Peter Millar arrived in Berlin in 1981. He was a 26-year-old fledgling journalist, employed by Reuters, and the only non-German correspondent living on the ‘wrong’ side of the Wall. This unusual status allowed him to pass freely between the two halves of the divided city and he was quickly charmed by a place he likens to a ‘charismatic but bedraggled old lady.’ Millar worked hard to master the notoriously tricky Berliner dialect, he took driving lessons in a Russian-made red Lada, and steadily earned his place at the Stammtisch (‘regulars’ table) at his local pub. Millar’s subsequent career took him to many locales but his affection for, and fascination with, Germany has never waned. In this absorbing book he tells his tale and that of the country that has so captivated his imagination.
In a series of nine chapters, Millar explores cities that have played starring roles in Germany’s past and present: Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Cologne and, beyond the borders of today’s nation, Kaliningrad, Vienna and Strasbourg. Personal reminiscences mingle with broad and highly informative studies of key episodes and personalities in German history. Millar also finds space for what he describes as pit-stops: potted accounts of the Germans’ relationship with, inter alia, sex, money, music, cars and football. You will learn all you’ll ever need to know about German beer and potato soup.
“One of the book’s greatest strengths is that it does not head off down obscure avenues simply for the sake of novelty or quirkiness. Indeed, many of the topics are rather familiar but always seen through unusually perceptive eyes. We hear all about Munich’s Oktoberfest, for example, but are assured that there is more to the occasion than ‘trashy, drunken kitsch’. In Dresden we inevitably hear tell of the catastrophic Allied bombings of 1945, but the story is told with great poignancy”
At times, the predictability of subject matter gives a sense of boxes being ticked (the Beatles on the Reeperbahn, herrings being eaten early on Sunday mornings at Hamburg’s fish markets) but this also lends the book a comprehensive feel and, heck, Millar even manages (almost) to make Frankfurt sound interesting.
There are lots of surprises and fresh insights, too. Millar is excellent on the highly charged symbolic power of Kaliningrad, the city that had served as an engine room of German history for centuries before becoming ‘the stolen red star in Stalin’s tainted crown’ and, in the chapter on Munich, we are introduced to one of the 18th century’s most intriguing figures. The American-born Benjamin Thompson is revealed as a ‘womaniser, linguist, scientist, landscape gardener’ and an officer in both the British and Bavarian armies. Fortunately, Thompson displayed ‘proficiency in almost everything he touched.’
When writing this kind of wide-ranging cultural history, there is often a risk of summing up something called national character in essentialist ways. Indeed, Millar does not shy away from broad brush strokes, but he constantly stresses regional variety and warns against lapsing into lazy stereotypes – that the Germans are obsessed with dominating Europe by one means or another, for instance.
Above all, the charm of Millar’s chronicle is to be found in his frank, and frequently funny memories of days gone by, of getting to know the locals, or of tasting steamed asparagus alongside Gewürztraminer for the first time. And it’s always good to be reminded that, whatever anyone tells you, the German sense of humour can come up with some excellent gags. ‘What is the difference between eroticism and perversion?’ someone asks. ‘Eroticism is when a man takes a duck feather and strokes a woman’s breasts with it. Perversion is when the feather is still attached to the duck.’
Here, then, is a passionate, learned book that has many important things to say about Germany’s self-image, chaotic past, and place in the modern world. It’s also great fun. The structure is meandering, but that doesn’t matter a jot. How else can you expect to encompass everything from pre-Lent carnivals in Cologne to what Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel have in common, or from stories of the Teutonic Knights to the musings of Immanuel Kant? A glorious gallimaufry sometimes hits the spot.