German Joys Review: Die Neuen Spiesser

Dns_1 The ‘New Squares’, Christian Rickens calls them in his new book, Die Neuen Spiesser: Von der Fatalen Sehnsucht nach einer überholten Gesellschaft ("The New Squares: On the Fatal Yearning for an Outdated Society"). It’s a provocative title, Spiesser (roughly, "square") is a mildly pejorative term.

The New Squares range from the Federal Constitutional Court Judge Udo di Fabio, whose recent book Kultur der Freiheit ("Culture of Freedom") warns us that the collapse of common sense puts the "west in danger"; to Paul Nolte (G), historian at the Freie Universität Berlin, who denounces a new permanent underclass of alienated, tattoed Gameboy addicts cut loose from stabilizing bourgeois values; to Eva Herman, a peppy TV celebrity whose new book Das Eva-Prinzip: Fuer eine neue Weiblichkeit ("The Eva Principle: For a New Femininity" (G)) calls on German women to admit that the attempt to combine children and career cannot succeed, and return to the comforts of hearth and home. This is a pretty European brand of conservatism; fond of talk about ancient customs and traditional values, and skeptical of the free market. You could call the New Squares throne-and-altar conservatives adrift in a throneless cosmopolis.

Now comes Christian Rickens, an editor at Manager Magazine (G), to give them the back of his hand in this crisply-written, entertaining polemic. The tone throughout is lightly ironic, although not flippant. Rickens doesn’t intend to confront right-wing doom-mongering with its left-wing Doppelgaenger. In fact, he mocks doom-mongering. Issue by issue, he sets out the New Squares’ claims and demonstrates, by a bit of research and clear thinking, that the problems they describe are nowhere near as grim as they’d have us believe, and that their proposed solutions are generally unworkable.

Rickens acknowledges differences in temperament and intellectual caliber among the New Squares — some are university professors, others tabloid columnists. However, Rickens identifies two typical thought-mistakes (Denkfehler) common to them all. The first is a weakness for spongy pseudo-scientific phrase-mongering: stuff like "the erosion of our cultural substance," or the "declining sense of togetherness and being bound together by fate" (Schicksalsgemeinschaft). The New Squares, he comments, seem to be reading "too much Nietzsche and too little Popper." Many of their arguments are, therefore, unfalsifiable — dinner-table banter wrapped up in pretty rhetorical ribbons. How are we supposed to tell whether a nation’s "cultural substance" is disappearing?

The second error is the conservative tic of confusing social change with collapse or decay. What Fritz Stern wrote of an earlier crop of German cultural conservatives still holds true: "[O]ften they mistook change for decline, and, consistent with their conception of history, attributed the decline to a moral failing." German society is changing, argues Rickens, but many of the problems bemoaned by the New Squares are much more manageable than they let on, and some of them aren’t problems at all.

Take, for example, the extinction-of-the-Germans meme. German women now have about 1.4 children during their lifetime, fewer than the 2.1 generally needed to maintain the population. However, smaller family size accompanies increased prosperity in all societies, and Germany’s actually in the middle of the European league table here. Further, there’s no epidemic of childlessness. In 1925, 75% of German women had children and 25% did not. The same holds true today. The difference? Women choose smaller families now, and those who remain childless do so by choice, not because disease or malnutrition made them infertile. Rickens calls that progress. As for Eva Herman’s suggestion that women stay home and care for the children, fine — for ones who wish to and can afford to. However, Rickens eviscerates the idea that this is woman’s "traditional" role: human societies rich enough to permit women (and children, for that matter) to choose not to work are historical exceptions. The fact that women find it difficult to balance child-rearing and a career means we should develop better policies to help them, not urge them to stay home.

Besides, Rickens asks mischievously, if having plenty of children is good for society, then the New Squares are surely praising Germany’s baby-happy immigrants! Err, not so much. Immigrants are a focus of tooth-gnashing anguish. They do poorly in school, they don’t learn proper German, their women wear strange headgear. Yes, there are problems here, Rickens admits, but keep them in perspective. The vast majority of immigrants in German find jobs and contribute to society, although they will never memorize Schiller or buy a Gamsbarthut. Further, Germany’s immigrants are nowhere near as dangerously alienated as those in other European countries.

Many of the problems the New Squares describe can be traced to bad immigration policy — one designed largely by conservative governments. Most German immigrants are asylum-seekers or "guest workers" and their family members. That is, people who came to Germany to escape poverty or oppression, not because they specifically wanted to settle in Germany. Until recently, national policy treated immigrants as temporary visitors, instead of acknowledging these immigrants are here to stay and devising a flexible, tolerant concept of integration. Although the New Squares are concerned about the failure of a minority of immigrants (and their children) to adapt to German society, they generally offer no practical suggestions for helping them, or improving Germany’s immigration policy. This is so, Rickens suggests, because the New Squares do not wish to have larger numbers of immigrants in Germany, period.

This tribal suspicion of foreigners, Rickens argues, is much more dangerous to Germany’s future than the foreigners themselves. The numbers leave no doubt: to alleviate its demographic problems, Germany must attract skilled, adaptable immigrants. Lots of them. Starting yesterday. This means creating an immigrant-friendly society. Drawing on his experience meeting "Muslim Yuppies" in the USA, Rickens lays out his view of the issue. A skilled Indian programmer might come to Germany hoping to start a company, but she’s not going to stay if she’s constantly made to feel inadequate because of her imperfect German; people point out her ethnic difference everywhere she goes; and she can’t start a business because she’s hamstrung by cumbersome regulations. The Red-Green coalition government that ruled Germany until recently put together an imperfect but sensible immigration bill designed to attract these sort of skilled immigrants, and supported an atmosphere of cultural tolerance to make them feel welcome. Who torpedoed the immigration bill and howled with outrage at the "politically correct multiculturalism" allegedly being forced down Germany’s throat? Why, the New Squares and their ideological allies, of course.

But you don’t have to go to immigrant neighborhoods to find maladjustment. What about all those disconnected, alienated members of the German underclass, with their Arschgeweih, their alcohol problems, and their antisocial habits? To the New Squares, (especially Paul Nolte (G)) these uncouth, directionless people symbolize Germany’s cultural rot. Rickens, however, sees them as a product of social trends. Globalization has closed thousands of low-tech factories, mines, and farms in the West. German workers will never be cheap enough to compete with developing nations in these low-value added industries. Thus, working-class Germans, whose lives were once given structure by a job at the the factory or the machine-shop, now have nothing to do all day, and feel disposable.

The welfare system, in turn, discourages them from working, since their social welfare benefits may drop by 70-80% for every Euro they earn. So some of them begin drinking too much and numbing themselves with mindless distractions. But keep in mind, Rickens insists, that the problematic, self-destructive behavior of some members of the underclass is (a) historically seen, nothing new; and (b) a by-product of the social changes that pushed them to the edge of society, not a harbinger of that society’s collapse. These people are globalization’s losers, and they should be compensated by globalization’s winners: Rickens proposes a "guaranteed minimum income" model that would provide a a basic living to all and allow recipients to keep most of every extra Euro they earn.

There will still be people who dress poorly and play more Gameboy than they should, but that’s part of living in a free society, and there’s not much use getting upset about it. In the book’s conclusion, Rickens hazards a guess as to why so many middle-class Germans snobbishly criticize mass taste: they themselves feel the icy breath of global competition on their necks, threatening their comfy middle-class jobs. (Next victims: German radiologists). If the day comes when they, too have to apply for government benefits, they can at least point to their superior taste and cultivated habits to maintain that crucial sense of distinction and superiority.

And now to patriotism. Why, ask many of the New Squares, must Germans still hang their heads in shame for the 12 unfortunate years of Hitler, a "freak-accident" of history? (to quote a phrase used by Matthias Matussek, culture editor of the Spiegel and author of a book called "We Germans: Why Other People Can be Fond of Germany"). Rickens doesn’t begrudge his fellow-citizens their World Cup flag-waving or justifiable national pride in Germany’s present-day institutions. However, the New Squares have an unhealthy urge to go farther and move aside the heavy brown "bar" of National Socialism that stands athwart German history. If you’re going to evoke the lost innocence and sounder values of a bygone era, you going to have to develop some strategy about the "bygone era" of 1933-45, and everything that made it possible.

An example: Rickens catches Judge di Fabio, who really should know better, ‘reasoning’ thus: "Hitler was not a German — not because he was of Austrian ancestry, but because he had not the slightest jot of a Prussian civil servant’s sense of duty, had neither the local patriotism or the joie de vivre of Bavarian Catholicism, had no tendency whatsoever towards diligence and hard work, no feeling for the German way of life, for bourgeois habits, or Christian traditions. He was only disguised as a German, he was a rootless gutter-impostor who sucked up all the energy and cultural treasure of the German people and accepted its utter destruction with indifference." Those poor Germans! How could they have been so naïve?

The fact that Hitler was originally Austrian is, Rickens notes, painfully irrelevant, despite di Fabio’s impressive rhetoric. There are two agendas at work behind these subtle attempts to relativize and revise German history. First, the New Squares need to distract readers from the role that some of their most beloved "German virtues" (discipline, loyalty, love of order, respect for authority) played in allowing Hitler to turn Germany into a genocidal war machine. The classic formulation, which helped thousands of SS officers and Wehrmacht soldiers win light sentences before indulgent German courts in the 1950s, went something like this: "Personally, I had nothing against the Jews/Poles, and deeply regret what happened to them. But I’ve always been a disciplined person, and orders are orders." The second subtext: the New Squares’ historical arguments devalue the achievements of the ’68 generation, the New Squares’ favorite whipping-boy. The ’68 generation was the first to directly confront these excuses and rationalizations, shove their fellow citizens’ noses deep into the horror that they had inflicted, and subject some of the most-abused "German virtues" to a shattering critique.

The social ferment of the late 1960s was, of course, a mixed blessing. But one thing the ’68 generation did was to create, for the first time, a liberal, pluralistic German society which trusted its people to live their lives more or less as they pleased. Until 1957, Rickens reminds us, German husbands were permitted to decide whether their wives could work or not. Now, the mayor of Berlin can show up with his homosexual partner at public functions. It’s this freewheeling live-and-let live liberalism that is the target of many New Square arguments: in the name of Germany, they want us all to share some set of common ‘German’ values, they want us all to disapprove of people who get divorced or wear piercings, they want all foreigners to satisfy some ‘test’ of Germanness or be shunned or excluded. They exaggerate Germany’s problems, and prescribe more conformity to their own particular idea of ‘traditional values’ as the only solution. There’s nothing new here folks, Rickens assures us, just a conformist longing for some sort of conflict-free "community," an unhealthy undercurrent of German conservative thought that’s been around in one form or another for centuries.

Rickens’ book is a polemic; and it’s hardly the last word on the subject; I am sure that his targets could, and probably will, eloquently defend themselves against some of his charges. To his credit, though, Rickens doesn’t just critique the critique; he lays out some of his own reform ideas which would help tackle some of the real problems the New Squares highlight — while preserving pluralism and diversity. Rickens is by no means a traditional leftist (he writes for Manager magazine, after all). Many of his assumptions (Germany can do nothing to prevent deep social changes brought about by globalization) and solutions (a minimum income a la Milton Friedman, instead of  job-creation measures) will not please old-fashioned leftists. However, Rickens’ ideas are usually stimulating, and the final chapter, in which he sets out ten theses to explain why the New Squares came about and why they appeal to so many Germans, contained many insightful points.

I should openly declare my bias: I liked the book partially is because I agree with Rickens on many points. After hearing and reading so much po-faced fustian about ‘traditional values’ and ‘social decay’, it’s refreshing to read someone who bursts out laughing at language like this. Rickens’ style is lucid, witty, and often laugh-out-loud funny. However, he never loses sight of his argument, which is, at heart, optimistic. Yes, there are a lot more different ways of being German now than there were in 1950, but remember, that’s a good thing. Diversity, freedom, and social change raise challenges, but Germany can best meet these challenges with flexible, enlightened policies (or sometimes, no policies at all), not by shoving Germans into the straight-jacket of ‘traditional’ values.

[Die Neuen Spiesser by Christian Rickens, Ullstein Verlag 2006. All translations in this review by Andrew Hammel.]

Nunc Dimittis by Joseph Brodsky

Merry Christmas, everyone. To mark the occasion, an early poem by Joseph Brodsky, translated and annotated by George L. Kline.

Nunc Dimittis1

When Mary first came to present the Christ Child
to God in His temple, she found — of those few
who fasted and prayed there, departing not from it —
   devout Simeon and the prophetess Anna.

The holy man took the Babe up in his arms.
The three of them, lost in the grayness of dawn,
now stood like a small shifting frame that surrounded
   and guarded the Child in the dark of the temple.

The temple enclosed them in forests of stone.
Its lofty vaults stooped as though trying to cloak
the prophetess Anna, and Simeon, and Mary —
   to hide them from men and to hide them from Heaven.

A chance ray of light struck the crown of the head
of that sleeping Infant, who stirred but as yet
was conscious of nothing. He blew drowsy bubbles;
   old Simeon’s arms held him like a stout cradle.

It had been revealed to this upright old man
that he would not die until his eyes had seen
the Son of the Lord. And it thus came to pass. And
   he said : ‘ Now, O Lord, lettest thou thy poor servant,

according to thy holy word, leave in peace,
for mine eyes have witnessed thine offspring, this Child —
in him thy salvation, which thou hast made ready,
   a light to enlighten the face of all peoples

and carry thy truth to idolatrous tribes;
bring Israel, thy people, its Glory in time.’
Then Simeon paused. A thick silence engulfed them,
   and only his echoing words grazed the rafters,

to spin for a moment, with faint rustling sounds,
high over their heads in the tall temple’s vaults,
Like some soaring bird that flies constantly upward
   and somehow is caught and cannot return earthward.

A strangeness engulfed them. The silence now seemed
as strange and uncanny as Simeon’s speech.
And Mary, confused and bewildered, said nothing —
   so strange had his words been. The holy man, turning

to Mary, continued: ‘Behold, in this Child,
now close to thy breast, is concealed the great fall
and rising again of the many in Israel;
   a source of dissension, a sign to be spoken

against. The same weapon which tears at his flesh
shall pierce through thine own soul as well.
Thy wound, Mary, like a new eye, will reveal to
   thy sight what in men’s deepest hearts now lies hidden.’

He ended and moved toward the temple’s great door.
Old Anna, bent down with the weight of her years,
and Mary, gazed after him, perfect in silence.
   He moved and grew smaller, in size and in meaning,

to these two frail women who stood in the gloom.
As though driven on by the force of their looks,
he strode through the cold empty space of the temple
   and moved toward the whitening blur of the doorway.

The stride of his old legs was audibly firm.
He slowed his step slightly when Anna began
to speak, far behind him. But she was not calling
   to him; she had started to bless God and praise Him.

The door came still closer. The wind stirred his robe
and touched his cool brow, while the roar of the street,
exploding in life by the door of the temple,
   beat stubbornly into old Simeon’s hearing.

He went forth to die. It was not the loud din
of streets that he faced when he flung the door wide,
but rather the deaf-and-dumb fields of death’s kingdom.
   He strode through a space that was no longer solid.

The roaring of time ebbed away in his ears.
And Simeon’s soul held the form of the Child —
its feathery crown now enveloped in glory —
   aloft, like a torch, pressing back the black shadows,

to light up the path that leads into death’s realm,
where never before until this point in time
had any man managed to lighten his pathway.
   The old man’s torch glowed and the pathway grew wider.

16 February 19722

1. This poem – titled in the original Sreten’e ("The Presentation [in the Temple]") – is based on the account in Luke ii: 22-36, which Brodsky considers the point of transition from the Old Testament to the New.  Simeon’s speech in the fifth and sixth stanzas is the Nunc Dimittis (‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart…’) found in most Christian liturgies.

2. The date February 16 (on the New Calendar; or February 3, on the Old) is the Feast Day of Saints Simeon and Anna, and hence the Name Day of Anna Akhmatova — a point which Brodsky wishes to emphasize.

[Source: New European Poets: Joseph Brodsky, Penguin Books 1973, pp. 165-67. All formatting and notes as presented in the original.]

Roger Boyes on his dear Krauts

It’s hardly a surprise that English journalist Roger Boyes’ book on the Germans, which I previously posted about here, is at the top of the sales charts. Here’s Boyes’ analysis of the German character:

No other society so regularly seeks the views of foreigners. How are we doing, Dutch or Italian or indeed British correspondents are asked on television. Are we messing up again; are we failing Europe; are we incapable of change? It is difficult to imagine British television producers showing a similar interest in the opinions of the outside world. This vulnerability makes Germany attractive. Interesting, even, for those of us who are paid to live here. You never know from one morning to the next whether politicians (or your doctor or your pub landlord) are going to be crippled with self-doubt or whether they will declare their undying pride in being German.

And Boyes’ ruminations on those supposedly dour, unfunn y Germans:

I think that the British prejudice about Germany’s supposed humour famine stems from the fact that there is no German tradition of daily banter. In London you can hear a dozen wisecracks in a day — at work or on the bus or in the coffee shop. They may be lame, but at least they’re quick. In Germany, humour is stockaded, kept apart from everyday life. In the evenings Harald Schmidt, a genuinely funny talk-show host, will crack their sides. But only after dinner has been eaten, the plates rinsed and the yoghurt pots washed, ready for recycling. In the office next day people will repeat Schmidt’s gags and they will laugh again. However, they will fail to spot the inherent absurdities of their own office life.

German Word of the Week: Arschgeweih

Arschgeweih I won’t be coy: I like girls with a lot of tatoos skin art and piercings body modifications.

How about when the skin art is art located just above the rear end? Do the Germans have a word for that?

Yes, they do, Arschgeweih: "butt-antlers." A glorious specimen on the left, courtesy of the Jaegermeister Miss Arschgeweih contest.

Of course, to take the analogy to real deer antlers further, you’d have to imagine two women in the middle of a field running backwards toward each other, smacking their butts together in order to prove their dominance.

But since this is a family blog, we won’t be going there.

Help Test Spray-On Condoms

Germany is the Land of Ideas, as President Horst Köhler will have us believe. One of those bold new ideas: the spray-on condom. If you’re as excited by this idea as I am, just go to this website and type in your information. For now, just enjoy the "English-language" description of the study:

Spray-on Condom: Testers Wanted

We are looking for 30 Condom-Testers. Your job is testing the new condom. We are looking for men with a penislengh from 9 until 12 cm and 15 until 20 cm. Men between 13 to 14 cm are welcome, too. You should have experience with condoms and beeing almost 18 years old. Your data will be kept very safe. If you have any questions, please contact us.

[Hat-tip: Ed Philp.]

German Joys Review: In Europa

In_europa_1  In Europa (G) took 6 years to finish, and is over 900 pages long. Its author, Dutch journalist Geert Mak, calls it "a journey through the 20th century." Mak divides the century into time-segments as short as two years (1939-41) and as long as fourteen (1956-1980), and a chapter is devoted to each. The occasion for the book was an assignment from Mak’s newspaper, the Dutch NRC Handelsblad. In 1999, as the millennium drew to a close, the paper sent Mak off to travel through Europe and write a weekly column taking the continent’s pulse at points large and small. He visits places in Europe that played a role in whatever era he is researching — Paris for the early years of the century, Stalingrad for the early 40s, Berlin for the late 80s, Spain for the mid-70s, etc.

The book is much more than a stitched-together collection of newspaper columns. Mak relied on several sources of information: his own immediate impressions (he rented a mobile home for some parts of the journey, but went by train, bus, and steamer for others); visits to the same places earlier in his journalistic career; interviews with locals and with people who played a part in the events he describes, and a bibliography comprising 18 pages and four languages (Dutch, German, English and French).

It’s hard to do justice to the kaleidoscopic richness of the result. You watch Serbian television propaganda in Novi Sad in 1993; drink with cheerful peasants in a small Hungarian village in 1999 (the "last year that trash was collected by a horse-driven carriage"); hear the first-person accounts of a Polish government minister, Portuguese coup plotter, Dutch prime minister, and a founder of the European Union; visit an East German factory coming to grips with competition for the first time; sail across the Black Sea on a Ukrainian steamer; drink ouzo on a Greek island with men who resisted Italian and German occupation; watch a group of mentally retarded Germans riding a train through booming post-Wall Berlin; hear a Romanian professor describe the downfall of the Ceausescus; visit a pair of Ukrainian peasants who stayed on their farmstead even after Chernobyl melted down next to it; hear an afternoon of Poland’s populist, anti-Semitic Catholic right-wing Radio Maryja; listen to bemused Dutchmen describe Hungarian refugees who arrived all over Western Europe following the 1956 uprising; hear the complaints of unemployed Frenchmen living a vagabond existence in campgrounds on the fringes of provincial towns; and share Mak’s dismay at the nationalistic blather of Basque separatists.

It hangs together surprisingly well, because Mak threads these these impressions and narratives into a detailed historical context. Mak’s a gifted condenser: In Europa contains lucid, solidly-researched, well-paced capsule descriptions of the Spanish Civil War, the obscure maneuvering that heralded the end of World War I, the Battle of Stalingrad, the career of Charles de Gaulle, the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Russian underground music scene of the 1980s, the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, and other turning-points of European history both major and minor.

The reader unschooled in contemporary European history will find these narratives welcome and informative. For who already have a good grasp of the events, Mak keeps the narrative compact, and spices it with well-chosen details and quotations. Harold Nicolson on de Gaulle: "His arrogance and fascism irritated me. I have to say, however, that his eyes had something of the noble hunting-dog about them"; Mussolini on Hitler: "A sexually-degenerate type" whose anti-Semitism Mussolini found "simply sick"; Mak’s father on the combative anti-Nazi pastor and former U-Boot commander Martin Niemöller: "He once wrote a book called ‘From the Submarine into the Pulpit’, but should have called it ‘With the Submarine into the Pulpit’." The streets of Berlin in the early years of the century (according to Polish writer Józef Kraszewski): "[T]he behavior of street vendors, carriage drivers, porters, and even beggars all mimicked the soldiers. Berlin was a strict city, orderly, obedient, and disciplined, as if it were in a state of permanent siege."

It would be tough to write a dispassionate history of this charnel-house of a century, and Mak does not try. Mak is especially dismayed by the chest-beating nationalism he encounters. With simultaneous translation provided by a Serbian friend, Mak watches an afternoon of televised Serbian government propaganda. Crimes and atrocities of the Bosnians and Croats are reported in blood-spattered detail, while those of the Serbian military and its allies are ignored. Every few minutes comes a commentary: cloudy, sinister bullshit about the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds or the honor of medieval Serbian knights. So many people believe it, Mak notes with disbelief, as if they had learned nothing from the genocidal wars that scoured their nations just a few short decades ago.

Or take France. After hearing a few too many invocations of France’s glory, Mak details the sordid history of French collaboration during World War II, and concludes:

After the Second World War, several countries succeeded in polishing up their public images. The Austrians transformed themselves from enthusiastic accomplices to victims. The cautious Dutch suddenly became energetic resistance heroes, each with his own Anne Frank hidden in the attic. But what the French were able to achieve borders on the incredible. When one spoke of the war in France, it was only honor and triumph — as if defeat, chaos, hunger, cowardice, and collaboration had never existed.

Mak tours Guernica with a "friendly, intelligent, and interested" sociologist of Basque heritage who spent half her life in the USA. When she begins to talk about Basque tradition, though, her speech clogs with stiff Basque-separatist platitudes ("The Basque movement is a typical peasant independence movement. This is how it differs from Catalan nationalism."). Mak’s conclusion: "Everywhere from Kosovo to Ruthenia all the way east to the Basque country, the longing for a fatherland that nobody has ever seen and that, in many respects, never even existed is driving Europeans crazy."

Mak encounters the same kind of blinkered ethnic pride in Turkey, Northern Ireland, and in Poland. To his credit, Mak understands the danger of the condescension — specifically, the condescension of the "cultivated" Northern European looking down his nose at hot-blooded Slavs and southerners. Mak’s judgments about his own country, as the quotation above shows, are by no means whitewashed. And most importantly, Mak provides context. Although he doesn’t hide his distaste for some of the dumber things he hears, he locates the roots of nationalist thinking in economic dislocation and uncertainty, not genocidal hatred. Mak also gives generous space to the many Basques, Irish, Serbs, and Poles who have risked their lives and reputations to speak out against their countrymens’ darker tribal instincts.

In Europa has some weaknesses. It is heavily weighted toward the first half of the 20th century which (as Terry Eagleton recently put it) had rather an implausibly large number of wars packed into it. Mak does trace the beginning of the idea of Europe — mainly by focusing on the fascinating career of Jean Monnet, a cognac trader turned statesman who recognized that only economic interdependence could tame Europe’s tendencies toward political extremism and nationalism. However, the treatment remains cursory — compared to the detail lavished on war and Communist oppression. Granted, peace and prosperity are inherently less fascinating than war and intrigue, but a bit less bloodshed, cowardice, collaboration, betrayal, and death could have made In Europa just a bit less dispiriting.

It’s a rare book than genuinely needs to stretch over 900 pages, and In Europa is not one of them. My attention flagged once in a while, but I never read sheer padding. In any case, the meandering unpredictability of the book is its charm. My mind wandered a bit as I read superfluous biographical details about an East German family living in the small town of Niesky. But on the next page, a priceless anecdote: The husband worked in a factory, and everyone in the town wanted the plastic buckets in which paint arrived at the factory to use in their gardens. However, they buckets were covered with colorful West German advertising. To prevent these bright, shiny objects from corrupting the good Socialist morals of the people of Niesky, the husband had to dip the buckets in gray paint before they could be allowed off the factory grounds. A priceless metaphor for Eastern European socialism’s soul-blunting uniformity.

Mak also rescues from relative obscurity hundreds of quotations and personal accounts from the books he read as preparation. I’ll end this review with one, from an anonymous Yiddish-language manuscript (probably a diary kept by a relative of one of the Sonderkommando –concentration-camp inmates who were forced to assist in the extermination process). It was found in 1952 during excavations near the Auschwitz III crematorium :

Toward the end of 1943, about two hundred Polish resistance fighters were brought to the gas chamber along with a few hundred Dutch Jews. As they stood completely naked in the gas chamber, a young Polish woman, according to the unknown author, gave a fiery speech; she closed with the words: "We will not die now, the history of our people will keep our memory alive eternally; our desire and our spirit will live and bloom again." Then she turned to the Jews of the Sonderkommando: "Tell our brothers, our peoples, that we went to our deaths conscious and full of pride." Finally, they Poles sung the Polish national anthem as a choir, the Jews sung the Hatikva, and all of them sang the Internationale together. "During the singing, the Red Cross auto with the gas canisters arrived…, the gas was thrown into the chamber, and everyone in the chamber gave up the ghost singing and in ecstasy(!), dreaming of the brotherhood of man and a better world.

* In Europa, by Geert Mak, 944 pages, Siedler,Press, Berlin, 2005. Translated from the Dutch by Gregor Sefernes und Andreas Ecke. All English translations in this review by Andrew Hammel.