I have understood since Perry Anderson’s survey of European state histories that state formation was easiest in Britain and Japan because there was no “Exit” available and that main force would ultimately subdue the peasantry in a closed environment. This was obviously an easier task than trying to dominate part of a continental land mass where people could walk or ride away across a poorly delimited frontier and set up anew elsewhere. Certainly this thesis applied in Europe, although the Chinese Empire seems to have done a reasonable job over an extended period upholding the mandate of heaven here on Earth in a single polity. Pretty big exception to the rule! And then of course we have the Irish who eventually had statehood imposed upon them from over the water. Hmmm, theories!

History looks different depending on where you sit and the view from the other side of the frontier is always interesting. Simon Winder’s Germania is an informed Englishman’s guide to German history up until 1933 and it gives a different perspective on how Europe got to where it was before the massive two part conflict in the first half of the 20th century. The guy next to Hitler in a 1923 march through Munchen was killed by a police sniper. W(h)ither then the Nazi party, had the shot been a couple of feet the other way? Certainly, Germania sees the rise of the Nazis as a very specific historic accident deriving from an ‘unfortunate set of circumstances’. The massive presence of that 20th century disaster in our rear view mirror has meant that we have averted our gaze from earlier German history.  

So the purpose of Germania is to provide a brief overview of German history for the lay reader as well as a travel guide to some of the more interesting castles and Schloss’. The fact that Germany was for so long split into a multitude of political units ranging from the ridiculously tiny right up to large ‘viable’ states such as Brandenburg and Bavaria means that there are many historic buildings and monuments commemorating the multitude of rulers, their triumphs and follies. Having so many Princes, Counts, Margraves, Archbishops and other variously titled rulers, both lay and ecclesiastical, meant that almost any type of political behaviour from the millennial apocalyptic republic in reformation era Munster, the commercially driven Hanseatic League of the Middle Ages, through crazy Ludwig building Neuschwanstein to the blood and iron Prussian Junkers could turn up somewhere at some time. If nothing else the politics of the Holy Roman Empire and the Zollverein states and the personalities of the many German leaders have provided much fictional grist for Terry Pratchett, Anthony Hope, GM Fraser and many others.

At the end of the Napoleonic wars it was decided that Germany should be rationalised back from the hundreds of political units which existed in 1789 to a more manageable 39 or so which were also bound up in a customs union. Prussia and a few others could be considered as meaningful sized states in the modern sense and there were a number of Free Cities as well as a fair few trivially sized leftovers from the unlamented Holy Roman Empire which Napoleon had formally killed off in 1806. The big fear of the Germans and many in Britain was that every hundred years or so the French had gone mad and headed eastwards in a destructive manner. Germany was flat and had no central political authority capable of resisting such crazy French expansionism. The 1815 Congress of Vienna settlement was designed to prevent this happening again, and it was decided that the best way to achieve this was to give Prussia a foothold in western Germany, specifically in the Ruhr. This historic accident of setting the frontier warlords of Prussia on top of the key components of the industrial revolution just as it was getting started helps to explain much of our subsequent history. This is another fine example of generals planning to fight the last war- be careful what you wish for (a strong Prussia), you just might get it, in spades.

Germania is a good quick historical overview which seeks to overturn our inherent Anglocentric bias and give us a better understanding of Germany as an integral and vital part of European history, culture and more daringly, cuisine. Even Simon Winder has a hard job convincing us of this although he makes a good case for German wine and beer, less so for the sugary and fatty foods which Germany seems to specialize in. According to his research in dark wood panelled restaurants and beer cellars even Germans seem to prefer a night out at a Thai or Greek restaurant when offered the choice.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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