Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern

Fritz Stern was born in what was then Breslau, Germany, grandson of Jews who converted to Christianity, son and grandson of physicians and researchers, at a time when medicine was truly becoming a science and Germany was leading the way. His godfather and namesake was Fritz Haber, who discovered how to fix atmospheric nitrogen, won a Nobel, led research into poinson gas as a weapon, and died shortly after his forced emigration from Germany.

Stern emigrated with his family to the United States in late 1938, in the proverbial nick of time. He rejected Einstein’s advice to stay in the family business of medicine and became a distinguished historian of Germany and Europe. Along the way, he also became an active participant in transatlantic relations, always retaining his liberal perspective.

The book begins with background on Breslau, the emancipation of Jews in the 19th century, industrialization, science and what all of these meant for his immediate ancestors. The five Germanys he has known are Weimar, the Third Reich, the Federal Republic, the GDR and the post-unification Federal Republic. He tells his stories vividly, mixing a historian’s detachment with a memoirist’s recollection and commitment.

My academic background is in political science and German history, so this is a bit of intellectual homecoming. I know the territoriy well, and the charm is in the details and the composition of the portraits. Stern is, in fact, something like an academic great-uncle. I’ve never met him, but the closer he got to the present, the more names he mentioned that I either knew, or knew at one remove.

The sixth Germany — the one his parents and grandparents lived in — is the one that I learned the most about. The turn to modernity is fascinating, and seeing how it happened in one family is a great way to understand the changes and disruptions involved. (The early essays from Czeslaw Milosz’s To Begin Where I Am strike me the same way.)

The five Germanys in 500 pages are as good an overview of the period as any, and a good deal livelier than a survey without the memoir. Plus Stern is a delightful, lively writer, and his life has been full of unexpected connections. Allen Ginsberg was a good friend from his first day of college, for example.

Some snippets:

“There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and to hold captive for ever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness — those forces are miracle, mystery and authority.” Dostoevsky and Nietzsche taught me to better understand the complexitites and fragility of democracy — and the place of the irrational in politics. pp. 190-91

I lived in a cheap rooming house [in Munich in 1950] and spent most of my time in the university library, but despite my work and these friends, I felt lonely and displaced. Was I a hostile alien in what had been my native country? The city was still full of rubble and half-destroyed buildings, and American troops were omnipresent. … Casual conversations with strangers, who were full of self-pity and often volubly anti-American, didn’t help. p. 200

All three [of his subjects of The Politics of Cultural Despair], writing under different historic conditions, fastened on one root of evil: liberalism. They attacked it because it seemed to them the premise of modern society from which everything they dreaded sprang: the bourgeois life, Manchesterism, materialism, Parliament and political parties, the lack of political leadership. Moreover, they thought liberalism was the source of their inner suffering. “Theirs was a resentment of loneliness; their one desire was for a new faith, a new community of believers, a world with fixed standards and no doubts, a new national religion that would bind all Germans together.” … My three critics, whom great and gentle Germans praised because of their “idealist” attacks on modernity, fostered the mood of discontent that foreshadowed the National Socialist synthesis: its attack on the “rottenness” of modern German culture and the exultant promise of a great völkisch future. p. 227

To me American policy [in Vietnam] seemed a nightmare of mindless escalation: it recalled, on a lesser scale, the slaughter in World War I, when soldiers were sent to their deaths because “one more push” would prove decisive. And the war’s human and political cost was dividing us at home and estranging us from our allies abroad. It was not a time for passivity or private lament; I thought “moderates” needed to act. p. 246 [Stern is obliquely scathing about George W. Bush in numerous places.]

All of this [reasoning about the causes of the sudden outburst of virulent anti-Semitism in the 1870s] is hard to document and easy to exaggerate, but the paranoid underworld of politics in an age of affluence and cultural unease cannot be overlooked. p. 278

In March 1979, shortly before I went to Jerusalem for the Einstein symposium, Raymond Aron and I walked to an exhibition in West Berlin commemorating the centenary of the births of Einstein, Max von Laue, Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner. We passed bombed-out squares and half-decrepit mansions in the once-proud capital, talking of that earlier profusion of genius. Aron suddenly stopped at a crossing, turned to me, and said, “It could have been Germany’s century.” p. 303

“Our often pious generalities about human rights need at the core a specific statement of the minimal conditions that we think should be universally binding — such as the abolition of torture,” I wrote [in 1977]. Grim reading today. p. 356

After I finished at the [Institute for the Study of the U.S. and Canada, in Moscow, in 1979], I went to a playground opposite our hotel where I dictated notes into a tape recorder. I knew we were being watched. Once, a lightbulb in our hotel room gave out and pleas to the woman-spy who watched over our floor proved ineffective — but Peggy’s and my complaining loudly to each other in the room brought instant results. There are advantages to being bugged. p. 377

The German American groups were but one part of a rapidly growing international network, composed of well-known internationalists and new, younger people, too. Perhaps there was an excess of high talk and high living — I often mused that some of the world’s great hotels lived off world crises, real or assumed. But I note now that in the new century the decline of these public-minded efforts has perhaps added to international estrangement, while the corporate world has taken up the slack in the luxurious conference métier, serving narrower interests at higher costs. pp. 405-06

The dinner [in 1983] had a comic aftermath: thereafter, the White House, regardless of incumbent, sent me an official Christmas card, a minor privilege I shared with about a hundred thousand other people. Then, during George W. Bush’s first term, a million cards were sent out, and I was dropped off the list. Who, I wondered, edited the lists — and at whose expense? The removal was more flattering than the inclusion. p. 421

“I agree with every word of your statement, and I won’t give you a penny,” [said Richardson Dilworth, a distinguished investment banker and philanthropist]. Why not? “Because it won’t do any good. What this country [the US] needs is a great catastrophe.” My instant response: “Mr. Dilworth, I come from a country that had a great catastrophe. That’s why I think it’s better to act beforehand.” p. 453

Mrs. Thatcher received us graciously, and at lunch I sat next to her husband, Denis Thatcher, whom it was difficult to converse with. p. 468

Little could I have known [in 1990] that in a dozen years [Richard] Cheney would be determining policies relying solely on the ruthless and often incompetent use of power. p. 471

The [German newspaper whose web site really could be better organized] reprinted my entire speech the next day, omitting only this one sentence about the editor of a rival paper! Marion [Dönhoff] was angry at this, rebuked them, and mentioned it in a brief essay about me. So much for my hope for a more liberal culture of conflict! pp. 513-14

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