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This (chance find in a charity shop) is a very odd book. It combines at least four elements: a leisurely tour of (more-or-less) modern day Germany and Austria, visiting landscapes, parks, museums, monuments and markets; a brisk overview of German history from Tacitus' (literary) invention of the notion at the end of the first century CE to Hitler's seizure of power in 1933; a personal reflection on what it means to be German and to live in a world with Germany in it; and a scathing judgement on its other contents. By turns it is informative, risible, entertaining and deadly dull.

The history is genuinely interesting, and also the most entertaining element of the whole. Winder has broad knowledge, and uses his best gifts for comprehensible and often witty summary to tell the history. I now have a historical framework for things I did already know a little about, and temporarily at least) a better understanding of the causes and consequences of the Napoleonic, Franco-Prussian and First World Wars. I unreservedly enjoyed the history.

The geography is less satisfactory. Travel writing is hard, and Winder's convoluted and wordy style does the land no favours. Nevertheless, he effectively conveys his sense of the many different regions and specific places that make up the geography of Germany and Austria: reconstructed medieval towns, post-Soviet concrete cities, hills and lazy lakes and deep forests.

The whole is a personal reflection on what it means to be German and to live in a world with Germany in it. Winder is obsessed by Germany, its literature, music, art, architecture, geography and history. He writes from so deep inside his obession that he assumes the reader's interest both in his obession and in the things he is obsessed by. The former is problematic because he does not show himself to be an interesting person, and the specifically personal comments frequently jar. Assuming the latter, he refers casually to people, places and works of which I (and many others) have little or no prior knowledge, and thus does not convey to me all that he intends to say. Mostly this is just dull. Sometimes it is entertaining in a slightly dubious fashion. But some paragraphs are so saturated with self-consiousness and aesthetic or moral condescension that I put the book down muttering 'wtf!'. At worst, about half way through, I left the book for a week because I couldn't bear to read another word.

Embedded in the reflection is a set of intertwined moral, literary and aesthetic judgements on every aspect of Germany and the Germans. Winder view is that the Germans have always been unhealthily obsessed by myths of the past, and that their history has too often been the result of acting on those delusions, and drawing others with them to ruinous ends. He feels free to judge, and in most cases condemn their moral and artistic purposes. This feels like hubris to me.

There is no nemesis. The book is what it is. I am the reader that I am. I am glad I read this book, and it will stay on my shelves for now.


Caroline M

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October 2017