I consider myself very interested in international cultures, particularly those of the continent. I’ve only visited Germany twice but have enjoyed both trips. On both occasions, I was struck by the countryside and the magical architecture of the towns I visited. I’m also a big Germanchristmasmarketaphile (it’s not a word, but I can make one up) so wanted to learn more about German history and culture.
Simon Winder has also had a deep fascination with Germany since he was a young man – surprisingly, while on a regular family holiday to France. Although the holiday was an unmitigated disaster, he felt compelled to learn about Germany’s history from pre-Rome to 1945. I expected something similar in tone and style to Clarke’s 1000 Years of Annoying the French. It’s a bit longer but that’s not a problem in itself. I like my non-fiction thorough – something I can get my teeth into.
First, the Plus Points
This is a fascinating look at Germany’s quirky, disparate and often totally illogical history. The minor kingdoms that once made up Europe’s largest and most successful economy now make sense when we look at the political topography of the country as it is today. There is a lot of focus on the medieval period through to the Reformation and the 30 Years War, and this is where Winder’s insights are most useful for the English speaker unfamiliar with Germany and German culture.
Another great plus point is that, like 1000 Years of Annoying the French it is a largely personal account of his own travels and insights into the people and the places. He provides understanding of some of the country’s greatest monuments – castles, churches and cathedrals, and explains how the infighting between nobles and these kingdoms led to some of the architectural traditions. You will never again look at traditional German building tradition in quite the same way.
Thirdly, there is a lot of disparaging humour, but it is all in good fun. It is clear that he loves Germany even when he’s describing Rhine Valley wine in less than glowing terms.
Just as succinct is the geography and topography that shaped the borders of the old kingdoms and the modern country, with dense forest and (for most of its history) impenetrable mountains to the south cutting off its expansion further into Europe. You can’t discuss Germany without really talking about the two World Wars. There is much more focus on WWI and seeing it from a German perspective helps to understand how this unnecessary war ever got started in the first place. WWII is here, but he focuses less on the events of the war than he does on the idea of a how a unified Germany goes against almost the entirety of its history.
Now the Down Sides
1945 is where it ends. This is a shame, because I would have liked to see the break up of Germany from a German perspective, and perhaps even the 1960s Cold War and reunification too.
But the major drawback of this book is its messiness. There is very little structure, if any. The chapters have no internal logic for why this or that bit goes in one chapter and not another. It doesn’t follow a traditional chronological narrative. He’ll talk about something happening in the early 1500s and then hop back 200 years and then go to 1850 (for example). It’s difficult to keep up.
Secondly, there is a distinct lack of brevity. I don’t mind the length, but I do feel the writers goes off on quite a lot of tangents. The chapters are dense, sometimes over-written, and as they have little obvious internal logic, it is – at times – a frustrating read. This is a shame as it takes away from what is generally an enjoyable and insightful read.
3/5 from me.