Book review: 'Germania,' by Simon Winder
Sunday, April 4, 2010
In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History
By Simon Winder
Farrar Straus Giroux. 466 pp. $27
Simon Winder has spent more than enough time in Germany to catch the bug, that virus that turns even innocent tourists into amateur anthropologists, desperate to figure out just how the Germans got that way. An editor at a British publishing house, Winder has a severe case, but luckily, he's a smart, witty fellow with a knack for finding the threads that connect patches of the crazy quilt that is German history.
So when he stumbles upon a curious chapter of the central European past -- such as a short-lived, independent kingdom set up by the Anabaptists in Münster in 1534 -- he sees that the 16th-century "blood-soaked, highly unstable entity" populated by "freakish gangs of Bible-neurotic killers" probably existed "in an environment that must have been unpleasantly like West German experimental-theater productions of the 1970s." Winder is no mere researcher; he is an incessant traveler, so he goes to the church in Münster, where the chopped-up remains of the Anabaptists' leader, John of Leyden, were displayed in cages that still are attached to the church walls. He nearly asks the cashier at the church gift shop for a postcard of those cages but restrains himself, as he often does on a journey that seems to include a visit to every little village in Germany but involves remarkably little contact with actual Germans.
What's reassuring about this strange trip through nearly 2,000 years of German history (and by "nearly," I mean that he leaves out a certain infamous period that viewers of, say, The History Channel might be most familiar with) is this: Even in a time of anxiety about the future of the printed word, a publisher was willing to subsidize years of dogged travel by a guy who is eager to suss out the nature of German identity but doesn't speak a lick of German, doesn't care much for speaking to people in any language and presents such a limited survey of the Germans' place in human history that he omits any discussion of philosophy, one of the most essential German contributions to civilization, because of "my own woeful inability to absorb abstract ideas." Winder's travels through German lands from Jesus's time to 1933 -- full stop -- reveal him to be endlessly consumed by medieval churches, incomprehensibly patient with the German tendency to romanticize village life and the forest, and oddly eager to explain away German militarism, extremism and genocide.
Winder is not a wholehearted apologist for the Germans. As a Brit, he happily embraces many of the stereotypes that are so crucial to British comedy. The food is appalling even by British standards (inside German homes, we are told, "the only activity consists of . . . the wife getting the circular saw going to carve up some more winter cabbage"). The wine tastes "too much of steel helmet." The land is so "hemmed in by other cultures with access to serious sunlight" that cloudy Germany is rendered "melonless, basilless, oliveless." And the air is so thick with parochialism and emotional repression that Winder admits that he and his sisters, on their first visit to Germany, wandered the streets of Baden-Baden "whistling the Great Escape music in a way that probably didn't promote postwar healing."
Easy yuks aside, Winder finds himself drawn to castles and cathedrals, to traces of the princes and barons who ruled for centuries before Germany finally became a nation-state in 1871. His "solitary tourism," as he calls his meanderings, leads him to see Germany as the perfect place to be alone, where people cling to a distant and inglorious past to avoid confronting the horrors of the past century.
Winder saves his compassion for the Germans' struggle to cope with the legacy of wars and the Holocaust. "If this book has a serious point," he writes, "then it is as a record of the constant but necessary effort required to resist" viewing German history as a prelude to Nazism. This more than 450-page book about the long sweep of German history manages to make only the barest mention of Jews until Page 340, and then devotes its passage on German-Jewish relations to the idea that "we deal with the Nazis too earnestly. . . . The killing of Europe's Jews stemmed from the pitiful ideas of a handful of inadequate cranks." Suddenly, the publisher's decision to support Winder's odd little visits to entertaining byways of the German past seems downright ahistorical. For although a good travelogue can be just as revealing as a grand work of history, you have to be either dim or dishonest to ignore the scholarship that has explored and confirmed the breadth and depth of German popular support for the Nazis and their quest to exterminate a portion of their own citizenry.
Anti-Semitism was "only a minor element" in Nazism, Winder contends, and then we turn the page and read about the 1819 riots in many German cities in which Jews were beaten, terrorized and killed, and about the pogroms in the Rhineland 700 years earlier. It is simply not enough to declare that Nazism was a "messianic infantilism" and then fast-forward to a contemporary scene in which Japanese tourists visit a notorious Munich beer hall and ask the German band to play an American jazz number, proving to Winder that Germany is today "a replenished world" and not just the cradle of Nazism. Sadly, Winder gets us to that conclusion, which surely has merit, not by confronting the past but by building a witty but ultimately corrupt detour around it.