The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season — Task the First: The Winter Wonderland; and Task the Seventh: The Christmas

Dylan Thomas Reads a Child's Christmas in Wales and Five Poems/Cd - Dylan Thomas The Nightingale Before Christmas (Meg Langslow Mysteries) - Donna Andrews

Task the First:
– Read a book that is set in a snowy place.

Dylan Thomas: A Child’s Christmas in Wales

 Thomas’s lyrical memoirs of his childhood Christmas experience, read by himself … truly magical.  One of the books (or CDs) that I revisit every single holiday season.


Task the Seventh:
– Read a book set during the Christmas holiday season.

 Donna Andrews: The Nightingale Before Christmas

 The year before last’s entry in Donna Andrews’s Meg Lanslow series: An uninhabited  Caerphilly house has been turned into a show house for the local interior designers’ pre-Christmas competition, which Meg has agreed to organize (her own mother being one of the contestants, and Meg’s involvement as an organizer having been the price for their own house not to be used as the scene of competition) — as a result of which Meg is having to constantly mediate between the contestants, who keep going at each others’ throats hammer and tongs and are, as a whole, more unruly than a bag of wriggling kittens.  It doesn’t particularly help, either, that there’s a student hanging around the place doing research for an article on the competition that she’s writing for the local university newspaper, that moreover, packages containing the contestants’ orders of items needed in their decorative arrangements keep disappearing, and that at last someone even takes to vandalizing the house and some of the half-arranged rooms, with merely a few days to go to Christmas (and to the advent of the judges).  When the most unpopular of the contestants — whom the others also hold responsible for the disappearance of their packages and for the vandalization of their rooms — is found murdered, there doesn’t seem a shortage of suspects … except that every single one of the other designers seems to have a credible alibi.

 A more than solid, tremendously enjoyable entry in the series … having read Duck the Halls just before Christmas last year, I’m seriously tempted to hunt down all of Andrews’s holiday books and read them, one at a time, before Christmas each year!  She truly has a knack for combining a hilarious storyline with fully-rounded characters (howevver unusual), a homely and comfortably-feeling small-town setting and a lot of warmth, humor, and common sense.  Highly recommended!


 Task the Seventh:
– Grab your camera and set up a Christmas bookstagram-style scene with favorite holiday reads, objects or decorations. Possibly also a cat. Post it for everyone to enjoy!

Well, the cat preferred to watch the setup from atop the half-empty box of Christmas decorations instead of being part of the picture, but anyway … here we go!  (And yes, that’s a real candle again. 🙂 )


Snow Globes: Reads
Bells: Activities


Original post:

The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season — Task the Sixth: The Hanukkah

Eldest (Inheritance, #2) - Christopher Paolini The Valley of Fear - Arthur Conan Doyle The Complete Sherlock Holmes (The Heirloom Collection) - Bill & Martin Greenberg (eds.), Ian Fleming, Leslie Charteris, John D. MacDonald, W. Somerset Maugham, Peter O'Donnell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Jakes, Edward D. Hoch, Cornell Woolrich, William E. Barrett, Bruce Cassiday, Mic Even Dogs in the Wild - Ian Rankin Letters from Father Christmas - J.R.R. Tolkien,Baillie Tolkien Letters From Father Christmas - J.R.R. Tolkien


Reading: Let the dreidel choose a book for you:

נ  Nun (miracle): Christopher Paolini – Eldest (audio version read by Kerry Shale)
ג Gimel (great): Arthur Conan Doyle – The Valley of Fear (audio version read by Simon Vance)
ה He (happened): Ian Rankin – Even Dogs in the Wild
ש Shin (there, i.e. Israel): J.R.R. Tolkien – Letters From Father Christmas

So, it’ll be Arthur Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear!


Original post:

Birthday Monster Book Haul

…  thanks to my mom, who gave me a bookstore gift card, my best friend, who raided my Amazon wish list (isn’t it nice to know your loved ones know just what you’ll be happiest about?) and a few odd things to which I treated myself:

  • Die Briefe der Manns (The Mann Family Correspondence) — newly released
  • Anna Funder: All That I Am
  • Ilija Trojanow (or Iliya Troyanov, as he’s spelled in English): Der Weltensammler (The Collector of Worlds)
  • George Simenon: Maigret & Co. (collection of audio dramatizations of Simenon’s mysteries)
  • Edwidge Danticat: Claire of the Sea Light
  • Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass
  • J.R.R. Tokien: The Lord of the Rings — the legendary BBC audio dramatization starring Ian Holm as Frodo, Michael Hordern as Gandalf, and Robert Stephens as Aragorn
  • T.H. White: The Once and Future King (audio version read by Neville Jason)
  • Christopher Paolini: Eragon (audio version read by Kerry Shale)
  • Patrick O’Brian: Aubrey / Maturin — audio versions of the first six novels, read by Robert Hardy
  • Sherlock Holmes: A Baker Street Dozen — audio adaptations of 12 stories, starring John Gielgud (Holmes), Ian Richardson (Watson), and Orson Welles (Moriarty)
  • Val McDermid: Splinter the Silence
  • Michael Connelly: The Crossing
  • Ian Rankin: Even Dogs in the Wild

… and, also courtesy of my friend, Eric Clapton: I Still Do — and a kitty coloring book!




Of Monsters, Murder and Divine Mercy

“Sister, I won’t ask for forgiveness; my sins are all I have,” sings Bruce Springsteen in this movie’s title song while the end credits roll over the screen – giving voice once more to Matthew Poncelet and the men portrayed in Sister Helen Prejean‘s nonfiction account on which this movie is based; that angry “white trash,” those men who are “God’s mistake,” as one victim’s father says, inconsolable over the loss of his daughter; those men locked up in high security prisons for unspeakable crimes which many of them claim they didn”t commit. And Matt Poncelet (Sean Penn) is just such a guy; locked in bravado and denial, he proclaims his innocence and would rather take a lie detector test on the day of his execution “so my momma knows I didn’t do this” than own up to his responsibility.

With Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), we first learn about the crime which landed Poncelet on death row – the rape-murder of a couple on lovers’ lane – from the account she receives when she starts writing to him and eventually agrees to visit him in prison. It is, as she will soon learn, a story that anti-death penalty advocates are all too familiar with; a story of unequal access to lawyers and of two defendants, each blaming all guilt for their crime exclusively on the other, regardless what truly happened. And as long as she is assured that even if Poncelet would have a new trial he wouldn’t go free (as an accomplice, under Louisiana state law he would receive a lifetime prison sentence), Sister Helen is willing to help him find a lawyer and, when the date for his execution is set, try to obtain a reprieve.

But it does not end there, as she soon finds out; and one of this movie’s greatest strengths is the way in which it portrays all sides of the moral issues involved in the death penalty. There are the victims’ families, a stunning 70% of which break up after the murder of a child, and who are forever stuck with the unloving last words spoken to their loved ones and the memory of all the little homely details reminding them of their loss. There are the prison guards and nurses, trying to see executions as “part of their job” – with varying success. There are the politicians, barking slogans on TV; promising to “get tough on sentencing, get tough on lenient parole boards, get tough on judges who pass light sentences.” There are the convicts’ families, marginalized as a result of their brothers’ and sons’ acts, particularly if they refuse to condemn them publicly. (“Now I’m famous,” Poncelet’s mother comments bitterly on the dubious celebrity status she has attained as a result of a TV show about Matt. “A regular Ma Barker!”) And there is the death penalty itself, shown in all its chilling, graphic, clinical detail, here in its allegedly most humane form: lethal injections, which tranquilize the muscles while the poison reaches the convict’s lungs and heart – “his face goes to sleep while his inside organs are going through Armageddon,” Poncelet’s attorney says at his pardon board hearing. “It was important to us to show all sides of the issue,” explains director Tim Robbins on the DVD’s commentary track, “not to be satisfied with soundbites, and to present the reality … Ultimately, the question is not who deserves to die, but who has the right to kill.”

At the heart of the story are two radically different individuals: Sister Helen, who has grown up in an affluent, loving family; and Matthew Poncelet, the convicted killer. And their portrayal is this movie’s other great strength: without either of them, this film would not have been half as compelling. Both Sarandon and Penn deliver Academy Award-worthy performances. (Sarandon did win her long overdue Oscar, Penn lost to Nicolas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas – this would have been an occasion where I would have favored a split award.) Gradually, very gradually we see them get to know each other; and as they do, the visual layers separating them in the prison visiting room are peeled away. Yet, even after he has learned to accept Sister Helen as a human being (not without attempting to come on to her as if she were not a nun – director Tim Robbins’s way of dispelling the notion that they might fall in love, as is so often the case in the more clichéd versions of this type of story), Poncelet insists that his participation was limited to holding one of the victims down, but that it was his accomplice who raped and killed them both. And even days before his execution, he is still looking for “loopholes” in the bible, as Sister Helen admonishes him, seeing redemption as a free ticket into heaven instead of a means of owning up to his responsibility. (“I like that,” he comments when she quotes Jesus’s “the truth shall make you free.” “So I pass that lie detector test, I’m home free.”) Only in his final hour, he slowly, gradually gives up the protective layers of his bravado and lays bare his raw nerve and innermost anguish. And while he speaks, finally, in a complete flashback, we, the viewers, see what really happened that dark and lonely night in the woods, and what all the previous partial flashbacks have not revealed.

“It is easy to kill a monster, but hard to kill a human being,” Poncelet’s attorney explains on one occasion; and Tim Robbins echoes that sentiment on the commentary track. Yet, this movie is not about romanticizing a brutal killer, any more than it is about demonizing his victims. It is, first and foremost, an attempt to bring a complete perspective to one of contemporary America’s most pressing problems, and to find a way past sorrow and hate and move towards the future. And even if you’re still for the death penalty after having watched it – don’t claim ignorance as to what is involved.



Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: PolyGram (1995)
  • Director: Tim Robbins
  • Executive Producers: Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner
  • Producers: Tim Robbins / John Kilik / Rudd Simmons
  • Screenplay: Tim Robbins
  • Based on a nonfiction account by: Sister Helen Prejean C.S.J.
  • Music: David Robbins
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
  • Susan Sarandon: Sister Helen Prejean
  • Sean Penn: Matthew Poncelet
  • Robert Prosky: Hilton Barber
  • Margo Martindale: Sister Colleen
  • Raymond J. Barry: Earl Delacroix
  • Peter Sarsgaard: Walter Delacroix
  • R. Lee Ermey: Clyde Percy
  • Celia Weston: Mary Beth Percy
  • Missy Yager: Hope Percy
  • Jenny Krochmal: Emily Percy
  • Roberta Maxwell: Lucille Poncelet
  • Jack Black: Craig Poncelet
  • Jon Abrahams: Sonny Poncelet
  • Arthur Bridgers: Troy Poncelet
  • Lois Smith: Helen’s Mother
  • Steve Carlisle: Helen’s Brother
  • Helen Hester: Helen’s Sister
  • Michael Cullen: Carl Vitello
  • Scott Wilson: Chaplain Farley
  • Barton Heyman: Captain Beliveau
  • Steve Boles: Sergeant Neal Trapp
  • Nesbitt Blaisdell: Warden Hartman
  • Ray Aranha: Luis Montoya
  • Larry Pine: Guy Gilardi
  • Kevin Cooney: Governor Benedict
  • Gil Robbins: Bishop Norwich
  • Adele Robbins: Nurse
  • Mary Robbins: Aide to Governor Benedict
  • Miles Robbins: Boy in Church
  • Jack Henry Robbins: Opossum Kid
  • Helen Prejean: Woman at Vigil (uncredited)


Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1996)
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
Screen Actors Guild of America Awards (1996)
  • Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1996)
  • 2nd Place, Best Actor: Sean Penn
American Political Film Society Awards (1996)
  • Exposé Award
Humanitas Prize (USA) (1996)
  • Feature Film Category: Tim Robbins
Independent Spirit Awards (1996)
  • Best Male Lead: Sean Penn
Blockbuster Entertainment Awards ( 1997)
  • Favorite Actress, Drama: Susan Sarandon
Online Film & Television Association (1997)
  • OFTA Film Hall of Fame: Motion Picture
Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film Awards (1996)
  • Best Movie
  • Best Actor: Sean Penn
  • Best Actress: Susan Sarandon
Berlin International Film Festival (1996)
  • Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Competition): Tim Robbins
  • Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas: Tim Robbins
  • Reader Jury of the “Berliner Morgenpost” Daily Newspaper: Tim Robbins
  • Silver Berlin Bear (Best Actor): Sean Penn
David di Donatello Awards (Italy) (1996)
  • Migliore Attrice Straniera (Best Foreign Actress) – “Dead Man Walking”



Summer Splurges (AKA: Be Good to Yourself)

The Colour of Poison: A Sebastian Foxley Medieval Mystery (Volume 1) - Toni MountWars of the Roses - Charles RossLast White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors - Desmond SewardBlood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses - Sarah GristwoodMary Tudor: The First Queen - Linda Porter

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen - Anna WhitelockThe Sugar Planter's Daughter - Sharon MaasThe Princes of Ireland - Edward RutherfurdThe Rebels of Ireland - Edward RutherfurdThe Chronicles of Narnia CD Box Set: The Chronicles of Narnia CD Box Set - C.S. Lewis, Kenneth Branagh

Largely inspired by Samantha Wilcoxson’s recommendations following up on my read of her books Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen and Faithful Traitor – as well as looking forward to book 3 of her Tudor Women trilogy – I’ve been on a minor shopping spree lately. Not all of these are Samantha’s recommendations, but that’s the way book browsing goes … one thing leads to another!

  • Toni Mount: The Colour of Poison – actually ordered already before my exchange with Samantha on which books she recommends in connection with her own novels, though another recommendation of hers, too; what a pity I probably won’t be receiving it before the end of its “book of the month” status in More Historical Than Fiction.
  • Charles Ross: The Wars of the Roses – though I’ve already got Trevor Royle’s book on the same subject, but it can’t hurt to get another one just for comparison’s sake;
  • Desmond Seward: The Last White Rose – since, after all, the Yorks didn’t just die out all at once together with Richard III at Bosworth in 1485;
  • Sarah Gristwood: Blood Sisters, The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses – since women played an important part during that period and it’s time we finally took note of them … and not just Margaret of Anjou, either (which is why Samantha’s books on Elizabeth of York and Margaret Pole are such a welcome read);
  • Linda Porter: Mary Tudor, The First Queen – since there’s more to Mary I than is hidden behind her epithet “Bloody Mary”;
  • Anna Whitelock: Mary Tudor, Princess, Bastard, Queen – ditto (and two books are always better than one, see above)

 … and while I was at it, I also did a bit of wish list cleanup, ordering:

  • Sharon Maas: The Sugar Planter’s Daughter (book 2 of her Winnie Cox trilogy; fresh from the publisher’s press);
  • Edward Rutherfurd: The Princes of Ireland and The Rebels of Ireland;
  • David Suchet: Poirot and Me (since my reviews of some of the Poirot dramatizations starring Suchet are up next for copying over to my WordPress blog)
  • … and then I also found a dirt cheap (used, but near new) offer of the Chronicles of Narnia audiobook set read by Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Stewart, Michael York, Alex Jennings, Lynn Redgrave and Jeremy Northam – which I of course had to have as well.

 And look, the first lovely books already made it to their new home, too:


But anyway, I obviously also needed to make space on my wish list for all the other books I found when following up on Samantha’s recommendations:

  • Lisa Hilton: Queens Consort, England’s Medieval Queens (which I hope is going to live up to Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth I);
  • Dan Jones: The Hollow Crown (since I’ve already got his earlier book on the Plantagenets …);
  • Charles Ross: Richard III (by all accounts still the standard biography);
  • Chris Skidmore: Richard III (the most recent incarnation of Richard III biographies);
  • Amy Licence: Richard III, the Road to Leicester (I guess there goes my resolution not to give in to the publicity craze of the recent[ish] discovery of his bones);
  • Amy Licence: Elizabeth of York, Forgotten Tudor Queen (and really, I swear it was this book and the RIII bio by Charles Ross that led me to Licence’s book on RIII in the first place);
  • Alison Weir: Elizabeth of York, the First Tudor Queen (one of Samantha’s major “go-to” books for background information on Elizabeth; also, I own and rather like Weir’s bio of Eleanor of Aquitaine);
  • Hazel Pierce: Margaret Pole, 1473-1541, Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership (on which Samantha says she relied substantially in writing Faithful Traitor) and
  • Susan Higginbotham: Margaret Pole (brand new and due out in August 2016).

And then … well, there’s this absolutely gorgeous and super-nice tea and spice store in Frankfurt that my best friend and I discovered when I was living in Frankfurt way back in 2003.  Shelves crammed with goodies from all over the world and an amazing staff … even after I moved to Bonn, we just kept going there; and we still try to make it down there at least once or twice a year.  So last Saturday we decided another splurge was overdue, took to the road – and returned home late in the afternoon laden with delicacies.  This was my share of the bounty:

  • A small bag of Nanhu Da Shan Qinxin Oolong (the prize catch of last Saturday’s shopping trip; and yes, they do actually let you try all of their products in their store);
  • * A foursome of Kusmi tea blends (Kashmir tchai, ginger lemon green, and a double serving of spicy chocolate);
  • One of their homemade rice & spice mixes (in this instance, a blend of Indian basmati rice with currants, cashew nuts, coconut flakes, lemon pepper, cinnamon, sea salt, cardamom, ginger, and pieces of dried mango, apricot, papaya, and cranberries, going by the fanciful name Maharani Rice … one of my absolute favorites);
  • A bottle of Stokes Sweet Chilli Sauce (my kitchen just isn’t complete without this stuff, it goes on practically everything);
  • A bottle of Belberry Spicy Mango Ketchup (new to me, tried it in the store and instantly loved it);
  • A duo of Sal de Ibiza (green pepper and lemon, and ginger and lemon grass);
  • A lidded Chinese dragon tea mug that will go well with the two (differently-colored) mugs in the same style that I’ve already got
  • … and a collection of their very own recipes, all of which they also serve up (though obviously not all at the same time) for tasting purposes in their store.; this particular collection being recipes created by a charming lady from Sri Lanka named Rajitha who has been part of their team since practically forever.

 Alright, so I guess I did splurge.  In my defense, though, I’ll mention that I won’t be able to travel at all this year, nor actually take a whole lot of vacation time or other time off work, so I’m having to make to with what’s available by way of compensation … and is there any better compensation than books and food?


Southern Belle Savannah

Adapting a book to the screen is always a risk, and adapting a successful book particularly so, especially if it is a nonfiction book and the story has already made news (or been the subject of gossip, which in this instance doesn’t seem to make much difference) long before the book was ever written. There will always be those who claim that you didn’t do the book justice, or that you didn’t do the real events justice, or both. But let’s face it, folks, the vast majority of us weren’t witnesses to Jim Williams’s record four trials, nor did we attend any of his famous Christmas parties, nor did or do we know Mr. Williams or any of the other inhabitants of Savannah featured so prominently here (even if Jerry Spence – not the attorney, the hairdresser appearing as himself in the movie – insists that ever since the publication of John Behrendt’s book people have been asking him to sign their copy). All that most of us did was read the book … yes, so did I, and I enjoyed it immensely. And maybe some have taken a trip to Savannah and gone on one of those Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil bus tours. (No, haven’t done that myself yet. Savannah’s on my list, though.)

Granted, condensing four trials into one, adding a fictional reporter (John Kelso alias John Cusack) as a stand-in for Mr. Berendt whose book is a first-person account, and making Mandy Nichols (director Clint Eastwood’s daughter Alison) the reporter’s love interest, meant altering the facts as related in the book. But let’s not forget that the latter covers a period of eight-plus years and is jam-packed with a shooting, four trials, a host of social events and a cast of more memorable characters than many a novel; all of which is near impossible to transform into a movie if you neither want to skip over half the important details and move the action at breakneck speed, nor turn the project into a ten-part TV series. These changes were probably necessary byproducts of the screenwriting process. But the core elements of the story have been maintained, and apart from the relationship between Mandy and John Kelso / John Berendt, the cast of main characters strikes me as pretty faithful to the book.

Most importantly, the person at the center of the story: antiques dealer, art lover, restorer of historic mansions and sun of Savannah’s genteel society, Jim Williams, is exactly the kind of man you imagine after having read the book – portrayed by Kevin Spacey with all the charm, grace and slightly condescending noblesse you would expect from a textbook Southern gentleman, with that “coastal accent … soft and slurring, liquid of vowels, kind to consonants” as John Berendt writes, quoting Gone With the Wind; making you forget that neither did Mr. Williams actually come from “old money,” nor did Kevin Spacey grow up south of the Mason-Dixon line. And Savannah, of course, is Savannah … city of grand old mansions surrounding its 21 squares, cotillon balls (including a black one), a Married Women’s (Card) Club, lush vegetation, shady trees, Spanish moss and sultry heat radiating from the pages of John Berendt‘s book as much as it does from the movie screen in director Clint Eastwood’s interpretation. The movie was shot on location, including and in particular in and around Williams’s Mercer House, on Monterey Square and in Bonaventure and Beaufort Cemeteries; giving it that feeling of authenticity which is virtually impossible to replicate in a studio. In addition, almost all of the Savannah residents vital to the story readily participated in screen tests; with the glamorous Lady Chablis (in all her eccentricity more lady than many a born one, Southern or otherwise) emerging in a starring role and Williams’s attorney Sonny Seiler portraying the trial judge. Even bulldog Uga, the famed mascot of the University of Georgia’s football team, traditionally provided by the Seiler family and as important a member of Savannah society as all its human residents and as Patrick, the long-deceased dog still symbolically being walked by its former caregiver, was not left out … with the minor imperfection that because Uga IV, the star of the book and the real events it describes had already followed his ancestors Uga I – III to dog heaven when the movie was shot, he had to be portrayed by his son, Uga V. And more authenticity is added by the use of several songs written by Johnny Mercer, Savannah’s famous son and great-grandson of the general who built the mansion restored and inhabited by Jim Williams.

Clint Eastwood’s direction evokes an only marginally modernized version of the “old South” most of which could have come straight out of a book by Faulkner or Tennessee Williams; with an eye for the atmosphere and intricacies of the place and its people that comes as a surprise only to those who merely know the one-term mayor of Carmel, CA as Dirty Harry or the Man With No Name, not as the director of The Bridges of Madison County, like this movie a book adaptation (although set in quite a different environment). And in this approach, he proves as faithful to John Berendt‘s book as in the movie’s depiction of Jim Williams and his fellow Savannahians: What on the surface is the chronicle of the trial of a prominent and rather colorful member of society for the death of a wayward, hot-tempered street hustler who happened to be his sometime lover (and that of most of Savannah’s society, both male and female), is truly a complex, beautifully shot portrayal of the city itself and its people; like in the book, the events as such are merely a vehicle to put into pictures what Eastwood was interested in most. Yet, the movie should first and foremost be taken at face value; it is more than just another book adaptation and in its dignified beauty, easily stands on its own two feet.


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1997)
  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Executive Producer: Anita Zuckerman
  • Producer: Clint Eastwood
  • Screenplay: John Lee Hancock
  • Based on a book by: John Berendt
  • Music:  Lennie Niehaus
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Jack N. Green
  • John Cusack: John Kelso
  • Kevin Spacey: Jim Williams
  • Jude Law: Billy Hanson
  • Jack Thompson: Sonny Seiler
  • Irma P. Hall: Minerva
  • Alison Eastwood: Mandy Nicholls
  • Paul Hipp: Joe Odom
  • The Lady Chablis: Chablis Deveau
  • Geoffrey Lewis: Luther Driggers
  • Kim Hunter: Betty Harty
  • Dorothy Loudon: Serena Dawes
  • Anne Haney: Margaret Williams
  • Richard Herd: Henry Skerridge
  • Leon Rippy: Detective Boone
  • Terry Rhoads: Assistant D.A.
  • Michael O’Hagan: Geza von Habsburg
  • Bob Gunton: Finley Largent
  • Sonny Seiler: Judge White
  • Jerry Spence: Hairdresser


Major Awards

Society of Texas Film Critics Awards (1997)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – Also for “L.A. Confidential”.





 : “You must win him as a man wins a woman.”

Poor Mallefille – you really have to pity him. Not only has he become the lover of the woman who employed him to tutor her children (and whose reputation is hard to take for his pathologically jealous nature anyway); only to be dumped again in short order, when she has had enough of him and his fits of jealousy. Not only does he have to watch her exchange witticisms and confidences with a host of other men, many of them belonging to the Parisian art circles where he himself will never be taken seriously (and God knows what else they may be exchanging or have exchanged in the past). Not only is he being bossed around by a woman who has taken a male pen name, insists on dressing in men’s clothes, refuses to use a woman’s saddle when riding (and what a horsewoman she is!) and prefers an afternoon out hunting to one sipping tea in the company of other ladies of society. No: after having taken all that, and having dared to demand the satisfaction to which he feels so justly entitled from her latest object of romantic interest, one feeble Polish composer named Chopin – only to see the guy fainting before the obligatory count has even gotten to “ten” and never raise his pistol at all – what does the wretched woman do? She seizes Chopin’s weapon, fires at Mallefille, injures his arm and responds coolly, when he has finally overcome his shock and disbelief and inquires how, after all their time together, she could do such a thing: “It was easy. You’re a menace to the future of art.”

As this movie would have it, the above scene (never to be revealed to Chopin, in order not to hurt his pride) brought about the final turning point in one of history’s most famous love stories, the romance between prolific French writer George Sand (born 1804 as Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin and married, in 1822, to Baron Casimir Dudevant, whom she left in 1835) and quintessential Romantic composer and Polish musical prodigy Frédéric (Fryderyk) Chopin, six years her junior, who after a life-long struggle with his health succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 39 years. While taking some liberties with the real course of events, Impromptu does portray their relationship up to their departure for Majorca, as well as the story’s backdrop in 19th century Paris and rural France, with an admirably light touch and in loving detail; marvelously framed by a score consisting almost exclusively of pieces by Chopin himself. Judy Davis and a deliciously young and fragile Hugh Grant are the perfect embodiment of Sand and her “Chopinet” – she, a feisty no-nonsense woman used to fighting for her place in the world, who can nevertheless lose herself completely in Chopin’s music, which she considers divine; he, sickly, uptight and at first severely taken aback by her manner which so contradicts accepted female behavior that he almost doubts she is a woman at all: a remark actually attributed to Chopin and resounding in the movie’s interpretation of their initial encounter, after Sand has hidden in his room to hear him play and leaves her hiding place when he stops, pleading with him to continue, only to be rebuked by a seriously upset Chopin: “Rumor has it that you are a woman, so I must ask you to leave my private chambers. … This is ridiculously improper – and frightening as well!”

Although Sand and Chopin were really introduced to each other by their joint friend Franz Liszt and his companion Marie d’Agoult (here portrayed with fervor and panache by Julian Sands and Bernadette Peters), the movie ingeniously places their first meeting onto the country estate of the Duke d’Antan and his wife Claudette, self-declared patroness of the arts (played by an exuberant Emma Thompson, who milks the role for all it’s worth and then some), who has assembled the cream of the Parisian arts scene; besides Chopin, Liszt and Marie most notably Sand‘s former lover, poet Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) and painter Eugène Delacroix (Ralph Brown). Sand, who is actually not among the invitees, spontaneously proceeds to invite herself when she hears that Chopin will be among the guests, because she has wanted to meet him ever since she first heard him play in the Paris salon of Baroness Laginsky (Elizabeth Spriggs) – thus guaranteeing plenty of tumultuous scenes between herself and de Musset as well as between the latter and Mallefille (Georges Corraface), who (likewise uninvited) appears shortly after her in dogged pursuit of the woman who has recently dumped him; a fact he is patently unwilling to accept.

Although initially rejected by Chopin, Sand is not in the least willing to give up on him; and she greedily accepts Marie’s advice after their return to Paris: “He is not a man; he’s a woman. … You must win him as a man wins a woman. If anyone can do it, you can.” And while Marie’s counsel is far less disinterested and well-meaning than George thinks, in the end her new tactics do the trick; albeit only after a series of heated encounters between the two would-be lovers, Chopin and de Musset, and Chopin and Marie; and not before Sand has lost her mother (Anna Massey), her most undying champion. Chopin and Sand eventually become friends and – we are told – finally lovers after Mallefille has forever left the battlefield in shame.

Although there would be an estrangement between the star-crossed lovers shortly before Chopin’s death, he did remain, as Sand wrote in her autobiography, the greatest love of her life; and in turn, the years they spent together are considered by many the most fertile years of his musical career. They both will live forever in their works – and this movie, which unfortunately went virtually undiscovered upon its 1991 release, is a wonderful, gentle reminder of the wealth of creativity and emotion they had to share.


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: C.L.G. Films / Sovereign Pictures (1991)
  • Director: James Lapine
  • Executive Producer: Jean Nachbaur
  • Screenplay: Sarah Kernochan
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Bruno de Keyzer
  • Judy Davis: George Sand
  • Hugh Grant: Frédéric Chopin
  • Mandy Patinkin: Alfred de Musset
  • Bernadette Peters: Marie d’Agoult
  • Julian Sands: Franz Liszt
  • Ralph Brown: Eugène Delacroix
  • Georges Corraface: Félicien Mallefille
  • Anton Rodgers: Duke d’Antan
  • Emma Thompson: Duchess d’Antan
  • Anna Massey: George Sand’s Mother
  • Elizabeth Spriggs: Baroness Laginsky
  • John Savident: Buloz
  • David Birkin: Maurice
  • Nimer Rashed: Didier
  • Fiona Vincente: Solange
  • Lucy Speed: Young Aurora


Major Awards and Honors

Independent Spirit Awards (1991)
  • Best Female Lead: Judy Davis







Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton – A Memoir

Joseph Anton: A Memoir - Salman RushdieDear Mr. Rushdie,

Belated Happy Birthday. I don’t know how much satisfaction there is to you, these days, in having reached an age which the Ayatollah Khomeini and his acolytes never wanted you to reach, but anyway, since I happen to have been reading your memoir of the fatwā years while you were celebrating your 69th, wishing you well on the occasion of your birthday just seemed in order.

 Now having said that, could you please enlighten me as to just what the flying f*ck is up with that third person narrative voice of Joseph Anton? The book is subtitled “a memoir,” for crying out loud, and that’s precisely what it is – the memoir of one Salman Rushdie, author, of the years when he had to deal with a death order issued against him, for having written a book allegedly offensive to Islam, issued by the supreme religious leader of Iran (notice my not putting that in caps, as a title is wont to be) and loudly propagated throughout the entire Islamic world. It is not, in other words, the would-be memoir of one Joseph Anton, like the characters of the much-maligned Satanic Verses a figment of their author’s imagination; an alias composed from the names of two of your own favorite novelists (Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov) and slipped on like an ill-fitting glove that you couldn’t get rid of again soon enough, or would have, if Special Branch and the Home Office had let you. It is not the memoir of “Rushdie,” the maligned author, separated in public opinion – who for obvious reasons were widely ignorant of the mere existence of Mr. Anton – from the Salman you were privately struggling to remain. It is the memoir of precisely that last person: You, Salman – Salman Rushdie –, proud bearer of a last name that your father had intentionally styled on that of the 12th century sage Ibn Rushd (Averroës) for his enlightened views on religion, and on the world in general. And that being the case, the third person narrative voice of your memoir startled the hell out of me right from the very beginning and remained the one jarringly discordant note until the very end.

 Oh, I get it:

“When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired, in a sense, free will. It will make its journey through the world and there is no longer anything the author can do about it. Even he, as he looks at its sentences, read them differently now that they can be read by others. They look like different sentences. The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.”


Very astute: Once a book has been published it no longer belongs to its author alone, but to all of us readers, too. (I actually wish there were more authors, particularly these days, who share that feeling.) But that’s not really the point here, is it? Because the story doesn’t change. And the story isn’t that of Mr. Anton, publisher of vaguely international extraction (as his landlords in London would be told by his representatives), nor of “Rushdie,” the first-nameless author of “that terrible book,” but – pardon me for harping on it – it’s your own story. And to be told that story in the third instead of the first person just didn’t feel right, however much you may be distancing yourself in your own mind from the “Joseph Anton” as who you had to accept being addressed even by the protection officers with whom you interacted daily, so as to make it easier for them to think of you as Joe and not accidentally slip in a “Salman” when speaking of you. It seems to me that writing this book actually played a large part in your personal reconciliation with those years. Even more so would it have made sense, then, to be written in the first person: which I suspect (and conjecture from at least one instance of a perceivable slip-up in the transition from “I” to “he”) it actually has been, initially. Then why, in the name of everything that is precious (I won’t use the word “holy” around you), the switch back to a third person narrative perspective that is so clearly in discord with the narration itself?

 It’s a heartfelt book, full of the wit, sense of humor, passion and irony, and the trenchant analysis that I’ve come to love in everyone of your works, fiction and nonfiction alike. I won’t even try to imagine what daily life during those years must have been like for you, because I’m pretty sure whatever I can conjure up will still be woefully short of the real thing. (For some reason, probably because of the framework setting of The Moor’s Last Sigh, I’d always vaguely imagined your hiding place to be somewhere in Spain. Should have figured it had to be somewhere where the British authorities actually had the power to protect you, which obviously meant somewhere right in Britain.) It was also tremendously enlightening to read about the important role that some of the leading lights of the British and international literary scene have played in, variously, shielding you and supporting your cause for well over 10 years; even if I do admit to considerable envy of your ability to name-drop the likes of Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Bruce Chatwin, Günter Grass, Václav Havel, Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser, Martin Amis, J.M. Coetzee, Robyn Davidson, Carlos Fuentes, Ian McEwan, John Irving and plenty of others, not merely repeatedly but sometimes even in the same sentence or paragraph. My envy is even greater, though, for the fact that you actually have read, and are able to discuss in the most everyday, matter-of-fact tone, more than half of the literary masterpieces that are still languishing on my TBR shelf, which I know I should have read ages ago, too, and am promising myself to do just that on a regular basis – without however actually making much progress in the matter.

 So yes, I certainly am glad I have read Joseph Anton: It answered a lot of questions I would have had of you if I ever had the privilege of meeting you in person, it shed light on plenty of things that wouldn’t even have occurred to me but for your discussing them, and it reinforced my belief that, albeit on the grounds of circumstances that I personally wouldn’t wish on my very own worst enemy, yours is one of the most important voices to be heard these days, on the issues of religious fundamentalism, racism, and freedom of speech, as well as the state of the world at large.

I still would have wished for your memoir to be written in the first person, however. That third-person distancing, to me, made the experience just that tiny fraction of a degree less than it could, and absolutely should have been.


Favorite Quotes:

 “Nobody ever wanted to go to war, but if a war came your way, it might as well be the right war, about the most important things in the world, and you might as well, if you were going to fight it, be called “Rushdie,” and stand where your father had placed you, in the tradition of the grand Aristotelian, Averroës, Abul Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd.”

“This was what book reviewing did.  If you loved a book, the author thought your praise no more than his rightful due, and if you didn’t like it, you made enemies.  He decided to stop doing it.  It was a mug’s game.”

“This was the literature he knew, had always known.  Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be.  Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before.  Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed toward ever-narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing, Serb or Croat or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha’i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became the greater was the likelihood of conflict between them.  Literature’s view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy, and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, towards narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war.  There were plenty of people who didn’t want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back.  And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes of their lives.”

“When a book leaves it’s author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired, in a sense, free will. It will make its journey through the world and there is no longer anything the author can do about it. Even he, as he looks at its sentences, reads them differently now that they can be read by others. They look like different sentences. The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.”

Original post:









Willy Brandt: Erinnerungen (My Life in Politics)



Visionär und Architekt /
A Visionary and an Architect

Note to the English Speakers out there: I’ve read the book in German, and not least because of its author and its topic it seemed logical to me for once to write a review in both German and English, and to put the German version first. You’ll find the English version of this review if you scroll to the bottom of the German text and the two photos. Also, all quotes rendered in English are my own translations – they may not be identical with the translations of the same quotes in the English edition of Brandt’s memoirs, which is entitled My Life in Politics. (Lastly, apologies for the length of this review: This is, however, the sort of book that merits some in-depth consideration if you’re going to tackle it at all.)


Als fast auf den Tag genau vor 40 Jahren Beamte des deutschen Verfassungsschutzes an der Tür einer Wohnung im gehobenen Bonner Stadtteil Bad Godesberg klingelten und sich, nachdem ihnen der Wohnungsinhaber geöffnet hatte, in ihrer dienstlichen Eigenschaft auswiesen, entgegnete ihnen der vor ihnen Stehende: “Ich bin Bürger der DDR und ihr Offizier. Respektieren Sie das!” Der Mann hieß Günter Guillaume und war einer der politischen Referenten des damaligen Kanzlers Willy Brandt; mit seinen Namen verbindet sich bis heute der vor- und unzeitige Rücktritt eines der führenden deutschen Politiker der zweiten Hälfte des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts.

1913 unehelich unter dem Namen Herbert Frahm in bescheidenste Lübecker Verhältnisse geboren, wuchs Brandt von klein auf in die Arbeiterbewegung hinein, in der sein die Vaterstelle vertretender Großvater aktiv war. Das Abitur gerade hinter sich und nicht einmal zwanzig Jahre alt, floh der engagierte Links-Sozialist anlässlich der nationalsozialistischen Machtergreifung nach Norwegen, wo er bis zum Ende des Zweiten Weltkrieges eine zweite Heimat fand (und, von den Nazis ausgebürgert, auch die norwegische Staatsangehörigkeit annahm), als Journalist arbeitete, und von wo aus er auch in zahlreiche Widerstandsbewegungen eingebunden war; in sozialdemokratische ebenso wie Heinrich Manns “Deutsche Volksfront” gegen Hitler. Auch zu den Widerständlern des 20. Juli 1944 hatte er Kontakt. Das im norwegischen Exil zunächst zu Tarnzwecken angenommene Alias Willy Brandt wurde später zu seinem legalen Namen.

Nach dem Krieg zunächst als Journalist und schließlich norwegischer Presseattaché nach Deutschland zurückgekehrt, ließ Brandt sich – wohl nicht ungern – von sozialdemokratischen Freunden überzeugen, in Deutschland zu bleiben und sich nunmehr wieder dort politisch zu engagieren und am Wiederaufbau des Landes zu beteiligen: Hiervon handeln denn auch schwerpunktmäßig seine Erinnerungen, denen im Englischen (deskriptiver und zugleich bedeutungsschwangerer) nich von ungefähr der Titel My Life in Politics gegeben worden ist. Brandt erzählt die Geschichte seines politischen Lebens geradeheraus, ohne Umwege, oftmals auch ohne sich selbst zu schonen; dabei aber immer engagiert (und engagierend) – selbst sein langjähriger politischer Widersacher Rainer Barzel, CDU-Oppositionsführer während der Brandt-Regierungsjahre, sollte später über dieses Buch sagen, Brandt selbst habe “das bisher beste Porträt Willy Brandts” geschrieben.

Das Manuskript zu seinem im Jahr 1989 erstmals erschienene Buch hatte Brandt im Sommer jenes Jahres vollendet – offensichtlich noch vor Hochschwallen der Bürgerbewegung, die im Spätsommer und Herbst innerhalb weniger Monate das politische System der DDR zum Wanken und schließlich zum Einsturz brachte; eine Würdigung dieser Ereignisse musste einem Nachwort aus dem Monat November vorbehalten bleiben. Dass Brandt sein ansonsten mehr oder weniger chronologisch aufgebautes Buch gleichwohl mit dem Kapitel über seine Jahre in Berlin beginnt (zuerst an der Seite des charismatischen Regierenden Bürgermeisters Ernst Reuter, vier Jahre nach Reuters Tod schließlich als dessen Nachfolger im Amt), mag man angesichts des Veröffentlichkeitsdatums als mehr oder weniger prophetisch betrachten; jedenfalls aber zeugt es von der fundamentalen Bedeutung, die die Berliner Erfahrung für Brandts politisches Denken hatte, ebenso wie das Ringen der 50er Jahre um die künftige politische Ausrichtung Nachkriegsdeutschlands (sehr stark vereinfacht ausgedrückt, Zweistaatenlösung und Wiederbewaffnung mit politischer und militärischer Einbindung in NATO einerseits und Warschauer Pakt andererseits, oder Vereinigung der vier deutschen Besatzungszonen in einen militärisch neutralen Staat). Die Errichtung der Berliner Mauer am 13. August 1961 fiel in Brandts Amtszeit als Regierender Bürgermeister; schon die “Luftbrücke” des Jahres 1949 nach Abriegelung der Berliner West-Bezirke auf Geheiß Chruschtschows sowie den gescheiterten Volksaufstand in der zwischenzeitlich ausgerufenen DDR vom 17. Juni 1953 hatte er als Berliner Politiker miterlebt. Vom ersten Kapitel seiner Erinnerungen an lässt Brandt keinen Zweifel daran aufkommen, dass die in diesen Jahren gewonnenen Einsichten die später von ihm als Außenminister (ab 1966) und Bundeskanzler (ab 1969) verfolgte Politik der Annäherung gegenüber der DDR und dem Warschauer Pakt entscheidend mitbestimmten.

Brandt hatte zu denjenigen gehört, die in einer allzufrüh als “alternativlos” proklamierten Teilung Deutschlands mit rasch nachfolgender Block-Einbindung der beiden Staatengebilde eine vertane Chance sahen; mit der Errichtung der Berliner Mauer bezahlten die Stadt, und Deutschland insgesamt, aus seiner Sicht den Preis für die im ersten Nachkriegsjahrzehnt nicht ernstlich verfolgten alternativen Wege. Der Historiker fragt nicht, “was wäre gewesen wenn?” sagte mir während meiner Studienzeit einmal ein Professor, sondern nur “warum ist es so gekommen, wie es tatsächlich gekommen ist?” – und in der Tat scheint es, zumindest an dieser Stelle, müßig, zu fragen, ob der von Brandt bevorzugte Weg eine Erfolgschance gehabt hätte, und wie die weitere Entwicklung in diesem Falle gewesen wäre. Unverkennbar ist jedenfalls, dass Brandt nicht erst 1966, 1969 oder gar 1970/71 die Leitlinien dessen entwickelte, was als seine “Ostpolitik” in die Geschichte eingegangen ist und ihm 1971 den Friedensnobelpreis einbrachte.

Dabei nimmt der Moment, welcher wie kein anderer bildlich mit der Nobelpreisverleihung und dem politischen Erbe Brandts verbunden ist – der Kniefall am Monument der Warschauer Ghetto-Opfer – wohltuend, ja sogar erstaunlich wenig Raum ein: Eingebettet in eine (bereits für sich faszinierende) detaillierte Schilderung der Verhandlungsgeschichte der vier Verträge, welche die wesentlichen Früchte der unter dem Motto “Wandel durch Annäherung” stehenden Brandt’schen Ostpolitik darstellten – Moskauer Vertrag und Warschauer Vertrag 1970, Grundlagenvertrag mit der DDR 1972 und Prager Vertrag 1973, flankiert durch das Viermächteabkommen zwischen den USA, Großbritannien, Frankreich und der Sovietunion von 1971 – finden sich zu diesem so zentralen Moment nur wenige Absätze, zu deren Ende sich Brandt selbst vollkommen aus der Erzählerrolle herausnimmt und das Wort stattdessen einem journalistischen Zeitzeugen überlässt:

“Es war eine ungewöhnliche Last, die ich auf meinem Weg nach Warschau mitnahm. Nirgends hatte das Volk, hatten die Menschen so gelitten wie in Polen. Die maschinelle Vernichtung der polnischen Judenheit stellte eine Steigerung der Mordlust dar, die niemand für möglich gehalten hatte. […]

Ich hatte nichts geplant, aber Schloß Wilanow, wo ich untergebracht war, in dem Gefühl verlassen, die Besonderheit des Gedenkens am Ghetto-Monument zum Ausdruck bringen zu müssen. Am Abgrund der deutschen Geschichte und unter der Last der Millionen Ermordeten tat ich, was Menschen tun, wenn die Sprache versagt.

Ich weiß es auch nach zwanzig Jahren nicht besser als jener Berichterstatter, der festhielt: ‘Dann kniet er, der das nicht nötig hat, für alle, die es nötig haben, aber nicht knien – weil sie es nicht wagen oder nicht können oder nicht wagen können.'”

(Anmerkung: Das von Brandt verwendete Zitat entstammt dem durchaus auch in seiner Gesamtheit als Zeitzeugnis lesenswerten Artikel Ein Stück Heimkehr (Hermann Schreiber/ Der Spiegel 14.12.1970, Heft 51/1970.)

So bahnbrechend und richtig die Brandt’sche Ostpolitik sich rückblickend erwiesen hat, so umstritten war sie damals im eigenen Land: Brandt musste zu ihrer Durchsetzung nicht nur im April 1972 im Bundestag ein von der Opposition angestrengtes konstruktives Misstrauensvotum überstehen (was, wenn auch denkbar knapp, gelang), sondern auch vorgezogene Neuwahlen im Herbst 1972, welche seiner Regierungskoalition einen noch deutlicheren Wahlsieg einbrachten als die Wahlen 1969. Obwohl ich damals erst in der Grundschule war, gehört die auf den simplen Slogan “Willy wählen” zugespitzte Wahlkampagne der SPD zu meinen ersten prägenden politischen Erinnerungen; auch in meiner Schule (keine 10 km von Konrad Adenauers Rhöndorf entfernt!) trug, wer auf sich hielt, einen “Willy wählen”-Button am Revers, sehr zum Amüsement übrigens unserer Eltern, die ganz und gar nicht unbedingt alle der SPD nahestanden.

Hatte Brandt mit den Ost-Verträgen seinen Zenit als Gestalter der deutschen Politik erreicht? Er selbst bezeichnet dies als “billige Lesart”, auch wenn er nicht abstreitet, dass sich seine Regierung in dem Moment, als die Guillaume-Affäre über ihn hereinbrach, in zahllosen ermüdenden innenpolitischen Grabenkämpfen verstrickt hatte. Bitter muss jedoch stimmen – und sicher nicht nur Brandt selbst, der die Abrechnnung mit den seinerzeit unmittelbar Beteiligten in den Erinnerungen auf wenige, verhältnismäßig obskure Andeutungen beschränkt, deren Bedeutung sich erst durch die Lektüre seiner dem Buch als Annex beigefügten, wahrscheinlich aus dem Sommer/ Herbst 1974 stammenden “Notizen zum Fall G” erschließt – bitter muss stimmen, dass sich in den gegen Günter Guillaume und seine Frau angestrengten Ermittlungen nie der Verdacht erhärten ließ, dass sie überhaupt nennenswerte Geheimnisse an ihre Herren und Meister in der DDR weitergegeben hatten. Tatsächlich war Guillaumes eingangs zitiertes spontanes Geständnis gegenüber den Verfassungsschutzbeamten, als diese am Morgen des 24. April 1974 in seiner Wohnungstür vor ihm standen, der “härteste” Nachweis, auf den die Verurteilung gestützt wurde, und dass er und seine Frau auf der Grundlage solcher Ermittlungsergebnisse überhaupt wegen geheimdienstlicher Agententätigkeit zu mehrjährigen Gefängnisstrafen verurteilt wurden, war eher eine Frage bundesrepublikanischer Selbstachtung: Gemessen an den dünnen seinerzeitigen Ermittlungsergebnissen hätte – jedenfalls wenn man den Enthüllungen von Edward Snowden glauben kann – jeder jüngst an der allem Anschein nach wesentlich tiefer greifenden Handy-Ausspähung von Frau Merkel beteiligte NSA-Agent, wenn das deutsche Strafrecht dies zuließe (was nicht der Fall ist), eine mehrfach lebenslängliche Freiheitsstrafe verdient. Brandt selbst jedenfalls unterschätzte die Angelegenheit zunächst vollkommen; er begründete seinen schließlich doch erklärten Rücktritt zwar damit, dass er für die im Zusammenhang mit Guillaume stehenden “Fahrlässigkeiten” (wie es in seinem Rücktrittsschreiben hieß) die Verantwortung übernehme; tatsächlich gab er aber wohl eher dem Drängen von Parteifreunden nach, die ihm, zutreffend oder nicht, den Eindruck vermittelt hatten, er sei durch die Affäre und durch das, was Guillaume angeblich über sein Privatleben erfahren habe, erpressbar geworden.

Dass Brandts Rücktritt als Kanzler nicht gleichzeitig seinen vollkommenen Rückzug aus der Politik bedeutete, erwies sich nicht zuletzt international gesehen als Glücksfall; auch in der Funktion als SPD-Parteichef, die er bereits seit 1964 innehatte und noch bis 1987 weiter behielt, sowie als Europa-Abgeordneter (1979-82) und Vorsitzender diverser internationaler Kommissionen, insbesondere der Unabhängigen Kommission für internationale Entwicklungsfragen (“Nord-Süd-Kommission”, 1977-80) wirkte er weiter, sowohl vor als auch hinter den Kulissen. Besonders am Herzen lagen ihm dabei die europäische Einigung (auch diesbezüglich gehörte er zu den Visionären: Erste konkrete Ansätze zur Umwandlung der damaligen EWG in die Wirtschafts- und Währungsunion, welche erst mit dem Vertrag von Maastricht 1993 Gestalt annahm, hatte er bereits über 20 Jahre zuvor in Verhandlungen mit den anderen europäischen Regierungschefs entwickelt) sowie der Umweltschutz und die Verständigung zwischen der nördlichen und der südlichen Erdhalbkugel, getragen von der Erkenntnis, dass das Überleben der Menschheit nur zu sichern ist, wenn wir mit den Ressourcen der Erde verantwortungsbewusst umgehen und auf eine möglichst gleichmäßige Wohlstandsverteilung bedacht sind – ohne allerdings den Verlockungen eines von Staats wegen verordneten Sozialismus oder gar Kommunismus zu verfallen: Brandt war schon frühzeitig zu der Überzeugung gelangt, dass nur die Marktwirtschaft, wenn auch, soweit möglich, in der Ausprägung einer sozialen Marktwirtschaft nach dem von ihm mitgestalteten deutschem Vorbild, die Instrumentarien zur Verfügung stellt, welche weltweit zur Verbreitung von Wohlstand beitragen.

Im Laufe seines annähernd lebenslangen Politiker-Daseins, insbesondere aber in der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts, gab es so gut wie keinen wesentlichen Staatsmann im In- und Ausland, den er nicht persönlich kennenlernte; die Portraits amerikanischer und französischer Präsidenten (insbesondere Kennedy, Carter, Nixon und Reagan in den USA sowie De Gaulle und Pompidou in Frankreich), britischer Premierminister (Harold Wilson, Edward Heath), sovietischer Partei- und Staatschefs (Chruschtschow, Breschnew, Kossygin, Gorbatschow), ihrer Außenminister (Kissinger, Couve de Murville, Gromyko), DDR-Politiker wie Walter Ulbricht und Erich Honecker, sowie zahlreicher anderer Persönlichkeiten der Weltpolitik sind zweifelsohne eines der Highlights dieses Buchs, angefangen bei innerdeutschen polititschen Gegnern und Weggefährten (Adenauer, Erhard, Kiesinger, Barzel, Strauß, Schumacher, Reuter, Schiller, Heinemann, Wehner, Schmidt, Bahr, Scheel, Genscher: das komplette “Who is Who” der westdeutschen Politik bis zur Jahrtausendwende) bis hin zu Partei- und Staatschefs wie Deng Xiaoping, Fidel Castro, Felipe González, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir und Bruno Kreisky. Brandts Urteil über sie alle ist differenziert, ehrlich und oftmals auch überraschend; dass ihn mit Kennedy viel verband, kann man noch erwarten, weniger dagegen, dass er (und auch sein Amtsnachfolger Helmut Schmidt) offenbar über Partei- bzw. Lagergrenzen hinweg mit Republikanern wie Nixon, Kissinger und Reagan europa- und weltpolitisch mehr Gemeinsamkeiten entdeckten als mit dem Demokraten Jimmy Carter. Eine besondere Würdigung wird zum Ende des Buches dem 1986 ermordeten Schweden Olof Palme zuteil, mit dem Brandt seit den 50er Jahren eng befreundet war, und mit dem ihn auch politisch besonders Vieles verband.

Für mich war die Lektüre von Brandts Memoiren einerseits faszinierender Einblick in die Gedankenwelt eines der führenden deutschen Politiker der jüngeren Vergangenheit schlechthin, andererseits aber auch eine Reise in meine eigene Kindheit und Jugend; mehr und mehr wird mir klar, wie sehr gerade die Jahre, in denen Willy Brandt und sein Nachfolger Helmut Schmidt an der Spitze der deutschen Regierung standen – und in denen die deutsche Wirklichkeit (noch bis 1989) durch Mauer und Teilung bestimmt wurde – auch mein eigenes politisches Denken und Erleben geprägt haben. Willy Brandt hat die deutsche Wiedervereinigung gerade so eben noch miterlebt; er mag ihr Kommen erahnt haben, als er gegen Ende seines Manuskripts im Sommer 1989 formulierte:

“Warum, mit welchem Recht und aufgrund welcher Erfahrung ausschließen, daß eines Tages in Leipzig und Dresden, in Magdeburg und Schwerin – und in Ostberlin – nicht Hunderte, sondern Hunderttausende auf den Beinen sind und ihre staatsbürgerlichen Rechte einfordern? Einschließlich des Rechts, von einem Teil Deutschlands in den anderen überzusiedeln?”


“Und Berlin? Und die Mauer? Die Stadt wird leben, und die Mauer wird fallen. Aber eine isolierte Berlin-Lösung, eine, die nicht mit weiterreichenden Veränderungen in Europa und zwischen den Teilen Deutschlands einhergeht, ist immer illusionär gewesen und im Laufe der Jahre nicht wahrscheinlich geworden.”

Auch Brandt verfügte indessen nicht über hellseherische Fähigkeiten: Die Ost-Erweiterung, welche die Europäische Union in den Jahren seit 1990 erfahren hat, hielt er noch 1989 für undenkbar; nicht zuletzt deshalb, weil sie dem Sicherheitsbedürfnis Russlands, so wie es sich ungeachtet aller Abrüstungsverträge auch unter Gorbatschow weiter manifestierte, diametral entgegenzustehen schien. Tatsächlich haben Gorbatschow und Yeltsin die ehemaligen Verbündeten der Sovietunion ziehen und (was Brandt sicher als noch utopischer angesehen hätte) sogar Mitglieder der NATO werden lassen; selbst ehemalige Sovietrepubliken (Estland, Lettland und Litauen) sind heute Mitglieder des westlichen Verteidigungsbündnisses. Aber bereits vor den beunruhigenden Ereignissen, die seit einiger Zeit die Ukraine bis aufs Mark erschüttern, hat der russische Bär in “Anrainerstaaten” wie Georgien unter Einsatz von Kriegsgerät und Menschenleben die Muskeln spielen lassen, und Vladimir Putin ist kein zweiter Michail Gorbatschow. Willy Brandt stand der Aussicht auf eine tiefgreifende Demokratisierung Russlands bis zum Ende seines Lebens skeptisch gegenüber, und die jüngere Geschichte scheint ihm jedenfalls insoweit Recht zu geben. Er jedenfalls gehörte nicht zu denjenigen, die die Bereitschaft Moskaus zum Einsatz der eigenen Waffenarsenale jemals unterschätzt haben: Die von ihm maßgeblich mitgeprägte Entspannungspolitik war deshalb erfolgreich, weil sie diesseits und jenseits des Eisernen Vorhangs gleichermaßen die Einsicht beförderte, dass beim Zündeln an atomaren Pulverfässern notwendigerweise alle Beteiligten gleichermaßen zerstörerisch auf der Verliererstraße landen müssen, und weil sie gleichzeitig eine realistische Zukunftsperspektive aufzeigte, die ein friedliches Nebeneinander tatsächlich möglich erscheinen ließ. Wie auch immer man die gegenwärtige Politikerkaste im Vergleich zu den Generationen ihrer Vorgänger einschätzt; es wäre zu wünschen, dass auch sie jedenfalls zum Blick über den tagespolitischen Tellerrand in der Lage sind, der letztlich immer nur zur Reaktion, nicht zum gezielten vorausschauenden Handeln verhilft. Und im Hinblick auf die größte Bedrohung des Weltfriedens und des Überlebens der Menschheit ist die Einschätzung, mit der Brandt seine Erinnerungen 1989 beschloss, noch so aktuell wie eh’ und je:

“Seit Jahr und Tag ist notorisch, daß unsere Erde das vorausberechenbare Wachstum der Bevölkerung, die Erschöpfung der natürlichen Ressourcen und die Auszehrung der Umwelt nicht lange erträgt. Wir leben seit geraumer Zeit auf Kosten kommender Generationen. […] Die Gefahr, daß die Menschheit sich selbst zerstört, ist auch dann nicht gebannt, wenn der Atomkrieg ausbleibt.”

Brandt und Guillaume
Links: Der Kniefall von Warschau; rechts: Brandt mit Günter Guillaume (im Hintergrund)
Left: Brandt kneeling at the Warsaw Ghetto Monument; right: Brandt and Günter Guillaume (in the background).




When, almost exactly 40 years ago to this day, a team of agents of the German secret service rang the door bell of an apartment in Bonn’s well-off neighborhood of Bad Godesberg and identified themselves to the tenant in their official capacity, the man facing them at the apartment door responded: “I am a citizen and an officer of the German Democratic Republic. I want you to respect that!” He was one of then-chancellor Willy Brandt’s assistants; his name, Günter Guillaume, has come to be associated, ever since, with the untimely resignation from office of one of Germany’s leading politicians in the second half of the twentieth century.

Born in 1913 Lübeck, out of wedlock, into extremely modest circumstances, and originally named Herbert Frahm, Brandt was raised from his earliest years in the tradition of the labour movement in which his grandfather, who came to take his father’s place, was an active participant. He had barely graduated from high school and was not yet twenty years old at the time of the national socialist seizure of power, but, already a vigorous left-leaning activist, was compelled to flee to Norway, where he found a second home until the end of WWII (as well as citizenship, after having seen his German citizenship revoked by the Nazis); where he worked as a journalist, and from where he was involved with numerous resistance movements, Social Democrat efforts as well as Heinrich Mann’s “Deutsche Volksfront” (“German Popular Front”) against Hitler. He also entertained contacts with the group that planned the failed July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate the German dictator. His alias Willy Brandt, initially assumed for covert purposes during the years of his Norwegian exile, eventually became his legal name.

Returning to Germany after the war as a journalist and, later, as Norwegian press attaché, Brandt was persuaded by friends – not however unwillingly, it would appear – to remain in the country, become involved in its politics and help Germany get back on its feet after the war: and it is this part of his life which is at the core of his memoirs, whose English translation is consequently entitled, more descriptively and weightier than the German title Erinnerungen (“memories”), My Life in Politics. Brandt tells the story of his political life straightforwardly, without any ado, often also without much mercy towards himself; always, however, in a manner illustrating his unbroken commitment, and therefore always equally compelling. Even his long-lasting Christian Democratic opponent Rainer Barzel, parliamentary opposition leader during Brandt’s tenure as German chancellor, would come to assess Brandt’s own memoirs as “the best portrait of Willy Brandt published to date.”

Brandt completed the manuscript of his book, which was first published in 1989, in the summer of that year; apparently somewhat prior to the swelling of the popular protest movement which, in late summer and fall of the same year, would come to cause the East German political system to topple over and collapse: an appraisal of these events is left to an afterword to the book’s main body of text. In light of the book’s publication date, it may seem prophetic for Brandt to have chosen to begin his narration, which is otherwise structured essentially chronologically, with the chapter addressing his years in Berlin (first at the side of the city’s charismatic Mayor Ernst Reuter, four years after Reuter’s 1953 death as his successor in office). In any event, his choice of opening chapter evidences the fundamental impact that his Berlin experience would come to have on Brandt’s political thinking, along with the 1950s’ struggle for post-war Germany’s future political direction (the options then on the table being, in grossly simplified terms, either two separate states, both of which were to be rearmed and integrated politically and militarily into NATO on the one hand and the Warsaw Pact on the other hand, or the unification of the four German occupied zones in one neutral state without any military allegiance whatsoever). The August 13, 1961 erection of the Berlin Wall occurred during Brandt’s tenure as Mayor of Berlin; so, too, as a politician active in Berlin he had already witnessed the 1949 Berlin Airlift occasioned by the Khrushchev-initiated blocking of supply routes to and from West Berlin, and the unsuccessful June 17, 1953 popular uprising in the territory which had, by that time, been proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Germany. From his memoirs’ very first chapter, Brandt leaves no doubt that the insights that he had gained during those years in Berlin were instrumental in determining the policy of rapprochement which he would come to pursue vis-à-vis East Germany and the Warsaw Pact States later on, as West Germany’s foreign minister (from 1966) and as its chancellor (from 1969).

Brandt had been one of those who had mourned the quick declaration of Germany’s split in two parts as allegedly “without alternative”, followed by a speedy integration of its two halves into opposing military alliances, as a lost chance for a different path: the Berlin Wall, from his perspective, was the price that the city and indeed all of Germany had to pay for the first postwar decade’s decision not to explore any alternate routes. A historian, one of my own professors once told me in university, does not ask “what would have happened if” but only “why did things actually happen the way they did?” – and indeed it arguably would seem beside the point, at least for present purposes, to wonder whether the path preferred by Brandt would have stood any chance of being successful, and if so, how things would have progressed from there. It is undeniable, in any event, that Brandt did not come to formulate only in 1966, 1969 or even 1970-71, but indeed much earlier, the basic tenets of what later made history as his “Ostpolitik” (“Eastern politics” or “Eastern policy”) and earned him the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet, for all that, the one moment – the one image – which encapsulates, like no other, Brandt’s political legacy and his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize; namely, his kneeling down spontaneously at the monument to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto, is given gratifyingly moderate space: Embedded in a detailed (and in and of itself, fascinating) description of the negotiations concerning the four treaties that make up the major harvest reaped from Brandt’s politcal dealings with the Soviet Union and its allies under the motto “Change by Rapprochement” – the 1970 treaties of Moscow and Warsaw, the 1972 treaty with East Germany and the 1973 treaty of Prague, all of these accompanied by the 1971 “Four Powers’ Agreement on Berlin” between the U.S., Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union – ony a few short paragraphs are dedicated to this pivotal moment, and at the end of the passage in question, Brandt even relinquishes the role of the narrator entirely and passes it on to a journalist who witnessed the events:

“I took an extraordinary burden to Warsaw. Nowhere else had a people suffered as much as in Poland. The robotic mass annihilation of the Polish Jews had brought human blood lust to a climax which nobody had considered possible. […]

Although I had made no plans, I left my accommodations at Wilanow Castle feeling that I was called upon to mark in some way the special moment of commemoration at the Ghetto Monument. At the abyss of German history and burdened by millions of murdered humans, I acted in the way of those whom language fails.

Even twenty years later, I wouldn’t know better than the journalist who recorded the moment by saying, ‘Then he, who would not need to do this, kneels down in lieu of all those who should, but who do not kneel down – because they do not dare, cannot kneel, or cannot dare to kneel.'”

(Note: The quotation used by Brandt is from the article Ein Stück Heimkehr [A Partial Homecoming] (Hermann Schreiber/ Der Spiegel No. 51/1970, Dec. 14, 1970), which, at least to those who read German, also makes for interesting reading in its entirety as a piece of reporting on this crucial moment in German and European history.)

Groundbreaking and common sense as Brandt’s policies seem to us in hindsight, they were nevertheless highly disputed in the West Germany of those years: In order to realize them at all, Brandt did not only have to withstand an April 1972 parliamentary vote of no confidence (which he survived just barely), but also had to call for early elections in the fall of 1972, which his coalition government ended up winning even more convincingly than those of 1969. Though I was only in elementary school at the time, the Social Democratic Party’s electoral campaign, summed up in the simple motto “Willy wählen” (“Vote for Willy”) is one of my earliest formative political memories; even in my school (just barely over 6 miles from Konrad Adenauer’s home!), whoever was or wanted to be part of the “in crowd”, proudly wore a “Willy wählen” button on their lapel; much to the amusement of our parents, incidentally, by far not all of whom voted Social Democrat themselves.

Did the treaties concluded with East Germany, Russia, and their Polish and Czechoslovakian allies mark the high point in Brandt’s career as an architect of German politics? He himself castigates this notion as a “cheapskate interpretation,” even though he is far from denying that by the time the Guillaume scandal broke, his government was entrenched in numerous exhausting internal battles. What, however, must necessarily leave a somewhat bitter aftertaste – and certainly not only in the mouth of Brandt himself, who in his memoirs confines the settling of scores to comparatively few and obscure comments, whose full meaning only becomes transparent after one has also read Brandt’s “Notes on the Matter of G” (dating probably from the summer or fall of 1974), included in the book’s annex – what must leave a somewhat bitter aftertaste is the fact that the investigation of Günter Guillaume’s and his wife’s activities never yielded any evidence to the effect that they had actually ever reported any substantial state secrets to their East German masters. In fact, Guillaume’s spontaneous admission to the secret service agents facing him at his apartment door on the morning of April 24, 1974 (quoted at the beginning of this review) constituted the “hardest” piece of evidence on which his criminal conviction came to rest at all, and the fact that the Guillaumes were sentenced to several years of prison for spying at the time principally was a matter of West German self-respect: If Edward Snowden is to be believed, and measured by the scant evidence on which the Guillaumes were convicted, each and every NSA agent involved in the recent, by all appearances much more incisive wire-tapping operation concerning Mrs. Merkel’s official cell phone would have to be looking at several lifetimes’ worth of prison sentences, if German criminal law would allow for this (which it doesn’t). Brandt himself, in any event, initially completely underestimated the matter. When he finally did resign, although in his letter of resignation he said he was doing so in order to take responsibility for the “negligence” associated with the Guillaume matter, actually he may well simply have given in to the pressure brought onto him by members of his own party, who, correctly or incorrectly, conveyed to him that the scandal as such, as well as certain alleged facts that Guillaume had (again allegedly) learned about his private affairs had made him an easy target for blackmail.

Not least from an international perspective, it would come to turn out as a stroke of luck that Brandt’s resignation from the office of chancellor did not, at the same time, also signal his complete retirement from politics. He continued to work to great effect, both on and off stage, in his capacity as head of the German Social Democratic Party (which he had become in 1964 and remained until 1987), and also as a Member of the European Parliament (1979-82) and chairman of several international committees, chiefly among those, the Independent Commission for International Development (aka “North South Commission”, 1977-80). His primary focus in those efforts was, on the one hand, a unified Europe (where again, his policies had proved visionary insofar as in his negotiations with other European heads of state he had, as early as in 1971, taken first steps to transform the European Economic Community of the 1970s into the Economic and Monetary Union that would only come to take shape 20 years later in the 1993 Treaty of Maastricht), as well as the protection of the environment and the dialogue and reconciliation between the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres, recognizing that the survival of humanity requires a responsible use of the earth’s natural resources and as equal a distribution of wealth as possible – without, however, falling into the trap of state-mandated socialism or communism: Brandt had come to the conclusion early on that only a market economy, albeit preferably one tempered by social security, such as he had helped forge in Germany, provides the requisite tools to spread worldwide prosperity.

In the course of his almost lifelong career as a politician, particularly however in the second half of the 20th century, there was virtually no important state leader whom he did not meet; the portraits of American and French Presidents (especially Kennedy, Carter, Nixon and Reagan in the U.S.; De Gaulle und Pompidou in France), British Prime Ministers (Harold Wilson, Edward Heath), Soviet leaders (Khrushchev, Breshnev, Kossygin, Gorbachev), their respective Foreign Ministers (Kissinger, Couve de Murville, Gromyko), East German politicians such as Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker, as well as numerous other politicians worldwide are, without doubt, one of this book’s highlights; from German domestic friends and foes (Adenauer, Erhard, Kiesinger, Barzel, Strauß, Schumacher, Reuter, Schiller, Heinemann, Wehner, Schmidt, Bahr, Scheel, Genscher: the entire “Who is Who” of West German politics until the beginning of the new millennium) to foreign leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Fidel Castro, Felipe González, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Bruno Kreisky. Brandt’s appraisal of all of them is as discriminating as it is honest and, frequently, also surprising; as such, while the strong ties connecting him with President Kennedy are hardly astonishing, a tidbit decidedly less naturally to be expected must surely consist in the fact that he (and also his successor Helmut Schmidt) found more common ground in terms of European and international politics with Republicans such as Nixon, Kissinger and Reagan than with the Democrat Jimmy Carter. Towards the end of the book, a particular appreciation is given to Swedish leader Olof Palme, who was murdered in 1986, and with whom Brandt had shared both a close personal friendship and particularly close political ties since the 1950s.

To me, reading Brandt’s memoirs did not only offer fascinating insights into the thought processes of one of the leading German politicians of the recent past, but also a trip down memory lane back to my own childhood and youth: I have come to realize more and more how much the years of Willy Brandt’s and his successor Helmut Schmidt’s chancellorships in particular – and of a German day-to-day reality controlled, until 1989, by the Berlin Wall, and the separation of the nation into two parts – have impacted my own political thought and experience. Willy Brandt barely lived long enough to witness the German reunification; he may, however, well already have divined it, when towards the end of his narration he wrote, in the summer of 1989:

“Why, from what right and based on what experience exclude the possibility that one day in Leipzig and Dresden, in Magdeburg and Schwerin – and in East Berlin – not merely hundreds but hundreds of thousands will take to the streets and demand their rights as citizens? Including the right to move from one part of Germany to the other?”


“And Berlin? And the Wall? The city will remain alive, and the Wall is going to come down. But an isolated solution for Berlin, one that does not go hand in hand with the broader changes in Europe and between the two parts of Germany, has always been illusionary and has not become any more probable over the course of the years.”

Yet, Brandt was not clairvoyant: The European Union’s Eastern expansion that we have seen in the years since 1990 still seemed unthinkable to him as late as 1989; not least because it seemed diametrically opposed to Russia’s security interests, such as they continued to manifest themselves even under Gorbachev, and despite all disarmement treaties.  As a matter of fact, Gorbachev and Yeltsin did end up letting the Soviet Union’s former allies go, and (something that Brandt would probably have considered even more utopian) even permitted them to become members of NATO; even some former Soviet republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) today are members of the Western military alliance. However, even before the disquieting events that for some time now have been shaking Ukraine to its core, the Russian bear had already employed its military machinery (at the cost of human lives) to flex its muscles in neighboring states such as Georgia, and Vladimir Putin is certainly not another Mikhail Gorbachev. Willy Brandt held a lifelong skepticism for the notion of a profound democratization of Russia, and the more recent past would seem to prove him right. He, in any event, never was among those who underestimated Moscow’s readiness to actually employ its own weaponry: the path towards a military disarmement and détente that he helped forge was successful because it was built, on the one hand, on the realization, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, that playing with fire next to nuclear powder kegs will land all parties to the conflict on an equally disastrous path towards ruin, and on the other hand on a feasible perspective of a peaceful coexistence. Whichever one’s assessment of today’s politicians in comparison to the generation of their predecessors, the world would undoubtedly be better off if they likewise would prove capable of at least the measure of vision necessary to enable them to act with foresight, instead of merely reacting to events. And with regard to what constitues the greatest threat to world peace, and to the survival of humanity as such, Brandt’s concluding remarks to his memoirs are as timely as ever:

“It has been an obvious fact for the longest time that our earth will not be able to sustain for long the foreseeable growth of its population, the exhaustion of its natural resources, and the emaciation of its natural environment. We have been living for quite a while at the expense of our future generations. […] The absence of a nuclear war does not, by itself, diminish the danger of humanity’s self-destruction.”



Vladislav Tamarov: Afghanistan – A Russian Soldier’s Story

Afghanistan: A Russian Soldier's Story - Vladislav TamarovBoy soldiers in a war that turned out to be a “mistake”

Growing up in Germany and learning about World War II in school and from my parents and grandparents, among the things that impressed me most – that I just couldn’t get out of my mind – were the pictures of those boys drafted into Adolf Hitler’s “Volkssturm” (literally: “People’s Storm”); the pictures of those 16-, 18- and 19-year-old boys torn out of school before they had even had a chance to graduate, and turned into cannon fodder; the pictures of those eyes staring out of faces grown old long before their time. I have seen those same eyes and those same faces again in Vladislav Tamarov’s photo-journalistic report on his experiences as a Russian soldier in Afghanistan, subtitled simply “A Russian Soldier’s Story.”

There is, for example, Sergei, the author’s best friend in Afghanistan, who had his leg shattered by an exploding bullet – and so much more than just his leg was shattered with it. Then there is Sasha, who wanted to be a pilot and asked his friend Vlad, who was from Leningrad (St. Petersburg), whether his parents could enquire for him about the application procedures for the city’s flight school – and who didn’t even live to receive his answer. There is Aleksei, who walked into a minefield because somebody misread a map. There is Aleksandr, who got killed covering his commanding officer’s body with his chest and who was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union’s highest medal – which was given to his mother, to take the place of her dead son. There is Kravchenko, who went out to check a road with a couple of newcomers and was blown up by a mine – only weeks before he was scheduled to return home. There is Volodya, who couldn’t look into the eyes of other minesweepers returning to camp if he hadn’t gone out with them – and who was also killed only months before his time in Afghanistan was supposed to be over. There is the group picture of Oleg, Renat, Aleksandr, Vladimir and Sergei, taken while they are resting somewhere under a tree – only 14 hours before one of them would be killed by an ambush, 46 days before two more of them would be seriously injured and another one killed, and one year before the last of them would also be killed. And there is Vladislav Tamarov himself, who in 1984, like so many others, suddenly found himself in a boot camp, being trained for a two-year turn of duty in Afghanistan because the Supreme Soviet had proclaimed seven years earlier in the country’s revised constitution that “[t]o serve in the Soviet army is the honorable duty of Soviet citizens” – and ever since the Communist party leaders’ 1979 decision to yield to the “call for help” issued by the communist satellite government in Kabul, that “honorable duty” consisted in “supporting the Afghan revolution.” And so Tamarov was pulled out of university, learned to put on a parachute and jump into the abyss below his plane (a completely useless skill in Afghanistan), learned to kill boys as young as himself in order to survive, was made a minesweeper without any prior training at all; and as a minesweeper, quickly learned that you make a mistake only once – it’s between you and that mine, and there is no second chance. Not ever.

“Afghanistan – A Russian Soldier’s Story” is Vladislav Tamarov’s intensely personal report of his two-year turn of duty in Afghanistan; not a journalist’s or a professional writer’s detached account but the story of one who was there, experienced “what it was like” and came back alive: the human side of the inhumanity of war. The book very much has the feeling of a conversation with the author – in the form of letters, perhaps, or excerpts from a diary shared with the book’s readers. Divided into chapters entitled for the main components of the author’s experience (Boot Camp, Combat Missions, Minesweepers, the Base, etc.), the narrative structure nevertheless frequently alternates between the report of events in Afghanistan and the sensation of being back home again afterwards; thus introducing the reader to the confusing feeling of conflicting audiovisual and sensory associations; and of waking up in the morning and not knowing for a few seconds where you are. Most impressive, however, are Tamarov’s black and white photographs, processed by the author himself (primarily while still “in country”), which convey a darkly acute and poignant sense of Afghanistan, of the Russian soldiers’ scarce encounters with its people, and again and again, of the dangers and desolation of a minesweeper’s life, and his loneliness even in a group of fellow soldiers. The author’s comparisons of his experience with that of American VietNam veterans further add to the complexity of his account, and deepen the understanding that the terror of war is the same, regardless on which side you are fighting. “When you live next to death … you don’t think about it anymore, you just try to encounter it as seldom as possible,” Tamarov writes, and: “We didn’t believe in tomorrow. And we couldn’t forget what had happened yesterday.” Like too many others, Tamarov had to learn to live with this experience for the rest of his life – and it was certainly not made easier by the Soviet Union’s belated admission that the war in Afghanistan was “a mistake.” His story is a powerful reminder that regardless of its motivation, war is never, ever a glorious thing – at least not for those who are sent to fight it; even if they are not as young as the boys who made up the largest contingent of the Soviet Union’s troops in Afghanistan.


A Selection of Quotes and Photos:

“When I was drafted into the army in April 1984, I was a nineteen-year-old  boy. The club where they took us was a distribution centre. Officers came there from various military units and picked out the soldiers they wanted. My fate was decided in one minute. A young officer came up to me and asked, “Do you want to serve in the commandos, the Blue Berets?”  Of course I agreed. Two hours later I was on a plane to Uzbekistan (a Soviet republic in Central Asia), where our training base was located.

During the flight, I learned most of the soldiers from this base were sent to Afghanistan. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t surprised. At that point I didn’t care anymore because I understood that it is impossible to change anything. ‘To serve in the Soviet army is the honourable duty of Soviet citizens” – as it’s written in our Constitution. And no one gives a damn whether you want to fulfil this “honourable duty” or not. But then I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. Up until 1985, in the press and on television, they told us that Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan were planting trees and building schools and hospitals. And only a few knew that more and more cemeteries were being filled with the graves of eighteen- to twenty-year-old boys. Without the dates of their death, without inscriptions. Only their names on black stone …

At the base we were trained and taught to shoot. We were told that we were being sent to Afghanistan not to plant trees. And as to building schools, we simply wouldn’t have the time …

Three and a half months later, my plane was landing in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan … We were taken to a club on base. A few minutes later, officers started to come by and choose soldiers. Suddenly, an officer with a smiling face and sad eyes burst in noisily. He looked us over with an appraising glance and pointed his finger at me: “Ah ha! I see a minesweeper!” That’s how I became a minesweeper. Ten days later, I went on my first combat mission.”


“On August 10, 1984, my plane landed in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. There were no skyscrapers here. The blue domes of the mosques and the faded mountains were the only things rising above the adobe duvals (the houses). The mosques came alive in the evening with multivoiced wailing: the mullahs were calling the faithful to evening prayer. It was such an unusual spectacle that, in the beginning, I used to leave the barracks to listen – the same way that, in Russia, on spring nights, people go outside to listen to the nightingales sing. For me, a nineteen-year-old boy who had lived his whole life in Leningrad, everything about Kabul was exotic: enormous skies – uncommonly starry – occasionally punctured by the blazing lines of tracers. And spread out before you, the mysterious Asian capital where strange people were bustling about like ants on an anthill: bearded men, faces darkend by the sun, in solid-colored wide cotton trousers and long shirts. Their modern jackets, worn over those outfits, looked completely unnatural. And women, hidden under plain dull garments that covered them from head to toe: only their hands visible, holding bulging shopping bags, and their feet, in worn-out shoes or sneakers, sticking out from under the hems.

And somewhere between this odd city and the deep black southern sky, the wailing, beautifully incomprehensible songs of the mullahs. The sounds didn’t contradict each other, but rather, in a polyphonic echo, melted away among the narrow streets. The only thing missing was Scheherazade with her tales of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights … A few days later I saw my first missile attack on Kabul. This country was at war.”


“October 1984, Macedonian Column: The column was built by the troops of Alexander the Great many centuries ago. By the same Alexander the Great who said, ‘One can occupy Afghanistan, but one cannot vanquish her.’  This column, visible from Kabul, stood in this same place when Alexander the Great and his troops left Afghanistan; it stood there where our troops came into Afghanistan, and it remained standing even after our troops left Afghanistan.”


“This is a page from my Afghan notebook. Here, I wrote down each of my combat missions. First, I wrote down the mission number. If I’d been in the mountains, I circled the number. Then I wrote the last name of the place where we’d been and how many days we were there. Last, I wrote the month and the year. That was my system.”


    “Someone once said that a minesweeper makes only two mistakes: the first is when he decides to be one. The second …”


May 1985, Djalalabad, from left to right: Oleg (3 shell shocks from explosions) Renat (over 200 days in combat) Alexandr (killed in action 11 hours later) Vladimir (killed in action in June 1986) Sergej (killed in action in June 1985, 6 weeks after this picture was taken).

“We stayed here for only a few hours. We rested and went on.  But the camera snatched this fraction of a second from the eternal flow of time and froze it forever.  At this moment we didn’t know that in a few hours we would fall into an ambush. At this moment, while we were filling our canteens from the stream, we didn’t yet know that we would stay in the mountains for three days without a drop of water.  We didn’t yet know anything …”


“There’s nothing I can do to erase the shadow of misery and despair from the eyes looking back at me from the photos.”


“Sasha was my friend … Like me, he was 19. But he didn’t come home. He was killed 12 hours after this photo was taken.”


“Autumn 1985  Kabul Airfield, Afghanistan: These two soldiers are from my platoon:  A few minutes from this moment, they’ll be flying in helicopters toward the mountains. In forty minutes, people will be shooting at these 19 year old boys. And they will shoot back, and they will kill. That is the law of war: if you don’t kill first, they’ll kill you.  We didn’t invent this law.

But having landed in a war, we have to live by its rules. And the quicker you learn the rules, the longer you have to live by them.  You don’t think about whether you are defending someone’s revolution or defending the ‘southern borders of the motherland’. You simply shoot at those who are shooting at you and at your friend behind you – you shoot at the guys whose mines blew away your friend yesterday.”


“I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember where he was from. I remember that our climb into the mountains was grueling, and we were exhausted. He was new. This was one of his first battles and I wanted to encourage him, to cheer him up.”


“September 1985, Charikar: These are prisoners. A few hours ago, they were free men in the mountains but now they are here in our camp.  Now they are silently looking us over, while we are silently looking them over.  But it wasn’t always like this …”


“I saw houses burned by the Mujahadeen, as well as disfigured bodies of prisoners they’d taken. But I saw other things too: villages destroyed by our shelling and bodies of women, killed by mistake. When you shoot at every rustling in the bushes, there’s no time to think about who’s there. But for an Afghan, it didn’t matter if his wife had been killed intentionally or accidentally. He went into the mountains to see revenge.”


“He was holding his right leg, but the blood soaked through his fingers and flowed over his hand onto his sleeve. Intuition had served me again this time: my kick had knocked his automatic out of his grasp a fraction of a second before he could press the trigger.  The second kick was to his face.  It sent him flying about six feet. I set my sights on his head, but something stopped me, one of our guys let out a yelp behind me.  Another bullet whistled by right next to me.  Apparently, this Mujahadeen was not the only one here. Again, I aimed at his head, but something again stopped me.  I saw how his hands were trembling.  I noticed the horror in his eyes.  “He is only a boy!” I thought and pressed the trigger.”


 “I never sat like this, in such an open and vulnerable position. I just liked the view from this cliff, and I decided to take this shot especially for my parents: to show how peaceful it was in Afghanistan … but within two seconds I wasn’t anywhere near that rock.”


“The photos I took in Afghanistan are lying in front of me. I peer into the faces of those who were with me there and who are so far away from me now, into the faces of those who were dying right next to me and those who were hiding behind my back. I can make these photos larger or smaller, darker or lighter. But what I can’t do is bring back those who are gone forever.”

“We didn’t believe in tomorrow. We we couldn’t forget what had happened yesterday.”

“When you live next to death … you don’t think about it anymore, you just try to encounter it as seldom as possible.”


“Once, back home, I decided to count how many days out of my twenty months in Afghanistan I’d been on combat missions. 217 days. And I’m still paying the price for every one of those days.”

“When I came home, I was asked to put my pictures in a photo exhibit at the Cinematography College … my pictures won first prize.  I began to ask myself what I was doing, and why.  A few months after the exhibit, I dropped out of college, left my wife and began to write this book.”


“This picture – me standing with an arm around an Afghan government soldier – was one of three photos I gave them for the exhibit. For the exhibit, I gave this photo a short, bogus title: They Defend the Revolution.”


“I am asked if I think the war was a just war…how can I answer?  I was a boy born and raised in beautiful Leningrad, a boy who loved his parents and went obediently to school.  A boy who was yanked out of that life and dumped in a strange land where life followed different rules.”

“By 1989, the total number of Vietnam veterans who had died  in violent accidents or by suicide after the war exceeded the total number of American soldiers who died during the war.”