By Rick Steves
To learn more about Germany past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
Germany: A New History (Schulze) is a one-volume compendium covering 2,000 years. Inside the Third Reich, based on 1,200 manuscript pages, is an authoritative account of 1933 through 1945, written by Albert Speer, Hitler’s main architect. Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (Funder) relays the secrets of the Stasi, the East German Ministry for State Security. In the Garden of Beasts (Larson) chronicles 1930s Berlin through the eyes of America’s ambassador to Nazi Germany and his daughter.
For more on modern Germany, including cultural insights, pick up Culture Shock! Germany (Lord), When in Germany, Do as the Germans Do (Flippo), and Of German Ways (Rippley). Gourmets may want to grab The Marling Menu-Master for Germany.
Memoirs: Günter Grass stirred up controversy with his 2007 memoir, Peeling the Onion, which revealed he was a soldier in the dreaded Waffen-SS. A Time of Gifts (Fermor) tells of the author’s walking tour of Europe — and Germany — in the 1930s. In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain recounts his amusing European adventures, including some in Germany.
Classics of German fiction include the works of Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice, and The Magic Mountain) and Hermann Hesse (Narcissus and Goldmund and Siddhartha).
Some of the best modern German literature has wrestled with the country’s warmongering past. All Quiet on the Western Front, a classroom classic by Erich Maria Remarque, speaks with eloquence about World War I. First published before World War II, Address Unknown (Kathrine Kressmann Taylor) is a novella with a cautionary tone about what would follow. In The Tin Drum, Günter Grass broke the post-WWII silence, creating a landmark work of literature in the process. The Silent Angel is a complex love story set after the war (by Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll).
A book of science fiction and time travel, 1632 (Flint) sends West Virginians back to 17th-century Germany. The Good German (Kanon), set during the postwar years, is part thriller, part historical fiction. Berlin Noir (Kerr) is filled with stories of secrets and crime.
For recent material, consider the following books, published since the mid-1990s. Esther Freud, the daughter of artist Lucien Freud, set Summer at Gaglow during the Great War. Stones from the River, the story of a dwarf in Nazi Germany, and Floating in My Mother’s Palm, which takes place in a small town on the Rhine, have brought Ursula Hegi accolades. Told by a sympathetic narrator, The Reader (Schlink) challenges readers to think, “What if my loved ones had been Nazis?” Saints and Villains (Giardina) is the fictionalized account of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant theologian who protested against Hitler’s rise. Marrying Mozart (Cowell) reveals a more intimate side of the famous composer.
Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) is infamous Nazi propaganda turned film classic. The Tin Drum (1979) is based on Günter Grass’ seminal novel, and The Good German (2006) is based on Joseph Kanon’s thriller (both described earlier).
Other meditations on the war years — films filled with allegory and metaphor about the Nazis’ rise to power — include Mephisto (1981) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). Downfall (2004) tells of the Führer’s final days. Schindler’s List (1993) — about a factory owner’s inspirational efforts to save his Jewish employees from deportation to concentration camps — won Steven Spielberg the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.
Shoah (1985) is a 9.5-hour Holocaust documentary that includes no wartime footage, only interviews with those who lived through it. The well-respected Das Boot (1981) has a strong pacifist message, as do the films about the students who defied Hitler — and were ultimately sentenced to die: The White Rose (1982) and the beautiful, devastating Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005). Cabaret (1972), which made Liza Minnelli a star, is about the crazy Berlin scene in 1931, during the last days of the Weimar Republic as the Nazis were rising to power.
But German film is not composed of only dramatic, war-themed movies. Set in Berlin, Wings of Desire (1987) is Wim Wenders’ best film, showing an angel who falls in love and falls to earth. Immortal Beloved (1994) made Beethoven into a flesh-and-blood man (with a secret lover). A different kind of music film, Backbeat (1994) chronicles the years the Beatles played in Hamburg just before becoming famous. Run Lola Run (1998) was an art-house phenomenon, combining action, love, and mobsters with a time-twisting plot. Jewish refugees settle in 1930s Kenya in Nowhere in Africa (2001). Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) is a funny, poignant look at a son’s struggle to re-create long-gone Eastern Europe for his mother, while the former GDR’s harsh secrets are exposed in The Lives of Others (2006).