Five life stories (aside from Hannibal’s) to comfort, inspire or guide you

The folks at Shepherd, a book-discovery site, asked for my recommendations in a genre similar to that of Hannibal and Me.

They let me choose only five, and I picked:

  • Endurance, by Alfred Lansing
  • Caesar: Life of a Colossus, by Adrian Goldsworthy
  • The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
  • Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson
  • Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen Ambrose

Find out why I chose these five, and not the hundreds of others on my shelves over at Shepherd.

Truth and the privilege of wasting time

Page 220-221 in “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari:

If you want to go deeply into any subject, you need a lot of time, and in particular you need the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, to explore dead ends, to make space for doubts and boredom, and to allow little seeds of insight to slowly grow and blossom. If you cannot afford to waste time — you will never find the truth.

Apropos allowing little seeds of insight to slowly grow and blossom, compare: “What Gregor Mendel tells us about thinking.

My new motto: Festina lente

Festina Lente 1

Two weeks ago I stood before this beautiful door in the Uffizi, in Florence. Uffizi means “offices” because what is today the world’s greatest museum started as the offices built by the family that ran Florence, and sometimes Europe: the Medici.

The upper panel on the door above shows the Medici’s crest, six “balls” (including the blue one on top), which shows up on buildings all over Florence. But it’s the lower panel that got me immersed in a long and fascinating conversation.

Here is that lower panel up close. It shows a tortoise with a mast on its back. The mast used to have a sail. It’s a picture of a sailing tortoise, in other words.

Festina Lente 2

Why did the Medici put a sailing tortoise on their doors? Because it was their visual take on Festina Lente.

Festina Lente is Latin and means “hasten slowly”. It’s whence we get our idiom “make haste slowly”, and the Germans their “Eile mit Weile”. The tortoise, you see, is really busy. It has a purpose and a direction (where it sailing); but it’s still a tortoise, and it has no time to waste by going quickly in the wrong direction. So it’s moving slooowly. But it arrives.

Octavian, later Augustus, was the first to adopt Festina Lente as a motto. He hated speed without precision just as much as he hated lack of urgency or direction. The motto obviously served him rather well. He visualized the idea as a dolphin and an anchor; but I like the sailing tortoise better.

Festina Lente is what I already had in mind five years ago, when I blogged about “slowing down to save time”. But now the sentiment has become even more important to me, because in my new job I have become busier. I simply don’t have time anymore to go fast.

Goodbye Economist, hello Handelsblatt

One day almost twenty years ago, I bounded out of The Economist’s modernistic “Plaza” in London’s St. James’s, skipped past a few of the street’s posh gentlemen’s clubs and ran into Green Park, where I let out a primal scream. Aged 27, I had just got a job offer from The Economist. A dream was coming true.

Since then The Economist has sent me from London to Hong Kong, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Berlin. But wherever I was, I worked with more or less the same people. People who are quirky, humorous and unusually talented–in some cases genius. We have been a family of sorts, sometimes dysfunctional, usually functional, but always tight. It is no exaggeration to say that The Economist, where I spent half of the life I remember living, is part of my identity.

That’s why it was terrifying even to contemplate leaving The Economist when I was approached with an opportunity to do something risky, new and exciting. But it was also terrifying to say No and live with the regrets of “What if”. I’m exactly half-way between the start of my career and retirement. Lots to contemplate.

Helpfully, my wife and few other people reminded me that not too long ago I wrote a book about people who made just such life decisions (and who made them for the better as for the worse). In particular, they pointed me to chapter 8 (“The Prison of Success”) and chapter 10 (“The Threshold of Middle Age”) in Hannibal and Me.

And so, last week I returned to the Plaza in St. James’s–probably for the last time, because The Economist is moving out this summer after 52 years–to say goodbye. We rented a dungeon in a pub around the corner and got sentimental and boozy. The ale and humor flowed as it only does at The Economist. (At least the humor. By the way, I can now finally stop writing “humour”.)

Here is the little gift they sent me off with. An elephant. Surus, presumably, the one Hannibal rode. They didn’t specify whether I’m mounting it on the way to Cannae or Zama.

Surus leaving drinks

So here I go. Within a few weeks, I will become, still based in Berlin, editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global. It is the young and insurgent English-language edition in a much older and larger group of German publications, including Handelsblatt (roughly the German equivalent of the Wall Street Journal) and Wirtschaftswoche (the analogue of Business Week). I’m not sure exactly what awaits me, and that’s somewhat terrifying–and hugely exciting.

Goodbye Economist; hello Handelsblatt.



My Germany Mix (II: mentality & culture)

A year ago I kicked off a series of posts that I called “my Germany mix”. The idea was and is to highlight just a few of my many, many articles on Germany that might be a bit more timeless than usual in journalism.

Last year’s post was about the Nazi past and the unique remembrance culture that Germany has built to cope with that legacy.

In this post, I’ve selected four pieces that illuminate different aspects of the German mentality today (thus also shedding some light on where certain stereotypes come from).

1) The notorious German problem with … humor

This article started as a spontaneous and almost frivolous blog post I wrote for our culture magazine, called 1843. Then, to my and my editors’s surprise, it went viral. Must have hit a nerve.

To me it comes down to a twin-pathology in German culture: a difficulty in grasping non-literal meanings and a compulsion to lecture other people. See for yourself.

2) Why you need to know about a particular thesis by Max Weber …

… this being his theory, which has become a classic of political science, of two types of ethic: Gesinnungsethik and Verantwortungsethik.

If those long Germanic words sound daunting, the piece (a “Charlemagne” column in The Economist) hopefully is not, and indeed could turn out to be quite fun.

3) Why you also need to know a whole lot about Martin Luther…

… for the monk who posted his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg exactly 500 years ago still shapes German ways of thinking in astonishing ways.

This is another “Charlemagne” column. Could be interesting especially to those of you from a different religious tradition, given that even the little differences go a long way to forming our minds.

4) And why you might also want to know about a German utopia: Heile Welt

This term means something like “wholesome world” or “idyll”, but it’s often used sardonically. In any case, postwar Germans for decades clung like their garden gnomes to a particular utopia in their minds. Now, buffeted by the nasty world outside, that Heile Welt is gone. What comes next?

This, too, was a “Charlemagne” column.

Still to come in this series:

  • Angela Merkel
  • power
  • the awful German language

Trump & co: From populism to Caesarism

Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and Viktor Orban already are. Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and a long list of others really would like to be. What? Little Caesars. Because Caesarism sooner or later grows naturally out of populism. And that is a threat to our Western understanding of republican liberty.

That, at least, was my hypothesis when I was invited to a delightful format of intellectual discussion in Berlin called Politischer Eintopf. It means “political stew”, and you literally get a bowl of stew while you listen to a guest speaker. Then you discuss.

This discussion was lively and good. Because it struck a chord. In Europe, we are about a month away from a populist effort to get Britain out of the European Union. In America, a long, slow-surging wave of populism has washed up the figure of Donald Trump. In Hungary, Poland, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Spain, Greece, and … even Germany there are now populist movements afoot.

But why would I even pose a question about Caesarism in this context? Here is why.

Phenomenon I: Populism

Populism (like so much else) originated in the late Roman Republic. The word populism comes from populus, “people”. During the last century of the Roman Republic, two political styles (not parties!) emerged in Rome. They were called Optimates and Populares

The Populares included some famous people:

The Optimates also included some famous people:

  • Cato the younger
  • Cicero
  • Brutus

It’s important to understand that their differences were not about content, or “policies”. Instead, they were about a style of power–about how to attain power and whence it springs.

The Populares went directly to the populus, the people, in Rome’s various assemblies, through what we would today call referendums. They wanted to circumvent the elites in the patrician families of Rome as represented in the Senate. It was (then as now) ironic but not contradictory that the Populares were usually themselves members of the elite they were trying to outmaneuver.

The Optimates in turn wanted to keep power concentrated in the elite, especially in the Senate. For that was part of their idea of liberty. History had taught them that populism sooner or later yields a tyrant and thus a threat to the republic.

What features did populism already have then, that it still has now?

  • anti-elitist rhetoric. Today that can be (especially in America) anti-intellectual or (as also in Germany) anti-PC, meaning against political correctness. That could also mean anti-“mainstream media”.
  • polarization and personalization: populists want to get people riled up and angry. And they want to reduce problems from issues to people. A personality cult usually ensues. If only there were a “strong leader”….
  • Degradation first of language, then of institutions. Violence metaphors enter language. Soon taboos are broken. Violence becomes physical. People (starting with the Gracchi brothers) are killed.


Phenomenon II: Caesarism

Caesarism eventually arises naturally out of populism. It requires 1) a few cycles of populist softening of republican values through (the aforesaid) coarsening, polarization and personalization and 2) a charismatic leader. That leader promises at last to bring “solutions” to “problems” that the republic with its tedious processes had no answers for. The populus loves it.

Sometimes Caesars go too far too fast. The first Caesar encountered a Cato, a Cicero and a Brutus, and got himself stabbed. Who would be Trump’s Cato today? Perhaps Paul Ryan?

Other times Caesars are more skillful. The second Caesar was. We know him as Octavian in his youth and Augustus in his prime, but his official name was that of his adoptive father, Gaius Julius Caesar. He never officially abolished the republic he ended, just as Hitler never formally scrapped the Weimar constitution. Instead, Augustus became not king but princeps, “first head”, first among equals. The Senate and all other republican institutions were conspicuously maintained. Only they were now hollow in all but appearance.

America’s founding fathers, above all James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, had this example in their minds as they worried about their young nation’s constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. They feared that a future president could become another king in all but name. An anecdote about Ben Franklin sums up the worry. As he left the negotiations in Philadelphia, a lady asked him: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The meaning is all in the second clause.

The founding fathers’s main answer was based on an idea by the Frenchman Montesquieu. It was the separation of powers. He had in mind what we today call the three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. But in time the West has recognized other powers, above all that of a the media. Today’s Little Caesars (such as Putin or Erdogan or Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński) usually try first to take out the free press.

The problem with checks and balances is of course that they slow things down. Everything becomes a process: tedious, complicated, frustrating. Problems seem not to get swift solutions. The populus gets cranky. If only somebody understood us little people, talked as we talk, solved our problems!

Another French philosopher, Joseph Marie de Maistre, once said : “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” Many of us the West will in the coming years find out just what we deserve.

My Germany mix (I: remembrance)

So I finally got around to Hitler.

I took the expiry of the copyright of Mein Kampf as my excuse to reflect on how the Germans have over the past 70 years dealt with the shadow and legacy of the Führer.

But that piece in our 2015 Christmas Issue is only the latest of several articles that I’ve written on the wider theme of German remembrance.

Recall that in 2012 I moved from California to Germany to cover the country for The Economist. In that time (through 2015) I must have written a couple of hundred articles of all lengths, in print and online. So I want to select just a few here on my blog, in a series of posts grouped by themes. And the first theme must be remembrance.

I’ve always been fascinated by German Vergangenheitsbewältigung. That one long word means coping-with-the-past, and it’s telling that only the Germans would need such a term. Germany is cursed with the worst past to cope with. But coped it has. In the process, Germany has transformed a curse into a sort of blessing. All other countries, and even individuals, can learn from it in this respect.

The question, for a country and a person, is: how does one confront the worst in one’s past to atone for it and eventually to transcend it by becoming good in the present?

The answer is: with relentless honesty and everlasting sensitivity so that the act of remembering always connects one with, rather than divides one from, those one has harmed and allows new connections in the present. (That aspect of re-connecting is salient in the Stolpersteine piece below.)

Articles I have written that touch in different ways on this theme of remembrance and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, in reverse chronological order:

Hitler: What the Führer means for Germans today

Obituary: Richard von Weizsäcker

The Graffiti that made Germany better

This is a piece I wrote for The Atlantic on how Germany uses its public architecture “to blend the tragedy of the past with redemption in the present and renewal in the future.”

Stumbling over the past with Stolpersteine

Other themes to come in this series:

Descent on deadline day

Wednesdays are our deadline days at The Economist. This means that correspondents have filed their copy to editors, who are subbing the pieces and going back and forth with correspondents and fact-checkers.

Every now and then it gets hairy, but most of the time it just means lots of overeducated people sitting around doing the same thing and needing relief.

And then these grown men and women–senior editors, book authors, award winners among them–will descend into activities such as the email trail below, which is unfolding right now, in real time, and which I reproduce here without further comment:

Email 1: … A quick request from the kitchen…if you have a fork from upstairs (the stainless steel ones with beading) please could you return it….

Reply 1: Forking hell.

Reply 2: As Yogi Berra once said: when you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Reply 3: It’s a tiney problem in the big scheme of things.

Reply 4: May the forks be with you, always.

Reply 5: Just a reminder: Guy Forks night tomorrow.

Reply 6: Well, the fork is strong with this one.

Reply 7: Saw one of these acting suspiciously outside the building [attaches picture of fork lift]

Reply 8: There both is and is not a fork in my office, depending on which path we are on in the garden of forking paths

Reply 9: Oh, fork crying out loud, everyone…

Reply 10: No more! You’re driving me forking crazy!

Reply 11: fork give us

Reply 12: Stick a fork in it. It’s done.

Reply 13: These jokes just don’t cut it. 

Marx was wrong: Humiliation is the base

Tom Friedman was in Berlin this week, hosted by the American Academy, to make himself smart on Germany and to begin plugging the book he’s working on, “Thank you for being late”.

Sipping drinks on a Charlottenburg rooftop before a dinner given for him, Tom and I were talking about one of the many ideas he is pursuing in that book, which is that humiliation is the driver of events in the Middle East today. Young male Arabs in that region arguably feel more humiliated than any other group in the world today. That puts them at extra risk of drifting into the various forms of nihilism. Young Arabs in the banlieues of Paris and other European cities also feel humiliated and are also at risk.

Then Tom and I pondered whether humiliation drives human action (and thus history) more generally. The Germans after World War I felt humiliated by the “peace” the Allies imposed on them, and that humiliation, probably more than hyperinflation or depression, drove them into the arms of Hitler. Today, the Russians feel humiliated by the “peace” the West and NATO imposed on Europe 25 years ago, which appears to make them surrender willingly to the propaganda of Putin. And so on.

Just then I had an embryo of an idea and dropped it into the conversation: Marx was wrong, I said. It’s not the mode of production that is the base, with everything else being the superstructure. Instead our sense of dignity or humiliation is the base. The base is thus not materialistic but psychological.

Tom was intrigued by that half-formed thought so we met again on Saturday at the American Academy’s beautiful lake-side villa for a long talk, marred only by that day’s pollen count, which left me a red-eyed and sniffling hunk of misery. Tom wanted me to flesh out the idea. I’m hardly an expert on Marx. But we ruminated on it for a while and came up with a hypothesis along the following lines, which I would now like to test on you.

Marx was a Hegelian, ie a follower of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whom I’ve called “the archetype of the Teutonic windbag” on this blog before. Hegel thought, in his convoluted way, that history was a process that led, via many surprising turns, to a higher end state. So Marx wanted to one-up Hegel by explaining what the mechanism or driver of that historical process was, and what the end state looked like.

Marx called the driver the “base” and postulated that it was the mode of production — ie, how and by whom things are made in a given society. That thinginess is the Marxist “materialism”. (If I am wrong, you experts, please correct me in the comments.)

Everything else — ideas, thought, art, music, religion, politics, relationships — is but the “superstructure” built on top of that base. User “Alyxr” on Wikipedia depicts it thus:


In his own time, Marx thought, Europe had gone from feudalism to capitalism. A new class, the bourgeoisie, had taken over from the feudal lords as the owners of the means of production. This capitalist bourgeoisie now determined the superstructure. But as more and more of the workers on the capitalists’ payroll felt exploited (“humiliated”?), they would eventually rise up, ushering in socialism, and eventually communism. That would be the Hegelian end state.

So Marx thought that production was the deep-down driver of human action, in the way that Nietzsche thought it was power and Freud thought it was sex. But as Tom and I scanned today’s landscape, we started thinking that maybe humiliation was the more powerful driver. We see it in China, for instance, where a synthetically hyped “memory” of the humiliations by the West and Japan play a big part in driving progress.

I see it in America: Many blacks feel humiliated by cops in certain places. Prisoners feel humiliated by the reigning punishment mentality in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world and in history.

I also see it in eastern (ie, “East”) Germany, where many Ossis march in the so-called Pegida demonstrations in Dresden against foreigners. Like members of the Tea Party in America, Pegida followers tend to be middle class and middle-aged and thus objectively not at the exploited end of any mode of production. But they have a subjective sense that they were marginalized in a reunited and politically correct Germany and feel humiliated.

I think postwar Germany, given what it had just committed, recognized this primacy of humiliation in 1949 by enshrining its positive opposite, dignity, in the first article of Germany’s new constitution:

Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar.

(The dignity of every human being is inviolable.)

Despite this post’s title (which is meant to provoke), the idea is not to suggest that humiliation/dignity should become a new base, with everything else becoming its superstructure. I don’t see, for example, how humiliation (as opposed to technology) could determine the mode of production. And there are plenty of people who don’t feel humiliated but make history nonetheless. So there probably is no single base, and trying to pick one was the real error of Marx and people like him.

But the need for dignity, and the power of humiliation, nonetheless seem basic. Whenever dignity is violated (much more than when property rights are violated, for example) human beings will react. The more humiliated they feel, the stronger their reaction will be. That’s not how all of history is made. But it’s how much of history is made. And because people will always humiliate and feel humiliated, history has no end state.