Murray Polner: Review of Fritz Stern’s Five Germanys I Have Known (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)
In the late sixties, Hubert Humphrey, then running for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, claimed that while he backed free speech he questioned the rights of many dissenters to speak and act against the Vietnam War. I wrote and asked him to define the kind of dissent he did favor. His reply: “responsible dissent”—whatever that meant. I then asked if he would reserve the right to disagree only for people with whom he agreed, but never received a reply. Stern writes that he once gave a speech quoting “ so radical a Marxist as Rosa Luxemburg [who] cried out weeks before her death [murdered by an early Nazi Freikorps gang] “Freedom is always freedom for the man who disagrees with you.”
I recalled that brief if unsatisfying exchange while reading Fritz Stern’s compelling book. During the anti-liberal Age of Reaganism he had written a N.Y. Times Op Ed in defense of liberalism, then and now under bitter assault by everyone from the Bush-Cheney administration to their army of liberal-haters. For Stern, the liberal path has been one of “America’s noblest traditions” [which] created “the American Revolution, Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” Not to mention Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill, et.al. (Which is not to say that liberals have not committed memorable self-inflicted and unforgivable wounds, most significantly Vietnam).
Today, Stern remains an outspoken liberal, tolerant in the face of intolerance on and off the campus, his life forever marked by the destruction of the liberal if flawed Weimar Republic in his native Germany. Five Germanys includes analyses of Weimar, the Third Reich, West and East Germany and united Germany and is a valuable recognition of the absolute necessity for democratic societies to accept and welcome open debate and the questioning of authority. Stern only hints at the possible similarity with the current breed of American policy and opinion makers who have created so much damage at home and abroad, though he is quite serious about their incompetence and intolerance, characteristics his family witnessed in the destruction of the short-lived democratic, if flawed Weimar Republic.
Weimar struggled to survive onslaughts by the punitive Versailles Treaty, hyperinflation, far rightwing groups, and the Communists (in those years, acting on Moscow’s directives, they excoriated the Social Democratic Party, the only group strong enough to counter Hitler, as “Social Fascists.”)
Still, liberals, Catholic Centrists, socialists, pacifists, free labor unions, even communists were all doomed when the Nazis won a plurality of the electoral vote. About Germans, Stern shrewdly comments, “Their submissiveness, perhaps servility or fervent complicity, sealed the fate of the first victim—and ultimately the fate of the country. Never before had a modern, educated, proudly civilized class so readily abandoned, betrayed, and traduced the most basic rights of citizens. Why? Fear? Willing acquiescence and complicity? Indifference? The questions haunt us still. There are no simple answers.”
Born in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1926 where his family had resided for many generations, Stern, University Professor Emeritus of History, former provost of Columbia University (a notable figure in defending the university during the student unrest in 1968) and author of the seminal Gold and Iron: Bleichroder and the Building of the German Empire, was the child of a professional and intellectual class destroyed by the Nazis. Most of his clan became Protestants, though Nazi racist policies would define them as Jews.
His father, an eminent liberal physician, had been a loyal officer in the Kaiser’s army during WWI and his mother was a physicist, but who later became prominent in the Montessori-style educational movement. The family and their formerly Jewish friends and relatives lived comfortable lives before and after WWI, and contributed much to the well-being of their fellow Germans as scientists, physicians, artists, lawyers and journalists. Five years later. the Sterns fled to the U.S. Still a student, his mother took him along for a meeting she had with Albert Einstein in Princeton, N.J. Stern recounts that Einstein asked him what he’d like to study in college. Medicine or history, the teenager answered. “That’s simple, said the famous man. “ Medicine is a science, and history is not. Hence medicine.”
For Stern, the collapse of Weimar symbolized the vitriolic attacks against liberalism and moderation by reactionary German writers, dating to the late 19th Century and is reflected in the “pseudo-religious attraction” many American now seem to have for a “new authoritarian” in the so-called age of terror and the attacks on liberalism by the extreme left and right. “I was born into a world on the cusp of avoidable disaster, and I came to realize that no country is immune to the temptations of pseudo-religious movements of repression such as those to which Germany succumbed.”
He rightly singles out the bellicose and heavily subsidized neocons, “illiberal ideologues,” who, until their illusions of a painless victory in Iraq were destroyed and their imperial dreams of endless wars shattered (temporarily?) by an aroused electorate last November, have nevertheless achieved “wealth and power”—but have also, I would add, led directly to the death and maiming of tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, while they and their families remain safely behind the walls of their inflexible think tanks.
Who knows how it will all turn out? Another invented “cakewalk” against Iran and Syria, as the neocons and Israelis are now demanding? Or perhaps an exhausted superpower, its moral bearings lost to war and ignorance?
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Jennifer Franklin Elrod - 12/16/2006
This is interesting. There is more than one historical America and more than one possible future America. Maybe some day, somebody will write a book called, Five Americas I Have Known.
Kenneth R Stow - 12/11/2006
A few weeks ago, Stern spoke at Columbia University, presenting his book. It was a noble presentation and an enlightening evenin. Polner caught the spirit, until the end. He puts himself into that class of self-wound inflicting liberal. First, he lumps Syria and Iran together, somehow, by juxtaposing the two to the neocons and Israelis--are the two really the same? Not at all--as though to grant legitimacy. Yet Syria is not Iran, and despite the flirtations and even letting arms through to Nasrallah, it will eventually have to deal with Shiite extremism. Assad, recall, is neither Sunni nor Shia, but Allawi. As for Iran, it is not going to be swept under the rug. Achmadinajad is as crazy as he seems. His ideology is indeed Hitlerian. The analogy really works. It is anything but neocon madness to oppose him tooth and nail. It is good liberal behavior, in the strictest and highest sense of the term.