Armchair travel to Germany: Books on Germany to read before your German trip

I love Germany, I love reading and I love meeting people through my blog who I have lots in common with: and Kati of Queensland & Beyond is one of those people! I don’t even remember how we first got in contact but I’ve since interviewed her for the podcast as well has had heaps of interesting conversations about our common interests of Germany (she is German!), books, travelling and more.

Kati knows I love to read books about a destination as a way to really learn more about a place and its people and offered to write this post about books set in Germany. I knew she would come through with a great list but it’s even better than that with some really fascinating books about Germany for whatever era you’d like to explore: books about Nazi Germany, books about East Germany, books about earlier German history, and more. Basically it’s time travel plus cultural travel plus total Germany exploration plus more. Sound good? Let me stop talking and let you read it! (And thanks, Kati!)

Books to read before your trip to Germany - armchair travel

7 books about Germany for armchair travellers

Travelling and reading go quite naturally together.

For some people, it seems to be about meaningfully “killing time” while they wait at airports or embark on long train journeys. For others it’s about exploring other worlds, foreign cities or exotic places where adventure awaits and new experiences beckon. And some just love to know more facts and figures about our world and the people in it.

But whatever type of reading tickles your fancy, books seem to be the perfect travel companion. They can give us that taste of adventure when real life keeps us at home, enlighten and entertain us, or simply help us better understand ourselves and those around us.

I’ve visited a lot of countries – but many of them only through books so far. But whenever I’m about to set off on an actual new adventure, I get all excited about reading books to do with said country or region. My to-read book piles are hopelessly out of control, partly because every time I plan trips to a new place, I add yet more books to my pile. After all, I want to be a thoughtful traveller.

If you’re anything like me and love reading about places you’re visiting, have visited or want to visit, I’ve got some suggestions for books set in Germany. I grew up there and have read a lot about my country, both fiction and non-fiction, historical and contemporary.

Books about Germany in the Middle Ages

If you want to step into village life in Bavaria in the Middle Ages, Oliver Pötzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter might be right up your alley.

Set in the 17th century, The Hangman’s Daughter follows the story of executioner Jakob Kuisl and his family who get caught up in the murder of a young boy. Jakob is tasked with extracting a confession from the local midwife who the villagers accuse of witchcraft and having committed the murder. Jakob believes her to be innocent, and the race against the clock begins.

Full of compelling characters, The Hangman’s Daughter had me flick the pages until deep into the night. I’m not a big fan of thrillers but this murder mystery with its medieval Bavarian charm had me hooked from the first page. Loved it!

Books on Germany in the Age of Enlightenment

People often associate Germany with the land of beer, pretzels and Oktoberfest but there’s obviously a lot more to German culture and history than revelling in this Bavarian tradition. As one of the most advanced nations in Europe in the 18th century, Germany gave birth to countless philosophers, poets, thinkers, and scientists who shaped our understanding of the world.

In Measuring the World, Daniel Kehlmann cleverly interweaves fiction and non-fiction in a story about two of Germany’s greatest scientists: Explorer Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauß. Both of them set out to measure the world – Humboldt by navigating around the world, questioning and probing wherever he goes, while Gauß is bent on measuring the universe from his home in Göttingen.

I found the story fascinating, and while the science-y side of things might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s enough sly and witty humour to keep you, well me, entertained! The entire book is written in indirect speech so that might take a bit of getting used to as well but it’s brilliantly done.

If you love audiobooks, get this as the audio version read by Humphrey Bower. His German pronunciation is second to none!

Books set in Germany at the turn of the 20th century

If you’re looking for a historical novel set in Germany that doesn’t feature World War II, Thomas Mann’s famous The Buddenbrooks: Decline of a Family might just be your book.

First published in 1900, it’s a classic of modern German literature. Covering four generations, The Buddenbrooks weaves an intricate story of a wealthy merchant family in northern Germany. It chronicles the family’s births, marriages, divorces and deaths, business successes and failures, and ultimately, their decline as a merchant dynasty.

It’s a tome of a book but one that paints a fascinating picture of middle-class life in 19th century Germany. I found it to be the perfect book for a rainy day at a holiday house!

Books about Nazi Germany and WWII

I’m not sure how many books have been written on Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and World War II but it must be thousands and thousands. Of the many I’ve read, here are two that I particularly loved.

One of the most unusual books written about Nazi Germany is none other than Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. A heartwarming (and heartbreaking) tale, it features the most endearing foster parents ever, an intensely brave heroine Liesel Memminger, a Jew hiding in the basement, and books all around. Plus, ‘death’ takes on a rather prominent role. I laughed, I cried, I hoped and I despaired – you get the full spectrum of emotion with this book!

Another book that tugged at my heartstrings was Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Set in France and Germany during the war years, the book traces the lives of French girl Marie Laure and German orphan boy Werner, from their separate upbringings in neighbouring countries to ultimately a place where their lives collide. Especially Werner’s experience in one of the elite Nazi boarding schools had me choke with disgust at what we’re capable of as a human race.

The story jumps back and forth between different time periods, and whilst that doesn’t work for everyone, I slipped in and out of France and Germany in the 1940s and 1990s seamlessly.

Books set in a divided Germany

A new era began for ally-occupied Germany with the end of WWII. Nearly two decades later, in 1961, the Berlin Wall went up. For 28 years, the Wall divided Germany into two separate nations until that dramatic November night in 1989 when history came crashing down.

In Stasiland, Australian Anna Funder takes a peek behind the Iron Curtain. Her well-researched book is a fascinating portrayal of all things East German: From how the secret police (Stasi, short for Staatssicherheit ‘state security’) controlled every aspect of people’s lives, to the TV programs people watched or what they chatted to their neighbours about.

Stasiland feels like a personal story. It never seeks to be objective in the sense a history book might aim to be. Funder’s research is largely based on conversations, and in turn, she often becomes involved in the lives of the people she interviews.

It’s a controversial book in Germany because of how she chose to portray East Germany, compared to other books on East Germany, but history and how we experience the world is never straightforward. I have my own gripes with the book and some of her observations but despite the many highlighted and earmarked pages in my copy, I enjoyed reading about the different people Funder meets and chats to, and her honesty about various personal life events interwoven into the greater story about the divided Germany.

If you’ve always wanted to know more about life behind the Berlin Wall, Stasiland is super accessible non-fiction for beginners!

Books from contemporary Germany

Today’s Germany can be incredibly cool – just visit Berlin and you’ll know what I mean (OK, I’m biased, I’m from Berlin). But in any case, one of the books that I think epitomises a cool, care-free Germany is Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Why We Took the Car.

It’s a crazy road trip book: Two ordinary, rather uncool, teenagers head off on trip across Germany. Usually these types of books are set in North America where young and not so young, often disillusioned, people jump into their car, let the wind blow through their hair, set out on epic road trip adventures, and find themselves.

Well, Why We Took the Car is Germany’s answer, and it does it with much less fanfare and glitziness. Sometimes down to earth, sometimes philosophical but refreshing all around. A perfect companion for a summer day.

Armchair travel - books about German culture

I hope I’ve inspired you to embark on some armchair travelling to Germany. Have you read any of these? Any other books set in Germany or about Germany that you loved?

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