A Tour of Micro-Germany

‘This German failure to establish a London shows the extremely deep-rooted nature of German fissiparousness. There was something about this region – an issue not resolved in our own lifetime – that tended to splinter power and authority. It is also what makes it so enjoyable to wander around today – these fossil records of earlier political decisions, expressed in buildings and artworks, are scattered in a thousand different places, leaving all kinds of surprising traces.’[i]

In Simon Winder’s Germania (2010), his clever fusion of narrative history and travelogue in which we spin spatially around contemporary Germany as we are taken forward through its history, ‘German fissiparousness’ is appropriately asserted as both a fundamental principle of political life and the factor structuring the tourist’s fun – at once a serious ‘issue’ to be ‘resolved’ and a source of unexpected delight. The political climate wherein, for example, for ‘much of the entire period up to the seventeenth century […] individual urban settlements were responsible for their own fates’, created what Winder calls ‘a diversity enshrined in national jigsawism’. He invents his term ‘micro-Germany’ to account for the preponderance of the sort of ‘marginal political entities’ which contrasted with ‘the cosmic dreams of Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs’. The Holy Roman Empire was ‘massively devolved’:

‘Within Germany large parts of the empire [sic] were in the hands of more or less independent marcher lords who had, with their own followers, built substantial states. At different times and under various circumstances they could be very respectful of the Emperor and share all kinds of military and, later, religious concerns but this respect was based on being given a level of freedom which in England had been beaten out of the regional aristocracy by the end of the fifteenth century.’[ii]   

As Winder sees, the fact that ‘the normal run of life for the roughly German-speaking areas of Europe has been […] to live in a tangle of political arrangements’, ensures that German nationalism has been marked by a ‘slowness and indeed incompleteness’. It was really only the Nazi period that saw Germany ‘forced […] into a pseudo-coherent frame’, and German nationalism ‘as a linguistically defined entity […] only began to function with the very brief incorporation of Austria from 1938 to 1945’.[iii] But though I of course agree with Winder’s suspicion of nationalism, it does seem worth trying to reclaim the sort of idea of an organic nation that Winder impugns when – in an aside – he remarks that he believes a country is not an ‘organism’, ‘except in wilder nationalist tracts’. This remark brought to mind the positive idea of organic community propounded in the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder, a thinker whom Winder elsewhere in his book indeed upholds as a Weimar icon.[iv] In F. M. Barnard’s words, Herder’s work ‘decisively repudiates national chauvinism’, yet it also offers a ‘paradigm of the organically integrated community’. Crucially, such a community is ‘bound together by the inner consciousness of sharing a common cultural heritage’. For Herder, the existence and continuity of an organic community cannot be enforced by the state or programmed by racial or physical determinants, but is based instead on the transmission of what Barnard calls ‘socio-cultural traits’ – such as ‘language, traditions and customs, folklore and folksongs’. Importantly again, culture is valued by Herder because it entails ‘the uniqueness of creative activity within a specific context of time and place’.[v]

Though it does not bring Winder to endorse an idea of organic community, a Herderian or Romantic privileging of cultural specificity in fact reappears in Germania. ‘It is one of the chief pleasures of culture that it remains so specific to nation, class, region or time and that it cannot be faked’, Winder writes. His book’s alertness to cultural specificity is allied to its emphasis on particularism and singularity as defining traits of German life. As Winder sees, throughout its history often even ‘a united Germany manages to wind up with enclaves, exceptions and oddities’. A key instance of German particularism is localism. Winder notes ‘Germany’s essential provincialism’, which fatally extended onto a geopolitical scale and lay behind world wars, he suggests. ‘The motor that ruined European culture was not the overbearing might of Germany but its relative marginality.’[vi] Winder finds a more positive product of Germany’s localism when it results in the typically private quirkiness of the land’s cultural forms. He maintains that even at the point of unification in 1871, Germany ‘still kept the stubborn obscurantism and federalism which makes it such an attractive place today’. Winder cites ‘the miniature Harz town of Quedlinburg’, which he labels ‘the acme of German obscurantism’, as an illustration of how provincial secrecy can conceal the ‘oddly important’. Or again, ‘the sheer quantity (but also quality) of intellectual and cultural power lurking even in a backwater such as Wolfenbüttel remains astonishing.’ The way in which Winder’s writing is intoxicated and energized by such ‘cultural power’ does seem to me to recall the ambitions that – according to Barnard – were stimulated in Herder by Germany’s marginal cultural life. When Winder admits that ‘this entire book could have been filled with evasive and marginal material on an infinity of loopy backwaters, none without value or some unique oddness’, this statement of fascination reanimates the faith placed by Herder in what Barnard called ‘community life outside the political “perimeter”’:

‘Unlike Burke, Herder found little in his country’s political institutions worth preserving. His traditionalism was essentially cultural, not political. It was centred on language and literature, on folklore and folksong, on customary ways that have evolved within community life outside the political “perimeter”. Political life as he envisioned it was yet to emerge out of this culture; hence there was plenty of scope for progress […]’.[vii]  

Of course the attraction of German provincial life for Winder is that it represents precisely the non-political, or else already-failed politics. ‘If Saxony was a lesson in the limits of political incompetence, then the small [Prussian] towns seemed to celebrate a pure and genuine irrelevance, a crucial trait underestimated by historians.’ In ‘tucked away’ Saxony extraordinary cultural fertility is paired with political uselessness: ‘this is the place that gave us Schumann, Wagner and Nietzsche’, yet ‘the fundamental pleasure of Saxony lies in its hopelessness’ and ‘as a political entity it failed in all it did’. (Winder notes that the ‘political infantilism’ of the eighteenth-century Saxon Electors, the Wettins, resulted in the destruction of Poland). Winder’s account of German history is not seeking to crow over German failures so much as to assert the value of the anti-heroic. ‘At least while within the confines of Saxony it is possible to think of an alternative Germany – wayward, self-indulgent and inept in a way that gives hope to us all.’ For such a thinking the ‘time of quiet consolidation’ between Napoleon’s defeat and the 1848 revolutions could be crucial – Winder identifies this period as having been characterized by a ‘cosy apoliticism’ which has been attacked by left-wing writers, and a ‘determined effort at being non-heroic and local’ disliked by the right. Winder thus points to the possibility of a left localism, though it would be a defiantly non-revolutionist one. In this context he talks of historians downplaying ‘war and revolution’, and beginning to view ‘family life and regular work as the essential Continental motor of civilization’. He proposes the reclamation of ‘periods of gentle introversy’.[viii]

Winder describes German literature of the first half of the nineteenth century as ‘a sort of inexhaustible storehouse of attitudes flattering to those who just like sometimes to be left alone’. In Winder’s account, the isolation of E. T. A. Hoffmann was in fact often enforced: he ‘seemed to spend much of his time socially and intellectually locked out’. But Hoffmann also offers Winder a model for the German linkage of solitude and inwardness with autonomy, and hence with freedom. ‘Perhaps what is so appealing about Hoffmann is that he cannot be categorized and is completely unuseful – he leads nowhere and is entirely self-sufficient.’ You can say that Hoffmann leads nowhere because he leads everywhere; his lonely ineptitude is connected to the sort of waywardness which is celebrated in the very project of researching and writing Germania. ‘Solitary tourism is something that everybody should indulge in’, tempts Winder at one point. Winder then offers a politico-economic explanation for the German solitary waywardness which was re-enacted in the production of his own book. The figures that his own tourism follows in the footsteps of, figures who ‘do not really feature in English literature’ – ‘the independent scholar in his tower, the journeyman going from town to town’ – embodied a socially-determined freedom:  

‘These all sprang from the strange political structure of hundreds of different little countries and cities. Germany was made up of the circulation of people through the infinite arteries of broad roads, dirt tracks, mountain passes […] and scarcely marked paths: labourers, merchants, mendicants, quacks, troops, drifting across a landscape that could range from the most populous and benign to the most dangerous and isolated.’[ix]

Such solitary waywardness could offer us an image for intellectual work – such as Winder’s with Germania, or an independent blogger’s – outwith the bureaucratic (REF-imposed) confines of an academic career. The practice of ‘drifting across a landscape’ and following ‘scarcely marked paths’ suggests a type of cognitive activity which is flexible, autonomous and personal: you could call it an autodidact subjectivism (the back-cover blurb for Germania calls the book a ‘very personal guide’), or perhaps alternatively a post-academic subjectivism (given the profound influence on Winder of Claudio Magris’s professorial ‘sentimental journey’ Danube (1989)).[x] Winder outlines the classic dilemma of German subjectivism, or the way in which it can generate both cultured integrity and potentially fatal apoliticism. Whilst some writers, Winder observes, have seen subjectivism as ‘passive in a way that implies a German malleability and failure to engage with disastrous implications for the future’, it also represents ‘an anti-political, fiercely private stance, with a built-in resistance to fanaticism or mass manipulation’. Magris classed ‘German inwardness’ as ‘that pathetic, retrograde inner isolation’, and so veered towards a critique of subjectivism as enabling accommodation to Nazism – inwardness ‘enabled many individual consciences to put up moral resistance to Nazism, but may perhaps have contributed to obstructing organized political resistance’. Winder, though, is less critical. ‘It seems hard on Schubert’s songs for them to be viewed as early danger signs of a failure to stand up to Nazism.’ Winder’s encounter with the Romanticism of Joseph von Eichendorff’s Life of a Good-for-Nothing (1826) thus enables him to uphold the sheer fun of subjectivism qua solitary tourism. ‘Every paragraph seems to contain a further reason to be happy, with the narrator rolling about like a puppy in the pleasure of his own wanderlust.’ Likewise the word ‘fun’ does seem to be the most commonly used adjective in Germania. Until, that is, Winder’s book simply collapses in the face of World War Two and the Holocaust, and Winder states that ‘anecdotal facetiousness has to get out of the way and simply stop’.[xi]

As someone who remains quite scarred by my years of engagement with Frankfurt School Marxism and academic Marxists, the sort of bullying conformists for whom ‘subjectivist’ is perhaps the worst imaginable insult, I found Germania immensely appealing for the way it points toward a more joyful and independent form of intellectual labour in a German manner. But of course, and perhaps particularly for those of us from a German background, it will now forever remain terribly difficult to associate Germany with fun. Winder himself begins his book by acknowledging that contemporary Germany is still ‘a sort of Dead Zone’, whose ‘English-speaking visitors’ are less fun-seekers than ‘those with professional reasons for being there – soldiers, historians, builders’. Winder does not write about the trauma after Nazism, instead contrasting ‘modern Central Europe’ with ‘the Jewish-Catholic-Protestant/ German-Slav world which was the glory of the pre-1914 world’, so as to wonder whether we will ‘all retrospectively be seen as merely the provincial remnants of a great civilization that destroyed itself’.[xii] Perhaps Winder’s greatest achievement with Germania is to commemorate that international Danubian civilization precisely by retrieving the value of German provincialism, particularism and individualism.


[i] Simon Winder, Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern (London: Picador, 2011; first publ. 2010), pp. 56-57.

[ii] Winder, pp. 76, 120, 57, 84.

[iii] Winder, pp. 303, 315, 303.

[iv] Winder, pp. 150, 252.

[v] F. M. Barnard, ‘Introduction’, in J. G. Herder on Social and Political Culture, trans. by F. M. Barnard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; first publ. 1969), pp. 3-60 (pp. 57 n. 137, 32, 30, 32, 53).

[vi] Regarding Herder’s influence on Romantic thought in this area, see Barnard, p. 53; Winder, pp. 204-05, 389, 382.

[vii] Winder, pp. 315, 57, 197, 406; Barnard, pp. 52-53.

[viii] Winder, pp. 405-06, 234, 235, 234, 239, 235, 271, 272.

[ix] Winder, pp. 286, 255, 256, 285, 286-87.

[x] Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea, trans. by Patrick Creagh (London: Collins Harvill, 1990; first publ. 1989) is eulogized in Winder, p. 121 (compare also his Danubia (2013)).

[xi] Winder, pp. 287-88; Magris, pp. 69, 68, 69; Winder, pp. 288, 289, 433. 

[xii] Winder, pp. 1, 439.


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