In mentioning Heinrich the Fowler, 10th-century King of the Germans and one of the many obscure figures who appears in his book, Simon Winder describes a painting in the Hall of Electors in Frankfurt. A product of the historicising 19th century, it is part of a series of German monarchs stretching from Charlemagne to 1806, the first seven centuries of which are ‘simply fantasy’. Winder writes:
I just feel happy not to be a professional historian who really has to stare hard at the reign of Heinrich the Fowler, say, and must ignore his notionally flowing locks and chartreuse cloak, must banish fantasies of mead-halls, damsels and winged helmets, must dispose of all this picturesque accretion in favour of a handful of often woefully under-informed monastic chroniclers and the odd legal document.
Winder is a romanticising and affable tour guide to Germany and its history. His focus is on characters, anecdotes and the neglected museums and towns that he loves. Rather than histories of Berlin or Bismarck, Winder introduces such oddities as Duke August the Younger of Wolfenbüttel, obsessed with chess, secret codes and rare manuscripts, which can be viewed in the ‘chiaroscuro glamour’ of his library. It is an approach particularly well-suited to the visitor to Germany, whether physical or literary, and to Germany’s multi-centric development and strong regionalism. Of Germany’s major national newspapers, for example, Die Faz is published in Frankfurt, Die Zeit in Hamburg, Die Süddeutsche in Munich and Bild in Berlin.
Germany does not live in its cities nearly so much as England lives in London. Tellingly, Winder’s favourite room is in the tiny Natural History Museum in Bamberg, which contains, inter alia, a stuffed orang-utan, a glass obelisk of humming-birds and wax models of all the edible fruits of Franconia.
As a result, Germania is fragmented into interesting tangents and extended diversions and Winder admits that the entire book should be understood in brackets. One of these brackets contains the short-lived micro-state Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, in which we see the German situation in microcosm. In the late 18th century, Duke Karl August had a special uniform designed for his light cavalry, but debts and the size of his domains restricted his army to 38 cavalrymen and 136 infantry. What made this real-life Ruritania so quintessentially German was the wholly disproportionate brilliance of Karl August’s court. Goethe was his chief adviser, Herder reformed the education system, Schiller and Hegel were on the University of Jena’s teaching staff and the provincial capital lent its name to Weimar Classicism.
However, the disadvantage of Winder’s approach is that, like a tour guide, he has very little interest in Germany as experienced by Germans. As he speaks no German and has a ‘woeful inability to absorb abstract ideas’, he engages with German culture only superficially, focussing on pretzels and such amusingly named spirits as the ‘Prussian Mouthful’. Since the origins of a German unification movement in the late 18th century, the Germans have thought of themselves as ‘Das Land der Dichter und Denker’ — the land of poets and thinkers, and this is something which is largely ignored in Germania. Typically, Winder’s chapter on the glories of Weimar is given as much space (a page) as the story of ‘Texas-Carl’ and the German settlers around Galveston.
The other failing is that the narrative ends in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. Although Winder’s decision not to include such an emotive period in a light-hearted book is understandable, it results in a teleological implication that German history not only led inexorably to the Nazi era, but also that it ended there.
Nationalism is inextricable from German history, not least because it was nationalism that created Germany as a political entity, unlike France or England. But it seems neglectful not to follow that narrative until the resolution of Germany’s problems of nationhood, at least politically, with re-unification in 1990 (an event so momentous in the German psyche that it is called simply die Wende — the turning point).
Winder’s writing, though engaging, is often sloppy, resulting in such sentences as:
Some of these people must have spoken a sort of proto-German, but only alongside numerous other tribes and any number of evil-smelling incomers carving their bearded ways through supposedly impenetrable forests.
He provides an analogy with Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, but misremembers the ending; he relishes the irony of the Berlin Love Parade, which no longer exists, and makes more mistakes of this sort.
These shortcomings, however, do not significantly detract from the stated aim of the book: to provide an entertaining introduction to Germany. Its title is taken from Tacitus, who never even visited Germania. He gave posterity the noble savage as a critique of Roman decadence. Winder has given us Heinrich the Fowler in a chartreuse cloak.