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Books this Season: Nonfiction

Spring 2007

Here we introduce the most talked about books of the 2007 spring season. The German newspapers have long and (for some) tedious names, so we use abbreviations. Here is a key to them.

Fiction / Nonfiction

Political books

Do we really need to say that we consider Ian Buruma's book "Murder in Amsterdam", on the Netherlands after the death of Theo van Gogh, to be an important book? A fantastically written reportage, which paints a many-layered picture of the multicultural society, the book offers plenty of meat to chew on. The FAZ dedicated two pages to Buruma's assessment of the Netherlands. It doesn't agree with many of Buruma's answers, but attests to his eye for "the key issues of liberal democracy" and his sharp-witted portrayal of the protagonists of the "Dutch society drama." The taz, on the other hand, is with him all the way and praises the analytical clout and clarity of his reportage.

The reviewers read the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya's "A Russian Diary" with shock and awe. Die Zeit admires the obsessive exactitude with which Politkovskaya records the state's ruthless clampdown on its critics using intimidation, marginalisation and subjugation. The FAZ is impressed by how fearlessly the journalist threw herself at the utterly inhuman work of critically pursuing Putin's Russia and the war in Chechnya. The FR declares the book compulsory reading for all friends of democracy. It goes without saying that the otherwise so efficient Russian police have yet to track down Politkovskaya's murderer.

His journey through the kingdom of white gold, "Weisse Plantagen" (white plantations) earned Erik Orsenna (website in French) the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. Hear hear, the critics intone, after reading the book by the French author in its German translation. Orsenna travelled to all the places in the world that live on and with cotton. He visited pickers in Mali, lobbyists in the USA, research laboratories and farms in Brazil, museums in Egypt, dried up lakes in Uzbekistan and textile factories in China and France. Die Zeit is grateful that Orsenna is always informative without lapsing into know-it-all-ese. For the SZ, this global story offers "unadulterated reading pleasure."


British historian Christopher Clark's book "Iron Kingdom" on the rise and fall of Prussia has Germany's Prussian experts looking very fuddy-duddy by comparison – those who despise the military state and those awed by its enlightened progressiveness alike. Die Zeit is fascinated by Clark's thorough and confident reworking of all the usual images of Prussia. Such a modest and impartial history of Prussia is exceedingly rare, the NZZ applauds, "a masterpiece". The FR is smitten by the analytical clarity which goes so readily and convincingly against the grain. And the SZ believes that while intellectually Clark can hold his own in the company of Prussian historians such as Treitschke, Ranke and Droysen, as a human being he is their superior.

Two new books deal with the Cold War, and although they couldn't be more different, they are both highly acclaimed. In the case of John Lewis Gaddis' "The Cold War" it was the brilliant writing style that impressed the critics. The FR praises Gaddis' narrative skills, and after five evenings feels excellently informed. For the FAZ, however, the book is too heavy on the actions of great men, and as a "history of the villains and heroes of the Cold War" a tad too Manichean. Bernd Stöver's history "Der Kalte Krieg" seems to be much less accessible, but the critics promise that it is just as rewarding. Stöver's approach, but also his interpretations of the conflict are, in intellectual terms, significantly more challenging Gaddis' the FR notes. Die Zeit followed with bated breath as the historian described the confrontation of the blocks as a finely-tuned system of codes which left nothing to contingency. It wishes that a book like this would get the attention it would undoubtedly receive were it to come out in the USA.


Moral apostle, uncle of etiquette, politesse pedagogue – Adolph Freiherr von Knigge (1752-1796) , the author of "On Human Relations" enjoys a dubious reputation. The critics welcome Ingo Hermann's biography "Knigge" which shows him as man of enlightenment, friend of the citizen and partisan of the French Revolution. The FAZ recognises good behaviour as "an act of recognition"; Die Zeit wholeheartedly joins in Knigge's outrage that even two hundred years ago, it was not those with the most brain-power who reached the highest positions, but the "most supple".

The story of the Fromms company is as riveting as it is horrifying. The legendary rise of Julius Fromm, an immigrant from an East Polish shtetl who went from cigarette seller to international condom manufacturer, only to have his business plundered by the Nazis. Göring forced Fromm to sell his business for a fraction of what it was worth to his aunt in exchange for a couple of castles. In "Fromms" Michael Sontheimer and Götz Aly have reconstructed the story of the company and its Aryanisation, in a book that Die Zeit describes as "well written and solidly researched." The SZ would like to have seen a bit more history of the mores of the Weimar Republic, but praises a story told with dignity and a love of detail. And for the FR, this "exquisitely readable business history" vividly depicts how Hitler's "dictatorship of bought assent" functioned.

Natural Sciences

The FAZ has named Josef H. Reichholf's "Eine kurze Naturgeschichte des letzten Jahrtausends" (a short natural history of the last century) "the most exciting book of the spring". Reichholf - zoologist, evolutionary biologist and ecologist - explains how climate has influenced culture in the last thousand years. The minor ice age that began in 1500, for example, destroyed the vineyards throughout much of Europe and made beer Germany's national beverage. The earth's warming that began in 1800 brought with Romanticism a new love of nature. The FAZ insists that Reichholf is not creating causality where it doesn't exist, but merely presenting particular developments. Sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky, writing in the NZZ, sees things differently and is annoyed that Reichholf is regressing to pre-Montesquieu times with his deterministic interpretations. But he finds the book strong and solid in the passages where it picks fault with "reactionary nature protectors" and their "Romantically vulgar image of nature."


High praise is being sung for Günther Rühle's monumental history "Theater in Deutschland 1887-1945". "An epochal work" Die Zeit calls it; "a classic," SZ and FAZ intone. The FAZ is near on intimidated by its "monumentality". The weighty tome clearly presupposes a certain love of the theatre in its readers but, as Die Zeit emphasises, this is not the work of a "theatre professor" but of a "theatre man" who prefers to narration to explanation. The FR is impressed by the book's "unique and wonderful seriousness." The FAZ has rarely seen a more "perspectively rich" interweaving of theatre, politics and society.

Such a "casually ecstatic" book on the power and seduction of the opera is a rare find, writes the SZ. Jean Starobinski proved his analytical clarity in his work on the French Enlightenment. And "Die Zäuberinnen" (female magicians), raves the SZ, – is a charming, magical read that shows the "lightness and breadth of thought." For Die Zeit the book is an "intellectual show of strength" and Starobinki is up their with the last great encyclopaedic minds like Claude-Levy Strauss and George Steiner.


The art market is booming. There has seldom been as much art around as there is today, and it has rarely been so expensive. And almost never have there been so few criteria to determine quality. Jörg Heiser, editor in chief of the art magazine Frieze, wants to put an end to this. In "Plötzlich diese Übersicht," (suddenly this overview) he provides an informative and entertaining summary of contemporary art since Marcel Duchamp. Heiser focuses on slapstick qualities in particular and the "productive vandalism of perception." The FAZ finds the book "astonishingly enlightening." The FR praises Heiser for finally opening the eyes of his readers – something many of his colleagues have been unable to do.

Fiction / Nonfiction

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