Thursday, 16 June 2011

oh those Germans 2

Sig other bought a book recently (in the UK in April, I think it was the third one of those "3 for 2" in Waterstones), called 'Germania' by Simon Winder.  I had not heard of it before, and found it hugely entertaining.  It begins as an amusing canter through Germany and the Germans.  He writes pretty well, though sometimes, editor-like, I question his use of tenses "a step forward for Christianity that was to be a leitmotif for shaping the German experience at least for a further seven centuries".  I'm not even sure what you call that use of tenses.  He does it all the time.  You get used to it.  He makes some points which seem obvious, once you have been presented with them.  The Third Reich was directly devoted to plunder and land-grab, as all its medieval predecessors were.  And yet Germany is big.  Why did they keep needing more room?  And why did they never make a capital city, a London, Paris or Rome?  I was entertained by his narrative of the vast numbers of Electors and Margraves and Landgraves, some of whom were called "The Bald" or "The Fat", one of whom was married to a Spanish princess called "Joanna The Mad".  Fab.  And there is lots about how Germany missed out on just about everything, with Sweden taking over the Baltic trading empire, the Netherlands getting stronger and richer and more maritime, and never really being German, though the Germans thought they were (ask a present-day Dutch person) and those pesky Alps standing between the merchants of the German plains and the warm South.

There are some cool discoveries to be made in this book.  Such as to encounter the author's total keenness on municipal museums in German towns, the more boring the better.  He notes that the embarrassing fairly recent past has been de-emphasised in these places in favour of pre-history, and that all curators make Stone Age reconstructions from skeletons look like West German university lecturers of the early 1970s.

I had never heard of the German painter and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, who went to the new Dutch colony of Surinam in 1699 (p. 191) and did coloured drawings of its wildlife.  It is to her that the phrase "bird-eating spiders" is to be attributed; there is no evidence other than her drawings that South American tarantulas, which the writer calls "teddy bears on mescaline" ever actually ate birds.  An arachnophobe, I had to turn the page.  I should at least have been glad there were no pictures.

The writer is a big fan (p. 222) of the best Habsburg of them all, Maria Theresa.  He calls her "a teenager battling for her inheritance, surrounded by the faithless wolves who had promised her father they would protect her".  After all, he notes, Maria Theresa does hold on to her inheritance, Vienna becomes a great city, and the Empire gets fixed in the heart of Western civilisation.  Now there is a woman whose story might repay a modern retelling.

Simon Winder writes like an editor, and oddly two of his favourite words (editors always have favourite words) are "headachy" and "babyish".

There is some slightly odd editing, one could almost fancy that it had been outsourced to India or somewhere: on p. 253 the phrase "piece of resistance" appears - wtf?

The German attempt at having an African colonial empire in the early 20th century had a savage and bloody aftermath, meted out mostly by Germans.  But they were not alone in this (p. 360).  Everywhere (p. 361) "a truly poisonous technological and moral atmosphere seems to have driven Europeans mad... there was a sort of frenzy of violence, bolstered by a contemptible religious and patriotic high-mindedness... This telegraph, gunboat and machinegun hysteria that racked so many places in the run-up to the First World War formed a generalised nadir, a sickness which would end up being turned on Europe itself."  Well,that's what he says about it anyway.

And, er, "the motor that ruined European culture (p. 382) "was not the overbearing might of Germany but its relative marginality."  Discuss.

He makes a splendid point, in the context of the free port of Hamburg, its experience to be applied to a wider Germany: "weights and measures, pulleys, ladders, cranes, stevedores, hooks, dollies, hessian - these should have been the basis for Germany's future rather than troop trains and siege artillery."  More please.

Some little-known facts, at least little known by me: a "Soviet Republic of Bavaria" was declared in 1919.  Who knew? (p. 398)  And that Bratislava used to be called Pressburg.  And he reminds us about the Fritz Lang film "Woman in the Moon", vg.

This book has a scarily long bibliography, and also an index, also vg.  I often think that the usefulness of the bibliography and index of a book are in inverse proportion to its readability.  But maybe that's just lil' ol' barely-middlebrow me.

Anyway, have a read if you are half-way interested.  Genau.


Anonymous said...

MT was the mama of M Anoinette - was she not?

Jonny said...

I suppose Germany never had a Paris or Rome as it was only unified in 1871 and spent the next 70 years invading France and were too busy. Speer had quite an impressive design, but events somewhat overtook him.
I'm surprised you hadn't heard of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. The German Revolution of 1918-19 was studied in depth in the Trot circles I frequented in my teens: we were very good at sentimental nostalgia for failed socialist republics. The interplay between the Spartacists, SPD and independent SPD, and their failure to present a coherent front was one of the root causes of the rise of the NSDAP, as they were the only loud radicals seen to be doing much through the 20's.

Jane Griffiths said...

anon 0041, she was

ah well in my teens Jonny I was reading Russian literature and swanning round in caftans listening to Mott the Hoople and Barclay James Harvest (who are still playing btw) and making a career out of upsetting my mother by not wearing shoes. Point was really that it was nice to have an enjoyable read of German history, about which I knew not much

Was said...

With your 21st Century revisionism, you may knock the early 20th Century expansionist policies of the German imperialists and their policy of colonisation but they did leave the legacy of drinkable Chinese beer.