Adam Kirsch is the Director of the master’s program in Jewish Studies at Columbia. His new book of poetry is Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander.
 (January 2016)

The World Turned Upside Down

A propaganda newsreel for the Greater Nazi Reich in the first episode of <i>The Man in the High Castle</i>
In October, The New York Times Magazine presented its readers with an unexpected question: “Could You Kill a Baby Hitler?” The response to the online poll was closely divided, with 42 percent of respondents saying they would indeed take the opportunity to kill Hitler when he was a baby, if …

The Strange Paradise of Paul Scheerbart

In general, to predict that technology will solve all the problems it has caused—that we can innovate ourselves out of global warming, for instance—today seems childishly, intolerably optimistic. It is exactly that kind of unfashionable, childlike hopefulness that animates the writing of Paul Scheerbart, a German writer whose name is only now becoming familiar to English readers, a hundred years after his death.

The Changing Faith of a Hero

Dietrich Bonhoeffer at an ecumenical conference, Gland, Switzerland, August 1932
One night in the fall of 1930, when he was twenty-four years old, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to a Manhattan movie theater to see the new film of All Quiet on the Western Front. Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian who was spending the academic year at Union Theological Seminary, was accompanied …

The Ironic Wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr, 1956
This selection of Reinhold Niebuhr’s work, edited by his daughter Elisabeth Sifton, is the 263rd volume in the Library of America; and it is possible that the single sentence that appears on page 705 is known to more people, and has affected them more deeply, than anything else the library …

Is Reason Enough?

Rembrandt: <i>The Sacrifice of Isaac</i>, 1635
So far, one of the chief lessons the twenty-first century has taught us is that you can’t deduce anything from what century it is. President Obama likes to denounce Vladimir Putin’s power politics in Ukraine as belonging to the nineteenth century, but Putin seems to have no problem conducting a …

A Widow with Her Sons, 1921

after a photograph by August Sander A boy no older than the Armistice Can’t say for certain if there was a time When he was not among the fatherless Who make up half his neighborhood; to him A mother’s someone always dressed in black, Whose …

The Redemption of Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin, Paris, 1938
Walter Benjamin entered the English language the wrong way around: he was a myth before he ever had the chance to be a fact. When the first American collection of his essays was published—Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, in 1968—he had been dead for almost three decades. Only a few …

To the Land of the Dead

David Grossman, Amsterdam, mid-1990s
“I once thought of teaching my son a private language,” writes Yair to Miriam, a woman he barely knows but engages in a passionate correspondence, in David Grossman’s Be My Knife. Isolating him from the speaking world on purpose, lying to him from the moment of his birth, so he …

The Philandering Professor

Robert Stone, Saint-Malo, France, 2004
Novels about middle-aged male college professors brought low by love affairs with their female students are so numerous, by now, as to constitute a genre of their own. That there can be an erotic dimension to the teacher–student relationship is not exactly news—just look at Socrates and Alcibiades; and that …

‘One Abraham or Three?’

Caravaggio: <i>The Sacrifice of Isaac</i>, circa 1603–1604
The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis are an almost unrelieved chronicle of human evil, corruption, and malice. The first human beings, Adam and Eve, are given a single commandment by God, not to eat of the tree of knowledge; but they listen to the serpent, transgress God’s …

The New World of William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams at his house in Rutherford, New Jersey, 1954
If you look at the lingua franca of American poetry today—a colloquial free verse focused on visual description and meaningful anecdote—it seems clear that William Carlos Williams is the twentieth-century poet who has done most to influence our very conception of what poetry should do, and how much it does not need to do. Why is it, then, that almost fifty years after his death, the reputation of Williams still seems to be haunted by a ghost of uncertainty?

The Brothers Mann—and Nelly

Thomas and Heinrich Mann, New York City, 1940
Few writers have ever revealed themselves as daringly and completely as Thomas Mann; and from the very beginning, one of the things he felt it most urgent to reveal was his obsessive sense of fraternal rivalry. In Buddenbrooks, the family epic that made Mann famous in his mid-twenties, we meet …

The Darkest Comedian

Thomas Bernhard, Cafe Bazar, Salzburg, 1963
When Thomas Bernhard died, in 1989, he left a will forbidding any publication or performance of his work in his native Austria. The will, like so many of Bernhard’s writings before it, provoked a huge controversy among his countrymen, confirming the novelist and playwright as a brilliant stage manager of …

Germany: The Poet After the Fall

Durs Grünbein, Cologne, 2001
During the last few years, Durs Grünbein has emerged as the contemporary German poet whose name is most likely to be recognized by American readers. Born in Dresden, in the German Democratic Republic, in 1962, Grünbein won the Georg Büchner Prize—Germany’s most prestigious literary award—at the age of thirty-three. Since …

Can We Judge General von Hammerstein?

Helene Bechstein, Adolf Hitler, and Kurt von Hammerstein at the funeral of Edwin Bech-stein, 1934. Bechstein, whose family firm made pianos, and his wife were early and generous supporters of Hitler in the 1920s. According to Hans Magnus Enzensberger in <i>The Silences of Hammerstein</i>, ‘This is the only photo in which Hammerstein is to be seen in the company of Hitler.’
Even a reader with some knowledge of the history of modern Germany might well draw a blank at the name of Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, the man at the center of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s unusual and fascinating new book. From 1930 to 1934, Hammerstein was Chief of Army Command, the highest-ranking …

The Supreme Aristocrat on Trial

‘Edward Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby’; engraving by D.J. Pound, 1861
The family name and title of Edward Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby, both enjoy a certain renown today. But as the title of Angus Hawkins’s new biography suggests, that is not because of the achievements, significant as they were, of the 14th Earl. Even though he served three times …

Poets Haunted by Poets

There has been no shortage of speculation about what the rise of the Internet will do to change our habits of reading and research. If every book ever published will be at our virtual fingertips, thanks to Google and more specialized search tools, will it become unnecessary to maintain libraries, …

He Kept Marx Going

Friedrich Engels with Karl Marx and his daughters Laura, Eleanor and Jenny, 1864
The traffic of pilgrims to the grave of Karl Marx, in London’s Highgate Cemetery, may not be as large as it once was. But at least the grave still exists, presided over by the enormous black bust erected by the British Communist Party in the 1950s, after so many statues …

The Wittgenstein Illusion

The Wittgenstein family in Vienna, summer 1917. From left, siblings Kurt, Paul, and Hermine Wittgenstein; their brother-in-law, Max Salzer; their mother, Leopoldine Wittgenstein; Helene Wittgenstein Salzer; and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
We are inclined to think that there must be something in common to all games, say, and that this common property is the justification for applying the general term “game” to the various games; whereas games form a family the members of which have family likenesses. Some of them have …

On the Edge

An undated cartoon from the German satirical magazine <i>Der wahre Jacob</i>, in which Kaiser Wilhelm II’s close friend Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg arrives at Liebenberg, his country estate, while his servants extend their rears. Eulenburg had been accused of homosexuality by a journalist who called him ‘the Harpist.’
In his poem “MCMXIV,” Philip Larkin looks back with pity and some astonishment at the England that greeted World War I, “Grinning as if it were all/An August Bank Holiday lark.” Every trivial detail of the year 1914, described as if it came from an album of old photographs—the hats, …

The Torch of Karl Kraus

When the eighteen-year-old Elias Canetti first came to Vienna in 1924, nothing more plainly marked him as a provincial than the fact that he had never heard of Karl Kraus. For a quarter-century, Kraus had been publishing Die Fackel (The Torch), a magazine that relentlessly exposed the crimes, lies, and …