Sunday, May 3, 2009

Anne Nelson

Anne Nelson teaches international media studies at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). In April, Random House published her newest book, Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
What am I reading?

The shrinks must have a name for it: you work on a book for years, buried in research. Then you finish it, it comes out – and you’re still compulsively reading on the subject. My new book, Red Orchestra, is about a circle of anti-Nazi resisters who infiltrated the regime in order to oppose it.

That inquiry led to all kinds of questions: about the Holocaust and concentration camps; on the nature of censorship and propaganda; and on the psychology of resistance. My guess is that I’ll be reading about this period and these themes for the rest of my life.

One book that stunned me recently was Giles MacDonogh’s After the Reich (just out in paperback). Given the endless tomes on World War II itself, there is surprisingly little published on life immediately after the war. MacDonough’s research is formidable, walking us through the immediate post-war period in Germany and the surrounding regions. It is a grim and disturbing world, in which Nazi murderers are sometimes brought to justice but often walk away scot-free, often into government positions. (The strategists for Iraq policy could have learned a lot from this research.)

Another striking book is somewhat harder to find; there's a new edition out this year in the U.K., but I found my 1949 copy in the New York Public Library. This is Margarete Buber-Neumann’s Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler. The author was a young German Communist (married to Martin Buber’s son) who fled Hitler to Moscow, only to be sent to one of Stalin’s concentration camps under suspicion of disloyalty. With the Non-Aggression Pact, the Soviets returned her to the waiting arms of the Gestapo, who sent her to Ravensbrück. (She miraculously survived both concentration camp systems, and lived out a long and fruitful life as a Christian Democrat in West Germany.)

Buber-Neumann, an unpretentious and often graceful writer, sheds light on many facets of concentration camp life. She explains the recruitment process for the guards (fresh in our minds with Kate Winslet’s performance in The Reader), and draws out the intricate camp hierarchies among political prisoners, Roma, and Jews. One of the most fascinating passages takes place in the Jehovah’s Witness barracks, among simple farm wives who could walk free by simply forswearing their religion – and refuse.

After Buber-Neumann, I was inspired to go back and read Doctor Zhivago (for the first time -- which flowed beautifully from my recent reading of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.) How could the world survive such tsunamis of romanticism, revolution and resistance – all within the last century?

In my other life, I teach a course called “New Media and Development Communication” at Columbia, so I read books about the Internet (which is somewhat counter-intuitive). One that I like is Andrew Keen’s critique, The Cult of the Amateur. It‘s valuable to have a proponent of very old media (Keen is a classical music enthusiast) writing about the downsides of new media. We all benefit from the access to information provided by the Internet, but the social structure of the medium may favor the production of less sophisticated forms of expression. (The problem of cultural kudzu...) Many of us in the content creation business wake up to a daily crisis, and Keen grasps the nature of these problems better than most.

Among the untrammeled enthusiasts, I’ve been reading Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet – and How to Stop It. His subject matter will have a huge impact on our lives, and it’s worthwhile material (if not always easy reading).
Visit Anne Nelson's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue