A cheerful, dryly unserious survey and travelogue through the landscape and psyche of Germany.
British writer Winder (The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond, 2006) slips as giddily into discussing the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War as the awfulness of German cuisine, the pogroms that seized German towns in the wake of the Napoleonic wars as the family tree of the Hohenzollerns. The author works with a meandering, loose chronology, beginning with the fantasy of ancient Germania as “a land of forest and personal freedom” and ending after World War II, when the incomparable richness of German history and achievement was “replaced with messianic infantilism.” Winder explains that first visiting Strasbourg cathedral as a young teen awakened his awareness of “an aesthetic sense,” and that he has been fascinated by Germany as Britain’s “weird twin” ever since. As a Brit, he has been inculcated in the horrors of German militarism, which since World War I essentially shuttered all intellectual and cultural curiosity about its golden prewar years, once “an intolerably poignant place” depicted in Thomas Mann’s early novels, now a “sort of dead zone.” The author makes a dogged, gracious attempt to re-engage with what is remarkable about Germany, or at least interesting and moving, even in its grotesqueness—often in the manner of W.G. Sebald, whom Winder evidently reveres. In his travels, Winder has galloped across the countryside in search of the German echt and on the way stopped at every notable castle, cathedral, walled town and bulky monument from Aachen to Wittenberg. The author’s characterization of the Germans veers from insultingly clichéd to charmingly illuminative. In the final chapters, he offers an impressive discussion of the shattering effects of World War I, both on Germany and the world.
A nimble and knowledgeable but long-winded cabinet of curiosities.