A manic look at German history

Right from the beginning, Simon Winder acknowledges the elephant that’s in the room of any history of Germany: “Germany is shunned for a very good reason — the enormity of its actions is part of the last century.”

But he immediately follows that with a reason for writing about Germany regardless:

“I want to get round the Fuhrer and try to reclaim a bit of Europe which is in many ways Britain’s weird twin, and which for almost all of its history has been no less attractive and no more or less admirable than many other countries.”

And thus begins “Germania,” part history, part travelogue, and part cultural analysis, not only of Germany but of aspects of Europe as a whole. It starts at the very beginning — the gloomy forests and Roman Germans — and ends when Hitler seizes power in 1933.

Each chapter is divided into shorter sections that have a sharp focus, making this longish book seem short and quick. And it’s informative and interesting; instead of a long list of names and dates, Winder talks about things that happened or people who lived, and what effects these people and events had at the time and into the future.

He lovingly details art and architecture in German towns well-known and unsung, and doesn’t gloss over the kind of warts and nutty rulers that pop up in any nation’s history.

Winder mixes in plenty of fun factoids and colorful characters with his thoroughly researched and expertly detailed explanations of historical figures, places and happenings.

And, of course, he indulges us with descriptions of some of the more unappetizing culinary aspects of Germany (though the author, as a Brit, has to admit that Germans hardly hold a monopoly on disgusting food).

The writing in “Germania” is artful and erudite, irreverent and arch, and at times quite funny, without ever quite crossing the line into snark.

Winder’s sincere in his fascination with Germany and unashamed in his admiration for a well-built cathedral, artistic tapestry or breathtaking view. He has taken two millennia of chaotic history and organized it into a much less jumbled and more coherent package, one that’s as informative as it is entertaining.