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Books this Season: Nonfiction & Political Books

Autumn 2006

The German newspapers have long and (for us) tedious names, so we use abbreviations. Here a key to them

Fiction / Nonfiction & Political Books


All the critics praise György Dalos' "1956" on the Hungarian Revolution. The work doesn't attempt to be anything other than what it is, the book of a writer. Dalos tells the events from the perspective of the protagonists – be they leading politicians or ordinary folk. The NZZ lauds the expansive historical essay as "artistic, clever and often witty." Die Zeit appreciates Dalos' lucid analysis, for example of the tragic waverer Imre Nagy. The FR delights at the hauntingly vivid relation of day-to-day life in strife-torn Budapest. In the SZ, Gerd Koenen finds the author's "slightly distanced empathy" just right for portraying the rush of events, even if in his opinion too little attention is paid to the revolutionaries' "elementary anger and excessive brutality," which brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Critics extol Paul Lendvai's gripping work "Der Ungarnaufstand 1956" (the 1956 Hungarian Uprising) as a serious and fair appraisal of the revolution, acclaiming Lendvai's breathtaking clairvoyance in recounting events. Taking as his starting point the occurences he himself witnessed, Lendvai reconstructs the Uprising using the reports of survivors, statements from secret trials and protocols of the Party and the government. The work gives both a broader picture of events as a whole and illuminating close ups of street fighting, Kremlin intrigues and the tragic role of Radio Free Europe, writes Die Zeit.

With his "Die Jahre der Vernichtung" (The Years of Extermination), Saul Friedländer presents the first truly all-encompassing portrayal of the Holocaust, dealing with all the dimensions of the extermination, writes Die Zeit. The FAZ calls the book more than a masterpiece, praising the 900-page volume's tremendous force and accuracy. The NZZ comments that in allowing victims' voices be heard, Friedländer has set Holocaust research on its head. All this comes as no surprise, as the first volume of Friedländer's trilogy, "Nazi Germany and the Jews: Vol I. The Years of Persecution 1933 to 1939", is widely considered the best book in the field. (See a full review of "The Years of Extermination" by Dan Diner here.)

Scientists have not yet discovered the gene that allows British historians to write so well. What does seem clear is that Tony Judt, author of the first comprehensive history of modern Europe, has one. Die Zeit praises the narrative qualities of Judt's "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945" (German version), as well as his judicious use of irony and anecdotes. The FAZ praises the author's unorthodox views, and his rare gift for giving equal treatment to the entire continent. The NZZ, however, misses an overarching thesis, while still finding the work both elegant and gripping.


After "I Accuse," Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells in her autobiography "Meine Leben, meine Freiheit" (my life, my freedom) how she became a freedom fighter and what prompts her to keep up the struggle. According to the FAZ the book is a a call for a radically new discussion of Islam and a "gift to Europe". Hirsi Ali left the Netherlands and settled in the USA after questions arose concerning her asylum status. FAZ critic Christian Geyer is almost taken aback at how radically the author puts every aspect of Islam into question, not just its cultural appearance. Without sharing all of the author's views, the FR commends Hirsi Ali's persuasive force, above all in her critique of excessive multiculturalism.


"Dossier K" may well be the book of the season. In it, the Hungarian author Imre Kertesz pushes through to the very core of existence with his ruthless self-questioning and leaves critics' mouths agape. What makes this inquiry into the self so astonishing is the incisive logic (taz) and unrelenting intelligence (FR). For the NZZ it was a breath of fresh air after Günther Grass, and Die Zeit rated it above Joachim Fest's memoirs (see below). Against Kertesz' non-believing, non-triumphant and non-fanciful language, the competing memoirs seem like so much inflated anniversary writ. The FR drew analogies with Plato's dialogues and went on to praise Kertesz' courage in taking on Adorno. (See our feature "The freedom of Bedlam", an interview with Kertesz about his book.)

The feuilletons have talked themselves hoarse about Günter Grass, his memoirs and his admission of having served in the Waffen SS as a youth. Surprisingly, the critics were adamant to ignore the debate and let "Beim Häutern der Zwiebel" (peeling an onion) speak for itself. The verdicts range from masterly (FAZ, Die Zeit) to aesthetically incisive (SZ). One thing is certain: there are plenty of surprises in this book, and everyone wants a copy.

Hitler biographer Joachim Fest's memoirs of his youth command respect, veneration and genuine admiration from all sides. For the FR , "Ich Nicht" (not I) is the most precise book ever written about the Nazi era. Die Zeit read it as a testimony to the power of a Catholic-Prussian-Republican-educated-bourgeois micro-milieu to immunize its inhabitants to totalitarian temptations. It was, as the SZ commented, Fest's father above all, who took a stand against the regime. Fest portrays him and the rest of the family with economy of style, lucidity and warmth. For more informationon Fest's autobiography, see our feature "Proud to be different".


Peter Sloterdijk's ambitious world history of anger "Zorn und Zeit" (Anger and Time) has impressed the critics, even if not everyone was entirely convinced by his arguments. For Sloterdijk, anger is not a vent for frustrated desires, but a significant anthropological constant. The SZ is delighted with some finer points in this intellectual history that starts with Achilles, especially the passages based on Alexandre Dumas' "Count of Monte Christo" on bourgeois anger and revenge. Nevertheless, the paper feels the book could do more to differentiate between anger, hatred and resentment. The FAZ has no problem with that, and is happy that anger has been rehabilitated as the productive mainspring of human history.

George Steiner's "Why thinking makes you sad" (German version here, original French/English bilingual version here) is a meditation on the splendour and misery of reflection. Thinking is shot through with the conscious of its own transience, writes Steiner. It is unpredictable and hopelessly idiosyncratic, profligate and bellicose, boxed in by the limits of language. Steiner chooses a cosmic analogy, characterising thinking as an echo of the "big bang." Seldom has the FAZ encountered something so deep or so harrowing on the topic of being human and freedom as what it finds in these 90 pages. Die Zeit, however, considers the work at best a personal confession, and can only rarely follow Steiner's line of argument.


For his "Sarmatische Landschaften" (Sarmatian landscapes), Austrian author Martin Pollack invited 25 writers to reflect on Europe's lost province of Sarmatia, which once lay at its very centre. Some situate Sarmatia between the Baltic and the Black Sea, others between geography and history, myth and poetry. The result is a compendium dedicated to a lost land, whose rediscovery could put Europe in touch with its past, reconnecting it with another, more open, aspect of its identity. The NZZ is delighted at the book's jaunt across Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus, at its depiction of overdeveloped city outskirts and sleepy villages. The SZ enjoys the atmospheric descriptions, but quarrels with some remarks on the Belarus nation.


Germans, including intellectuals like Thomas Mann and Theodore Adorno, long believed in the superiority of culture over politics. Much changed with the outcome of WWII, however. In his "Kultur und Politik" (culture and politics), Wolf Lepenies looks at the precarious relationship between politics and culture from the 18th to the 20th centuries, shedding new light on the dreams and catastrophes of the modern era. The author is this year's winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Reading this book, the taz can only agree with the jury's decision. In the FR, Harry Nutt appreciates Lepeinies' historical analysis of the Germans' disdain for politics, a factor, according to Lepenies, which contributed to the Nazis' rise to power.


Maria Rerrich seems to have hit a nerve with "Die ganze Welt zu Hause" (the entire world at home), her ethnographic study on "cosmobile" cleaning ladies in private households. Still today in Germany, household responsibilities tend to be the realm of women. This binds the women despite their differences, argues Rerrich, whether they are cleaning ladies, housewives or managers. All the critics stress the importance and timeliness of the book, which is rich in case studies. To the astonishment of many, the cleaning ladies, the avant-garde of globalisation, are remarkably well educated. Not one of the reviewers, however, admits whether they themselves contribute to the international networking of the service sector, which is probably an indication that the percentage of illegally employed women is as large as the author claims.


The "Rembrandt Book" by internationally acclaimed expert Gary Schwartz caused the biggest stir this Rembrandt year. A richly illustrated portrait of the painter and his epoch, the work delves into the artist's biography, elucidates the historic and social context of Rembrandt's work, and gives a thorough analysis of the painter's works and the problems of ascription. The NZZ admires Schwartz' treatment of Rembrandt's epoch, life, genius and revolutionary painting techniques. The SZ is pleased that the book clears up some persistent errors, for example, widespread myths about Rembrandt's fixation on his mother. Schwartz has been able to establish that the many portraits of an elderly woman cannot possibly represent Rembrandt's mother, as she is the wrong age.

The ambitious "Geschichte der bildenden Kunst in Deutschland" (history of the visual arts in Germany) comprises a total of eight volumes. The well-designed sixth volume edited by Andreas Beyer more than lives up to its name, enthuses the SZ, delighted by the book's ability to demonstrate for example that classicism and romanticism are not opposites. Die Zeit is thrilled with the work from beginning to end, praising the sections on architecture, sculpture, painting, drawing, print graphics, handicrafts and the tremendously helpful bibliography.

Fiction / Nonfiction & Political Books

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