For a country that is both Europe’s most prosperous power and arguably the worst villain nation of the 20th century, Germany does not get much mention in the English-language world, especially when compared to say, France or Italy. Germania- A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern attempts to remedy this by showcasing the history and landscape of the country. Author Simon Winder is a self-confessed Germanophile whose affinity for the country began in a childhood holiday to Alsace-Lorraine, followed by dozens of visits as an adult. In Winder’s own words, Germany is a sort of “dead zone” for British visitors, so he attempts to rejuvenate the country’s image in a jaunty retelling of Germany’s history, places and landscapes that is at odds with the country’s predominantly serious image.
Germania is not a conventional history book nor travelogue. It tells the story of Germany from Roman times, with the opening battle scene of the movie Gladiator mentioned, to 1933 in a non-linear way, both in history and travel, as each chapter groups together related themes and topics. It took me a while to get used to this but eventually the book turned out to be a very fascinating read.
What Germania makes clear, amplified by Winder’s lighthearted writing, is that Germany was for most of its history an unwieldy and chaotic collection of kingdoms, states and cities that fiercely clung to their independence. For hundreds of years, these entities, which indeed numbered in the hundreds, were part of the Holy Roman Empire, itself more of a collection of states than a unified entity, where later they’d come to be part of the Hapsburg Empire. Only in the late 19th century would Germany come into being as a unified entity, driven by powerful Prussia which itself had to fight a war with Austria to assert control.
Winder takes readers to obscure towns and villages such as Wolfenbuttel and Anhalt-Zerbst (from where Catherine the Great hailed from), that existed as tiny kingdoms for hundreds of years, as well as more well-known historic cities like Mainz, Bremen, and Cologne. Winder enjoys highlighting the quirky aspects of these towns and cities such as former eccentric rulers, old town halls, and exotic regal collections or “wonder cabinets” of animal specimens and miniature art.
As a result, Germany is full of towns and villages that still retain some character, albeit not as old as some people would think. Culturally speaking, especially in music and art, Germany was a European powerhouse, though this aspect has been overshadowed by its role as the aggressor in the two World Wars of the 20th century.
There is also a lot about France, which, contrary to its popular contemporary reputation as a nation not good at fighting wars, used to terrify the German states until the late 19th century, and Italy, whose art and culture Germans had a strong fascination for. Naturally, Austria, which is a German-speaking country that used to be the most powerful German state as it ruled the Holy Roman Empire and then the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, also plays a role in the book.
While the modern-day convention is that Germany terrified France due to having attacked it during both world wars in the 20th century and having defeated it in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the French actually had their way with the Germans during the preceding centuries. In fact, Winder says one of the main factors pushing German unification in the mid-19th century was for the individual Germanic states and kingdoms to come together to stand up to the French.
Winder also claims that Germany’s formidable warlike reputation is exaggerated since outside of three wars against Denmark, Austria, and France in a seven-year stretch in the late 19th century, Germany has never ever won a war. Of course, one must keep in mind that Germany never existed as an entity until the 19th century.
However, one of the most poignant parts is the leadup to World War I. Though Germany is often portrayed as being the aggressor of the war, Winder says that tensions with Britain led to an arms race and mutual distrust in the preceding decades. As most people know, World War I was sparked by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian, which led to the Austro-Hungarian Empire targeting Serbia, whose ally Russia was compelled to get involved. As France was an ally of Russia and would also intervene, this meant Germany had to step in to help its ally, the Austro-Hungarians, which thus meant that Britain ended up entering the war to aid France.
Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire suffered defeat in World War I, leading to the imposition of huge reparations, as well as the breakup of the latter. This financial burden was worsened by economic woes and inflation in the 1920s and 1930s, leading to the rise of Hitler. The 1930s is where Winder stops the book, lamenting that from that point on, things would not be the same for Germany as the terror of Hitler and Nazism would happen.
Winder’s light-heartedness and occasional facetiousness might not be for everyone, as it wasn’t for me at first, but if you stick with it, chances are you will gain a memorable impression of Germany. In the end, Germany still turns out to be a strange nation, but one with a lot of character, tragedy, and culture.