Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and their History

Giulia Pines tackles Simon Winder’s Germania and finds lashings of self-indulgence with a side of history…


Simon Winder’s Germania is two parts history and one part memoir with a bit of bemused ranting thrown in for good measure. It’s difficult to read a book like this without wondering what exactly the author was thinking – about both his subject and himself – while writing it.

It starts off with an anecdote about a family vacation on an Alsatian canal that cemented the author’s lifelong, die-hard love for Germany, and then continues with a caveat about his lack of language skills. As a matter of fact, we learn by page 10, Winder has cycled through nearly ten languages since schoolboyhood, without managing to get a full handle on even one of them.

This comes along with a hilariously apt description of that moment in life we all have when we realize the capacity of our brain is finite: “As I loaded up those Merovingian and Capetian kings I felt my brain, like some desperately rubbish, home-assembled bathroom shelf, lurch suddenly to one side, and all the Arabic alphabet fell off the other end.”

And just like that, you’re sucked in by his British wit, and down the German rabbit hole you go, until you get to the last page (that would be page 441, by the way) and wonder where your time went.

Winder seems to have the right idea when he says on the first page, “Germany is sort of a Dead Zone today. Its English-speaking visitors tend to be those with professional reasons for being there – soldiers, historians, builders.”

Indeed, the book itself shares what Winder perceives to be Germany’s obscurity: only those English-speakers who already live here, or are unhealthily obsessed with the historical minutiae of countries that barely affect them, would pick up this book in the first place.

Only a madman would actually finish it. The book, in the charming, nonchalant manner that only a writer who works in publishing could possibly pull off, is high on content but low on form. It has no plot at all, and the organization of it seems to be taken directly from the addled mind – and perpetually messy desk – of a writer in his first throes of inspiration.

It is obvious that Winder has been kicking around many of the ideas he espouses in this book for much of his life, but – although he claims to have thrown out ten times the amount of material that ended up in the book – that still doesn’t mean he needs to publish all of it.

While the contents of this book may seem somewhat esoteric to the general reader, however, there is a small, select audience Winder is guaranteed to hold captive: me, and anyone like me who has lived in Germany for more than a year and has grown perplexed, and ultimately either enraged or enchanted, by its many quirks.

Germany: too much green sauce

The book’s general lack of planning, then, seems to fit our mindset perfectly. For us, its words are like a balm to our misunderstood expatriate souls. In fact its very tone seems to echo the din in our brains when we walk down German streets: one bizarre sight or sound after another makes an appearance, thereby causing question marks to pop up, cartoon-like, in front of our eyes.

He reels us in early with a section in the first chapter (all chapters and sections are entirely arbitrary, by the way) about every expat’s favorite subject: the frightening dearth of decent food in the entire Bundesrepublik, from the Mosel to the Oder rivers.

Titled “I’ll have some green sauce with that,” a phrase that sits particularly badly with me as that self-same green sauce once sat particularly badly in my stomach after a meal in the altogether fairy-tale-like Hessian town of Marburg, it speaks of not one, but two of the worst meals (if I were feeling particularly frisky in a grandfatherly sort of way, I would say wurst meals) Winder ever ate, in Nuremberg and Frankfurt respectively.

It also chronicles the sheer, death-defying horror of German cuisine, which seems to challenge the health (and health-insurance plans) of those who consume it daily. “Even in the most lovely surroundings,” he observes of the Lübeck Ratskeller, “…it is hard not to notice that many fellow guests do seem in shocking condition.”

It’s an easy dig indeed, one that has almost become the German equivalent of a stand-up comedian complaining about airplane food, but it works: you spend the next three hundred pages waiting for something as funny and as insightful to come up again.

It doesn’t, but what does is chapter after chapter, verse after poetic verse of obscure German history, which seems to move from this invasion to that war with astonishing speed.

The fun here isn’t in memorizing the details (and in fact, as Winder has already proven, if we try to do that we’ll find our brain’s bathroom shelf becoming swiftly unhinged) but in seeing the country that is Germany begin to take shape, with its wavering boundaries, quaint kingdoms led by eccentric rulers, and shifting allegiances between various traders’ unions and political factions.

If each chapter were represented by a series of maps, and each of those maps were packed together flipbook-like, or turned into a short stop-motion animation, what you might see is an undulating, jellyfish-like blob in north central Europe flanked by Alsace-Lorraine and the bit of Poland that used to be called Silesia (Schlesien in German), with staunchly, proto-German cities like Frankfurt, Leipzig, or Hanover holding down the fort in the middle.

Reading Germania is enough to make you envision that ever-changing amorphous shape in your head, and realise that the concept of Germany is really only as old as the latest political catchphrase. The country we know today as the European Union’s economic powerhouse barely saw itself as a country a mere century ago.

Catherine The Great – Russian ruler, Prussian roots.

And this, of course, can be an explanation for that captivating German myth, invoked by every leader but perhaps by none more successfully than the Nazis, inspired by a history pockmarked, like the land itself, with crumbling castles, mysterious forests, and endless former battlefields.

As Winder observes at a point in the book that, you may realise with delight or dismay, is not even three-quarters of the way through, “A walk in an English forest is associated with brevity and teatime treats…A walk in the German forest, however manicured and signposted, is to plunge into a tradition of infinite richness.”

Seeing that tradition reflected everywhere, however, can at times turn ominous. And here we arrive at last at what we can tentatively identify as the only subject that crops up often enough to get close to being called a theme: the darkness and tension lurking behind the scenes, which caused seemingly harmless issues of identity, nationality, and tradition to explode into the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust.

Winder steps gingerly around these topics for a long time, all the while alluding to the fact that his book will end at around the time the Second World War begins. At the beginning, it does not seem clear why. The reader might wonder whether Winder is much too timid to tackle a subject of such gravity that others have done so well. Yet reading through to the end is its own reward.

As Winder makes clear in some of the book’s most poignant language, he ends the book where he does for a reason: in a way, WWII marked the end of a dream that Germany had for itself.

The end of a highly intellectual (and indeed very often Jewish) class that contributed greatly to German ingenuity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the end of centuries of tradition (the Nazis, in claiming that they were the culmination of that tradition, did more to destroy it than anyone else), and the end of hope for the millions who were lucky—or unlucky—enough not to perish in either war.

This concept is best summed up in the famous Theodor Adorno quote that there could be “no poetry after Auschwitz,” but Simon Winder, not a German and not a Jew, does a fantastic job of summing up his anguish at the destruction of his beloved country—a destruction that, as it so happens, occurred years before he was born: “…this is a personal book and I love what these people created so much, indeed cannot really imagine my own life without them, that I can only mark my own distress by stopping this book here.”

The book ends as it should, though as a memoir it falls a bit short. As a work of historical nonfiction, some might find it laughably incoherent. But as an exuberant chronicle of one man’s long-running infatuation with a country and its people, Germania is an undeniable success.

Winder’s long-winded epic, after all, is subtitled, “In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and their History,” effectively warning the reader who likes his history in short, bite-sized, and easily digestible morsels (hold the green sauce, please) to steer clear. But in imposing his meandering mind upon us, Winder has unwittingly done a great service to legions of schoolchildren, or rather to our own, past pupil selves: he has invented a new way to impart history; one that is vastly more amusing than the old way.

Author Simon Winder: an apposite surname

In addition to storing away such useless but impressive (if you live in Germany and therefore wish to impress Germans—a wayward pursuit in its own right) bites of information as the fact that Pressburg was the old German name for the town of Bratislava, readers also learn about how the Germans failed at trying to build a navy that would rival the British Empire, or about the daughter of a Prussian field marshal who ended up becoming the woman known as Catherine the Great of Russia.

The former of the two yields up some particularly poignant passages on the absurdity of war and how a friendly competition between two countries—mostly encouraged by the rulers of each to drum up patriotic fervor and bolster industry—could lead to years of animosity that would end in wars

On Wilhelmshaven, the particularly ill-advised naval project meant to demonstrate German might on the North and Baltic Seas, Winder explains, “Wilhelmshaven became the focus of ever-madder dreams…By 1900 naval fantasists began to feel that Britain must be the enemy – not for any very specific reason as British and German interests were on the whole complementary, but because an ocean-going navy only made sense in relation to Britain being the enemy.”

It is gems like these that crystallize so many moments in German history, bringing them to quickening, vivacious light in a way your middle school textbook never could.

So perhaps the aptly named Winder, rather than merely compiling a book of useless information whose sheer appeal is its uselessness, should be hailed as one of the forefathers of a great revolution in the chronicling of history.

Instead of going from start to finish, from Adam and Eve all the way to the Euro Crisis, simply meander around it waywardly, and the result will be a book as rich, irreverent, and occasionally infuriating as the country of Germany itself.