Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A whistle-stop tour of German history

A few weeks ago, I signed up to The Dabbler Book Club and received a copy of Germania by Simon Winder.
Simon Winder works in publishing and has spent many years editing history books. His vast knowledge of European history is apparent in this lively and witty romp through centuries of battles, alliances, betrayals, marriages and treaties. If, however, you are hoping for a better understanding of  The Holy Roman Empire, the Prince Electors and Dukes, the Thirty Years War, the Congress of Vienna and various Diets that peppered your history lessons, you will be disappointed. Germania is Simon Winder's Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern, it will keep you entertained but leave you as confused as ever. 

In 441 pages (about 90 too many for comfort), we are taken to most of the former states, dukedoms and principalities of pre-unified Germany to see ugly statues and dull museum pieces, mementos of long forgotten battles, heroes and villains. They are described with great enthusiasm and irreverent humour but there are rather too many museums, schlosser and memorials for even this lover of absurdities.

How I wish, though, that this book had been around when I had to write an essay on Catherine the Great, if only my history teacher had possessed a sense of humour!

In a sort of asteroid belt of low-grade German princesses and narrow, petty, moustachioed princes there was enough room for something really surprising to happen. Most absolutely alarming in this respect was pretty little Sophie Augusta Frederica of the laughable territory of Anhalt-Zerbst, a place so small it  could hardly breathe. Her father was a Prussian field marshal and as a helpless pawn in plans to boost Prussian-Russian relations in the 1740s Sophie was shunted off to Russia where, after several ups and downs, she married the Grand Duke Peter, learned Russian, became Russian Orthodox, had Peter killed and wound up as Catherine the Great, devastating the Ottomans, the Swedes and the Poles and carving out immense new territories from Latvia to the Crimea. Indeed, a case could be made for her being the single most successful German ruler of all time, albeit not one ruling Germany.

There are many such amusing cameos to lighten what might otherwise be a depressing catalogue of wars and cruelties of various kinds. There is an extensive bibliography should you wish to take a more serious look at German history but this book is an idiosyncratic, high-speed tour around Germany, pausing to look at oddities that perhaps give some insight into the nature of the German people. An interesting and entertaining read.

For reviews of Germania by Simon Winder go to The Dabbler. And why not join the book club?


  1. It was a bit of a dense read, wasn't it?

    A change of pace now, though - The Dabbler Book Club is doing a novel next. Tim Binding's 'The Champion', which is meant to be good.

    You can all join free here, and have a pretty good chance of getting a copy.

  2. So tempting to join, M, but would be fatal for me. As you know, I already have piles of unread books all over the house (and two more added to the pile today). Doesn't stop me reading reviews, however - online and off - and hankering after more. Might have to pass on the Germanic convolutions though.


I love to read your comments and promise that I will reply as soon as I can leave my garden, sewing room or kitchen!