Nationalism, Culture, Germany; Continent: Europe

  • Author Stephen Winder’s personal, meandering discussion of topics in pre-WWII history will make you laugh and think, often in the same chapter
  • 480 pages (Bibliography begins page 379)

I confess, I read Winder’s 2015 book, Danubia, before I got back to read Germania, his 2011 offering. Germania is the slightly shorter book (Danubia is a whopping 512 pages, excluding bibliography, etc.) with a broader scope. While Danubia focuses on the Hapsburgs, Germania tells a story with all sorts of people in it: artists and musicians, politicians and princes, Protestants and Catholics. Pretty much anyone who made a mark on central Europe prior to 1933 makes an appearance in this rambling monologue. Germania feels a bit like Winder’s warm-up book before he could focus on the Hapsburgs in Danubia.

Germany as a Case Against Nationalism

The theme important to both works is the idea that nationalism is dangerous. All of Winder’s mental wanderings through art, religion, warfare and politics argue to the reader that “Germany” as we know it today has taken a long road to arrive at its recognizable form. Its borders have fluctuated, and most of its states were independent kingdoms for centuries, with their own royalty and traditions. All those picturesque Rhineland castles were populated by people who ruled whatever tiny kingdom they could survey from the ramparts. The Holy Roman Empire swallowed up not only modern Germany’s states like Bavaria, but also places like Moravia, in the modern Czech Republic, plus most of Hungary and Poland. Also, Prussia, which you’ve probably heard of and can’t find on a map. It’s not just you: Prussia isn’t on the map anymore. It was absorbed into Poland and Russia in 1918, but the Nazis would later appropriate some of its history as German.

The Curiosities of Central Europe

Don’t worry: Winder doesn’t lay all the geographical shifts on you at once, or it would be too much to absorb. He traveled extensively through central Europe for years, nourishing his own curiosity more than researching this book. He takes the time to give the reader a distinct sense of one former city-state as opposed to another. He’ll tell you anecdotes about the local rulers and rate the art decorating their crypts, and he’s not shy about making fun of the sculptures and murals he finds ugly or ridiculous. He also visits museums of curiosities – not just to see Prince So-and-So’s armor, but to see real Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not-type stuff, like huge stuffed crocodiles or narwhal horns. Winder takes it all in: local festivals of the sort you might find in a guidebook, churches and town halls, and just about every Schloss imaginable. However, after 379 pages of content, these numerous locales started to run together for me, even though the individual anecdotes he presented were enlightening, interesting or even hilarious.

It’s Not about Nazis…Exactly…

Have you ever looked at the world history shelves at Barnes & Noble and wondered if anything happened in central Europe between Charlemagne and 1933? I took an interest in this book because it looked like a book of German history that wasn’t entirely about Nazis. As I read, however, I began to understand that Winder’s case against nationalism is an argument against allowing Nazism or its ilk to destroy a nation’s diversity.

Much of his book refutes ideas about German history that the Nazis cherished. Hitler liked the notion of a “Third Reich” because it elevated him and Nazism to the status of the Holy Roman Empire (the first “Reich” or “realm”) and the German Empire (the second “Reich”) under Bismarck, so Winder needs to catch us up on our German history to make this seem like a reach on Hitler’s part. Winder also likes to point out that much of the Nazi leadership had a fascination with medieval heroes and stories, and often borrowed iconography from this period. They particularly liked the romance and power of the Holy Roman Empire, despite having little or no respect for the ideals of that time. So, Germania looked like a book that wasn’t about Nazism, and I fell for it. That said, I find I don’t regret it. Winder manages to make his point without being preachy. In fact, most of the pages in Germania contain neither the name “Hitler” nor the word “Nazi.” Over the course of this rather long book, you have time to arrive at his conclusions on your own.

Winder’s Dickensian predilection for long sentences made me sometimes need to back up, particularly if the phone rang or the dog barked. His wit and insight compel you to read on, but make sure you take a minute to consider how what he tells you in a given chapter fits into his overall argument. He doesn’t move in a strictly chronological path, and that could put off a reader expecting a more narrative style. Instead, I found it helpful to think of his chapters as essays around a central topic, like a particular region or a style of politics. Definitely don’t miss this book, but plan to read it when you have time to digest it.

Image: by MoreLight at Pixabay.com, 2016.

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