An eminent historian's look at the German past

Review Memoir

August 20, 2006|By ROGER K. MILLER | ROGER K. MILLER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Five Germanys I Have Known

Fritz Stern

Farrar, Straus & Giroux / 544 pages / $26

Fritz Stern has written what might be called a "scholarly memoir," combining the objectivity and intellectual rigor of the academic with the warmth and intimacy of the memoirist, of the "five Germanys" he has known: the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, postwar West Germany and East Germany and today's reunited Germany. Anyone having an interest in 20th-century European history will find the book engrossing.

But Stern, who with the late Gordon Craig was one of the leading American-German historians of recent decades, opens his book with the Germany he did not know but says he understands the best, the one he has studied the most professionally, the Germany before World War I.

Indeed, reading the early pages is at times like reading, for lack of a better term, a poor man's Thomas Mann, so deeply does Stern - basing his account in part on thousands of family letters - take us inside the comfortably off, intellectually lively bourgeois families of imperial Germany. In fact, when Stern's big historical work, Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichroeder and the Building of the German Empire, came out in 1977, one critic said he felt as if he could be reading Buddenbrooks.

But Stern was born during the Weimar period, in 1926 in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), into an extended Jewish family, many of whose members, including Stern's parents, had converted to Christianity. All of the men, and some of the women, were professionals of one sort or another - academics, scientists (like Stern's mother), or mostly (like Stern's father) doctors.

Conversion cut no ice with the Nazis, so that Christians of Jewish descent were reconverted into "non-Aryans." Stern's account of the inexorably closing vise on those whom the regime considered enemies is similar to that in the memoirs of the writer Max von der Gruen, born in the same year but into a Protestant, "Aryan" working-class family in Bayreuth, whose father was sent to a concentration camp for distributing "subversive" religious publications.

The Sterns emigrated dangerously late, in September 1938. Stern makes several allusions to the role of chance and luck: "All our lives are full of accidental, unexpected turns."

In the United States, Stern stepped almost immediately onto the educational ladder that led him to become not only a prominent historian, but a participant in influential academic, cultural, social and geopolitical organizations and talks across the globe for half a century.

Name anyone of high intellectual caliber and Stern probably knew the person. Shortly after the Sterns' arrival in New York, he went to meet a ship bearing Thomas and Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel and his wife, Alma.

He was friends with Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann, chemist and first president of Israel. Among those who personally mixed drinks for him - at separate gatherings - were Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher.

The book is dotted with historical oddities, including the answer to the question that bedevils almost no one: Whatever happened to Prussia, the state that was the source of so much of Germany's greatness - and misery? (It officially disappeared Feb. 27, 1947, by order of the Allied Control Council.) The question that has bedeviled the entire world - Why and how did the universal human potential for evil become an actuality in Germany? - is less definitively answered, but Stern devotes the entire book to addressing it while examining Germany's various incarnations.

Like many historians, Stern finds "no inevitability in the historic process. ... The past contains the seeds for many futures." He is convinced that the rise of National Socialism in Germany was "neither accidental nor inevitable."

The seeds that sprouted Nazism, he believes, were planted in a German attack on liberalism and modernity that began in the 19th century. Stern, who elsewhere has warned of "the moral perils of mixing religion and politics" and of "the pseudo-religious transfiguration of politics that largely ensured [Hitler's] success," refers several times to Nazism as a pseudo-religion.

Thus it is not surprising that Stern, a committed and vocal liberal, concludes that "the lessons I had learned about German history had a frightening relevance to the United States today." Some may argue with the conclusion, but it is difficult to find fault with the trip Stern takes them on to get there.

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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