It is set in central Europe during the 20th century and examines a vast array of characters, ranging from generals to martyrs, officers to poets, traitors to artists and musicians. It deals with the moral decisions made by people in the most testing of times and offers a perspective on human actions during wartime. Vollmann makes use of many historical figures as characters including composer Dmitri Shostakovich, artist Käthe Kollwitz, film director Roman Karmen, poet Anna Akhmatova, SS officer Kurt Gerstein, as well as German general Friedrich Paulus and Soviet general Andrey Vlasov.
In an afterword, Vollmann admits that, while the book is heavily researched and mostly features real people, the work should be regarded as fiction. He calls it "a series of parables about famous, infamous and anonymous European moral actors at moments of decision." Though largely true to history, a number of anecdotes or details are created by the author, such as the "imaginary love triangle" between Shostakovich, Roman Karmen, and Elena Konstantinovskaya.
Elements of unity for Western and Central Europe were Roman Catholicism and Latin. Eastern Europe, which remained Eastern Orthodox Christian, was the area of Byzantine cultural influence; after the schism (1054), it developed cultural unity and resistance to the Western world (Catholic and Protestant) within the framework of Slavonic language and the Cyrillic alphabet.
The primary function of a central bank is to control the nation's money supply (monetary policy), through active duties such as managing interest rates, setting the reserve requirement, and acting as a lender of last resort to the banking sector during times of bank insolvency or financial crisis. Central banks usually also have supervisory powers, intended to prevent bank runs and to reduce the risk that commercial banks and other financial institutions engage in reckless or fraudulent behavior. Central banks in most developed nations are institutionally designed to be independent from political interference. Still, limited control by the executive and legislative bodies usually exists.