In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History
by Simon Winder
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$27.00 List Price
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.