European Affairs

A German who Bridged the Atlantic: Fritz Stern     Print Email

Five Germanys I Have Known.
By Fritz Stern.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 546 pages.
Reviewed by Michael D. Mosettig

For decades, historian Fritz Stern moved between the worlds of American academia and the Transatlantic coterie of thinkers, think-tankers, journalists and policy-makers deeply involved in post-war Germany and German-American relations. But in 1981, he was thrust suddenly into a larger and more public universe with the publication of his biography of Bismarck’s Jewish banker, Gerson Bleichroder.

As Stern admits, he was more surprised than anyone to see his book vault to the best-seller list and become the subject of considerable commentary. But as this memoir unfolds, one realizes he should not have been. Like the themes of that biography, Stern’s life and work unflinchingly confront the difficult and haunting questions stemming from the central points of modern Western history: Germany, its relationship to its Jewish citizenry; its role in what Stern early on labeled the Second Thirty Years War (1914-45); the Holocaust; the development of nuclear weapons. (Another of Stern’s books to reach a non-academic audience was Einstein’s German World, published in 1999, which focused on ambiguities of Germany’s greatness and potential: what could have been Germany’s century turned from creativity to destruction: it is a lesson about the fragility of democracy that should never be lost to successor generations everywhere.)

Technically, this autobiography divides modern German history between pre-World War I, Weimar, the Third Reich, the Federal Republic and a reunited Germany. Running thematically throughout the national history and the memoir are the author’s fierce devotion to classical political liberalism (which he points out is under some threat in present- day fundamentalist America), the relentless questions of how Germany and Germans deal with the past, how it fell sway to the temptation of Nazism and a keen awareness of his Jewish identity stemming from his youth in the years of Hitler’s ascension to power (even though he was born into a family of converts to Christianity).

Two aspects separate Stern’s life, and hence this memoir, from the millions of others who shared his accident and place of birth. One is how he blended the personal, emotional and intellectual threads into a career of accomplishment and many honors (perhaps a few too many recited in detail here). The second is how he constantly has reminded audiences from thousands of Columbia University students to readers of his books to the public and political audiences he has often addressed of the relentless lesson that history is very much a matter of the present and not dusty musings on the past.

His personal story begins with the world of his distinguished medical and scientific family in pre-World War I Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw in Poland). The author was born in 1926 in the Weimar years marked by hyper-inflation and political turmoil. His immediate family departed for the United States weeks before Kristallnacht (their Jewish ancestry superseding their officially Protestant affiliation in Hitler’s Germany), and every one of these sagas of escape, at once the same and different, never fails to fascinate. Their adaptation and transformation as Americans seemed remarkably smooth as was the author’s ascent in academia.

And the author’s personal and psychological evolution as an American but rooted in Europe is similarly intriguing. To deal with a country that has cast you out and murdered your family is difficult in itself, to put it mildly. The easiest course is total rejection but that was a route very few of that generation of intellectuals took. Stern’s tale is one of finding a growing measure of comfort in the European past and present.

“As the ship sailed, I felt nothing but joyous relief and wondrous excitement at being on an ocean liner, though I sensed my parents’ apprehension about an uncertain future. I knew no English. My Latin and Greek seemed like poor preparation for a new life in America. I left with a loathing for that jubilant, Hitler-enthralled Germany. Only in retrospect did I come to understand that growing up in the Third Reich had given me my first and deepest lesson in political education. Only much later did I find in Heine the perfect epitaph for what I had gained.

‘The love of freedom,’ he wrote, ‘was a prison’s flower.’ Also, I came to realize, in this formative – and no doubt, also deforming – part of my life, that the happiest moments had been in Europe – in France, Switzerland, Denmark, Holland, Czechoslovakia, and England; so I had grown up a European avant la lettre. I gained much if at the price of anything resembling a real sentimental education. I rejoiced at escaping the pains of that deadening regime. I had felt the pinpricks of terror; its full and unimaginable horror began to descend within weeks of our escape. I am left wondering at the accident of survival, the kindness of fate.”

That comfort in Europe seemingly had the effect of steeling Stern’s resolve as his growing stature put him in a position to wade into debates and discussions at the highest levels about how Germany and Europe should treat the immediate past. On the one hand, he was the most scorching critic of Harvard professor Daniel Goldhagen’s explosive assertion that Germans were all but genetically programmed for genocide. Yet Stern’s own 1987 address to the West German parliament, with warnings that the yearnings for reunification had to be weighed against a Germany past that sacrificed liberty to unity, drew a harsh reaction in the conservative German press, all too often laced with references to his Jewish origins.

Among the most interesting and rewarding passages are those dealing with the rest of Mittleuropa, especially Poland. His encounters with the heroic Polish statesman/historian Bronislaw Geremek are alone almost worth the price of the book. Here is how he describes his first encounter with the man who would come to personify to the outside world Poland’s suffering and opportunity. They met in 1979, a year after the election of the Polish Pope, a decade before the revolution that began in Poland and that would sweep the communists from power across Central and Eastern Europe.

“...He had left the party in 1968 to protest the crushing of the Prague Spring. (I didn’t know then that his father had been a rabbi and that he and his mother had been saved by a Gentile family). I met him in his office on the main square of the old city, and found him instantly appealing, wise, sharp, generous and witty, marked by an unpretentious gravitas, his pipe somehow added to the amiable atmosphere. Our common language was French, his being perfect – no surprise, since he had lived and worked in Paris for many years and knew the French scene exquisitely well....the way he saw it, the Polish economic situation was so bad, and the party itself so divided, that the government didn’t dare move, either on the economic front or with regard to the opposition, at any moment a spark could set off a great conflagration, so the government dithered....”

Reconciliation is a word too loosely used, especially in the context of Central European history. But this memoir offers the parallels rewards of an author still fortunately with full health and mental powers to chronicle a central Europe emerging from its 20th century nightmare on the path to a democratic and hopeful future.

As rich as this book is, 500 plus pages is reaching the length of those door stops produced by out-of-office politicians. One full chapter of some 150 pages, devoted mainly to foundation-sponsored junkets to lands beyond Europe, happily could have been cut. And amid all those pages, there is barely a two-paragraph mention of his divorce from the mother of his children and his re-marriage to the New York-based literary editor Elisabeth Sifton, the daughter of German-born theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Yet, as this work constantly demonstrates, Stern is among the rare academics who can weave and write an interesting tale. He choicely recounts a fellow academic’s spiteful take on the success of his Bleichroder book – “It is too well written for me to trust it” – as a reminder that good writing is hardly a ticket to campus advancement. Here is a life begun amid some of the worst horrors of recorded history, and those lessons must be examined again and again. One can only hope they will be recounted so well as to absorb the attention of future generations and help safeguard them against similar fates.

Michael D. Mosettig is senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.

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