Fritz Stern, perhaps the greatest living historian of modern Germany, has produced a fascinating memoir that meditates on the profound changes he witnessed in Germany and helps us understand that nation’s complex and tortured past. Through his own story, presented in a lucid and engaging narrative that often reads like a good mystery novel, we are treated to rare insights into the forces that moved the 20th century by a scholar superbly qualified to make sense of his own experiences. Readers of this important book are thankful that as a young man Fritz Stern did not listen to the advice given to him by Albert Einstein: to study medicine and not history.
The “German Question” haunts the modern world. How could this civilized, cultured, and advanced nation be responsible for the most horrific genocide in history? Stern addresses this question through his own life experiences. Born in the Weimar Republic, victimized by National Socialism, finding a refuge in the United States in 1938, he became a leading historian of modern Europe at Columbia University, a commentator on the German-Jewish symbiosis, and a prolific public intellectual who became part of the conversation itself. He both interpreted history and helped make it.
In this lively book that fuses memory and history, Stern illuminates the five Germanys he experienced: Weimar, the Third Reich, post war West and East Germanys, and the unified country after 1990. His friendship with leading German intellectuals and politicians, and their American counterparts like Richard Holbrooke, as well as his scholarly acumen, give him unique insights into Germany’s struggle to create a liberal democracy. Stern shows how the history of the five Germanys can be read as a text that reflects on the fragility of democratic liberties and the ease with which they can wither and die if left unprotected. This book is rich in detail, perspective and historical wisdom, as well as reflections on the trauma of the German-Jewish refugee experience, and the resilience of many who were able to forge productive and dignified lives.