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Monday, April 5, 2010

‘In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans’

Simon Winder’s take on all things Germania

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In the publisher’s advance catalog, the title of Simon Winder’s book is listed as Save Yourselves! The Gnome Has Gone Crazy! A Personal History of the Germans. At some point someone presumably thought better of it, for it has been published as Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)—more sedate-sounding for a respected publishing house, perhaps, though it has to be said the original does give a more accurate foretaste of the contents and the author’s approach.

The cover sets off the “mania” in “Germania” typographically, and appropriately so, for Winder, author of The Man Who Saved Britain (about the James Bond novels), has been consumed with all things German for most of his adult life. That he has been able to ride this hobbyhorse without also mastering the German language despite, as he ruefully admits, years of trying, is evidence of the depth of his mania.

Germania is a delightfully personal and engaging book—to borrow Hollywood parlance, it is sort of Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That meets Will Cuppy’s The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. It is cheerfully opinionated, studded with assertions like “For Germans the Middle Ages represented an acute degree of annoyance” that on the surface sound simply nutty but actually capture the essence of an accompanying line of reasoning.

It could be said that the book offers genial little asides into this or that, but more accurate would be to say that it is a grab bag of asides clinging to a narrative line. In a spirited discussion of his enthusiasm for three Rhine cathedrals, he writes that on “one babyish occasion I even zoomed between all three in one day just to see definitively and finally which one I liked best.” But then he couldn’t make up his mind.

Anecdotal details illuminate grand designs. For instance, in the late 19th century when a more-or-less united Germany set out to get itself an empire from the bits and pieces left over by the other powers, its rulers were chagrined to find that they had to communicate with the natives in pidgin English. Not willing to put up with such humiliation, they invented a vocabulary of pidgin German of about 1,000 words. But then World War I came along and ended that effort.

He has fun with the dozens of duchies, principalities and other tin-pot royal acreages, some of which existed until the end of World War I. He has a nice brief take on novels about imaginary countries and how they reflect the “oversupply” of German princes and princesses in the 19th century. This too makes a serious point. Well into the 19th century, Winder writes, “the fundamental clock that ruled German life was dynastic.” Before the rise of nationalism “the glory of the ruler was the point of history,” and whole duchies were even swapped among royal houses.

His knowledge is as encyclopedic as his enthusiasm is childlike. He discourses on, among hundreds of topics, the patchwork nature of the Holy Roman Empire; “the deep-rooted nature of German fissiparousness” (Germany did not develop an active, continuing, urban center early on as England did with London); the Teutonic Knights and their connection (or not) to modern German soldiers; the role of religious conflict in German history; and the remarkable likeness of Wagner’s Nibelung dwarves to the slave laborers Albert Speer worked to death in his underground factories during World War II.

However, this freewheeling, playful approach, while agreeable, lends itself to writing that tends to be overly windy, suffering especially from acute adjectival and adverbial overload, often of adjectives and adverbs that are neither appropriate nor helpful. “Gaggingly claustrophobic” is how he describes a “stone cage” in Ulm.

Winder “packs up” his book with the Nazi takeover in 1933, “just as everybody who made Germany so remarkable a place packed up”—some to exile, some to silence, some to oblivion. Of his many generalizations, it is one of the most defensible.