A book and a movie

April 19, 2010 • 7:29 am

In lieu of any hot evolution news, I want to recommend a book I’ve just read and a movie I’ve just seen.

I’m not a big fan of books about war, but I was mightily impressed with Anthony Beever’s The Fall of Berlin 1945.  The story of the last days of the Reich as the Red Army drove toward Berlin, it’s a masterful tale of battle, politics, and malfeasance.  If you don’t know much about the end of the war, you’ll learn a lot: the Nazis’ use of soldiers as young as 14; the incredible arrogance and obliviousness of Hitler, who still thought the war could still be won as the Russians approached the Brandenburg Gate; the terrible and unnecessary loss of civilians, considered cannon fodder by both the Russians and Germans; the pathos of Josef Goebbels and his wife, unwilling to let their six young children survive, giving them cyanide before shooting themselves. Beevers also describes the numerous rapes committed by Russian soldiers—crimes on a scale I hadn’t realized, and which were covered up by the Soviets during and after the war.  (Beevers also reports on rapes by American soldiers.) I defy you to read this book without becoming more opposed to war in general.  It was so compelling that I’ve started Beevers’ earlier book, Stalingrad: the Fateful Siege 1942-1943.

And this gets my vote for the best movie of 2009 and one of the best of the last few years: An Education. Based on a true story, directed by Lone Scherfig, and with a wonderful screenplay by author Nick Hornby, it’s a coming-of-age drama set in Twickenham, London in 1961.  Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan, is an Oxford-bound 16-year-old whose academic plans are derailed by romance with a man twice her age.  Mulligan’s performance is simply outstanding, and should have won her an Oscar; it’s far better than the winning but over-the-top “I’m-a-heroine”performance of Sandra Bullock in the manipulative Blind Side.  The other actors also turn in superb performances, particularly the “older man,” played by Peter Saarsgard, and Jenny’s parents, played by  Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour.  Emma Thompson, one of my favorites, makes a cameo appearance as Jenny’s headmistress.

Really, this is a don’t-miss film.

45 thoughts on “A book and a movie

  1. Beevor’s book on D-Day, is a highly readable account of the Normandy invasion, and particularly informative on the impact on both civilians and military.

  2. For a movie that ticked absolutely every box for me – I’ve loved Hornby since reading High Fidelity; I’ve loved Scherfig since seing Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself; I’ve loved Mulligan since she starred in the best Doctor Who episode in the new canon; Saarsgard is frequently the best thing in the films he’s in (Garden State and Jarhead spring to mind); I’m a bit of a Molina fanboy and being a Brit and not loving Emma Thompson is tantamount to treason – I was actually pretty underwhelmed by An Education. I suppose that’s what high expectations do for you.

  3. Both of Beevor’s books on Stalingrad and Berlin are brilliant. His book on the Spanish Civil War is very good as well.

    When Stalingrad came out I saw Beevor give a talk about it at the Hay on Wye Book Festival. It was a brilliant talk.

    1. Yeah, I enjoyed his book on Stalingrad and moved onto the Spanish Civil War (enjoyed that one as well). Haven’t got to Berlin or D-Day yet.

  4. “In lieu of any hot evolution news, I want to recommend …”..? I want to recommend the just finished Evolang Utrecht meeting: origins of language. Babels dawn been ‘reporting”.

  5. I’ve had The Fall of Berlin on my bookshelf for a few years now but I haven’t read it yet. I picked it up around the time when my interests began drifting away a bit from history. I really should pick it up…
    I did read Beevor’s book on Stalingrad and it was excellent. I’ve read a couple books on the battle of Stalingrad and Beevor’s was the best.

  6. You would probably enjoy the movie “Downfall” which portrays the events in Hitler’s bunker at the fall of Berlin (based on the account of Hitler’s stenographer).

  7. Several years ago there was a movie titled Untergang (Downfall) also dealing with the same subjects and was very good.

  8. “Beevers also describes the numerous rapes committed by Russian soldiers—crimes on a scale I hadn’t realized, and which were covered up by the Soviets during and after the war.”

    The rapes were notorious among Germans (and featured in Nazi propaganda in the last months of the war) and Western occupation authorities were aware of them. General public knowledge (soon forgotten) of widespread rape by Soviet soldiers goes back at least as far as the publication of ‘The Last Battle’ by Cornelius Ryan (of ‘The Longest Day’ and ‘A Bridge Too Far’ fame) about 45 years ago.

    It would be convenient if we could ascribe everything to a cover-up by someone else, but the lack of public awareness owes more to our own difficulty dealing with rape even today.

    1. Oy, I hadn’t seen that one. Funny! I discovered that there are dozens of takes on this scene. Here’s on of my favorites:

    2. As I said over at Greg Laden’s blog last week, I stopped watching the dubbed Hitler outtakes since only the first 6000 times were funny.

  9. Your book in Finnish television!

    Don’t get your hopes up because it was on Christian television channel called TV7 or Taivas tv (taivas means heaven). I only saw the end of the show called Cafe Raamattu (Bible) but I know that they were talking about WEIT. The host with professor of pedagogics called Tapio Puolimatka went trough all the evidence for evolution and ”debunked” them. The whole show went basically like this: ”Of course God created similar structures to all vertebrates! Hahah, Coyne and other atheist are so stupid! Haeckels embryos are fake. There is no similarities in development of different animals”. Show included quote mining and other basic creationist stuff. ”Luckily” I can watch the whole show when they upload it to their website.

    1. “Of course God created similar structures to all vertebrates! Hahah, Coyne and other atheist are so stupid!’ Shouldnt we qualify first as evolutionary biologists??

      1. It’s sad but we have creationism here too. Compared to other Nordic countries it’s really embarrassing how many people deny evolution in Finland (according to this): http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v169/Greyskye/publicAcceptanceEvolution.jpg

        These episodes are from show called Sytkäri. It’s a show for young Christians.



        When you go to Christian sites for young people like me (i’m just young) and see the polls where they ask ”Onko evoluutioteoria totta?” (is theory of evolution true) you find that only 48% of people say yes. http://www.elossa.fi/node/288/results
        In the comment section you find things like ”blood clotting mechanism can’t evolve” and ”if man came from monkeys then where the monkeys came from”. It’s sad because evolution was the thing that really got me interested in biology. Now I’m trying to get student place in University of Helsinki, Turku or Jyväskylä.

        I’ll send a link when it’s up.
        Here you find a description to the episode: http://www.tv7.fi/nettv/popup.html?soid=13249&date=19.04.2010

        ”Puolimatka on perusteellisesti tutustunut uusateistien viimeisimpään kirjallisuuteen sekä käynyt julkisia debatteja heidän kanssaan suomalaisissa yliopistoissa. Hän vastaa terävästi argumentoiden ajakohtaisimpiin vastaväitteisiin mitä tulee kristillisen uskon ja tieteen suhteeseen.”

        It means: Puolimatka has rigorously explore the newest books of new atheist and debated them in Finnish universities. He answers sharply to the current objections concerning relationship of Christianity and science.

        Here is Puolimatka so you know what to expect: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwAnpcf0P6Q

      2. It’s worse than I thought. They are airing ten episodes where Tapio Puolimatka talks about faith and science.

  10. “Beevers also describes the numerous rapes committed by Russian soldiers—crimes on a scale I hadn’t realized, and which were covered up by the Soviets during and after the war”.
    War is hell, and morality soon goes out the window. The German army (not just the SS) committed atrocities in the Soviet Union, so there was revenge (not excusable though it is) involved.

    1. Indeed. The thing about Nazi Germany is there is simply no plumbing the depth of the evil. The deeper you go, the worse it gets.

      It has only been in relatively recent years that historians (primarily in Germany and in German) have begun to set the record straight on the involvement of the German military (Wehrmacht) as a whole in the Holocaust and other atrocities. After WW2, there was a cover-up of the role of the Wehrmacht orchestrated by Franz Halder (chief of the army general staff 1938 – 42) and other prominent former generals. Halder and other former officers coordinated to assiduously feed American and British historians (particularly American ones working for the US military’s historical units) the line that it was only outright Nazis and the SS that had taken part in the large scale atrocities of the war. They also were quick to put out popular memoirs that told their story, leaving out their roles in atrocities and taking bribes from the regime for their support (as well as laying all the military errors at Hitler’s feet and claiming they’d have won a clear war if left on their own). As the Cold War took hold and West German re-armament was beginning, Halder and friends essentially blackmailed the West into agreeing there’d be no further trials of Wehrmacht officers for crimes during the war if they wanted any former Wehrmacht officers to serve in the newly forming Bundeswehr (and sithout them, they’d have had no officers above lieutenant or so). That cover-up worked, for the most part, for about 40 years until a new generation of German historians started digging into archives and coming up with a picture at odds with the received wisdom. It has caused quite a stir in Germany and among folk brought up after the war on German generals’ memoirs as accounts of the Nazi-Soviet war.

      There is still, so far as I know, no good English account that really describes the campaign, including its effects on civilians, for the period of the German retreat to their own borders (roughly August 1943 to fall 1944). In their withdrawal, the Germans did their utmost to leave behind only scorched earth, stealing what little food and transport was left by then and herding along any military age men and older boys still behind their lines wherever they could. Soviet troops driving the Germans out of their country saw this trail of devastation, piled on top of what had been destroyed by earlier atrocity and incidents of war. Then they came into German territory and saw how much richer the Germans were than they had been and that inflamed things more, with Soviet soldiers incredulous that such rich people could have invaded their land to steal the little they had.

      When you consider that background and how natural it is for people to seek vengeance, the remarkable thing is that most Soviet soldiers did not take part in the rapes and other atrocites. It doesn’t excuse those who either gave in to their desire for revenge or who simply used it as cover for their own evil, but I think that the forebearance of the bulk of Soviet soldiers is deserving of some recognition.

      Folk interested in some of this stuff might check out Wolfram Wette’s ‘The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality’.

      1. I think there was a real difference in the conduct of the war between the eastern and western fronts regarding the treatment of civilians by combatants, and combatants by one another, that may account for the relative obscurity in the West of some of the mass atrocities in the east. War is all hell, but some hells are worse than others, and the dehumanizing of the Russians in Nazi propaganda and practice (in a way that the British were never treated), and concomitant revenge, led to a more horrific situation in the east than the west. German civilians fled to the west, and German soldiers attempted to surrender to British or Americans, for good reasons. I’ve read Beevor’s accounts, but the most dreadful events I’ve read about, in the work of Milovan Djilas, were in the 3- and 4-sided fighting in the Balkans.

        1. The fundamental difference between the war in Eastern and Western Europe was that the Nazis intended to expand Germany proper into the east by exterminating the Jews and Slavs who inhabited it and replacing them with Germans as Germany’s population grew to take advantage of the newly won Lebensraum (hence the Nazis’ extolling of the fertile German wife bearing many children). The British and French, and other western Europeans were not slated for elimination but merely submission to German dominance.

          De-humanization comes easy when you’ve already decided your foe is, at best, an inherently and irredeemably lesser form of human being. That was the case in the east. Anti-semitism, anti-polonism and anti-slavism were long-standing views accepted among the German military (take a look at the extent of territory ceded to Germany by the newly founded Soviet Union in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to get an idea of the German military’s ambitions in the east in WW1). The Nazis layered on the approach of extermination of the peoples of the east where earlier proponents of the drive to the east were usually vague about what would happen to folk already living there.

          There are three reasons why the nature of the war in the east isn’t well understood in the West (at least outside of folk who make a bit of a study of it): (1) parochiality; (2) German attempts to whitewash the role of the Wehrmacht and to obscure the extent of public knowledge of atrocities, including the Holocaust; and (3) the Cold War and Soviet secrecy that combined to make much documentation unavailable to western historians and to sow suspicion of what Soviet historians claimed.

          1. “….think that the forebearance of the bulk of Soviet soldiers is deserving of some recognition…” how do u know this? how does anyone know? you implying there are good rapists vs “evil” rapists?/

            1. ““….think that the forebearance of the bulk of Soviet soldiers is deserving of some recognition…”

              how do u know this? how does anyone know? you implying there are good rapists vs “evil” rapists?/”

              No, that is not what I’m implying at all. I said expressly ” … the remarkable thing is that most Soviet soldiers did not take part in the rapes …”

              Not every Soviet soldier was a rapist. There were at the least hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers who raped women and possibly a million or so, but there were several million Soviet soldiers in Germany over the time when the rapes were occurring and most of them didn’t rape anyone. It is the forebearance of those who did not rape anyone that I think should be noted when you consider the extent of the devastation that they had seen visited upon their land and their people.

              For instance, in just the first 6 months or so of the war, the Germans killed around 1.5 – 2 million Soviet POWs by penning them up and deliberately, as a matter of policy, depriving them of food, water, shelter and sanitation. During that same period as many or more Soviet civilians similarly died as a result of being deprived by the German military of shelter (destroyed) and food (stolen) and transport (stolen). The German army high command planned to live off the land, taking all the food and transport from civilians that it could, and, in its cool calculation, understood that this would cause the deaths by deprivation of millions of Soviet civilians. The German high command positively welcomed these millions of deaths as a beneficial side effect of their living off the land and as a positive contribution to the Nazi’s genocidal goals for Eastern Europe.

  11. I find it a bit surprising that the death of Charles Darwin in April 19 (today)in 1882, hasnt been more prominent in the news. Not that Mr Darwin hasnt gotten attention this past years.

    1. Birthdays of the good guys are celebrated (Washington, Lincoln, and I suppose in Finland, Mannerheim), while death anniversaries of bad guys are noted (Hitler), along with those of good guys who died tragically or heroically (Lincoln, Kennedy, von Stauffenberg). Not noting the anniversary of Darwin’s demise thus seems a de facto endorsement of him as a good guy.

      1. I am not sure about this necrotic hypothesis. Funky taxonomy of good/evil…. What about memorial services?

      2. Memorial services are usually within a few yrs of the death, tho, aren’t they? Probably the most widely-known & ongoing memorial service is the Nobel Prize ceremony, on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. I always thought that was an odd date to pick, but it was specified in his will – maybe he picked it given the topic he was thinking of at the time? (I wonder what they would have done if he’d died on Xmas or some other major event?)

        1. Dont really know about memorials’ turn over rates, but dont forget Easter, one of the oldest memorial. We celebrate memorials for our ancestors evert year.

  12. Coincidentally, I just finished Stalingrad and on the strength of that bought The Fall of Berlin 1945. I haven’t read it yet, but for a harrowing account of war crimes I doubt anything could surpass The Rape of Nanking. The events of this were also overlooked by history and of course denied by the Japanese.

    Imagine unleashing an army of sadistic serial killers onto a country of peasants. I’ve been to the Nanking holocaust memorial where they have nails as thick as a finger that the Japanese had hammered into people instead of using bullets. A pelvic bone on display, presumably female, bears what appears to be a nail hole. It was policy after gang rapes by the Japanese to bayonet the women but they also tortured and mutilated them.

    Some time after reading the book and visiting Nanking, I was at the Peace museum in Hiroshima, and I have to confess I had trouble feeling a lot of sympathy. But I realize in both cases, Nanking and Hiroshima, the majority of victims were innocent people.

    1. This reminds me of a movie that Isaw some years back and enjoyed, Letters From Iwo Jima.
      The Japanese in that movie are the underdog and it is hard not to sympathize with them at some level. But you cannot expect one movie to give a comprehensive account of the battle of Iwo Jima and at the same time narrate the atrocities committed by the Japanese in China, Korea and elsewhere.

    2. ” … The Rape of Nanking. The events of this were also overlooked by history and of course denied by the Japanese.”

      The Rape of Nanking hasn’t been overlooked by history. It was notorious at the time and pretty much no account of the war in Asia and the Pacific fails to mention it.

      As with the rape of German women by Soviet troops at the end of WW2, it’s not a matter of something being missing from history, but of the general public’s lack of attention, in this case to history. There’s no particular reason why the general public will be better educated about history than it is about, oh, say, evolution.

      There’s certainly no question Japan has not fully faced up to what was done in its name. Perpetrators of the Rape of Nanking who died during the war are commemorated as heroes at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo for their sacrifice for the Emperor. Even worse, is that Shinto priests who run the place have enshrined executed war criminals, whose very execution qualifies them as having died in the service of the emperor.

  13. Speaking of war, what of the internal battle every creative person fights. As for a movie and book, consider:

    Movie: Creation (2009) about Darwin’s struggle with Origin of Species, his family and society. Thought provoking.

    Book: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen (2006) which examines Darwin’s life in time lapse chapters which overlap so the author can focus on specific situations. Interesting speculation on why he set Origins aside for fifteen years to study barnacles instead of completing Origins.

  14. I haven’t seen the movie yet, and it does look enjoyable from the trailers, but I just have to ask: has anyone actually ever met a 16 year old girl like this?

    There’s a reason the actress is 25. Sure we all like to romance youth, but lately I just can’t get past the fact that teenagers in real life are actually teenagers. My girl friends at that age were (and still are) exceptionally bright people, but none of them even remotely resembled a 20-something year old in terms of personality.

    Of course, it’s a small sample. I’d like to hear what other people think.

    1. The 16 year old girls I know would consider a 30 year old bloke as a sad old git. Although an 18 year old who was actually 300 years old because he was a vampire would be really cool.

  15. Minor Correction:

    The author of The Fall of Berlin is named Anthony Beevor, not Beever. I spent the afternoon browsing the book at Borders. It looks like a great read indeed, with a tremendous amount of fascinating details from WWII, including many private meetings involving Hitler, Himmler, Goring, Speer, and Goebbels during the last days of Berlin’s fall.

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