Of a Bottle of Coke, and a Typewriter

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In 1937 the city of Berlin celebrated its 700th anniversary. 1237, was the year when the first artefacts and documents attested of the existence of an organised municipality, in what was then the town of Cölln, as Berlin was still then a mere nearby hamlet. In 1937, the NSDAP, the party of Adolf Hitler, had been in power for four years, following its electoral success in the general elections of 1933. Fleeing the noises and fracas of another election, we visited the most interesting, and beautifully laid-out exhibition “Berlin 1937, Im Schatten von Morgen“, at the Märkisches Museum, Berlin.

Fifty exhibits, photographies, audio recordings, day to day objects, display the day, as it happened, at a time when all organised resistance to the régime had long been brutally suppressed, and the city’s cultural and public life were totally subordinated to the dominating ideology. One can see the Wehrmacht marching, Coca Cola Gmbh doing well, and a typewriter, magnificently manufactured, and doted of a special key for “Schütz-Staffeln” (SS). There are also recordings of letters and diaries of people, then jailed, soon to be directed to an even worse fate, and their murder.

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It all felt strangely close to us, not at all old history. Yet, since, the city saw so many tragedies and as much destruction as the human species can take. We walked those streets, and heard the marching songs. In 1987 Berlin celebrated its 750th anniversary.

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Pictures: courtesy Märkisches Museum, Berlin

Blindly #DailyPrompt

Today’s one-word prompt

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He watches the City born again, the ghosts of the past walking, silently, amidst the joyous crowds. The ancient monuments look old and cleansed, no longer ruins martyred by war. Yet he does not follow the script, blindly, but, rather, reflects on the meanings, the hidden messages, the untold truths. Here were divisions, for sure, and the hideous spectrum of tyranny. But here was courage also. And patient work, and the indomitable spirit of a great nation.

Photo: Brandenburger Tor, von Bundestag cupola, 2017 (Honoré Dupuis)

Record

The Prompt

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The interrogation went on for hours, as he answered the questions, seemingly endless and random, but he knew, designed to catch him lying. He would not lie. There was no point. The truth would be denied, of course, but someday, what was on record would be known, and his innocence recognised. Some day.

Photo: Münster, Lamberti Kirche, die Täufer

 

By the Lake

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The quiet street is bordered by sumptuous villas, surrounded by trees. Some of the buildings are ancient, although meticulously maintained, probably pre-1914; others are more recent. Most have views over the lake, for this is what would be described, in England, as a well sought-after, leafy suburb. It has been so for a long time, ever since, in the 1850’s, the industrial growth of the Reich, and of its capital city, pushed the wealthy and entrepreneurial to seek the peace of these shores.

We drive past the painter Lieberman’s house, now a museum. Lieberman died in 1935, a confused and broken man, at the start of the worst episode in German, and European, long history. His widow, then aged eighty, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, and killed herself with veronal. We park the car in a spacious space, a few steps from the “lion”, and from the Villa Marlier.

Kaufmann Ernst Marlier, a charlatan who made his fortune selling fake slimming pills to the gullible German ladies and gents, acquired the land and had the house built for himself in 1914. The house is set on an artificial hill, constructed at great cost, to ensure a view over the lake, and an elegant formal garden. This is a vast, comfortable place, well suited to the – then –  wealthy owner who could afford it. We are told (*) that Marlier, after many unpleasant encounters with the law, sold his property in 1921, and finally disappeared without trace in Switzerland. The next owner, Herr Friedrich Minoux, was another one-time lucky businessman, with political ambitions, and who was not so successful under nazi rule, not fault of trying. Minoux had specialised in acquiring jewish businesses at fire-sale prices and built his financial success thereupon.he could not however avoid bankruptcy and sold the property for 1.95 million Reichsmark in 1940.

And so it is that, against strong competition from other nazi supremos, including Doctor Goebbels himself, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), and future protector of Boheme-Moravia, acquired the Marlier house. There, on 20 January 19942, took place the conference that sealed the fate of millions of European citizens, caught in the nightmare of deportation and extermination on the East front. It is said that the real decisions regarding the “final solution” had already been taken, at the onset of the war, and were, anyway, already written into the “book’s” dreaded pronouncements.

By 1942 Heydrich had been made the über boss of all police and repressive forces in the Reich (Reichssicherheitshauptamt), and in the occupied territories. There is little doubt that the conference, as well documented in the “protocol” meticulously compiled by Obersturmbannführer Eichmann, was at most an endorsement and logistical settlement of the already determined final solution. The fifteen “functionaries” who participated, were in fact, Heydrich himself apart, no decision makers. As the said, many times later, and still during the trial of Eichmann, they obeyed orders…

The exhibition in the house, is superbly, and mercilessly laid out, from the nineteenth century nonsense, pseudo scientific racial absurdities, through the first world war and the fierce repression of the revolution, to the early fascistic violence of the frei Korps in the 20’s, to the onset of the nazi regimes, the logic of the first KZ, the liquidation of the “socialists” within, and finally, the war. There is plenty of sober evidence of the handy work of the Einsatzgruppen, Heydrich’s babies, the massacres of communists and jews, the good citizens of Lithuania, and other proud nationalists, butchering their neighbours with iron bars, under the watchful and impassive eyes of German soldiers. There is plenty of evidence of the cowardice of various collaborating European governments, including France’s Vichy, that managed to deport some 70,000 French citizens and refugees, in less than five years. Over half of the eleven million Europeans, objects of the conference, lost their lives. But, of course, this does not count Germany’s estimated eleven millions military and civilian dead, and the losses of the victorious USSR…

We looked out of the dining room bay windows, where once Reinhard Heydrich stood, surrounded by his fellow “functionaries”. We walked out on the beautiful terrace Marlier had built.

Then, we walked along the awakening lake shore, observing that the ice had melted. A heron flew by, in the woods we saw a wild boar. A beaver colony is evidently hard at work on some trees. So was a woodpecker. Peaceful walkers were taking pictures. So was I.

(*) I am in debt to Deutschlandradio for the programme “Gebt mir Sand, Wasser und Gold, Die lange Nacht von der Insel Wannsee“, for the historical information upon which this post is based.

The photography is from our visit to the Wannseeconferenz Haus in February 2017.

 

 

Resist #WritersWednesday

The Prompt

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The story is there, the characters laid out, not yet fully alive, but stirring. The daily bombardment of falsehoods, the unstoppable flow of hate and lies are the sad background: is it not the writer’s duty to see through, to unravel, to show the lessons that could have been learnt? But who is she to claim to know? Who is he to claim some knowledge, somehow privileged to the “happy few”, as Stendhal once wrote?

Only the story should tell, only the characters should speak. Not by blaming the past – which is our present – but only by imagining what could be, do we have a chance to change the future…

Image: Statue of Liberty, courtesy http://travelhdwallpapers.com/statue-of-liberty-sunset/

Ten (steps) #DailyPrompt #WritersWednesday

The prompt

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“Ten steps, you said, and, well, I’d like to know…”

“It is simple, also we are in 2017 remember,” she replied with her irresistible smile, “The hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution – remember Petrograd? But also 1517, five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation: Wittenberg, brother Martin, the revolt of the peasants, Münster, Q! So, here you are, the ten steps:

  1. Remember always which year you are in
  2. Look at the cages, have this picture above your desk, remember them!
  3. Every year take a trip to Wittenberg, or Münster, or wherever an event of importance took place that has inspired great works…
  4. Reread “The Ten Days That Shook the World”, “Q” and other classics: food for thoughts.
  5. Bert from the Well be your model: the calm hero.
  6. Never rush on mere enthusiasm: there has to be a reason!
  7. Reread the “Tractatus”, Wittgenstein is good for the soul.
  8. Walk.
  9. Respect her, I mean, me!
  10. Gym, three times a week!

There you are, I told you: simple!”

Photo: the church of Saint Lamberti in Münster, with the original cages where the tortured corpses of the Täufer were exhibited (1536)

T-Rain, and a girl named Zula: a reading of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde #amreading

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Every other thing that he had done for the company – networking with money launderers, stringing Ethernet cable, recruiting fantasy authors, managing Pluto – could be done better and more cheaply by someone who could be recruited by a state-of-the-art head-hunting firm. His role, in the end, had been reduced to this one thing: sitting in the corner of meeting rooms or lurking on corporate email lists, seeming not to pay attention, growing ever more restless and surly until he blurted something out that offended a lot of people and caused the company to change course. Only later did they see the shoals on which they would have run aground if not for Richard’s startling and grumpy intervention.”

Reamde is a tough, long, and interesting novel. I had to interrupt my reading several times during this year, and this made following the plot as hazardous as the story itself. I acquired Reamde initially as an e-book. The version I had was poorly edited, and after some four hundred pages I could no longer find my way through the various geographies and characters. Finally I purchased the paperback (in the Atlantic Books edition available in the UK.) This helped me to come back on tracks, as the good ones were getting deeper into serious trouble, and the bad ones were… getting more horrible than ever.
Richard Forthrast is a wealthy entrepreneur, and the soul at the core of T-Rain, a world-class multiplayer (MMORPG) game and metaverse, that transcends all predecessors. Richard is the head of the Forthrast clan, an expanded family of gun-totting characters who include his adopted niece, the beautiful Zula, a refugee from Erithrea. The world of T-Rain is, one day, disrupted by the double event of an internal war – the Wor – and the advent of what turns out to be a deadly virus, Reamde. The plot then develops into two parallel, but eventually convergent, lines: what happens in T-Rain, and what happens in “reality”: much of the book’s interest arises, in this reader’s view, from this double narrative, the journey in T-Rain, and the journey in this world, from Idaho to the Philippines, via China and various airfields and oil tankers, and back again, as Bilbo Baggins used to say. Both are rich in deadly traps, of the explosive and other varieties, such as magic spells.
A good first tier of the book is devoted to a description of T-Rain, its design, history and creators, a medley of British and US genial weirdos, recruited by, and under Richard’s influence. I must admit having lost the thread more than once (a fuller understanding would require a second reading, at least.) The real world’s thread centres on Zula and her companions, and their odyssey. For Reamde, the virus, cuts across the machinations of a criminal gang from the East, whose extortion racket is disrupted by the virus. The consequences of the gang’s brutal intervention, and a chance meeting with a bunch of jihadists, make up the second half of the novel, as the separate trails slowly converge back to the US-Canadian border, and Richard’s eagle nest.
There are hints of Snow Crash, Stephenson’s earlier novel that introduced a proto-virtual world, and multiple references to the world of hacking and virus developers. There are peripheral characters, some roughly inspired by the “war on terror”, and of course, the very nasty, and yet noble jihadist, the infamous Jones.
I only caught up with the female characters, all three of them, once I had acquired the paperback, having to backtrack through the 1044 pages! I think, now, that sometime I will re-read Reamde, when I have some uninterrupted three or four weeks of quiet vacation (maybe when we visit Seattle?) Stephenson lives in Seattle and his geographical knowledge of the region is evidently vast. I struggled with the trails through the mountainous area above Richard’s Schloss! A map would be as useful to the reader as it would be to Zula and her friends.
Reamde is, in turn, hilarious and tragic, a great read, and a milestone for Stephenson’s aficionados.

Photo: [By Ryan Somma – https://www.flickr.com/photos/ideonexus/6191024454, CC BY 2.0, Link]

My reading of Cryptonomicon

Teufelsberg, or, of the Vanity of Wars…

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The woods are silent, high above the hills a hawk observes the few walkers: we are aware of what we are treading on: a still intact Nazi building that resisted attempts at destroying it, on top layers after layers of rubbles from ruined homes and monuments destroyed by the war. We admire the views, the lakes on the horizon, the stadium’s tower above the trees, the white city and its domes.

We approach the site through the naked trees, past the climbing rocks, along the double fence. Everything has been vandalised, rubbish strewed over the once well ordered roads. What remains is enough to show the extent of the buildings here, and there is more underground.

What did they listen to? What did they learn? Was there a sane reason for them to be there, for nearly forty years… Was there a sane reason for the division, the pain, the fears?

What do the ghosts think? Or have they given up since the devil persists in haunting those hills?…

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From a visit to Teufelsberg, former NSA listening station in West Berlin.

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