It’s spring break, and once again, I am in Florida. Today I am sitting inside allowing the sunburn I got yesterday to cool down a bit. It rained earlier this afternoon and now the air is damp, but because it’s not too hot, the dampness is a pleasant change from cold and snow. So, you’d think that I would be enjoying beach books, right? While I have my share of those, which for me means mystery stories, I find that I am most absorbed in a book recommended by a colleague, Germania, by the British author, Simon Winder. He writes in a chatty and personable way about the history of the part of Europe that eventually became Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, and other countries. I am learning more about the history of that area than I ever knew before. We all have, I think, a kind of rudimentary knowledge of Germany uniting under Bismarck, of the disaster of WWI, and Hitler’s rise, but I suspect that most Americans have little understanding of what happened in that part of Europe before that.
If my experience is anything to go by, school children in the United States tend to get history as it pertains to the American continents. We get a little, not much, about the pre-Columbian period, but then the narrative picks up with Columbus, and we get a pretty straight trajectory from him to George Washington and the founding of the Republic. If my students are anything to go by, most high school students barely make it to WWII, leaving large chunks of significant modern history waiting for some college class or simply just blank spots on the time line, unless, of course one had a grandfather who fought in Vietnam. In general, we don’t get much detailed history of Europe, unless it connects to some event in our own history, the Louisiana, Purchase, for example, or buying Alaska from Russia. Since what would become Germany and those other inland countries of Europe do not impinge greatly on the story of the development of the United States, their history is neglected by our schools. However, Simon Winder remedies this deficiency well.
Winder’s approach is personal. He takes readers to his favorite towns, and his favorite little local museums. He describes displays of Ottoman armor and, in the process, helps readers understand the importance of the Ottoman Empire, and its power and dominance over certain parts of Europe. This, for me, anyway, helps me understand more clearly the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s. Without the historical context, it all seems pretty inexplicable. I had also no idea that Catherine the Great of Russia began her life as a minor German princess named Sophie Augusta Frederica of Anholt-Zerbst. While this doesn’t do me any practical good, I suppose, it makes that terrifying monarch more human, and someone who, although her marriage was just one of many used to cement political alliances, used her own intelligence to gain power.
There are times when reading this book feels like a wonderful little trip to someone’s extraordinary attic, where in one box we find one of Napoleon’s hats and in another, we find a collection of songbirds’ eggs, but Winder gives us the equivalent of useful and educational labels for each item. I downloaded this book to my Kindle on a whim, not thinking it would be “beach reading,” but it is fascinating and great fun to read. It’s taken me to places I wouldn’t have ordinarily have gone, and isn’t that what vacation is supposed to be about?