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A very personal take on German history,
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern (Taschenbuch)
One of the wittiest Introductions I have ever read prepares us for a diverting and idiosyncratic book on the history of German-speaking lands from their earliest days to 1933. Don't expect a tidy narrative: this is more of an impressionist account, though, like an impressionist painting, consisting of many brilliant and highly coloured individual brush strokes. It is basically, but not always chronological; and it is interspersed with digressions and bits of autobiography which increase in length as the book proceeds. Winder is having fun: "fun" used as an adjective occurs frequently in the book, which is light-hearted, often hilarious, full of colloquialisms (the same ones recur rather frequently), discursive, never short of an opinion and indeed sometimes opinionated and over-the-top: he calls Weber's book on the Protestant Ethic "famously idiotic"; Napoleon III is rebuked for his "sheer childishness"; the word "mad" occurs with a somewhat maddening frequency; he describes the successor states of the Habsburg Empire as "a mass of poisonous micro-states". It is also quite serious, in many ways insightful, cultured, affectionate but also critical, and fantastically knowledgeable.
Winder has travelled all over the German lands, seems to have visited every municipal museum and found there many object worth an illuminating paragraph or two. He has a keen sense of the history of the towns and the countryside, and evokes what he has seen in wonderful passages, like this description of a church in Kuttenberg (now Kutna Hora):
"one of Central Europe's strangest pieces of architecture wobbles into view, as you walk towards the old town, like a very grey version of the Emerald City. The spires of St Barbara's Church are a set of vast witches' hats, seemingly floating free of any town or indeed any base."
(Now look at it on Google Images. Over and over again I was pleasurably and immensely slowed up in my reading by looking up on Google Images the many little-known architectural features, artefacts and paintings mentioned by Winder - and these show how good his descriptions are.)
Some themes stand out particularly well:
- The role the earliest centuries and the Middle Ages play in the imagination of the Germans in all sorts of ways; and how much medieval architecture remains in Germany;
- Why the Holy Roman Emperors, with no proper capital before 1533 when Vienna was declared the capital city of the Habsburgs, never managed to overcome the extraordinary fragmentation of Germany in the way in which the English and the French managed it many centuries earlier. There are delightful vignettes of the courts of tiny principalities, often presided over by dotty or self-indulgent rulers. Due to the frequent absence of primogeniture, many of them had hyphenated names, like Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg which provided the wife for Edward VII: the more hyphenated, the tinier they were. There were also at one time as many as "some 75" self-governing Free Cities. ("Bopfingen is a town whose name is on relatively few lips.") Then there were some 500 Imperial Knights, individuals subject only to the Emperor himself, all of whose lands added together (according to Wikipedia) came to only some 200 square miles.
- How weak Prussia was between the end of the reign of Frederick the Great in 1786 and Bismarck's Danish War of 1864. Winder asserts that "Frederick's actions DID NOT LEAD (his italics) to Bismarck's empire." Winder doesn't think much of Frederick's achievements, and his admiration is for Maria Theresa and her "adorable", "fun" husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I.
- And after all the tomes that have been written about the Prussian - later German - armies, it is interesting to see Winder rather debunking their achievements "outside the delusive little seven year period [covering the Danish, Austrian and French wars between 1864 and 1871]". He also debunks the German navy. He lays into some conventional views about the run-up to and course of the First World War with a zest reminiscent of A.J.P.Taylor. He makes a case for saying that Germany between 1871 and 1914 was militarily less aggressive than Russia, Britain, France or Italy during the same period. He sees the French as the main trouble-makers in Europe from Louis XIV onwards. But then he had decided from the start that his book would "bale out" in 1933. (He does not completely manage that: reference to the Nazi period are dotted throughout the book.) He told us at the beginning that he wanted us to look at pre-1933 Germany free from the hostile mind-set which has been created by the two World Wars, and which had been quite absent from Britain for almost the whole of the 19th century. For him there was no German "Sonderweg": for him "Germany in 1914 had been a normal country, espousing much of the same racism, military posturing, and taste for ugly public buildings that bedevilled the rest of the Continent."
- Winder is most intrigued with the German lands when they are fragmented and different from one another, when they are quaint or have what strike him as quaint names. It is not surprising therefore to find his post-Napoleonic chapters, when Germany becomes gradually more homogenized, becoming steadily less "fun" and, from 1914 onwards, understandably somber; and then, in 1933, "anecdotal facetiousness has to get out of the way and simply stop."
There can be no reader, however knowledgeable, who can fail to learn something from this book, nor any who will not be pulled up frequently to reflect on what Winder says, whether in the end he agrees with him or not. And it is, to use one of his favourite adjectives, a fun book.
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