In college, for reasons mostly forgotten, I decided to study German, taking the usual undergraduate four semesters of "beginning" and "intermediate.' Shortly thereafter I decided to major in philosophy, and the two made a good fit--I was always more taken with Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger than with Descartes or Locke or John Stuart Mill.
So I've kept up my German, in a halting, imperfect way, and have slowly made my way through some of those philosophers in their native tongue, with the dividend of novelists and poets and theologians. In a more recent realization of the extent of my ignorance of garden variety German history (aside from the Nazi period) I've begun reading tomes like Robert Kann's History of the Habsburg Empire and Christopher Clark's Iron Kingdom: A History of Prussia. These are solid, competent chronological narratives, admittedly a little dull, but filling in a story I've too long ignored.
A third book I started last year is Nancy Mitford's Frederick the Great. Those of you acquainted with this Mitford sister might be more familiar with her romantic comedies--The Pursuit of Love or Love in a Cold Climate. Her histories--and I'm thinking especially of The Sun King and Madame de Pompadour--show what a novelist's ear for character and incident can do for the non-academic historian. And if Frederick the Great lacks much of the sparkle of Mitford's French histories, that can probably be attributed to the ploddingly masculine character of Frederick's court.
But the real impetus for this post was my recent completion of Simon Winder's Germania and Danubia. Unlike the more ponderous tomes mentioned above, I ran through Winder's two volumes in less than two months, a matter of both recommendation and caution. They are "personal histories" of Central Europe, the first focusing on the lands within the current Federal Republic of Germany, the second on the intersecting area of lands ruled in various capacities by the Austrian Habsburg dynasty.
Winder is irreverent in matters religious, unmoved by appeals to the venerable past, and contemptuous of the various nationalisms that have guided our collective enthusiasms of the last couple of centuries. A long-lapsed Catholic, he retains a kind of grudging respect for Catholic grandeur and a scathing eye for Catholic kitsch (there is one unforgettable digression about vermin-infested macrame banners in a Chicago parish in the seventies). His narrative rambles more or less chronologically, and in all his travels he retains the firm conviction that what was schlock in the middle ages, or in any time thereafter, remains schlock today--not that that should keep us from enjoying it The reader is never more primed than when our narrator announces some godawful monument to a war or massacre or cartoon-cutout princeling:
This historicist monster [the Vökerschlachtdenkmal] was built to mark the centenary of the 1813 Battle of Leipzig….Leipzig is a musical and mercantile city and it is strange that only a tram-ride from Schumann’s rather funny-smelling favorite restaurant an object of such immense, humourless, Aztec gloom should be languishing….It is the work of Bruno Schmitz, the world’s worst architect, who unleashed his wretched talents on ruining several previously charming sites (the Kyffhäuser mountain, the point where the Rhine and the Mosel join) and smothering them in industrialized pseudo-mythology. The contrast between the pretty landscaping of the park and the monstrous memorial of rough, blackened granite that lurks in it is really disturbing. Something that should be found in the heart of a jungle, lying half strewn about and choked with jungle creepers, bats, snakes and poisonous flowers, has been set down in what looks like a quiet bit of Central Park….Once inside you are threatened by immense stone figures—the worst being the medieval madness of the eighteen-foot-high “Guards of the Dead” in full armour, awaiting activation in some pathetic horror film….The united German authorities have, with their usual bludgeoning seriousness, decided that they have a duty to later generations (who might just possibly have so degraded an aesthetic sense as to not find the memorial hideous) to restore it at a cost of millions of euros.I found myself a little surprised at my sympathy with Winder's attitudes, being myself rather habitually reverent and respectful of tradition. It helps that he is very funny. But where we click, I think, is in his horror of nationalism. Much of this history is of (ethinic) German unification and (ethnic) German domination of the various Magyars, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Ruthenians, Italians, Romanians, Slovaks, Czechs, and others. Winder loves the jigsaw-puzzle madness of the ragtag kings, dukes, margraves, electors, prince-archbishops and free imperial cities constituting the Holy Roman Empire. He therefore mourns the triumphant progress of German unity under Prussia.
Nevertheless, he makes two important caveats about Prussian aggression. First, he notes that for all of Prussia's vaunted miltarism, its territorial gains during the nineteenth century rather paled compared to the U.S.'s expansion to the Pacific, or Great Britain's acquisition of a world-wide empire, or Russia's march across Siberia and Central Asia. Second, he reminds us that, for all the marching around on parade, in snappy uniforms, Prussia's wars were, comparatively, few and far between, and usually decided by a single engagement. Winder continually makes an important point about German history, that reading it in the light of the two world wars of the twentieth century invariably distorts our judgment.
So Winder's narrative in Germania returns again and again to this theme of the Germans wanting an ethnically and linguistically homogenous nation-state as the English had in England, the French in France, the Spanish in Spain, and as the Italians were contemporaneously building in Italy.
By way of contrast, Danubia moves our focus eastward, from ethnically-and- linguistically-German Austria, the historic center of Habsburg authority, out into the ethnically and linguistically diverse lands of what Winder insists is Central Europe (Eastern Europe, he always reminds us, is the Russian Empire and the western part of the Ottoman Empire). Here a single German family supplies a Holy Roman Emperor before 1806 and an Austrian Emperor thereafter. That same family, through its succession to (or seizure of) the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary, comes to rule all of this miscellaneous Europe bounded by Prussia, Russia, Ottoman Turks, and, when not dismantled, Poland.
Like Joseph Roth, Winder loves the idea of the multi-ethnic Empire, and appreciates the irony of how national self-determination for, say, Hungary resulted in Magyar domination of minority ethnic Romanians. There are ethnic areas, and memories of glorious ethnic kingdoms from the middle ages, but no remaining clear ethnic boundaries, so that the concept of ethnic states--the germ of our modern Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Italy, Croatia, Serbia (not to mention modern Germany and Austria)--sets the stage for disaster. Here Winder does engage in a great deal of anticipatory history, not in the sense of a militant Prussia showing the Germans to be natural Nazis, but in the inevitable disaster of translating the western European ideal of the nation-state to central Europe, whose one-time rationale for unity, as the great bulwark against the inroads of Islamic civilization, dissolved with the decline of the Ottomans.
Danubia remains comedy, but black comedy, the comedy of the absurd, and by no means the comedy of "drama with a happy ending." But this is bearable because Winder remains sympathetic, not cynical, sorrowful, not despairing. His Habsburg rulers are almost all pathetic, but their rather arbitrary domination is arguably justified because its destruction would, and did, unleash something worse.