Fritz Stern is truly a great historian. His 1963 book, The Politics of Cultural Despair, brilliantly studies the dangerous intellectual prehistory from which Nazism emerged – shedding light on the haunting question of how the Nazi movement could have captured the loyalties not only of brutes and thugs but of so many people who would have regarded themselves as idealistic and public-spirited. In 1977, he published his definitive work, Gold and Iron, a biographer of Bismarck’s banker, Gerson Bleichroder. Bleichroder played a crucial role not only in enriching the chancellor personally, but in the secret financial machinations that helped to finance Prussia’s wars in 1864 and 1866. Bleichroder, as the title suggests, was as indispensable to German unification and the founding of the German Reich as Bismarck himself. As a Jew, however, Bleichroder had been written out of the past by nationalist German historians. Through meticulous archival work, Stern restored Bleichroder to his central place – but without succumbing to the countervailing temptation to myth-make on Bleichroder’s behalf. For Stern concealed nothing of Bleichroder’s profoundly unattractive personality, and in particular his servile acceptance of the contempt of the German elites he served.
The story of Bleichroder and Bismarck, in Stern’s hands, became a parable of the German-Jewish encounter. When the German financial system crashed in 1877, officialdom directed all blame to Bleichroder in order to conceal the deep involvement of German royalty and German military officials in dubious transactions. Bleichroder accepted his children’s conversion to Christianity in hope of securing their places in Germany’s ruling elite. They ended up in the Nazi camps anyway.
In 2006, Stern published a big new book, Five Germanies I Have Known, presented as both a personal memoir and a history of modern Germany.
Stern was born in 1926 in the city of Breslau. That name – like most of the physical city in which Stern grew up – was swept away in the maelstrom of World War II. Breslau is now Wroclaw, and the Silesia of which it was once the capital now belongs to Poland. In Stern’s youth, however, Breslau was an important medical and scientific center of the Weimar Republic – the first of Stern’s “five Germanies.”
As I hope I have made clear, I admire Stern greatly as a historian. His personal story also commands deference. Like the Bleichroders, Stern’s forebears on both sides had converted to Christianity in hopes of confirming their position in Germany. Stern’s father had served with incredible gallantry through four years of the First World War before proceeding to an eminent medical career in his hometown. Cultured, dutiful, respectable, Stern’s whole family circle abruptly found itself stigmatized, rejected, insulted, abused, pillaged – and finally driven into exile. Those who could not escape were killed. That traumatic narrative takes Stern up to his early teens.
Had Stern concluded his story there – that is up to and including two of the five Germanies he had known – his memoir would have deserved great praise for its interest and insight. But he did not stop there. There are still three more Germanies to go: (the old West Germany, the old East Germany, and modern reunified Germany). And as Stern progresses through those Germanies, the focus of his memoir shifts from the “Germanies” to the “I.”
Every letter to the editor Stern ever wrote, every compliment he ever received, every lecture he ever delivered to resounding applause, every academic controversy in which he ever joined, every award and honorary degree he ever accepted – all are recorded here in relentless detail. Stern’s opinions on almost every contemporary question are precisely what one would expect from a Columbia professor of his generation. He swooned for Adlai Stevenson, delighted in Kennedy, disapproved of student radicalism, worried that Israel would lose its soul after 1967, feared Nixon and despised Reagan. When the elder George Bush criticized Michael Dukakis in 1988 as too “liberal,” Stern took it personally and joined with a raft of other intellectuals and academics to publish an open letter in liberalism’s defense. (He’s still very proud of that letter, as you will hear at some considerable length if you reach pp. 453-454. But Stern is not without self-criticism. He acknowledges that he did not complete the letter as early as he intended, and so it did not appear until Oct. 26, 1988. “If only we had been ready a week sooner!” he laments. Who knows how history might have been altered if Americans had had a few more days to meditate on Stern’s words?)
To his credit, Stern has positive things to say about Poland’s Solidarity movement – not a tough call, you might suppose, but one that proved too tough for his good friend Marion Donhoff, political editor of the liberal German newspaper Die Ziet, who defended the Jaruzelski coup of 1982 as necessary to preserve detente in Europe.
Stern’s liberalism is a very German liberalism, a liberalism of the middle path. He was offended by Ernst Nolte’s effort to downplay the crimes of Nazism in the 1980s (indeed, broke off a friendship with Nolte in consequence) – yet he had equally little time for Daniel Goldhagen’s over-encompassing Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book of which he wrote a memorably withering review in Foreign Affairs. When his gaze turns outward from himself, and when he deals with the past rather than the present, he is a writer deserving of very considerable praise … almost as much indeed as he would award himself.