Do any of you remember the time when everything took place on the terraces and in outdoor cafés? Before everyone retreated into laptops and mobile telephones and Twitter? When the streets thrummed with possibility and the potential for new encounters was everywhere? Well, that’s all gone now, thanks to some pretty ugly-looking fellows with names such as Dorsey and Zuckerberg. But we’re the ones who adopted their useless inventions and live by them as if they were the Sermon on the Mount. The social consequences have been devastating — the young make noises instead of articulating speech — and had Cassandra been around 20 or so years ago she would have warned us against the tech companies that have the power to change our way of life.
Never mind. What’s done is done, and there are always books to remind us what the world was like before lookers such as Bezos took over. My friend Leopold Bismarck is always slipping me books that make me want to shoot anyone, everyone, from Silicon Valley. He even found one about Hemingway that I hadn’t read, which was like discovering the beautiful daughter of a farmer while looking for a needle in a haystack. Bolle’s latest gift is a book-diary written by his cousin, Hans-Georg von Studnitz, a diplomat who survived horrific bombings in Berlin — both his country seat and city house were totally destroyed — as he chronicles the key events of the war from 1943 to the end. What emerges in the diaries is the terrible devastation and loss of life as a result of the Allied bombing, but also the dignity of Berliners in the face of disaster. But what really makes his opus sparkle is its portrait of the upper-class set he (Studnitz), as a nobleman, frequented, and of a particularly glamorous Polish evening involving Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law and the Italian foreign minister.