Madness And Wisdom: How Dickens Might See Our Fraught Times

The world faces a set of challenges not unlike the tumultuous​ times depicted in the classic British novel A Tale of Two Cities.

Reflections in the water, Singapore
Reflections in the water, Singapore
Charles-Édouard Bouée*


PARIS — Not all human societies follow the rhythms or same life paths. This is the painful observation Charles Dickens made in his 19th-century novel A Tale of Two Cities, which tells the story of a family caught between Paris and London and torn apart by the events of the French Revolution.

His novel, although historical, still speaks to us because it is about a phenomenon we recognize to this day: the issue of divergence. It touches on the political divergence between two countries, however close they may be, but also highlights the technological divergence of an England in the midst of an industrial revolution launched at full speed, and a France, in the meantime, plunged into terror.

Between the two is the distress of those seeking a middle way, who refuse to choose between social progress, political freedom and economic progress. People who have the impression that the epoch they're living through is "the best of times and the worst of times, the century of madness and the century of wisdom," as the book's opening lines famously read.

The serial "Tale of Two Cities," 1859 — Illustration: Hablot Knight Browne/Wikimedia Commons

And in today's world? Who represents Paris and who represents London? There are several possible answers to this question, as the world plunges further and further into divergence between political leaders who don't even know if they're democrats or not, and between the giant tech companies and consumer citizens who grow increasingly worried and suspicious.

To continue benefiting humanity, technology — which is more powerful now than ever — must subject itself to a set of shared standards, particularly with regards to algorithms​. Just how intelligent should they be? What norms should they adhere to? What can they do and what can't they do? These questions are crucial, and they're being asked every time a technological advance transforms how we go about our business.

This is the case we find ourselves in today with artificial intelligence. Technology can be a tool of great convergence, of bringing together our practices and vision of the world. Today, wedged between the two technological giants of China and the United States, Europe knows this better than anyone. And those who don't want to choose between social progress, political liberty and economic development must do so urgently.

*The author is French business executive and former CEO of the German consulting firm Roland Berger.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!