Five Ger­manys I Have Known

Fritz Stern
  • Review
By – June 18, 2012

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.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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