Review: Germania – Simon Winder

We have just come back from The Black Forest, having driven across France from Dieppe to Strasbourg  and then into Germany, staying for a week in a very comfortable rented house in Titisee-Neustadt – a place I would recommend to anyone who appreciates wonderful scenery and all the facilities of a lakeside resort.

Before I left I borrowed a copy of  Germania by Simon Winder.  I was intrigued by the subtitle, A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern, as I tend to enjoy quirky travel books.  However, while this book is definitely quirky, it is also a vast compendium of German history and culture, combining anecdote, travelogue, history and personal reminiscences in a very readable style, amounting to about 450 pages.

Simon Winder seems to have acquired all the information contained in this book the hard way – by slogging through the country from north to south, year after year, visiting castles, cathedrals and museums wherever he went, collecting as much information as he could.  Whereas most of us would look cursorily around such places before moving on to the next location, Simon seems to have made a personal study of each site, obviously buying the guidebooks and then working out the connections with other places and other times – in other words he is a “synthesiser” who has brought together a vast array of information in order to create this substantial volume.

His background reading was also about as comprehensive as one could expect (seven pages of bibliography), and this has led to a book which while being in places very funny (in the humorous sense), it also seems authoritative.

The amount of detail is overwhelming at times, but Simon’s evident fascination with everything he sees carries the reader along in a sort of joyous fog, with fact after fact trailing along behind him (its all rather too much to take in in one go):

Wandering or rather shuffling around the fabulous little Bach museum – wearing the outsize grey felt slippers still issued to visitors walking on historic parquet floors in the former Eastern Bloc, one of the Soviet Union’s smaller legacies – I was as happy as a clam . . . there is definitely a part of me that would feel it a legitimate use of the rest of my life to shuffle, in the style of some religions, in my shaggy slippers round and round the rooms of Kothen Schloss as an act of seriousness and focus and gratitude.

While we read of the countless princes, kings and “tribal warlords” who ruled the land we now know as Germany (which of course barely existed as a cohesive whole until the 19th century), I found the charm of the book to lie in Simon’s digressions:

One pleasure of solitude is a heightenened awareness of animals.  A decision to simply stand still and not make a noise, if in the borderline tedious company of oneself, is easy.  I remember in Lubeck sheltering from the rain under a blossoming crab-apple tree crowded with blue tits tumbling about above my head; or spending ages watching a shrew working its way up a slope of the Dragon’s Rock, a modest Rhineland hill, but a sort of lavae-packed Annapurna from the shrew’s point of view.  I once walked the length of a sunny street in Hildesheim accompanied by a light-scared bat . . .

Covering such a vast span of time (from the Roman period to the 1930s), I kept coming across people or events I’ve read about.  For example, just to home in on writers, there are many references to writes such as E T A Hoffman, Thomas Mann, Gunter Grass, Franz Kafka and many more, and every reference seemed  to tell me something I didn’t know before.

I think the best tribute to this book is that having borrowed it from the library, I’m now going to buy it.  Germania is one of those books I feel don’t actually want to live without – its got to be there on my shelves to refer to whenever I come across some new item I want to look up when reading books by German authors or books about Germany. My only regret is that the story ends in 1933.  I hope that Simon Winder now writes another volume to cover the period up to the present day.  Perhaps the changes of the last 77 years were just too vast to be slotted in to Germania.


Title:   Germania
Author:   Simon Winder
Publication:   Pan MacMillan (2010), Hardback, 480 pages
ISBN: 9780330451390

Newspaper Reviews:

John Adamson in The Daily Telegraph
Christopher Harvie in The Independent
Philip Oltermann in The Guardian

18 comments to Review: Germania – Simon Winder

  • Whew, that’s great Tom, cos after seeing you list it among your holiday reading I ordered it from Book Depository for my husband, who has a particular fondness for Germany. It was our anniversary last week and it arrived almost in time. Now he has to find time to read it! I love the cover.

  • Hope you enjoyed your holiday. So glad to read a helpful and thoughtful review of this book, as I’d seen it advertised and was intrigued. Living in France I have access to Franco-German cultural telly station, Arte, which is often revelatory about Germany. Starting from a position of relative ignorance (and lamentable German!), am keen to learn more so Winter’s work sounds just what I need. Thank you!

  • Hoping to go to Germany next month,Titisee-Neustadt seems to a very interesting resort to visit. Thank you…

  • i ve look at this myself tom ,i lived for a year in germany in my early twenties and have a great fondness for it ,i may buy it at some point it seems a wonderful inroduction to german history ,i ve just got earlier in the year 1989 the berlin wall by peter millar a memoir of a a man in east Berlin during the falling of the berlin wall ,all the best stu

  • Tom

    Hi Stu, thanks for that. You probably speak some German then – I had to point at things and mutter. I’ve read and reviewed Peter Millar’s book and its pretty good.

  • Tom

    Ayda – I’m sure you’ll enjoy Germany – there are so many regions which are worth visiting – a huge country!

  • Tom

    Minnie – thanks for that. My German is almost non-existent. We enjoyed watching German tv though and were surprised how much we understood

  • Tom

    Whispering – thanks for visiting again. I am sure your husband will enjoy the book although it may take him some time to read it – its quiet a substantial read.

  • With offspring in Germany and frequent visits to the country this sounds like a book I should get hold of – if only to show my granddaughter how knowledgeable I am about the other half of her background… This sounds just the ticket for a traveller who wants to know a bit more about a country but does not want to read standard history texts. Good review!

  • Tom

    Seachanges – yes, I’m sure you’d enjoy it – its a fascinating account of the history of the country

  • A sound endorsement, Tom!

    I put my reading of this on hold after chapter 1 for two reasons:

    a) I was a little put off by the flippant tone
    b) I started learning to speak Spanish and reading Spanish literature (in translation) in preparation for my trip to Barcelona.

    However, I fully intend to pick up and proceed with gusto when my holiday is over.

    Oh, and I’ll probably take up your recommendation for a vacation in the Black Forest … next year, perhaps.

    Have you read Planet Germany?

  • Tom

    Hi Lizzy, yes, I’ve read Planet Germany and also follow Cathy Dobson’s website at http://planetgermany.wordpress.com/

    I enjoyed Germania because it is such a tour de force – you start it and soon think, How does this guy know so much! I wish I could retain information and then synthesise it down into such a readable text. If you go to the Black Forest I’m sure you’ll love it as we did

  • Welcome back, Tom:)
    I want a book like that about Spain!
    Lisa

  • Tom

    Lisa – Ghost of Spain – Giles Tremlett

  • I don’t often go for travel books, but I like the way you’ve described his approach. It reminds me of travelling with my dad, who always puts everything we’re looking at into historical context, which makes it a lot more interesting.

  • Tom

    Thanks Lija. Sound like your Dad is a little like me. Whether my kids found it interesting is another matter!

  • Maggie Wrench

    I enjoyed the book, but think that he used too many subjective adjectives: ghastly, dopy etc. He also missed the great philosophers. I loved the anecdotes and think that he gave an excellent summary of why a great and fertile culture was destroyed in 1918, and trounced forever in 1945. My much-loved father was a bohemian german who left in 1938 and fought in the British army. I knew the sudeten german community in England when I was a child in the 1950`s. I have extremely warm, fond memories of those people. The rest of Dad`s siblings wound up in West Germany after expulsion, kept together and not deliberately separated, according to a cousin, because the family had resisted Naziism (one uncle was sent to Auschwitz). I first went to Germany in 1952 when I was three. My next visit will be on 12th January when I will attend a cousin`s 80th birthday. It will be in Ingolstadt, which features lots in the book, and I will raise a glass to Simon Winder and his tireless efforts.

  • Maggie Wrench

    I enjoyed the book, but think that he used too many subjective adjectives: ghastly, dopy etc. He also missed the great philosophers. I loved the anecdotes and think that he gave an excellent summary of why a great and fertile culture was destroyed in 1918, and trounced forever in 1945. My much-loved father was a bohemian german who left in 1938 and fought in the British army. I knew the sudeten german community in England when I was a child in the 1950`s. I have extremely warm, fond memories of those people. The rest of Dad`s siblings wound up in West Germany after expulsion, kept together and not deliberately separated, according to a cousin, because the family had resisted Naziism (one uncle was sent to Auschwitz). I first went to Germany in 1952 when I was three. I have been many, many times since.My next visit will be on 12th January when I will attend a cousin`s 80th birthday. It will be in Ingolstadt, which features lots in the book, and I will raise a glass to Simon Winder and his tireless efforts.

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