Showing posts with label Germany. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Germany. Show all posts

21 August 2022

Book Review: The Good German of Nanking (1998) by John Rabe, edited by Erwin Wickert, *****


The personal journals of German businessman John Rabe describe the infamous 1937 Japanese siege of Nanking and his efforts to protect the Chinese from the massacre that followed, an endeavor that may have saved more than 250,000 lives.


An essential reading to understand the tragedy of the Nanking massacre but also how the soul of a man can be divided between allegiance to a murderous dictator and attachment to the values of a most sublime humanity.

Schindler of Hollywood fame saved about 1,200 lives. Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian fascist bureaucrat working in Hungary, saved over 5,000. Rabe saved a number that is two orders of magnitude bigger than Schindler's, up to 200,000 depending on estimates, but died poor and forgotten.


You can watch a documentary on John Rabe here on Youtube.

28 December 2020

Recensione libro: Caduti dal Muro (2009) di Paolo Ciampi e Tito Barbini, *****


C'era una volta il Muro e sembrava dovesse esarci per sempre. Poi però il Muro si sbriciolò e con esso crollò un impero che da Berlino arrivava al Pacifico. Di colpo tramontò il "sole dell'avvenire", sparirono mappe geografiche, bandiere, nomenclature. Ma cosa ne è stato di quei paesi? Per capirlo serve un viaggio lento, zaino in spalla e treno attraverso due continenti, dall'Europa orientale alla Russia, dalla Cina al Vietnam, dalla Cambogia ai Tibet. Un viaggio e un dialogo tra due scrittori divisi dall'anagrafe e dalle parabole della politica ma uniti dalla leggerezza e dalla fame di nuovi orizzonti. 


Riflessioni di viaggio (di Tito) e di storia (di entrambi) nelle terre che erano governate da regimi comunisti fino alla fine degli anni 80 del XX secolo. Il viaggio di Tito è occasione di ricordare un mondo che non esiste più, un mondo nel quale gli autori avevano creduto, assieme a milioni di idealisti in occidente che non avevano visto quello che veramente succedeva al di là del muro. Si impara molto leggendo questo libro, soprattutto chi non è stato in quei luoghi, in quei tempi. Prosa fluida, in certi punti del libro sembra di essere con loro, sia nel luoghi, sia nei tempi storici richiamati alla memoria. Unica piccola pecca: se abbondano le critiche a quei comunisti che hanno perso (URSS, Europa orientale) manca una critica dei crimini commessi da quei comunisti che hanno "vinto"specialmente in Vietnam. Per esempio durante la guerra contro l'invasore americano. Se i crimini americani sono giustamente evidenziati, non altrettanto lo sono quelli commessi dai nord vietnamiti e Viet Cong.

27 December 2018

Beyond the Wall, my book on a Polish and Soviet adventure available on all Amazon sites.

My latest book:

Beyond the Wall:

Adventures of a Volkswagen Beetle

Beyond the Iron Curtain

has just been published and is available on all Amazon sites.


1980: the Cold War between capitalist West and socialist East is in full swing. Tensions are high but, at the academic level, some channels of useful exchange remain open. The author and two classmates would join one such program linking a leading American university and its counterpart in Poland. They drive to Warsaw in a bright yellow VW Beetle and, in addition to attending classes, travel far and wide within the country as well as to several of the neighbors in the socialist bloc where the Soviet Union called all the shots. They drive across the USSR and visit the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the division of Europe. Throughout, Marco takes detailed notes of what they see and hear.

Almost four decades later, the East-West division of Europe is gone. Marco recently found his diary and decided to publish an expanded version of it. His written notes from 1980 have been enriched with descriptions and analyses of historical events that will help the reader see his personal experience in a more significant cultural, social, political and economic context.

The author hopes this real life story will help younger generations, who did not live through the Cold War, better appreciate the blessing of living in a European continent that is immensely more open, rich and free than it was then.

03 December 2016

Film review: Eroica (2003) by Simon Cellar Jones, *****


By the time the first public performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ('Eroica') took place in Vienna in 1805, a privileged few had already heard the work at a private play-through at the Lobkowitz Palace in June 1804.

This release brings to life the momentous day that prompted the great Haydn, Beethoven's teacher, to remark 'everything is different from today'.


A film that keeps you glued to the screen from beginning to end even if you don't like classical music. It is a film about a day that changed Western culture, not just music. It put thought into music. Classical music is no longer just for pleasure or, worse, for background, but it is a means of expression for ideas and ideals. In a way, no film can possibly be expected to convey such an enormous feat, it's too important, too far reaching an event to encapsulate in 83 minutes.

Acting is quite good, and so are the costumes. Of course the symphony itself if always a pleasure to listen to. In this case it's Gardiner conducting.

One small inaccuracy is that when he learns that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Beethoven is shown as ripping the title page off, with the famous dedication to Bonaparte, and throwing it away. In fact, he crossed out the words, ripping up the paper in doing so.

In the UK buy your favorite version of Beethoven's Eroica here on Amazon.

Browse your Eroica versions here on Amazon

Here about the novelty of this symphony and a version played at the BBC prom

18 July 2012

Film review: Olympia (1936), by Leni Riefenstahl ***


A documentary of the 1936 Summer Olympic games held in Berlin.


This is undoubdtedly great photography, and controversial director Riefenstahl was very innovative in her positioning of the camera, especially in the low angle. For its time, it was a masterpiece.

Today I find it a bit boring. The sequence of events is monotonous and repetitive.

Interesting to hear the British version commentator cheer for a "European" runner (who happened to be an Italian) runner when an American and a Canadian were in the lead in the 800 meters. An indication that at the time the ideological differences between fascist Italy and democratic Britain did not prevent him to voice sympathy for a fellow European when competing against an American.

Also interesting to hear him use of the term"negro" when referring to black athletes. This is of course politically incorrect today, but did not have a pejorative connotation at that time. Indeed, Martin Luther King and Leopold Senghor used the word even much later.

Funny to see swimmers as they swam "breast stroke" also with butterfly strokes, at will, as it was not differentiated at the time.

The audio in this DVD is pretty bad, could have been remastered better.

An interesting piece of history nonetheless.

Buy the US version here

24 May 2012

American Cemetery and Memorial in the Ardennes

Today I visited the American Cemetery and Memorial in the Ardennes. A quiet place where several thousand Americans who died during WW II are buried. K. and I are welcomed by the deputy director (or was it commander?), a retired American military himself. A few gardeners are meticulously clipping the grass around each cross. Stars of David mark the graves of Jewish soldiers. A sobering sight.

The Summer heat does not convey the idea of what these guys experienced during their last days on this earth, while fighting in the dead of Winter in the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's last, futile and bloody offensive in December 1944. A small room displays a few paraphernalia from the war.

Definitely a recommended stop for anyone driving in the area, and absolutely worth a detour if you are not.

26 March 2012

Recensione film: Operazione Valchiria (2008) di Bryan Singer, ****


Tratto da una stupefacente storia vera, Operazione Valchiria, è la cronaca del coraggioso e ingegnoso piano per eliminare uno dei più perversi tiranni che il mondo abbia mai conosciuto. Orgoglioso della divisa che indossa, il colonnello Stauffenberg è un ufficiale leale che ama il suo paese, ma che è stato costretto ad assistere con orrore all'ascesa di Hitler e alla Seconda guerra mondiale. Ha continuato a servire nell'esercito, sempre con la speranza che qualcuno trovasse il modo per fermare Hitler prima che l'Europa e la Germania fossero distrutte. Quando si rende conto che il tempo stringe, Stauffenberg decide di entrare in azione e nel 1942 cerca di persuadere i comandanti del fronte orientale a rovesciare Hitler.

Poi, nel 1943, mentre si sta riprendendo dalle ferite subite in combattimento, si unisce a un gruppo di uomini inseriti nei ranghi del potere che cospirano contro il tiranno. La loro strategia prevede di usare lo stesso piano di emergenza di Hitler per consolidare il paese nell'eventualità della sua morte - l'Operazione Valchiria - per assassinare il dittatore e rovesciare il governo nazista. Con il futuro del mondo e il destino di milioni di persone, oltre alla vita della moglie e dei figli, appesi a un filo, Stauffenberg da oppositore di Hitler diventa l'uomo che deve uccidere Hitler.

Film Review: Valkyrie (2008), by Brian Singer, ****

On the front lines in North Africa, German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) grows increasingly opposed to Adolf Hitler's policies. Following the Allied invasion of Normandy, von Stauffenberg spearheads an elaborate plan with confederates to smuggle a bomb into the Fuhrer's tightly guarded military headquarters. Based on a true story, this crackling war thriller directed by Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") co-stars Kenneth Branagh, Carice von Houten, and Tom Wilkinson.

26 May 2010

Film Review: Katyn, by Andzrej Wajda, *****


KATYN is the story of Polish army officers murdered by the Soviet secret police in the Katyn forest during the Second World War and the families who, unaware of the crime, were still waiting for their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers to return. It is a film about the continuing struggle over History and memory, and an uncompromising exploration of the Russian cover up of the massacre that prevented the Polish people from commemorating those that had been killed.

14 September 2006

Film Review: The Lives of Others (2006), by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, *****


In the former East Germany, no-one was above suspicion. Like George Orwell's vision of the future come to life, art and people and relationships were monitored obsessively; The Lives Of Others captures not only the paranoia and danger inherent in such a world, but also expresses hope that even in the most desperate situations, people can make a difference.

The story of The Lives Of Others unfolds mostly through the eyes of a secret service agent (Ulrich Mühe)who's been given the task of spying on an artistic couple who've attracted the attention of the Minister of Culture. Little by little, he's drawn into their lives even as we're drawn into his; and as he loses his faith in the government, he must decide whether or not to try to hide the transgressions of those he's watching. As the physical danger and emotional cost mounts, it's impossible not to become utterly engrossed; intelligent and well-written, The Lives Of Others is also deeply moving.


A fictional account of real life under communism in East Germany. I studied pre-1989 Eastern Europe in depth and visited that particular country a number of times. This is really what was going on!

The film is a great mix of fiction (for the love story part) and reality (for the political part). As such, it is a brilliant piece of work that entertains and educates at the same time.

Addendum: Just a few weeks after this film came out, Markus Wolf, the long time chief of Stasi, died in his sleep, a free man. It was 9 November, quite appropriately the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, and the national day of the unified Germany he tried to prevent from ever coming into existance.

You can get the DVD here:

11 May 1989

18° g - 11 MAG: sulla Germania, Europa, disarmo

Incontro con Sergeij Karaganov, vice-direttore dell'Istituto per l'Europa dell'Accademia delle Scienze Persona interessante. L'istituto è stato fondato solo poco più di un anno fa, ed è piuttosto piccolo: hanno solo circa una sessantina di persone di staff scientifico! Dovrebbero arrivare a 150 a pieno regime, per ora non hanno neanche una sede definitiva. Lui è uno specialista di sicurezza, ma ora si deve occupare anche di altro.

12 April 1980

Both sides of Berlin and return to Poland

Wake up around 8. Our landlady serves us a most welcome large breakfast and while we eat she tells us stories from her fading but still lucid memories from World War II. She lived in Gdansk (Danzig) at the start of the war, on 1 September 1939, when Germany attacked. Like many older people she likes to talk and inevitably repeats herself. We heard it the other day too but it still sends shudders down our spines.

The copious breakfast takes time to consume and we are in due course taken to Berlin, where our lady was displaced during the war. Here, under relentless Allied bombing, her 4-month old child starved to death while her husband went crazy on the Russian front. She tried to commit suicide by cutting her veins but did not do a good job and survived. After taking leave from her we move back to East Berlin. here we visit the Treptower Park, with another huge mausoleum to fallen Soviet soldiers.

We leave Berlin and the wall behind for one last time.
The old Reichstag and the wall on the right

The Wall: hard to believe neighbours are now on the opposite side of the Cold War

On the bombing ot Berlin, read

11 April 1980

Visiting Berlin

Lazy wake up call at 9:30 and long walk in the Tiergarten.

Tiergarten and Victoria column
We see the Victoria tower, enjoy a great panoramic view from the top and walk all the way up to the Brandenburger Tor, from which we can see the Berlin Wall. Nearby we can also visit a colossal monument to the Soviet soldiers who conquered Berlin. However, unsurprisingly, there are no West Berliner visiting the shrine!

Looking into East Berlin from the Victoria tower

We also visit a history museum in the old Reichstag building, kind of boring, not nearly as much fun as the one in the East! An interesting exhibit is a collection of Deutsche mark notes from the 1920s, when Germany experienced hyperinflation and developed a sort of paranoia for expansionist monetary policies that will last many decades.

One billion mark notes seem small change. I am struck by the two hundred billion mark bank note! That's serious money!

DM hyperinflation bank notes

10 April 1980

Exploring West Berlin

Early in the morning we are ejected from our guesthouse and start looking for another place to spend the night. We found a couple of rooms for rent in the house of a friendly eighty-year-old woman in Charlottenburg. It's a beautiful home if a bit tired in terms of furniture and decorations.

Our hostess in Berlin

As soon as we arrive, and she hears we are studying in Poland, she starts telling us stories about the war. She lived in Gdansk (then Danzig) and saw the first Stukas dive bomb Poland on 1 September 1939. She also saw German battleships shell Polish territory but not a shot coming from the other direction. She is not nostalgic of pre-war Germany, but quite a bit worried about living in divided contemporary Germany, especially in isolated West Berlin.

In the afternoon we visit Charlottenburg and the big radio tower. We walk for many kilometers, I am quite exhausted by the end of the day.

Dinner at a simple Italian restaurant, San Giorgio, OK quality and cheap, what we need. Italian food abroad is rarely as good as at home in Italy, but it is usually inexpensive and filling, excellent for three students on the go!

We then walk around the city, aimlessly, hopping from one Bierstube to the next without any particular goal or target in mind. We are impressed by the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, left as a reminder the way it was after an Allied air raid in 1943.

To see what life in Berlin looked like at the end of five years of Allied bombing click here to watch a contemporary video.

09 April 1980

East Berlin taster and move to West Berlin

Hotel Stadt Berlin in Alexanderplatz
Arrive in East Berlin at about 7:15am, it is raining hard and it's damn cold! Good start!

The city center is clean and every corner is almost manicured. First things first, we climb on top of the Fernsehturm, the long TV tower that is a point of reference for anyone moving around East Berlin. Built between 1965 and 1969 it is the tallest structure in all of Germany (NOTE in 2015: it still is!) and a symbol of pride for the authorities of the Germand Democratic Republic (GDR). Unfortunately because of the weather we can't see much from the top: it no longer rains but we can see just clouds and fog.
As we descend and walk around we discover that not all parts of the city are as spotless as we thought after our first impression around the station: many streets are dirty, they qualify for the title of slums really.

A few churches are available in this most strict Communist dictatorship. Re-built after the war, they are empty shells of bricks and concrete. No decorations. Only a few pieces of low-relief sculptures are on display, recuperated from the pre-war works.

Cold morning in Berlin

We then visit the Palace of Culture and the History Museum, both places replete with vicious attacks against the West in every shape or form: posters, caricatures.

We then try to cross the wall into West Berlin on foot, but we are not allowed to do so, can do only by metro, crossing at the Friedrichstrasse station. This is a unique station because it is in East Berlin but it is served by West Berlin metro, allowing for a more easily controlled border crossing.

The old pre-war German metro is still functioning but of course it is divided. Some stations had to be closed as the trains travel under West Berlin to go from one part to another of East Berlin.

When we arrive in West Berlin we start looking for a place to stay, and walk around the shining city for many kilometres. Very expensive for us after we have gotten used to Polish prices! Finally we find a mediocre room in the Buchenwald Pension for DM 26 per day. We are very tired and collapse soon after eight o'clock, and will sleep for a solid twelve hours.

08 April 1980

Departure for Berlin

In the evening we board our long desired train for East Berlin. It's taken us so long to get the tickets, visas and legal cash we almost gave up. But now we are on.

The train is fairly comfortable, though we don't have a sleeper bed. Before it's dark we get a glimpse of the flatlands of Western Poland, the so long fought-over Pomerania.

We fall alseep knowing it's going to be a fascinating experience but a little worried about going to a society with a reputation for being much stricter and less forgiving than Poland.