Yes, there's some truth in all of that, but ... there's so much more. For those of us who love to wander medieval lanes, enter ancient castles, and experience another culture I've often thought it unfortunate that so many people refuse to consider visiting Germany. Simon Winder's lively, quirky valentine to the country could change a few people's minds -- if only they'd give him a chance. I know what you're thinking: The food's bad, the climate's so-so, the language impossible, the history dark. Yes, there's some truth in all of that, but ... there's so much more. For those of us who love to wander medieval lanes, enter ancient castles, and experience another culture without the curse of hordes of tourists,Germany offers intriguing experiences. Winder, who works in publishing and has written The Man Who Saved Britain, has crafted ramblings through German culture and history that are not only enlightening but funny. No, REALLY. You might not want to read his book word for word, but dip in and out of it, and you'll find yourself refreshed and perhaps a bit more appreciative and open-minded about this complex,fascinating land. Here's one of Winder's musings: "I wandered around Freising after a heavy blizzard one January and found myself in the hills above the town en route to the oldest brewery in the world (founded in 1040) -- a patently feeble-minded task as the age of the brewery has no impact of any kind on the taste of the beer. ... Walking through the silent hills, with spires just visible, skeletal trees dotting the snowy landscape and the occasional wisp of smoke, I found myself irritably wondering why genial but essentially pointless little birds like bullfinches could bomb around in the fir trees surviving the winter whereas I would be dead of exposure within twenty-four hours. Suddenly, I realized where I was: I seemed to be walking through Breughel's Hunters in the Snow, but with the dark, purposive figures of the hunters replaced by an out-of-condition publisher. Then I arrived at the brewery's lorry delivery ramps, and my little late-medieval moment evaporated."

  19. 5 out of 5

    Robert Morris

    I love this guy's work. Germania is a weird mix between hilarious travel writing and serious history, though Winder would deny the second bit. He describes his experiences, and in the process provides a very digestible, kind of chronological history of the German people and the many little states that eventually ended up as two. One of his contentions is that German history and travel has become a weird dead zone due to the hangover from World War II. The complexity and geographical spread of wo I love this guy's work. Germania is a weird mix between hilarious travel writing and serious history, though Winder would deny the second bit. He describes his experiences, and in the process provides a very digestible, kind of chronological history of the German people and the many little states that eventually ended up as two. One of his contentions is that German history and travel has become a weird dead zone due to the hangover from World War II. The complexity and geographical spread of worthwhile sites are also intimidating. This book, though it ends in 1933, is haunted by the Nazis. He makes the valid point that his style just doesn't work for describing one of history's greatest tragedies. He also hints that German history, and perhaps European history came to a close with the two world wars, and we might just be living in the aftermath. He says it a lot better. In fact, he says a lot of things better. His somewhat scatter-shot style could be seen as frustrating. He can't resist digressions on what was going on in some small German mini-state, far away from the main stream of "German History". I would argue, however, that this is a better way of telling German history. From at least the Middle Ages, until the 1870s, Germany was dozens to hundreds of independent cities and mini-states. To get a true sense of what happened, digressions are necessary. The history of Prussia, which eventually became united Germany, is linear, but there was a lot more going on. I found this book fun, and a great way to broaden my knowledge of Central Europe. Highly recommended.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    An excellent book which teaches a lot while keeping a light-heatred, humouristic style and approach. Through anecdotes and personal experience, Simon Winder gives us an in-depth analysis of the course of German history - or should I say the history of the region of modern Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary... and all the rest of Central and Eastern Europe which got involved in the successive empires. The book not only replaces Germany in its rightful cultural and historical context, but it also a An excellent book which teaches a lot while keeping a light-heatred, humouristic style and approach. Through anecdotes and personal experience, Simon Winder gives us an in-depth analysis of the course of German history - or should I say the history of the region of modern Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary... and all the rest of Central and Eastern Europe which got involved in the successive empires. The book not only replaces Germany in its rightful cultural and historical context, but it also allows a more objective view of a country which is sadly too often disregarded because of the turn of events during the two world Wars. By ending his account with Hitler's rise to power, Winder keeps the focus on the cultural heritage of the "old" Germany - hundreds of years of architecture, music, literature, sculpture and fine arts - without the short but dramatic Nazi interlude staining it with modern feelings . Germania is a book which will challenge your preconceptions about Germany, give you an entirely new view of the central European region, highlighting the cultural and historical ties between what are nowadays separate political countries while keeping you smiling and laughing throughout. My only criticism would go to the often too opinionated view of the author in his description of places: e.g. Neuschwanstein might be a crazy stone fantasy, but come one, surely one cannot entirely deny its worth being visited?

  21. 5 out of 5

    Paul Daly

    I was looking forward to this book, fancying a ramble through German history and culture. Germany is a place I know, having lived there; a language I can converse in, having learned it at school; and a culture I admire. However, in the pages of this book, the Germany I know and love is barely recognizable. The author, an Englishman, has an odd relationship to say the least, with Germany. As he tells us early on, he cannot speak the language, hates the food, hates the climate, and most of the lan I was looking forward to this book, fancying a ramble through German history and culture. Germany is a place I know, having lived there; a language I can converse in, having learned it at school; and a culture I admire. However, in the pages of this book, the Germany I know and love is barely recognizable. The author, an Englishman, has an odd relationship to say the least, with Germany. As he tells us early on, he cannot speak the language, hates the food, hates the climate, and most of the landscape, which he finds "depressingly" like England. And therein lies the clue. The author brings to bear that most English of attitudes, condescension, and a good deal of snark and snideness to everything he sees or does. The whole book is an extended Daily Telegraph article, intended to amuse the bush colonels and the Churchill lovers and the Tories of English suburbia. We are constantly regaled with tales of German awfulness, from whatever era, all connected, however tenuously to that perennial English favorite, the Nazis. Where others have seen wit and erudition, I see only a peculiarly English snobbery, enunciated through sarcasm, serving only to highlight the worst small-minded aspects of that country. And he gives us little of value about Germany.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    If you're looking for a coherent narrative of German history...go read A Traveller's History of Germany. We'll wait. Then come back. Because this is impossible to follow without a preexisting knowledge of German history, but way more fun. (Do you not particularly care about following what's going on, and you're just in for the snarky asides? Don't worry about it, dive right in.) One extremely biased take on bits of German history by a slightly daft and dotty Englishman who would like to pen a mo If you're looking for a coherent narrative of German history...go read A Traveller's History of Germany. We'll wait. Then come back. Because this is impossible to follow without a preexisting knowledge of German history, but way more fun. (Do you not particularly care about following what's going on, and you're just in for the snarky asides? Don't worry about it, dive right in.) One extremely biased take on bits of German history by a slightly daft and dotty Englishman who would like to pen a modern day version of Three Men in a Boat. There really is nothing he loves better than a really terrible fresco, or maybe a nice tone deaf dusty museum exhibit. Just plain prettiness is a bit of a disappointment, really. Utterly delightful.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Duncan Howsley

    I bought this book a year or two ago and had been excited to read it (and its partner Danubia) on my next trip to Germany and Austria. Disappointingly I found this almost unreadable - Winder spends so much time demonstrating the extent of his knowledge of Northern European minutiae and searching for scathing remarks that he doesn’t craft a logical narrative. The book jumps around in a seemingly random manner, reading more like a disconnected collection of trying-too-hard-to-be-funny articles tha I bought this book a year or two ago and had been excited to read it (and its partner Danubia) on my next trip to Germany and Austria. Disappointingly I found this almost unreadable - Winder spends so much time demonstrating the extent of his knowledge of Northern European minutiae and searching for scathing remarks that he doesn’t craft a logical narrative. The book jumps around in a seemingly random manner, reading more like a disconnected collection of trying-too-hard-to-be-funny articles than a history book with any real substance. A shame!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    Not history This was billed as a historical account of central Germany. It is not. It's more like a travel essay by someone who is trying very hard to be witty and failing. It assumes you already have a deep knowledge of German culture and makes many 'jokes' that the average reader will not get. I gave up after about 100 pages. This was just awful, I really can't say who would be the target audience. Not history This was billed as a historical account of central Germany. It is not. It's more like a travel essay by someone who is trying very hard to be witty and failing. It assumes you already have a deep knowledge of German culture and makes many 'jokes' that the average reader will not get. I gave up after about 100 pages. This was just awful, I really can't say who would be the target audience.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Zandra

    I felt this was more a book about Simon Winder than about Germany. He clearly loves many aspects of German culture and cleverly weaves this into his history of the nation. I wasn't so sure that he actually loves Germany, certainly he is very critical of much of what if offers to visitors. I felt it was quite a self-indulgent book, a coherent historical narrative is always secondary to him showing off about the obscure places he has visited and the esoteric culture he has experienced. I felt this was more a book about Simon Winder than about Germany. He clearly loves many aspects of German culture and cleverly weaves this into his history of the nation. I wasn't so sure that he actually loves Germany, certainly he is very critical of much of what if offers to visitors. I felt it was quite a self-indulgent book, a coherent historical narrative is always secondary to him showing off about the obscure places he has visited and the esoteric culture he has experienced.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Becky

    This book is brilliant, a combination of travel writing and history of the German world. Anyone with an interest in central European history or travel must read this, as should fans of Bill Bryson. Absolutely packed with wonderful little details from the German world, just great.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Diane Duane

    A fabulous read. One of those books you keep reading bits from to other people. Winder is insanely peripatetic and hopelessly in love with his subject.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    Genug ist genug! I have reached page 98 of this, often puerile, disorganised ramble through Germany and its history, and I will go no further.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Marks54

    Simon Winder is a writer who works in publishing. He is perhaps best known, at least to me, as the author of a trilogy of books that mix history and personal experiences in covering Central Europe. Germania is the first book of the trilogy. I ended up reading the trilogy in reverse - first Lotharingia, then Danubia, and finally Germania. He knows a lot of history and has a lot to say about it. His writing is clever and funny. These are not travel books, in the sense of the travel genre, but they Simon Winder is a writer who works in publishing. He is perhaps best known, at least to me, as the author of a trilogy of books that mix history and personal experiences in covering Central Europe. Germania is the first book of the trilogy. I ended up reading the trilogy in reverse - first Lotharingia, then Danubia, and finally Germania. He knows a lot of history and has a lot to say about it. His writing is clever and funny. These are not travel books, in the sense of the travel genre, but they are smart and somewhat snarky commentaries on the incredibly complicated history that a tourist will encounter in travelling to the areas covered by these books. I read Germania as a reverse “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”, since we are stuck at home while we have family we wish to visit who are stuck in Europe. In reading it, one can see why it is successful and why its follow-up volumes were developed. The sections that are the least developed in Germania are the ones developed in subsequent volumes. Winder has a special affection for the Habsburgs, at least some of them, and their long history forms the basis for the Danubia volume. Then there is Lotharingia, which is concerned with the borderlands between contemporary France and Germany extending from Norther Italy up to the North Sea and the Benelux countries. Winder is marvelous at poking fun at the pomposity and frivolous nature of the varied rulers and courtesans of the large and small German principalities. Issues get more and more serious as the 19th and 20th centuries are approached but the foolishness of what drove European history for too long is highlighted throughout the book’s narrative. As the story get closer to the present, however, matters become less humorous and more destructive - with consequences that remain today. To his great credit, Winder concludes his narrative with the Nazi takeover in 1933, since many of the luminaries leave town or the stage and the course of German history turns very dark. It is hard to balance snark and seriousness, but Winder is generally on target and engaging, at least to me. I am hoping that travel to Europe becomes much more possible by next summer or fall. When it does, it will be hard to plan our trip without keeping Germania and the other volumes in mind. These are enjoyable volumes that are well worth reading.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ross

    This is a concept I've been complaining about for years, that of history mostly forgetting Germany's contributions to world culture prior to 1939 (or even 1914, if you wish). The 20th Century viewed Germany as Europe's bully, a point which the author acknowledges, but this book sets out to give Germany its soul back. What I really enjoyed about it was the general sense of meandering through the history of Germany, which gives a real, raw picture of the general overall messiness of European histor This is a concept I've been complaining about for years, that of history mostly forgetting Germany's contributions to world culture prior to 1939 (or even 1914, if you wish). The 20th Century viewed Germany as Europe's bully, a point which the author acknowledges, but this book sets out to give Germany its soul back. What I really enjoyed about it was the general sense of meandering through the history of Germany, which gives a real, raw picture of the general overall messiness of European history. It reads like a travel guide mixed with a history textbook, but one in which the author actually visited the sites they're writing about. The personal touch Winder's writing gives to various historical sites really grew on me as I read. The downside to such an approach is that his trips to various places are seen through a distinctly British lens and often come off as judgmental, like an aristocrat sitting around a fireplace with a monocle in one eye, sipping tea and talking about "those pesky Jerries." While Winder no doubt has a great love for the German people, the reader is often left with a sense of tedium as he notes the challenges of visiting places that are out of the way or all of the knickknack shops scattered throughout the country. He notes various oddities as a way of informing the reader, no doubt, but he also seems like the playground bully at times pointing and laughing at the kid who tried to stand up for himself and failed. In the end, I did learn quite a bit from the book, but at the expense of really getting to know any individual Germans. Perhaps Winder is saying that to really get to know a nation, one must visit it and experience the culture themselves? Either way, this book is a ride, even if a somewhat bumpy one.

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