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Books this Season: Nonfiction

Winter 2004/2005

Fiction / Arabic Literature / Memoirs and Biographies / Politics / Nonfiction


Why reviews of this book came so late in the major national papers is a mystery. Anita Kugler's "Scherwitz, der jüdische SS-Offizier", the story of the - possibly - Jewish SS officer, Eleke Scherwitz, is the most exciting non-fiction book of the season. (Read an excerpt in German.) Kugler, a first-rate journalist, tells the story of a young man who saved - but perhaps also murdered - Jews in the Latvian concentration camp at Lenta. The German courts sentenced him with exceptional harshness after the war, justifying their decision with the comment that his being Jewish made his crimes particularly abhorrent! Kugler's book follows the trail of this survivor. If it hadn't been a question of life and death, Scherwitz - after 700 pages we still do not know if this was his real name - could easily be portrayed as an impostor. This unbelievable story is also a book about writing history. Kugler set out to find Scherwitz' contemporaries and went door to door through villages asking about him. And she spent seven years in the archives. Her conclusion: even eye witnesses lie. FAZ critic Hans-Jürgen Döscher complains Kugler can establish conclusively neither the origins nor the motives of her "hero". In the SZ, historian Susanne Heim finds Scherwitz' story "as exciting as a detective novel", while still deserving to be called good historical writing.

Valentin Groebner writes a new type of history in "Der Schein der Person", a social history of medieval practices of personal identification and ID control. Writing in the FAZ, historian Michael Borgolte praises the 'new scientific style' of the author, which is both narrative and highly readable. Groebner's study shows above all that there was a large gap between the attempt to establish even an approximate record of the person, and the true state of affairs in the Middle Ages. The book argues that as in the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, successful surveillance reflects more the wishes of those in power than a real state of affairs. Borgolte is absolutely thrilled with Groebner's approaches to his theme, calling study "brilliant", and praising the "new scientific style", "narrative joy" and pointed reference to today's readers. The SZ does not deny the book's entertainment value, but finds it lacking in methodological integrity.


The rediscovery of the work of natural scientist, explorer and multi-talent Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) by Die Andere Bibliothek publishing house made the cover of Germany's top news magazine Der Spiegel. Published anew are the two-volume "Kosmos" as well as "Ansichten der Kordilleren und Monumente der eingeborenen Völker Amerikas" and "Ansichten der Natur". Critics commend Hans Magnus Enzensberger for renewing German interest in this seminal author. The NZZ called the work the "opus magnus of a universal thinker", while the SZ praised Humboldt's approach of "understanding the world through its designs". According to the FR, Humboldt's writing is as least as thrilling as the adventure novels of Alexander Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson. The FAZ further also recommended the audio book of "Kosmos".

There was general praise for Matthias Hagner's historical study on brain research, "Geniale Gehirne". The fact that genius is located in the brain does not go very far in explaining it, comments Eberhard Ortland in Die Zeit. For one thing, it is not exactly easy to take a look into the – living – brain. And finding an answer to how genius gets in or originates there is not easy at all. Michael Hagner's study looks at scientists' attempts to explain it. Geniuses' brains have been "collected, palpated and measured" and cut in slices for centuries, on the search for the "nature of spirit". Hagner's thesis and major discovery is that this nature is a scientific assumption, and has always been the child of a specific cultural spirit, which Hagner investigates in his study. Often, these cultural spirits answer to less attractive names, like "racism, sexism, and eugenics". Ortland appreciates Hagner's "richly documented and illuminating study", which avoids any "denunciation of the neurosciences", but has a "sharp eye for historical constellations." The FAZ feuilleton, which has a programmatic interest in everything scientific, has certified the book as the long awaited "major contemporary novel" which has appeared in the form of nonfiction.


US philosopher Philippa Foot remains to be discovered in Germany. Fittingly, her book "Die Natur des Guten" (Natural Goodness) has now been translated into German. Foot argues that moral judgements are not subjective, and that there are objective moral rules. For NZZ reviewer Ludger Heidbrink the thin volume on the basic principles of moral philosophy gives "great reading pleasure", although he disagrees with the author's conclusions: At the end of her book, Foot must accept the compromise of a rationalistic virtue morality, which assumes a "natural goodness" of man to justify the morality of his actions. The FAZ, FR and SZ also give the book extensive reviews.

Critics agree that Harald Weinreich's "Knappe Zeit", a history of time shortage, is anything but a waste of time. The book collects insights of philosophers and writers from ancient times to the present into the shared human perception that time is in short supply. The SZ and the FAZ admire the ease with which Weinrich travels through western intellectual history. In the FAZ, medieval historian Kurt Flasch admires the author's erudition and scholarship, as well as his original contributions to the Western conception of time. For Flasch, Weinreich's originality lies in his "approach blending philology with medical history". Weinreich draws attention to the etymology of the Latin word "tempus", which means both "time" and "temples" – the flat regions on either side of the forehead.The Latin word already reflected the relationship between time and the human body.

Equally well received is Elmar Holenstein's "Philosophie-Atlas", which traces the "places and pathways of thinking" worldwide. The book's maps and pictures have evoked the penny drop effect from all critics. One should not expect a history of philosophy but rather, as one NZZ reviewer put it, "a geographic accompaniment to readings in philosophy".

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