In 843 AD, the three surviving grandsons of the great emperor Charlemagne met at Verdun. After years of bitter squabbles over who would inherit the family land, they finally decided to divide the territory and go their separate ways. In a moment of staggering significance, one grandson inherited the area we now know as France, another Germany and the third received the piece in between: Lotharingia.
Lotharingia is a history of in-between Europe. It is the story of a place between places. In this beguiling, hilarious and compelling book, Simon Winder retraces the various powers that have tried to overtake the land that stretches from the mouth of the Rhine to the Alps and the might of the peoples who have lived there for centuries.
For centuries much of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire was in the royal hands of the very peculiar Habsburg family. An unstable mixture of wizards, obsessives, melancholics, bores, musicians and warriors, they saw off—through luck, guile and sheer mulishness—any number of rivals, until finally packing up in 1918. From their principal lairs along the Danube they ruled most of Central Europe and Germany and interfered everywhere—indeed the history of Europe hardly makes sense without the House of Hapsburg.
Danubia, Simon Winder's hilarious new book, plunges the reader into a maelstrom of alchemy, royalty, skeletons, jewels, bear-moats, unfortunate marriages and a guinea-pig village. Full of music, piracy, religion and fighting, it is the history of a strange dynasty, and the people they ruled, who spoke many different languages, lived in a vast range of landscapes, believed in rival gods and often showed a marked ingratitude towards their oddball ruler in Vienna. Readers who discovered Simon Winder's storytelling genius and infectious curiosity in Germania will be delighted by the eccentric and fascinating tale of the Habsburgs and their world.
Sitting on a bench at a communal table in a restaurant in Regensburg, his plate loaded with disturbing amounts of bratwurst and sauerkraut made golden by candlelight shining through a massive glass of beer, Simon Winder was happily swinging his legs when a couple from Rottweil politely but awkwardly asked: "So: why are you here?"
This book is an attempt to answer that question. Why spend time wandering around a country that remains a sort of dead zone for many foreigners, surrounded as it is by a force field of historical, linguistic, climatic, and gastronomic barriers? Winder's book is propelled by a wish to reclaim the brilliant, chaotic, endlessly varied German civilization that the Nazis buried and ruined, and that, since 1945, so many Germans have worked to rebuild.
Germania is a very funny book on serious topics—how we are misled by history, how we twist history, and how sometimes it is best to know no history at all. It is a book full of curiosities: odd food, castles, mad princes, fairy tales, and horse-mating videos. It is about the limits of language, the meaning of culture, and the pleasure of townscape.