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Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History Paperback – March 1, 2011

3.5 out of 5 stars 78 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Germany has a culture that both fascinates and puzzles Winder, a Londoner. This broad and often whimsical portrayal of German history and culture is an apparent effort to express and perhaps understand those dual sentiments. Winder traces German history from the dim, mythological pre-Roman past in northern forests to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. Although he utilizes a chronological narrative, his account is loaded with enjoyable digressions on German food, the charm of medieval castles, and German composers. Some of his historical points are instructive, including the fact that, for most of history, “Germany” was defined by language rather than geographical or religious unity, which he sees as fundamental in understanding the ferocity of German nationalism in the twentieth century. This is an enjoyable, often amusing, often serious effort to understand a people who remain at the center of European civilization. --Jay Freeman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“An engaging, often funny catalog of one man's eccentric enthusiasm for a country that he has come to love--somewhat to his own surprise…Winder is an entertaining writer, and an erudite one.” ―Ian Brunskill, The Wall Street Journal

“A delightfully personal and engaging book…Winder's knowledge is as encyclopedic as his enthusiasm is childlike.” ―Roger K. Miller, The Denver Post

“Winder digresses into wine, marzipan, wonder cabinets, American films, and his own inability to learn German or understand philosophy.…A weirdly witty chronicle.” ―Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

“His rich and broadly chronological history of Germany and its peoples is minutely researched. Interspersed in the narrative, however, are the deliciously opinionated, often hilarious and occasionally vituperative reminiscences of the author's many excursions to Germany and Austria. They make the book. The love-hate nature of his relationship with his subject brings out the best in his writing . . . It is the kind of knockabout humour that has British readers rolling while Germans smile politely but a little uncomprehendingly . . . A splendid offering.” ―Hugh Mortimer, Financial Times

“Wonderful--very witty and highly entertaining, splendidly and amusingly opinionated, marvellously colourful in its descriptions of unusual places and little known people, and full of enjoyable insights into German history and culture.” ―Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler: A Biography

“Winder is perhaps the first to have succeeded in presenting Germany as no less fun that France or Italy and the Germans as a nation of eccentrics very like our own . . . He excels in a style that he self-deprecatingly calls ‘anecdotal facetiousness' but which manages to convey copious quantities of facts in the most enjoyable way possible.” ―Evening Standard

“It's plain that Winder's mind is fizzing with interesting ideas. He can write beautifully, embodying a whole world in a phrase . . . He finds new angles on familiar subjects . . . His excitement is beguiling and infectious; he's widely read, good-humoured and--a wonderful asset in writing this book--utterly lacking an axe to sharpen on the subject of the Second World War . . . There are many pleasures to be savoured in Germania . . . gems that make Winder's clever, rambunctious work a book to treasure.” ―Miranda Seymour, Literary Review

“This book is the chronicle of a passion. It is also an engrossing, informative and hilarious read. He has spun an enthralling weave of travelogue, anecdote and historical mock-epic. What is often most engaging about these encounters is the spectacle of Winder himself. It made me laugh so hard that I woke up my wife and had to give up reading the book in bed. If Bill Bryson had collaborated with W. G. Sebald to write a book about Germany, they might have wound up with something like this. Winder's extravagant mixing of genres allows him to seek historical depth without sacrificing the pleasures of anecdote. There is a serious purpose behind all the playfulness.” ―Christopher Clark, The Sunday Times (London)

“Simon Winder peppers his meaty tome with quirky digressions, anecdotes and memories, revealing intriguing insights about Germany, from its cuisine to its architecture, people and history.” ―ABTA Magazine

“Travelogue and historical narrative are merged in a gloriously free-wheeling narrative of the entire sweep of German history . . . This book is clearly not intended to be the last word on German history. But for any readers wanting a learned, entertaining and lucid introduction to a notoriously complex subject, it should certainly be their first.” ―Seven Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph

“This candid, cheerful and idiosyncratic approach to travelogue makes a refreshing change. Whether being stridently critical or puppyishly enthusiastic, Winder is a master of the well-turned phrase or the unexpected insight.” ―The Times (London)

“Best to follow Winder on his rambles as you'd follow a favourite uncle who knows lots about lots of apparently random things . . . He is most engaging and sporadically wise . . . Winder's mind is a very agreeable place to go rambling.” ―The Scotsman

“Entertaining and informative... Delightful” ―Philip Hensher, The Independent

“A beautifully written and insightful book . . . It can only be hoped that it will be read by many and that it will be recognised for what it is: a witty, thought-provoking account of Germany's various histories, cultures and oddities.” ―The Irish Times


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (March 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312680686
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312680688
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #231,340 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Read up on your German history? If not, you may have a bit of trouble with Germania. I came to the book with little knowledge of pre-1900 Germany and was hoping for a laugh and a good story (since the Sunday Times said it was an `engrossing, informative and hilarious read') as well a smattering of history on a fascinating and unfairly maligned (in the English speaking world anyway) country.

This isn't informative history, however. This is commentary with quips. Winder doesn't exactly tell you about German history and takes for granted you know who William V or Wallenstein was, or the causes of the Thirty Year War, and then makes pithy comments about each before moving off in the next paragraph to a completely different topic.

I liked the casual, personal approach, but he needed to slow down and, with some more adept storytelling, explain about the key people and moments in German history. I also didn't quite get Wilder's slightly condescending humour. It seems he actually does like obscure German villages but is scared of what the cool kids will say, so he laughs off two room museums and forgotten towns. Bill Bryson he is not.

I'll go off to find a straight-laced book on German history and then return to Germania to see if I can finish off the second half of the book. Perhaps by then I'll be in on the joke?
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Format: Hardcover
This is my review published in the San Francisco Chronicle:

In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History
By Simon Winder
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 454 pages; $25)

At first glance one assumes that Simon Winder has in mind with "Germania" something like an updating of the late great Gordon Craig of Stanford's "The Germans," a classic study by the onetime dean of American historians of Germany. Actually, not at all.

Winder, who "works in publishing" in Britain, may in one sense have set off, as the subtitle says, "In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History," but not in any sense you'd think. For example, as he mentions several times, self-floggingly, he does not actually speak German.

That is, even after many dozens of trips to Germany over the years, he seems to have no ability to carry on any kind of conversation. To call this bizarre would be an understatement. And it's not as if Winder tries to make up for this lack by treading softly. He mocks Germans regularly, puckishly and pedantically. I laughed hardest when he referred to "horror at German food," as if the Brits could possibly cop an attitude in this area. Is the man insane? Compare a banger (blah!) with a Nurnberger bratwurst (excellent!).

It was only as I made it several hundred pages into Winder's alternately intriguing and wearying descriptions of many centuries of German history, as revealed through trips to small-town museums and schlosses, that I finally understood: Winder has been a Germany obsessive for years and makes the offensive put-downs in proactive self-defense, given the vitriolic anti-German sentiment that to this day maintains a robust following in Britain.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Simon Winder possesses a storehouse of knowledge on the castles, landscape, music, art, museums, nobility, and military history of the landmass taken up by present day Austria and Germany--and uses a shotgun approach in scattering this idiosyncratic knowledge across pages of this text. Mr. Winder's highly personal observations are sometimes useful, many times obscure, funny at times, but when taken as a whole, confusing rather than edifying.

Unfortunately, the complex and lengthy history of Germany and its people does not lend itself to a sustained comical treatment, especially that of an Englishman (who does not speak German) apparently attempting to write nearly every paragraph in a pale imitation of the style favored by the American humorist P. J. O'Rourke. By the middle of this over-the-top book, I was struggling to finish. (I am sure a German would be struggling not to load his Luger and go author hunting.)

As an aside, I have been to Berlin, where I thought the Berlin Cathedral was not, as claimed by Mr. Winder, a "truly awful historicist stoneyard." And, in Vienna, I was once in the area around St. Stephen's, not viewing it then as the author does as "one of those terrible tourist zones."
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As a person who reads a bunch of history, it's ultimately the books that don't remain too serious about their subject matter, while still representing it in a factual way, that stand out. On this count, Simon Winder is at the top of my non-fiction-author heap at the moment, having pulled off a book that's so expansive (covering much of the German speaking world, for around two millennia), so detailed in it way (by Winder's only description, the place we think of as 'Germany' was until about 150 years ago an agglomeration of hundreds of tiny principalities), and so unbelievably funny (on more than one occasion while reading in bed I laughed so hard that I woke up my wife, much to my regret...) that I flew through it almost too fast. It's a rare beast of a non-fiction, history-ish book that you wish, upon finishing it, that you had another 500 pages or so to go. Well, here it is! I'll bottom line it: if you have even the slightest interest in Germany or things German, or European history, grab this right now. You won't regret it. (Oh, and I should note: if you're looking for a dry listing of historical events, in order, by region, with outcomes of battles and population charts for cities of the Hanseatic League, look elsewhere. Perhaps you'd be better served by some manner of college level textbook?)
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