Tag Archives: Travel

Germania: A Personal History Of Germans Ancient And Modern, by Simon Winder

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I bought this book mainly because I loved the cover. Sad, I know, but it is the only way to judge a book without reading it in its entirety, so why not?

Germania is an apt title for Winder’s project, not because the province of the Roman empire bears much of a resemblance to the place we know nowadays, but because Roman senator Tacitus’s book of the same name has managed to fire up the German historical imagination like few others. A polemic rather than straightforward reportage, Tacitus’s Germania contrasted the decadence of the imperial capital with the simplicity of the savages from the provinces, conjuring up a people who were more geographically and ethnically unified than they had ever been in real life. Ever since, German nationalists have scrambled back to Tacitus’s text whenever the fever of nationalism has seized the country.

For all his adult life, Winder has been traversing and re-traversing the towns and castlescapes of the German lands. He has visited dungeons, cabinets of curiosities, beer halls, and model-train museums. He has clambered up towers and down into crypts. He has scrutinised suits of armour, paintings, garden gnomes, cathedrals and museums of marzipan. And all the while he has been reading his way deeper and deeper into German history. Out of all this he has spun an enthralling weave of travelogue, anecdote and historical mock-epic.

The anecdotes are often hilarious, beginning with a disastrous family canal holiday in Alsace-Lorraine, and including such gems as his account of being rather trumped by a German contemporary when discussing what they got up to on their sixteenth birthdays (Winder played his new Simon and Garfunkel record; the German rode his new motorbike and slept with his friend’s mother – ““I remember feeling out of my depth on hearing this.”)

Fairy-tales of old Germany: King Ludwig II's castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria

A helpless fan of small-town museums, bad civic paintings, and similar oddities, Winder can’t stop sharing his finds with us. These include some real marvels, like the poorly preserved horse of Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus on display in Ingolstadt almost 400 years after it was shot out from under him at the battle of Lutzen. Just as characteristically, Winder’s evocation of the Thirty Years’ War — during which Gustavus’s invasion of Germany saved the Protestant side from disaster — appealingly blends historical knowledge and imaginative empathy for the traumatized lives people led in the war’s “terrible theater of helplessness.” He isn’t all laughs and curios by any means.

Many a theme is introduced with a regretful nod to the Third Reich, or bid farewell with a wave heavy with premonitions of Nazism. From the very beginning (both of the book and German history) poor old Tacitus’s use of the phrase ‘pure blood’ is described as ‘catastrophic’ (despite it taking more than a millennium and a half for it to seem so). The Nazis appear fairly regularly, very distractingly and seemingly inevitably – rather like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition.

However, the rise of Nazism is constantly avoided and militarism is never treated with anything more than a nod; Winder is no apologist, but by his very avoidance of such issues, the silence becomes even more deafening. Why try to present a more balanced view of the sweep of greater German history if you roundly ignore a key element? Why stop at 1933?The answer appears to be that Winder wishes to remove the ‘mental quarantining’ of German history caused by the deeds of Hitler and the Nazis. In that case, his approach is somewhat justified. I still feel he has missed an opportunity by choosing this path.

By turns Germania reads like detailed narrative history, a series of impressionistic essays on cultural and historical themes, and personal travelogue. Some may find this pleasingly eclectic; others might find it combines to produce a book that’s a little too long, a bit uneven and with a tendency to ramble. In any event, it’s an entertaining read, full of interesting facts and insights – even if one feels an opportunity has been missed.

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The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb

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The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb

There is a popular myth that regional minorities in France were dropped into a blender and emerged as part of a nation France. Through exhaustive research and a witty, engaging narrative style, Robb corrects this misconception by showing how, even as modern developments like democracy and the steam engine transformed France from “a land of ancient tribal divisions” into a centralized nation-state, a wealth of regional particularities persisted in “disparate, concurrent spheres.” In its pivotal years between the revolution and World War I, France emerges in Robb’s telling as a land where the past did not morph seamlessly into the future; a land where diversity existed in a permanent tug of war with uniformity; “a land in which mule trains coincided with railway trains, and where witches and explorers were still gainfully employed when Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris.”

Also, it has become conventional to argue that France has been in slow, inexorable decline since 1900. This is true with regard to the loss of empire and political prestige around the world, but it is also true of all the formerly ‘great’ powers. What has really been happening in France, Robb argues, is the erosion of centralised political control in Paris as the plural identities of France – linguistic, cultural and even religious – re-emerge from the margins.

Written as a “social and geographical history” in which “‘France’ and ‘the French’ would mean something more than Paris and a few powerful individuals,” “The Discovery of France” draws its material not just from the usual array of scholarly sources, but from the author’s own back-road explorations on his bicycle. (“This book,” Robb notes, “is the result of 14,000 miles in the saddle and four years in the library.”) Although Robb eschews the orthodox map of French history, his book covers roughly the pre-Revolutionary period to the present day. This is the era usually defined as the France of heroic modernity – the years when French ideas, from Revolution to art, urbanism and poetry, were exported across the world as universal truths.

In fact it has proved difficult to demonstrate that this unit, or Grand France, has ever occurred, that it was possible to “forge this swarming continent of microscopic kingdoms into a single nation.” Robb shows that regional peculiarity has always survived despite the convulsions that France has undergone, and that these unique ethnic and cultural traits are re-emerging in the national consciousness.

The Discovery of France is the sort of history that seems almost to have disappeared from the world of professional academic historians: written in a light and pleasant style, crammed with colorful and unexpected details, it offers what seem like tantalizing glimpses into a vanished, forgotten past. Robb possesses a masterly narrative style, which floats the reader on a sea of conflicting national identity and linguistic development, while interspersing personal experience with historical analysis. Nonetheless, this is not an academic work to be avoided by francophiles and amateur historians. It is a romantic, slightly nostalgic look at a complex nation still trying to find itself after centuries of nationhood. Most importantly, it is an engrossing read!

Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop € 10