A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Simon Winder’s massive tome Germania is a travel book, a history book, a collection of anecdotes that bludgeon the reader into helpless laughter, and an inspiration for ambitious plans to read more German novels. Though its subtitle claims that this is a history of Germans, rather than Germany, it is really both. Germania dwells lovingly on the geographical, cultural, religious and military iterations of the country formerly known as Holy Roman Empire Central. It starts with Hermann the German in the Very Dark Ages, and goes on, in leaps and bounds, to about 1933, after which there could not possibly be any jokes told until about the 1970s. Its thirteen chapters are helpfully divided into five or six sections, so this book is very long. I recommend it as a bedside book for dipping into for an instructive twenty minutes each night. But, a warning: just as a quote on the cover says, do not read this book in bed (or on a sofa) when sharing that piece of furniture with a sleeping person. Your giggles will wake them up, which could be annoying, especially when they don’t want to hear this good bit here.
There is a lot about Napoleon in this book, who seems to have walked in, conquered, reorganised, and then left again. The schloss at Gotha still has one of Napoleon’s hats, which is indicative of the visual reminders of the Napoleonic Wars that Winder takes such pleasure in. The Wars certainly got tangled up in the minor local land-grabs by German noble families, but Winder notes that Napoleon’s invasion of Russia turned Germany, in fact the whole of Central and Western Europe, first, briefly, into Napoleon’s supply chain, and then the invasion ground for the Russians who chased him back. Napoleon is to blame for 19th-century German longings for world domination. ‘That one Frenchman could wipe out so much history, reorganise states more or less at will, make up fun new names for them, give them to relatives to run, fill them when he fancied with French troops: this was a nightmare of helplessness with strong echoes of the Thirty Years War, generating a longing for self-sufficiency and a justified hatred of France that was to shape Europe’s future.’
There are hardly any illustrations, which I think is a loss, since so many of the anecdotes and amazed descriptions rely on a visual impression of the vastness or hideousness (or whatever) of the thing being described. Of course, this could be a defensive strategy, since one man’s humour may be another person’s straight-faced deflating look of patience. My sense of humour latches onto Simon Winder’s prose much like a substrate meeting the enzyme of its dreams, producing accumulating adjectives and high-contrast paradoxes that have me in gales of laughter.
He is particularly good on the wonder cabinets of strange collections, when he describes the evolution of an arms race among the Schlosses with collections of deformed frog corpses, filigreed ostrich eggs and demented carvings of crucifixion scenes inside walnut shells. ‘Once everyone had a piece of coral it became merely a prestige baseline rather than something that could be boasted about.’ His fascination is for the things themselves – ‘I pretend to despise them but really I could only be happy with a nautilus-shell drinking cup’ – and with the German mentality over the centuries that not only collected these marvellous, unique things – the stuffed body of a 15th-century war horse! A five-inch-high model elephant made from wood, silver, gilding, enamel, precious stones, beads and lacquer! – but did not use them. ‘How can an East Prussian backgammon set made from ebonised wood decorated with mythological scenes and with each counter made from amber carved with the faces of Greek heroes sit unplayed with in a museum cabinet?’ (Emphasis in the original.) He’s also very aware of the accidental collecting that happened just in time, like the 1925 bestowal of the devotional apparatus of a disused synagogue into the museum collection of the very small town of Hornburg, just in time for it to escape destruction by the National Socialists.
He’s occasionally quite rude about Germans in the way that very confident public-schoolboys are in the privacy of their own drinking clubs, but wouldn’t have the uncouthness to say openly in a mixed group. His evolving Unified Theory of German-ness produces fine but sometimes crass jokes, but I hope these can be forgiven for his delighted obsessions – with very small and eclectic regional museums, with objects that survive multiple regime changes, with military regalia, with civic statuary – that reveal his passion for this lovely and complicated country. But his best jokes, and the strength of the whole book, derive from the simply ludicrous situations that arise from Germany’s extraordinarily complicated history. By focusing on the leaders and what they decided to do for the greater enhancement of their leaderness, Winder taps into a rich stream of entertaining anecdotes and fun facts. He also uses this selective evidence to posit useful thoughts about Germany’s self-perception. ‘Following unification in 1871, the kaisers saw themselves as the true heirs to their Salian predecessors. This was gratifying to them and a way of getting away from their obvious Prussianness, unifying the new Germany under a Salian cloak. The intervening centuries of sad disunity then simply became something over which a beautifully engineered bridge could be laid linking a glum, unimaginative military man in the present day (Kaiser Wilhelm 1) with his glittering, armoured, charismatic predecessor Friedrich 1 over six centuries before’.
This example of a tendency to ignore the facts for political aggrandisement is the theme of pretty much everything Winder has to say about 19th-century German power relations (and he says a lot about this). It reminded me very strongly of a recent Belgian newspaper story in which an excellent new invention by an Indian immigrant now resident in the USA was claimed as a triumph of Flemish science because the inventor had spent almost all of his first year of life breathing Flemish air. Shameless nationalistic doublespeak is clearly a long-standing human tradition. Since Germany was so full of different regions, principalities, duchies, baronies, scrapings from the Holy Roman Empire and simple free cities (though not free for long, mwahaha), there are plenty of splendid examples to enjoy in this fine book.
Simon Winder, Germania. A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern (Picador, 2010), ISBN 978 0 330 53628 8.
Kate podcasts about books that she really, really likes, and will probably be doing more on German authors from now on: www.reallylikethisbook.com.