The books listed below can help you gain a better understanding of German history, culture, personalities, and politics.
- “Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s” by Otto Friedrich: A fascinating portrait of the life of Berlin between the wars.
- “Berlin Diaries, 1940–1945” by Marie Vassilchikov: The secret journals of a young Russian aristocrat who lived and worked in Berlin throughout World War II
- “Berlin Journal, 1989–1990” by Robert Darnton: An eyewitness account of the events that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of East Germany’s Communist regime.
- “Berlin Noir” by Philip Kerr. Bernie Gunther is the dyspeptic Berlin detective in these three thought-provoking crime novels set in Nazi Germany and post-war Berlin and Vienna.
- “Billiards at Half-Past Nine” by Heinrich Böll: A compelling novel by one of Germany’s best-known writers about the compromises made by a rich German family during the Hitler years.
- “Bismarck” by Edward Crankshaw: An objective and highly readable life of the first chancellor of the German Empire.
- “Buddenbrooks” by Thomas Mann: A classic of German literature, this novel deals with the transition of a merchant family in Lübeck from 19th-century stability to 20th-century uncertainty.
- “Europe Central” by William T. Vollman: A bold, brilliant novel that examines the authoritarian cultures of 20th-century Germany and Russia and creates a mesmerizing picture of life during wartime from many different perspectives.
- “Five Germanys I Have Known” by Fritz Stern: The well-known historian chronicles the five distinct eras of Germany’s modern history that his Jewish family has experienced.
- “Frederick the Great” by Nancy Mitford: Frederick, statesman, scholar, musician, and patron of the arts, sketched with wit and humor.
- “German Family Research Made Simple” by J. Konrad: If you’re interested in tracing your German roots, this easy-to-follow guide makes the task easier.
- “The German Lesson” by Siegfried Lenz: A bestseller from 1971, this powerful novel explores Nazism and its aftermath in the north German provinces.
- “Germany, 1866–1945” by Gordon Craig: One of the best single accounts of the turbulent political, cultural, and economic life in Germany from the foundation of the German Reich through the end of the Third Reich.
- “The Good German” by Joseph Cannon: A war correspondent returns to post-war Berlin in search of a story and a past love.
- “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther” by Roland Bainton: A fascinating and meticulously researched account of the Protestant reformer.
- “Hitler: 1936–1945: Nemesis” by Ian Kershaw: Several good biographies about Hitler have been written, including works by Robert Payne, Joachim Fest, and John Toland, but Kershaw’s is one of the best.
- “My Life in Politics” by Willy Brandt: The political memoirs of Willy Brandt (1913–92), winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971, mayor of cold-war West Berlin (1957–66), and chancellor of West Germany (1969–74).
- “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass: Perhaps the most famous novel about life in post-World War II Germany, written by a Nobel Prize winner who kept his own Nazi past a secret until 2006.
- “A Tramp Abroad” by Mark Twain: Twain’s account of his travels in Germany is as fresh today as when it first was published in 1899.
- “The Wall in My Backyard” by Dinah Dodds and Pam Allen-Thompson: In this collection of interviews, East German women describe the excitement, chaos, and frustration of the transitional period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany less than a year later.
- “When in Germany, Do as the Germans Do” by Hyde Flippo: A short, entertaining crash course in German culture, customs, and heritage.
- “Witness to Nuremberg” by Richard Sonnenfeldt: The chief American interpreter at the war-crimes trials tells his story of dealing directly with Hermann Göring, the powerful Nazi official who was subsequently executed for war crimes.
As with literature, World War II and the Holocaust have dominated the subject matter of recent films about Germany–so much so that German-made films about contemporary German life rarely get a showing outside of Germany unless they win a top prize at a film festival. The list below includes a selection of German and Germany-themed films available in many formats.
- “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980): Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-part television adaptation of the novel by Alfred Döblin follows the life of a man released from prison between the two world wars.
- “The Blue Angel” (1930): The film that shot Marlene Dietrich to international stardom remains stark, startling, and provocative.
- “Cabaret” (1972): A musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and set in Berlin at the brink of World War II.
- “The Counterfeiters” (2007): Based on a true story, this Oscar-winning film (Best Foreign Language Film) tells the story of master forger Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch and his fellow criminals who were assigned the job of forging massive amounts of fake dollars and pounds in an effort by the Nazi regime to weaken the Allies.
- “A Foreign Affair” (1948): Billy Wilder’s cynically hilarious look at postwar occupied Berlin, starring Marlene Dietrich as an amoral cabaret singer.
- “Goodbye, Lenin!” (2004): A wry comedy about a young man in East Berlin who tries to keep his bedridden mother, a loyal Communist, from learning that the wall has come down and Germany has been reunited.
- “Heimat” (1984–2005): This series created for West German television begins in 1919 with the return of a soldier from the Great War to his village in the northwestern corner of Germany, a rural region known as the Hunsrück, and ends 63 years later; the history of modern Germany is refracted through the experiences of an extended family, the Simons.
- “The Lives of Others” (2006): An Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, this haunting film reveals how the East German secret police (the Stasi) spied on the country's citizens, destroying and dehumanizing lives.
- “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979): Hanna Schygulla stars as a woman married to a soldier in the waning days of World War II.
- “Metropolis” (1927): Fritz Lang’s classic of German cinema, in which the Workers plan a revolt against the aloof Thinkers that dominate them in a future dystopia.
- “Olympiad” (1936): Leni Riefenstahl’s super-Aryan take on the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.
- “On the Other Side” (2007): This well-acted and well-received contemporary drama explores the lives of Turks and Germans living in the multicultural Germany of today.
- “The Reader” (2008): Hollywood adaptation of a novel set in postwar Germany and dealing with the life of an illiterate woman who worked in a concentration camp.
- “Triumph of the Will” (1934): Leni Riefenstahl filmed the gigantic 1934 Nazi conference and rally in Nuremberg as “image-control” propaganda for the Third Reich.
- “Wings of Desire” (1988): An angel roaming the streets of Berlin and recording the angst and joy of ordinary life falls in love with a mortal.
Germany's Great Musical Tradition
Some of the greatest works of Western music were written by German composers. The roster includes Hildegard of Bingen, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Wagner, as well as 20th-century greats Richard Strauss and Kurt Weill. Germany’s rich musical history dates back to the medieval Minnesängers (troubadours), who held a famous song contest at Wartburg Castle that was later immortalized by Richard Wagner in his opera Tannhäuser.
Over the centuries, Germany’s musical traditions were fostered in convents, monasteries and churches where composers were hired to write sacred songs, cantatas and oratorios. The most famous among these is Johann Sebastian Bach; two museums chronicle his life and accomplishments—one in his birth town of Eisenach and another in Leipzig where he died. The great composer Ludwig Beethoven’s birthplace can be visited in Bonn. Düsseldorf, the sometime home of Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, also has a proud music tradition with an excellent symphony. Fast-forward to the 19th century, and you get the romantic cult of composers such as Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, both of whose homes are preserved as museums in Bayreuth.
Eventually, as opera houses and concert halls became a fixture in German cities, a wider public clamored for musical performances. Today, every major city—and many smaller ones—has its own publicly funded orchestra. Attending a performance at the Semper Opera in Dresden, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, or Berlin’s Philharmonie concert hall or Deutsche Oper Berlin are all seminal experiences for music lovers.
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