what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Understanding Germany

First - on the eve of the German-Greek football match - have a look at this side-splitting Monty Python clip of a German-Greece football match - whose members consist almost entirely of .....philosophers!!
Who do you read when you want to get under the skin of a country – and don’t have the opportunity to go and live there? In the 1960s we had Alistair Cooke for the USA and Luigi Barzini for the Italians; in the 1970s Richard Cobb and John Ardagh for France
in the 1980s Theodor Zeldin for France, John Ardagh for Germany - and Eric Newby and Norman Lewis for the rest of the globe!
France and Italy have become popular tourist destinations for the reading classes since then and created the market for a lot of books – most of the slightly mocking sort about rural life pioneered by Peter Mayle (Ginsborg's 1990 History of Contemporary Italy; society and politics 1943-1980; The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones; and The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour are honourable exceptions).

But HOW do you best get under the skin is perhaps an even more important question.
Through historical recitations? 
Through literary and cultural explorations
Through textbooks on political systems? 
Or perhaps by a combination of these – eg the superb Peter Robb’s "Midnight in Sicily" (which focussed on politics, the mafia and food); or "Molotov’s Magic Lantern"on which I commented recently?

Despite the role and significance of Germany over the past century and in present times, any visitor to that country who wanted a good briefing had a stark choice – heavy academic histories or the Rough Guide. Until, that is, 2010 when Simon Winder produced Germania – a personal history of Germans Ancient and Modern 
I referred to it at the end of a blog last year  but did not find it an easy book to persevere with – by virtue of its idiosyncratic approach. I’ve now been able to read it properly – and find it quite excellent. I’ve drawn on some of the Amazon reviews to give a sense of its key features.
It’s the history of Germany in the broadest sense of that name - starting with the residue of the Roman Empire and ending with the founding of the Third Empire in 1933 when the author can't bear to continue. It encompasses cities from Brussels to Gdansk to Milan and all the way down the Danube, allowing the author to potter around old castles and cathedrals to his heart's content.A higgledy-piggledy mixture of more or less independent duchies, principalities and bishoprics coalesced slowly into modern states (plural - Winder uses Germania for Austria and Germany, and doesn't hesitate to visit other countries nearby). History as folly, incompetence and grudge; the author dismisses his own work as anecdotal facetiousness but it's far better than that. A flavour - "a slice through any given month in Germany's history turns up a staggering array of rulers: a discredited soldier, a pious archbishop, a sickly boy and his throne-grabbing regent, and a half-demented miser obsessed with alchemy".
This book is a travelogue (in the Bryson style) fused with a cultural and political history of Germany. If you're looking for only one or the other, you will be disappointed. But if you just want to find out about Germany, and are ready to accept a few idiosyncrasies of style along the way, you'll love this book.
 Some themes stand out particularly well:
  • The role the earliest centuries and the Middle Ages play in the imagination of the Germans in all sorts of ways; and how much medieval architecture remains in Germany
  • Why the Holy Roman Emperors, with no proper capital before 1533 when Vienna was declared the capital city of the Habsburgs, never managed to overcome the extraordinary fragmentation of Germany in the way in which the English and the French managed it many centuries earlier. There are delightful vignettes of the courts of tiny principalities, often presided over by dotty or self-indulgent rulers. Due to the frequent absence of primogeniture, many of them had hyphenated names, like Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gl├╝cksburg which provided the wife for Edward VII: the more hyphenated, the tinier they were.
  • How weak Prussia was between the end of the reign of Frederick the Great in 1786 and Bismarck's Danish War of 1864. Winder asserts that "Frederick's actions DID NOT LEAD (his italics) to Bismarck's empire." Winder doesn't think much of Frederick's achievements,but admires Maria Theresa and her "adorable", "fun" husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I.
  • And after all the tomes that have been written about the Prussian - later German - armies, it is interesting to see Winder rather debunking their achievements "outside the delusive little seven year period [covering the Danish, Austrian and French wars between 1864 and 1871]". He also debunks the German navy. He lays into some conventional views about the run-up to and course of the First World War with a zest reminiscent of A.J.P.Taylor. He makes a case for saying that Germany between 1871 and 1914 was militarily less aggressive than Russia, Britain, France or Italy during the same period. He sees the French as the main trouble-makers in Europe from Louis XIV onwards. But then he had decided from the start that his book would "bale out" in 1933. (He does not completely manage that: reference to the Nazi period are dotted throughout the book.) He told us at the beginning that he wanted us to look at pre-1933 Germany free from the hostile mind-set which has been created by the two World Wars, and which had been quite absent from Britain for almost the whole of the 19th century. For him there was no German "Sonderweg": for him "Germany in 1914 had been a normal country, espousing much of the same racism, military posturing, and taste for ugly public buildings that bedevilled the rest of the Continent."
This is more of an impressionist account, though, like an impressionist painting, consisting of many brilliant and highly coloured individual brush strokes. It is basically, but not always chronological; and it is interspersed with digressions and bits of autobiography which increase in length as the book proceeds. Winder is having fun: "fun" used as an adjective occurs frequently in the book, which is light-hearted, often hilarious, discursive, never short of an opinion and indeed sometimes opinionated and over-the-top: he calls Weber's book on the Protestant Ethic "famously idiotic"; Napoleon III is rebuked for his "sheer childishness"; the word "mad" occurs with a somewhat maddening frequency; he describes the successor states of the Habsburg Empire as "a mass of poisonous micro-states". It is also quite serious, in many ways insightful, cultured, affectionate but also critical, and fantastically knowledgeable.
The book certainly has made me (and others- it has 100 reviews on the Amazon site) think. It has more than 100 bibliographical references and, significantly, half are literary or cultural.   

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