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In Icy Baltic Waters

David Blackbourn: Gunter Grass, 27 June 2002

Im Krebsgang: Eine Novelle 
by Günter Grass.
Steidl, 216 pp., €18, February 2002, 3 88243 800 2
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... with great efficiency. In February 1936 he was assassinated by a troubled Jewish medical student, David Frankfurter, who knocked on Gustloff’s door, was invited to wait in his study, and shot the returning Landesgruppenleiter four times with a revolver before giving himself up to the Swiss police. Frankfurter is the second character, a Serbian rabbi’s son ...

When in Bed

David Blackbourn, 19 October 1995

Reflections on a Life 
by Norbert Elias.
Polity, 166 pp., £35, October 1994, 0 7456 1383 7
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The Civilising Process 
by Norbert Elias.
Blackwell, 558 pp., £50, March 1994, 0 631 19222 0
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... Norbert Elias died in Amsterdam in 1990, shortly after his 93rd birthday. His achievements were recognised only late in life. He was 57 when he first gained a permanent university post, and his work was not widely known until the late Sixties. When the recognition came it was abundant, however: honorary doctorates, prizes and decorations from European governments ...

Uses for Horsehair

David Blackbourn, 9 February 1995

Duelling: The Cult of Honour in Fin-de-Siècle Germany 
by Kevin McAleer.
Princeton, 268 pp., £19.95, January 1995, 0 691 03462 1
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... Goethe, Heine and Wilhelm von Humboldt did it, although not Wagner; Clemenceau did it on 22 different occasions; characters in Maupassant, Turgenev, Fontane and Schnitzler did it. In 19th-century Europe practically everyone was doing it, except the English. We are talking about fighting duels. The subject has recently attracted some fine historians ...

Theme-Park Prussia

David Blackbourn, 24 November 1994

Prussia: The Perversion of an Idea 
by Giles MacDonogh.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 456 pp., £20, July 1994, 1 85619 267 9
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... In 1947, the Allied Control Commission pronounced the death of Prussia, symbol of militarism and knee-jerk obedience, and alleged progenitor of Nazism. It has stayed dead. The GDR was never, as some liked to believe, the continuation of Prussia by other means. Junker estates were broken up, and Prussia was distributed among the Poles and Russians as well as the Germans ...

Axeman as Ballroom Dancer

David Blackbourn, 17 July 1997

Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany 1600-1987 
by Richard J. Evans.
Oxford, 1014 pp., £55, March 1996, 0 19 821968 7
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... In future times people will look back on the death penalty as a piece of barbarity just as we now look back on torture.’ These confident words were spoken by a member of the 1848 Frankfurt Parliament, which voted amid cheers to abolish capital punishment, except in military law. By the spring of 1849 it had been ended in a score of German states, including Prussia ...

No Fun

David Blackbourn: Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 15 October 1998

Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900-49 
edited by Hans Wysling, translated by Don Reneau.
California, 444 pp., £40, March 1998, 0 520 07278 2
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... Twenty years ago Nigel Hamilton wrote a double biography of the literary Brothers Mann, giving equal billing to the celebrated Thomas and the neglected Heinrich. It was certainly time to look again at Heinrich, whose importance as a public and literary figure had been taken for granted by an earlier generation of writers. Gottfried Benn called him ‘one of my gods’; Lion Feuchtwanger thought him the greatest of the writers who had set out not only to depict the 20th century but to change it ...

More Reconciliation than Truth

David Blackbourn: Germany’s Postwar Amnesties, 31 October 2002

Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration 
by Norbert Frei, translated by Joel Golb.
Columbia, 479 pp., £24.50, September 2002, 0 231 11882 1
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... Over the long term, Germans have made a good job of confronting the criminal, genocidal character of the Third Reich. Historical writing, schoolbooks, literary works, public and political debate all point to an engagement with the years 1933-45 that came earlier and was more intense than anything we find in Japan, or in Austria, self-styled ‘first victim’ of National Socialism ...

Black Legends

David Blackbourn: Prussia, 16 November 2006

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 
by Christopher Clark.
Allen Lane, 777 pp., £30, August 2006, 0 7139 9466 5
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... Too much history can be bad for you. ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ – that was Marx’s famous comment on France in 1848. When Nietzsche elaborated on the same idea in one of his ‘untimely meditations’, he had Germany in mind, the Prussia-writ-large created under the auspices of Bismarck ...

Great Man

David Blackbourn: Humboldt, 16 June 2011

Nature’s Interpreter: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt 
by Donald McCrory.
Lutterworth, 242 pp., £23, November 2010, 978 0 7188 9231 9
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... Alexander von Humboldt was once called the last man who knew everything, the last generalist before an age of specialisation definitively set in. His work ranged across geography, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, climatology, chemistry, astronomy, demography, ethnography and political economy. When he died in 1859, at the age of 89, he enjoyed cult status as a scientific hero and genius ...

The Greatest Warlord

David Blackbourn: Hitler, 22 March 2001

Hitler, 1936-45: Nemesis 
by Ian Kershaw.
Allen Lane, 1115 pp., £25, October 2000, 0 7139 9229 8
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... Every reader of Don DeLillo’s White Noise remembers the academic niche that the main character has carved out for himself. As Jack Gladney tells it, ‘when I suggested to the chancellor that we might build a whole department around Hitler’s life and work, he was quick to see the possibilities. It was an immediate and electrifying success.’ Others were equally impressed by the Department of Hitler Studies ...

The Prodigal Century

David Blackbourn: Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century by John McNeill, 7 June 2001

Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century 
by John McNeill.
Penguin, 448 pp., £8.99, August 2001, 0 14 029509 7
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... What happened last November in Florida diverted attention from Ralph Nader’s part in the outcome of the Presidential election. In Florida itself, where every vote mattered (I won’t say counted), he garnered 100,000 of them. And in New Hampshire, the only state in the North-East that Gore failed to carry – a state whose three electoral votes would have made him President even without Florida – Nader’s vote comfortably exceeded Bush’s margin of victory ...

Princes, Counts and Racists

David Blackbourn: Weimar, 19 May 2016

Weimar: From Enlightenment to the Present 
by Michael Kater.
Yale, 463 pp., £25, August 2014, 978 0 300 17056 6
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... In March 1932​ , Thomas Mann visited Weimar in central Germany. For the last thirty years of the 18th century, this modestly sized town was home to Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Wieland, but by the 1930s it had become a hotbed of the radical right. ‘The admixture of Hitlerism and Goethe affects one strangely,’ Mann wrote in ‘Meine Goethereise ...

The Big Show

David Blackbourn, 3 March 1983

‘Hitler’: A Film from Germany 
by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, introduced by Susan Sontag.
Carcanet, 268 pp., £9.95, December 1982, 0 85635 405 8
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... projectionist (‘SS-man Ellerkamp’) and the Cosmologist (a Strangelove figure set in a Caspar David Friedrich icescape) add to the richness of the texture while reinforcing the central ideal that what we are seeing is no more than a film about a film. Hitler, muses Ellerkamp, was ‘the greatest film-maker of all time’. Two principal narrators, Harry ...

How was it for you?

David Blackbourn, 30 October 1997

Man Without a Face: The Memoirs of a Spymaster 
by Markus Wolf and Anne McElvoy.
Cape, 367 pp., £17.99, June 1997, 0 224 04498 2
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The File: A Personal History 
by Timothy Garton Ash.
HarperCollins, 227 pp., £12.99, July 1997, 0 00 255823 8
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... John Le Carré called it ‘the Abteilung’, but the real name of the East German foreign intelligence department was the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung, or Main Intelligence Directorate, and the man who ran it for almost 34 years was Markus Wolf. When the Berlin Wall fell, three years after his retirement in 1986, Wolf was courted by other intelligence services – West German, American, even Israeli – who hoped to exploit his vulnerable position ...

‘Famous for its Sausages’

David Blackbourn, 2 January 1997

The Politics of the Unpolitical: German Writers and the Problem of Power, 1770-1871 
by Gordon A. Craig.
Oxford, 190 pp., £22.50, July 1995, 0 19 509499 9
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... Poor in deeds and rich in thoughts’ – that was Friedrich Hölderlin’s lament about his fellow Germans two hundred years ago. In one form or another the idea became familiar. Germany in the 19th century acquired a reputation as the land of poets and thinkers (the phrase was coined by Jean Paul), something that foreign observers viewed with a mixture of condescension and respect ...

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