The Holocaust in the streets, one brass plate at a time


Above you see several so-called Stolpersteine — “stumbling stones” — in a sidewalk near my place in Berlin. The flowers and candles are from a neighbor, who regularly looks after the many, many stones in our street. Each one commemorates one victim of National Socialism who lived at the address where the stone is placed.

The Stolpersteine were among the first things I noticed when I moved to Berlin last year. There are about 40,000 of them now, all over Germany and in much of Europe. Every week many more are laid. No governments are involved. All this is a private art project, conceived by an intriguing artist, Gunter Demnig.

One of those now sponsoring such a stone is a friend of mine, Menasheh Fogel, a Jewish American living in Berlin. I tell Menasheh’s story, and a few of the many stories of the people he met, of the victims he learned about, of the artist behind the project, in the current issue of Intelligent Life, a sister publication of The Economist. You would make me happy by reading it.

I will let the piece speak for itself. But I just want to add two strands of thought here:

  1. one about the different style and voice of this piece, compared to my usual fare in The Economist, and 
  2. one about Germany’s style of remembrance generally.

My style in this piece

Way back in 2008, I mused here on this blog about the pros and cons of writing in the first person (which is completely banned at The Economist, but encouraged at Intelligent Life). I also told you about my efforts to find my own natural voice, because I was, of course, writing my book at the time, and was using this blog in part to loosen myself up after writing in my Economist voice during the day.

Well, writing this story transported me back to all that. It necessitated a completely different voice, and I discovered that I loved finding it. I wrote a first draft that was quite good and sent it off.


Then I had a great chat with the editor, Samantha Weinberg, who told me to “feature it up”. For example, she asked, again and again, for more quote. At The Economist we don’t quote much, and when we do, we use just the choicest bits of a quote, perhaps a single word, for maximum efficiency. But Samantha wanted everything. “Even the uhs and ers, the wrong syntax and dead ends?”, I asked. “Especially the uhs and ers and the wrong syntax,” she said. I went back to my notes and put all of it, or most of it, in. And lo, the piece was better.

And I put a bit of myself in, in the first person. Discreetly and sparingly, though. And lo, it was better again. (But more of me, and it would have started getting worse.)

I loved this process. For those among you who are editors, there are also lessons for you in Samantha’s style: she didn’t fiddle with my words; she just helped me to understand what changes were necessary. (Thanks, Samantha.)

The German style of remembrance

Yes, there is such a thing as a “German” style of remembrance, as I have concluded since moving back to this country last year.

It is to remember everywhere and all the time, never taking a break, never looking the other way but always at what happened before, and integrating all of it into a new present.

If you ever get the chance, for example, walk through the Bundestag in Berlin, in the old Reichstag building. A British architect, Sir Norman Foster, rebuilt it. As a signal and symbol of the new German political culture, he made it physically transparent on the inside (and it really is, as much as any large building can be). The entire edifice invites all those in it to remember and reflect, every day and all the time. For example, members of parliament, like journalists such as myself, walk every day past walls such as these:


You see the bullet hole? You see the graffiti? It’s the scrawlings of the young Russian soldiers after they took the building in 1945. Things like “Vladislav was here” and “Fuck all Germans”. The graffiti and bullet holes were not merely kept; they are emphasized.

(One of the staff at the Bundestag is working on a book about these graffiti. She’s found some of the — now old — Russians who wrote them, and they have amazing stories to tell.)

In the weeks since finishing my piece in Intelligent Life, I’ve got deeper into the subject. (This often happens to writers.) And I’m thinking of getting even deeper into it yet.

For example, I met up with Petra Merkel, a member of parliament, the lady in red in the picture below.

(Yes, Germany’s Bundestag has two Mrs Merkel, one named Angela and one named Petra. Both once married and divorced (different) Mr Merkels, but kept their name. Both are wonderfully down-to-earth. Petra says she occasionally gets mail for Angela by mistake. She enjoys being on the parliamentary committee that oversees the federal budget, proposed by the government the other Merkel heads, since “Merkel is watching Merkel.”)


Well, Mrs Merkel also sponsored a Stolperstein. And then she brought over the descendants of the victim, Paula Dienstag, from Israel to Berlin. In front of Mrs Merkel on the right is Yuval Doron, Mrs Dienstag’s grandson. Next to him are his two sons.

And that’s the other thing about remembrance done right: It never separates human beings, it always connects.

The throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia

My employer, The Economist, is 170 years old. Another British publication, the Financial Times, turned 125 today.

It turns out that we are

  1. loosely affiliated in some complicated corporate way and
  2. very dearly affiliated in a personal way, because I, for instance, share an office space with them in Berlin.

By pure coincidence, their Berlin Bureau Chief, Quentin Peel, has exactly the same deep, sophisticated British voice and accent that one of our editors in London (Xan Smiley, if you must know) has, so I keep doing double takes whenever Quentin is on the phone, expecting Xan to come waltzing in. I digress.

The first of my points, if this post has any, is that the FT is a spring chicken by our standards. I mean, we were friggin’ middle-aged when they were born. But what’s a half-century or so among friends?

The second point is that it can be strangely revealing to go back in time to what journalism back then was like. And so I indulged myself during my coffee break today by reading their first front page, the one from February 13, 1888.

As was the custom at the time, the articles were listed (no pictures, it goes without saying) in unadorned columns. And so my eyes alit, after the headline on “Russia and Finance” and before the one on “Speculation in Copper,” on an article that began as follows:

The Crown Prince

What is to be the result of the very serious operation which has been performed on the throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia? This is not a mere question of ordinary politics, but one which vitally affects the peace and prosperity of Europe. It is not merely that the Crown Prince is the son of our ally, the Emperor of Germany, and the husband of England’s eldest daughter, but he is a Prince of pacific tendencies, though not less a soldier than the rest of the Brandenburgers. The operation only took ten minutes to perform…..

For those among you who are, or are related to, hacks, let’s just savor such themes as:

  • lede
  • context and history
  • grammar (=> passive tense, hyperbole, …)
  • presentation

Is this not a gem? Happy birthday, FT.


PS: As far as I can discern, the Crown Prince (never named in the article) is Frederick III, and “England’s eldest daughter” is Victoria Adelaide Mary Lousia.

Frederick III Vicky

Getting ready for the paperback

Even as reviews are still dribbling out — such as this one from South Africa — my publisher is preparing to launch Hannibal and Me in paperback.

I got an email with the two cover-jacket designs above that they’re choosing between. All that takes me back a year or so, when I first saw the hardcover jacket.

Your aesthetic opinions are welcome, as ever.

Ordinary words → extraordinary thoughts

One of my favorite quotes is by Arthur Schopenhauer. In German:

Man gebrauche gewöhnliche Worte und sage ungewöhnliche Dinge.

That could be translated several ways:

Take common words and say uncommon things.


One should take usual words and say unusual things.


Use ordinary words and say extraordinary things.

Doesn’t this say it all, for us writers and storytellers?


PS: This could become a motto for The Hannibal Blog, especially in conjunction with Walt Whitman’s quote and Albert Einstein’s quote:

  1. Whitman gives us license to let our intellect roam freely without fear of the (inevitable) contradictions we bump into along the way;
  2. Einstein reminds us to search for the simplicity hiding beneath all that bewildering complexity, (as Alexander the Great and Carl Friedrich Gauss do, too);
  3. Schopenhauer reminds us to express what we found on Whitman’s journey with words of Einsteinian simplicity.

PPS: Schopenhauer is famous but not widely read anymore. I once had a little Schopenhauer phase. And since I did the work, you shouldn’t have to: All Schopenhauer did was to translate what we would consider Buddhism or Upanishadic Hinduism into German. So now you, too, know Schopenhauer.

PPPS: I can’t help but wonder what feedback my own publisher would have given Schopenhauer apropos of … his author photo!

The evolution of my author photo

As part of readying my book for its launch on January 5th, my publisher asked me for an author photo for the inside flap of the jacket’s backside.

The resulting email exchange (which has been edifying and hilarious but must remain private, at least until publication) made me reflect on some larger issues:

  • identity,
  • image,
  • authenticity,
  • message,
  • style etc.

In meditating on these, it helps that the stakes are low — very, very low.

Suffice it to say that my publisher made us go three rounds (“us” = my wife, who took the photos, and me).

I will show you all three, but in no particular order. And I won’t say (yet) which one the publisher chose. (Yes, it’s the publisher, not I, who did the choosing.)

And then, at the bottom of this post, you get to vote. And if you’re so inclined, you can comment more fully below.


Now vote:

Declaration of bad writing

When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one Writer to parody the Words which are written by most others, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle him, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that he should produce a representative Sample of the Words which impel him to the Mocking. He holds these Truths to be self-evident:

  • that what follows is bad writing indeed and will make you cringe or smirk,
  • that it is bad not in an egregious (and thus unrepresentative) way but in a small, ordinary, quotidian, commonplace (ie, representative ) way,
  • that it serves as partial proof to the thesis advanced in the previous post about Writing with Fear (although the role of fear as the cause deserves to be developed in a later post).

I) The run-of-the-mill press release/PR email

Below I reproduce, the first PR email I saw in my inbox this morning. It is chosen for being the day’s first, not for being the day’s worst.

Hi, Andreas –

I’m reaching out with a new executive leadership announcement from [COMPANY]. [COMPANY] is continuing its expansion into the [OMITTED] sector with the addition of several new members to its key management team. … [COMPANY] announced today that it has added several key members to its senior management team. …


  1. For heaven’s sake, stop “reaching out” already. You can ask me, remind me, alert me, tell me, or you can simply … tell me without telling me that you will tell me, but keep your hands to yourself. Reaching out is in 2011 what proactive leveraging was circa 1995. (My colleague on The Economist’s language blog has covered this adequately.)
  2. How is “continuing an expansion” different from “expanding”?
  3. Since you mention the company’s “key management team”, please clarify which management team(s) is (are) non-key.
  4. Thanks for repeating the phrase, thus adding depth. I notice that the “key members” are now being added to the “senior management team”. Are they key but junior? Or key and senior? Are any of the senior ones non-key?

II) Examples chosen by Johnny

The subsequent examples are taken from our Style Guide, which is written by Johnny Grimmond, who has long been both a key and a senior editor of The Economist.

(Johnny has made three other explicit appearances here on The Hannibal Blog — when he clarified like vs as, when he decried bad editing as ‘desophistication’,  and when he busted me for using “co-equal” — and one veiled appearance, when he was just being British as an after-dinner speaker.)


1) Pompous blather

From the Style Guide’s entry for Community (a concept to which I also devoted a post):

If further warning is needed, remember that community is one of those words that tend to crop up in the company of the meaningless jargon and vacuous expressions beloved of bombastic bureaucrats. Here is John Negroponte, appearing before the American Senate:

“Teamwork will remain my north star as director of national intelligence–not just for my immediate office but for the entire intelligence community. My objective will be to foster proactive co-operation among the 15 IC elements and thereby optimise this nation’s extraordinary human and technical resources in collecting and analysing intelligence. We can only make the United States more secure if we approach intelligence reform as value-added, not zero-sum….”

This short passage might be the motherlode of bad expression (“foster”, “proactive”, “optimise”, “resources”, “value-added”, “zero-sum”,…). And yet it is actually ordinary enough still to be representative.

Here is another example, this one from the entry for Jargon:

The appointee … should have a proven track record of operating at a senior level within a multi-site international business, preferably within a service- or brand-oriented environment…

Johnny seems to have found this in a job advertisement by … The Economist Group! I’m guessing that gave him a frisson.

Next example:

At a national level, the department engaged stakeholders positively … This helped… to improve stakeholder buy-in to agreed changes…

This phrase came out of a report from the British civil service.

In the next passage, an esteemed think tank, Chatham House, explained that

The City Safe T3 Resilience Project is a cross-sector initiative bringing together experts … to enable multi-tier practitioner-oriented collaboration on resilience and counter-terrorism challenges and opportunities.

In the next passage, some British policy maker tried to say that teachers who agree to test their students will get money from the government. Here is how:

The grants will incentivise administrators and educators to apply relevant metrics to assess achievement in the competencies they seek to develop.

Try to guess what this phrase was supposed to express:

A multi-agency project catering for holistic diversionary provision to young people for positive action linked to the community safety strategy and the pupil referral unit.

Answer: Go-karting lessons sponsored by the Luton Educational Authority (London).

2) Political correctness

Political correctness has it own entry in our Style Guide, but I will instead quote from the entry for Euphemisms, because I think Johnny just says it all here:

Avoid, where possible, euphemisms and circumlocutions, especially those promoted by interest groups keen to please their clients or organisations anxious to avoid embarrassment. This does not mean that good writers should be insensitive of giving offence: on the contrary, if you are to be persuasive, you would do well to be courteous. But a good writer owes something to plain speech, the English language and the truth, as well as to manners. Political correctness can go.

Female teenagers are girls, not women. Living with mobility impairment probably means wheelchair-bound. Developing countries are often stagnating or even regressing (try poor) countries. The underprivileged may be disadvantaged, but are more likely just poor (the very concept of underprivilege is absurd, since it implies that some people receive less than their fair share of something that is by definition an advantage or prerogative). Enron’s document-management policy simply meant shredding. The Pentagon’s enhanced interrogation is torture …

My opinion about my opinion

Debate in progress

A while ago, I had a little email exchange with one of my editors in London (The Economist’s HQ). I had written an article and the question was whether or not I should also write a Leader (ie, an editorial). In other words, should The Economist, through my words, opine, and how exactly?

The editor wrote to me:

I was very intrigued by the idea, and there was a lot of interest in the meeting. The problem is the prescription. I think you’re inclined to [subject omitted]; but I’m not inclined to go as far as that….

As you see, I excised the actual topic of discussion, because it is utterly irrelevant to my point here. Here is what I replied:

I’ve actually (as usual) got no clear “prescriptions” in my mind at all. I just made up some stuff to pitch a Leader outline to you. I’m always surprised by how interested we at The Economist are in our own opinions. Personally, I’m 99% interested in understanding the problem, and quite flexible in the other 1%…

Because the editor and I know each other well, I knew my cavalier tone would not be misunderstood. (In the end, there was no space in that week for that Leader anyway.) But then I realized that my point was perhaps more fundamental. How so?

The searcher and the preacher as archetype

You know you’re in trouble when somebody begins a monologue with “There are two kinds of people…”. But we might indeed stipulate that, yes, there are two kinds of people: searchers and preachers. You might even consider them Jungian archetypes (about which we haven’t talked for a while).

The preacher:

  • This sort really, really cares what he or she believes (rather than knows).
  • It matters to him what his opinion is, and also what your opinion is. That is because, to preachers, individuals are defined by their opinions.
  • Whether the opinions are based on good information or bad, whether they conform to reality or not, whether they acknowledge or exclude good alternatives — all this is by no means irrelevant, but of at best minor interest to a preacher.

The searcher:

  • He might or might not be interested in his own opinions, because he is forever in the process of forming one. This process (essentially one of learning) is much more interesting than any opinion that might temporarily emerge from it.
  • The searcher is also, as Walt Whitman might say, aware of the internal contradictions in any given opinion and quite intrigued by them, in an almost flirtatious way.
  • Much more important is the search for good information and the discrimination against bad, and a proper understanding of all conceivable alternative views.
  • If the preacher secretly hopes to achieve consensus on a single “story”, the searcher always hopes that all “other stories” keep circulating simultaneously. (As in: the Single versus the Other Story.)

And yes, of course, we’re all a bit of both, but in different proportions. Personally, for once, I’m not that confused about what I am: a searcher.

Which is to say: I have lots of opinions, but the opinion I’m proudest of is my opinion about my opinions. Generally, I’m quite suspicious of them. I interrogate them, and they answer back. Fascinating conversations.

Quite a few of us at The Economist are, individually, searchers. And yet, The Economist itself, as a whole, is clearly in the preacher camp. An interesting point to ponder.

The smiley face in the margin

To my delight, after another long radio silence since Riverhead officially accepted my manuscript as finished, I just heard from my copy editor. I don’t yet know who that is, although I intend to find out.

I now have a fancy new Word file that contains the entire manuscript, with all the proper formatting. Our only remaining job now is to tidy up typos and such. We’re approaching the very end, in other words.

So it is wonderful, thrilling, relieving to find that this copy editor, whoever he or she is, is a language lover as I am.

Have a look at the little screen shot above.

Did you catch it?

Three friends (Paul Cezanne, Emile Zola and Baptistin Baille) were reading poetry and the classics

to each other.

Well, no, they couldn’t have been doing that. Since there were three of them, they were reading poetry and the classics

to one another.

That’s what I want in a copy editor. Whoever you are, you get that smiley face from me (“Author”) in the margin above. And once I find you, I’ll say Thank You properly.

Steve Jobs as seen through his nemesis


(Credit: Matt Yohe)


As some of you know, I am fascinated by the complex character of Steve Jobs, who is one of the people featured in my forthcoming book (though not at all in his usual context).

So I enjoyed reading this interview with John Sculley, Jobs’ erstwhile nemesis (when Sculley pushed Jobs out of Apple in the 80s).


The interview may be too geeky for some of you, but I like it, first, because of the noble tone in which Sculley speaks. He is not bitter; he does no underhand sniping; he does not furtively try to redeem himself or get even. Sculley simply moves on from what was an extremely painful episode in the two men’s lives to evaluate — and bow to — the genius of his enemy.

(Steve Jobs, from everything I hear, has never got himself to take that same step.)

Sculley speaks, in other words, as Hannibal would speak about Scipio, or Scipio about Hannibal. Great men and women are ennobled by their enemies. Kudos.


Second, I like the interview for this glimpse into the nature of Jobs’ genius. Sculley:

What makes Steve’s methodology different from everyone else’s is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do – but the things that you decide not to do. He’s a minimalist… He is constantly reducing things to their simplest level. It’s not simplistic. It’s simplified. Steve is a systems designer. He simplifies complexity.

Simplicity is, of course, a big thread here on The Hannibal Blog. It is interesting that Jobs also admires Einstein, as I do (he is another main character in my book), probably because Einstein had that same yearning for elegance and simplicity. As Sculley recalls:

I remember going into Steve’s house and he had almost no furniture in it. He just had a picture of Einstein, whom he admired greatly, and he had a Tiffany lamp and a chair and a bed. He just didn’t believe in having lots of things around but he was incredibly careful in what he selected.

(Compare this to Feng Shui.)


Third, I like it for what I interpret as Steve Jobs’ instinctive nod to the Dunbar hypothesis.

Named after the anthropologist who came up with it, the thesis says that primates can form effective social groups only to the extent that their neocortex can compute the interactions among the group. The cognitive limit for human groups seems to be about 150. (I once worked with Facebook to find out whether technology might change that. Not hugely, it appears.)

Anyway, listen to Sculley:

Steve had a rule that there could never be more than one hundred people on the Mac team. So if you wanted to add someone you had to take someone out. And the thinking was a typical Steve Jobs observation: “I can’t remember more than a hundred first names so I only want to be around people that I know personally. So if it gets bigger than a hundred people, it will force us to go to a different organization structure where I can’t work that way.”

The trouble with writing, continued

Cunningham (Credit: David Shankbone)

I quite like what Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, had to say in The New York Times on Sunday about writing.

All writing is in effect translation, he opined, whether literally (as when a text is translated into a foreign language) or metaphorically, as when the writer attempts to translate his vision into actual words on a page. The vision is always perfect and large and elegant. The translation is necessarily just a shadow of the vision (like the shadows in Plato’s famous cave).

Writing as automatic frustration

This makes writing a gut-wrenching activity. As Cunningham says,

You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire. But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire. It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work…

A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion….

The importance of authority (ie, voice)

With authority (Credit: Jenny Mealing)

Cunningham also gets into a topic I’ve called voice on this blog. He calls it

that most fundamental but elusive of all writerly qualities: authority. As writers we must, from our very opening sentence, speak with authority to our readers. It’s a little like waltzing with a new partner for the first time. Anyone who is able to waltz, or fox-trot, or tango, or perform any sort of dance that requires physical contact with a responsive partner, knows that there is a first moment, on the dance floor, when you assess, automatically, whether the new partner in question can dance at all — and if he or she can in fact dance, how well. You know almost instantly whether you have a novice on your hands, and that if you do, you’ll have to do a fair amount of work just to keep things moving. Authority is a rather mysterious quality, and it’s almost impossible to parse it for its components…

The relationship with readers

This is another topic I’ve pondered here before (most recently when I decided to “shrink” this blog). What exactly is the ideal, and the actual, relationship between a writer and his readers?

Young writers like to say (pretend?) that they are “writing for themselves”. Cunningham answers:

I tell them that I understand — that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers… I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and … we, as readers, are busy. We have large and difficult lives. We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see; we need to keep up with current events; we have gophers in our gardens; we are taking extension courses in French or wine tasting or art appreciation; we are looking for evidence that our lovers are cheating on us; we are wondering why in the world we agreed to have 40 people over on Saturday night; we are worried about money and global warming; we are TiVo-ing five or six of our favorite TV shows. What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this. Stop what you’re doing and read this. It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.

“Helen” and the closing tube doors

Quite a while ago, I told you about a mental habit I use to overcome writer’s block and return to my natural voice. I call it the “closing-tube-door-method“.

Cunningham seems to have a version of it, too. In his case, he pictures an actual reader he knows named Helen on the other side of (to use my method) the closing tube doors:

I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. … Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal.

Phaedrus, again

And Cunningham seems to have rediscovered the fundamental flaw in the written word per sethe same flaw that Socrates first pointed out to Phaedrus.

One of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is that no two readers ever read the same book. We will all feel differently about a movie or a play or a painting or a song, but we have all undeniably seen or heard the same movie, play, painting or song. They are physical entities. … WRITING, however, does not exist without an active, consenting reader. Writing requires a different level of participation. Words on paper are abstractions, and everyone who reads words on paper brings to them a different set of associations and images….

Socrates concluded that it was better to talk, and refused to write a single word. His student Plato decided to write anyway. So has every writer since, down to Cunningham and you and me.