Anyone who visits Germany for long can find it to be a daunting place. There is, of course, the dark past—or pasts, when we add the years of Communist tyranny to the legacy of the Nazi era—which have a tendency to weigh heavily on one's impressions. Then there's the food (can there really be that many types of sausage?) and the social habits (why does hiking require a special outfit and a ski pole?), not to mention the Kultur (does each little town need its own opera house?). Generations of historians have sought to explain the messy, chaotic, and frequently contradictory narrative of this great, somehow still enigmatic European nation. But it almost requires a professional outsider to dredge up the real peculiarities that can supply, in thick strokes, a suggestive portrait of a quirky people.
The British writer Simon Winder seems cut out for the job. He's drily witty at nearly every turn, has a good eye for human drama and mystery, and has managed to do most of his homework (although his German-language skills are regrettably nil). Germania thus works not so much as a revision of the standard literature as a sort of twenty-first-century Baedeker, presenting the byways of German (and Austrian) history from the vantage point of a mischievous English traveler. Winder, more a student of Bill Bryson than of Jean Baudrillard, isn't interested in making profound or pretentious statements about the sites he visits or in the underlying history he recounts; instead, he takes special pleasure in losing his way in the thickets of local lore and richly embellished anecdote.
Along this meandering path, we encounter "gnomes and heroes" from the time of Tacitus and "Hermann the German"—not to be confused with the "Herminator" of Olympic ski fame—through Martin Luther, Goethe, and the man with the little mustache. Winder examines by turns the architecture and design, rites and customs, conflicts and wars, that have helped define what is German. He has his personal favorites—gushing about the nineteenth-century explorer, "Alexander von Humboldt is my God"—but he also enjoys a bit of schadenfreude here and there ("The fundamental pleasure of Saxony lies in its hopelessness"). Beyond the typical rehash of names and dates, triumphs and failures, he relishes the more absurd elements of German culture. Here he is, for example, characterizing the isolation of the towns that dot the landscape of Brandenburg and Pomerania: "These houses imply worlds so circumscribed that the only activity consists of the husband waiting to hear the sound of the wife getting the circular saw going to carve up some more winter cabbage."
Winder's irrepressible, irreverent humor is perhaps his book's greatest virtue. Plunging headlong into Germania is akin to a Monty Python version of the nation's history and lore—with occasionally darker and drier asides courtesy of Larry David. Explaining the Germans' history of mistreating the Jews, Winder notes caustically that the country's leaders "felt they ruled at the behest of and under the critical eye of Baby Jesus." At times, however, Winder's weakness for the madcap makes for longsome reading—a bit like a wayward birdwatcher's outing that's lost track of its quarry. He confesses to a penchant for "droning on about the colonization of the Uckermark or the changing values of the court at Schwarzburg-Rudelstadt."
The narrative is sharpest when Winder tackles Germany's most enduring and identifiable rituals. Drawing on his own publishing background, he offers a pitch-perfect evocation of the Frankfurt Book Fair: "A myriad of almost unrelated worlds are tangled up, united only by their products being expressed in paper—photo-books of toddlers dressed as flowers, calendars of baby-oiled, semi-nude firemen, entire booths devoted only to cute animals or Che Guevara." Likewise, he portrays Munich's annual Oktoberfest celebration with both acid wit and unusual poignancy: "The hundreds of mostly male drinkers are manipulated by the management through a clever use of folk costume, breasts and an oompah band into a form of scarlet-faced hysteria."
Despite its high-spirited approach, Germania has its limits. The argument Winder weaves throughout his travelogue—that Germany is a kind of "Dead Zone," a "lost country," or "Britain's weird twin"—is slightly far-fetched. Berlin, indeed, is Europe's most visited city after London and Paris—a point Winder doesn't let sink in. Instead, his Berlin chronicle focuses on what the Prussian Victory Column memorial now means for the city's yearly gay parade.
Germania is an unlikely candidate for the college syllabus—Winder admits freely that the book is "designed to be an entertainment"—but it serves as an awfully pleasurable, frequently impish travel companion. Winder can at times be moved to tamp down his zaniness, as when he admonishes himself that "anecdotal facetiousness has got to get out of the way and simply stop." But in the self-serious annals of European history, and especially with a subject as dour as the German character, a little zaniness can be just what Herr Doktor ordered.
Noah Isenberg was an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow in Berlin in 2008–2009.