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German Phobia

There’s nothing quite like seeing a swastika spray-painted on a building in Berlin. I first saw one a few years back, and it was an ugly retort to all those stark Holocaust memorials and self-flagellating volumes of history. It shattered the gleaming towers of the Sony Center, built on the scar of the Berlin Wall. We were drinking lager in some charmingly run-down Kreuzberg beer garden, but I couldn’t help but stare at those jagged lines. Of course I have seen swastikas in London and Paris, Barcelona and Lisbon. I see them from time to time in Brooklyn. But to see a swastika in Berlin is particularly dispiriting, because one inevitably has the dire thought: it is only a matter of time.    

Simon Winder’s book is a strange and often awkward volume, one that vacillates between celebrating German culture and castigating the more unseemly aspects of the history behind it. Apparently not in the business of pulling punches, Winder opens by calling Germany today “a sort of Dead Zone,” with memories of the Third Reich still spreading bad vibes across Europe and beyond. But then he makes the odd decision to end his narrative in 1933, essentially depriving the German narrative of its tragic denouement. “I want to get around the Führer and try to reclaim a bit of Europe which is in many ways … no less attractive and no more or less admirable than many other countries,” he writes. Getting around Hitler is a nice thought, but it might be a bit late for that.

“Wayward” is the right word for what Winder has done. Part history and part travelogue, Germania is too scattered to succeed as either. “Every attempt has been made to avoid a mere sequence of dreary dynastic events,” Winder assures, but wrapping one’s mind around a nation that bequeathed to us both the Final Solution and Oktoberfest requires more than a breezy conversational style that, at its worst, comes off like a Wikipedia entry edited by a cantankerous Midlands comedian.

The title of this book provides a key to what Winder sees as the central problem of German history: an obsession with purity that eventually spilled over into racial arrogance. The original Germania—or, more fully, Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germans­—was written by the Roman historian Tacitus around 100 B.C., and promulgated the mythology of a pure-blooded race in the North, an idea that Wagner and Hitler, among others, gladly adapted to their own ends. Winder finds this notion of German exceptionalism about as credible as Atlantis. He notes astutely that “[i]n practice Germany is a chaotic ethnic lost-property office, and the last place to be looking for ‘pure blood.’ ”

It is useful to be disabused of the notion of Germany’s eternal specialness, but what was Winder himself looking for? I have read his book and I still don’t know. Upset that so much German energy has been wasted on false and murderous dreams of superiority, he lashes out like a surly teenager, perhaps imagining that his anger will atone for genocidal sins. As he travels around Germany, his displeasure at its failings becomes so overwhelming that it simply crosses over into the comical. King Ludwig is a “puerile loony.” The Victory Column in Berlin is “ugly and  unengaging.” Berlin Cathedral is “appalling.” A market in Darmstadt serves “really awful cider.” The Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach is “[a]nother pointless German state.” Bruno Schmitz is “the world’s worst architect.” The castle of Neuschwanstein is “a desperate failure.” Meissen porcelain is “consistently awful.” The Bavarian Army Museum is “a mass of things so dull that I can now recall none of them.” The city of Mainz is “glum, utilitarian.” Und so weiter.            

Winder certainly doesn’t spend much time on the sunny side of the street. His wrath finally feels not so much critical as trivial. He is not outraged so much as annoyed; and annoyance is a small emotion, especially inappropriate to a big subject. And much of the historical account that he provides has Winder merely going through the motions of describing the comings and goings of minor dukes and princes. He doesn’t care, and neither do we. The writing sometimes feels intentionally uninformative, as when he describes Germany in the Roman era as a “chaos of forests, tribes and general freakishness” or contends that “[i]t took only a superficial interest in history to notice that at regular intervals France appeared to go crazy and attack everyone.” Superficial, indeed.

It seems that Winder really wanted to begin his book in the middle of the nineteenth century, just as the idea of a single Germany was taking hold. Nearly three hundred pages into his ploddings through a procession of municipal museums and dreary castles, Winder finally asks a provocative question: “If there was to be a united Germany rather than lots of smaller countries some of which happened to have German speakers in them, then how was that Germany to be defined?” He plausibly argues that in the wake of Napoleon’s demise and the waning of French influence across the continent, Prussia was “the country best poised to take advantage of German nationalism,” uniting its many smaller states under a militaristic vision that would last more or less until Allied flags flew above ravaged Berlin in 1945.

But in the final decades of the nineteenth century, the nascent German nation burned with possibility. Some will surely have qualms about Winder’s claim that “it was simply not problematic to be both Jewish and German,” but he makes a convincing argument. His objection that marzipan—just one of the many cultural products now being exported beyond German borders—“has some of the untouchable qualities of cat faeces” might also trouble some readers, though probably on a smaller scale. He also unearths fascinating instances of Germany spreading the inevitable tentacles of empire, such as a settlement of Westphalians in Jamaica that “still does a traditional German pork roast even though two hundred and fifty years of intermarriage have made it black.”

Winder is correct—if not entirely original—in his assessment that the blame for World War I cannot be fully placed at Germany’s doorstep, and that the network of alliances that unraveled with Franz Ferdinand’s assassination is really at fault. And yet the conflict unleashed the country’s darkest impulses, as war often does. In one of his more astute passages, Winder writes that under Kaiser Wilhelm II—a Prussian, of course—“Germany’s previously admired philosophers became the prophets of zombie unthink … its beautiful language the gargled jackboot voice of a parade-ground culture.” In other words, Germany became the gross caricature of itself that neither the gleaming towers of Frankfurt nor the generous reparations to Holocaust survivors have effaced.

While the Treaty of Versailles may have been just punishment for German aggression, defeat brought what Winder nicely calls “furious disbelief,” along with a convenient new scapegoat in the Jews. In the south, a Soviet Republic of Bavaria flickered briefly into existence, while Berlin remained a “delusive but pleasurable bubble,” a legendary urban scene to rival both the Paris of the Lost Generation and bohemian New York. And then there was something called the Migrating Birds movement, “whereby hundreds of thousands of people hiked, sang songs and built camp-fires.” These proto-hippies certainly weren’t going to save Germany, but it is not hard to see how Hitler stirred this cauldron of humiliation and confusion to his benefit.

But then, puzzlingly, Winder declares that “[t]his is where the book has to pack up.” Why, exactly? Isn’t the work of history the opposite of packing-up and forgetting? I do not see how we can understand Germany without dealing with World War II and the fissured nation it left behind, a nation that has certainly done its penance, even if the foul smells of its past do linger on. Winder does not just bury the lede, he omits it altogether. That swastika in Berlin remains unexplained.

Alex Nazaryan teaches at a public school in Brooklyn. He is at work on his first novel.