Fritz Stern: Comes in for harsh commentary in London Review of Books

Historians in the News

... By casting his memoir as a series of reports by a peripatetic academic, Stern can also skate over the question that haunts this book: what does it mean for him to be Jewish, and what historical lessons, if any, might one draw from an answer? The thought that the Nazis could erase the commitment to Christianity made by his ancestors was intolerable, although their anti-semitism was what gave him for the first time an unmistakeable feeling of Jewish kinship. Late in his life, well into a second marriage and in the shadow of Israel’s failure to fulfil the ideals of its founders, he has not ‘a scintilla of a doubt’ that he is ‘an American and a Jew’. He writes of himself after his lecture to the Bundestag in 1987 as a ‘61-year-old Jew’, ‘taken aback by the distortions’ of his critics. (And well he might be. Stern had argued, reasonably and correctly, that the workers’ rebellion in East Berlin on 17 June 1953 had not been a call for unification, as politicians on the right wished to believe. West Germany had made 17 June a national holiday, so these questions of historical interpretation mattered a great deal.) How did this self-recognition come about? Eight pages are given over to summarising the lecture; a few words to the question of being a Jew. Other comments are scattered here and there: painful moments of listening in silence to clichéd anti-semitic remarks in a semi-private audience with the pope, or to Germans wondering what happened to the glories of prewar academia. The baptised son of a baptised son of a baptised father is welcomed back to Germany as a German Jew and, at the same time, attacked as an American Jewish professor.

This raises one of the most fascinating questions posed by this book: the nature of this welcome. Stern is by far the most honoured German-speaking refugee historian in Germany – perhaps in academia more generally. Last September, the president of Germany bestowed on him the highest level of Bundesverdienstkreuz, the Federal Cross of Merit. At issue is not whether he deserves the recognition but rather what function this symbiotic relationship – between a scholar who craves honours and a culture that needs to bestow them – serves. Stern is a very good historian but he is one of a generation of very good émigré historians. Two research-based books – his PhD thesis on three illiberal writers of the 19th century and a beautifully written account of the mutually beneficial alliance between Bismarck and his Jewish banker Gerson Bleichröder – and some elegant essays do not, in themselves, explain the laurels.

The answer is not that he is unique in forgiving his native Germany. Others were willing to make moral discriminations among Germans after the war. Eric Hobsbawm writes, for example, that neither he nor his fellow ‘largely Jewish “re-educators”’ felt ‘the sort of visceral anti-German reaction’ that knowledge of the camps might have been expected to provoke: ‘Both conviction and realism saved us from turning the Nazis’ own racist anti-semitism inside out into an equivalent anti-Teutonism.’ That said, there has been no figure among the refugee community more eager, if not to forgive – Stern is repeatedly critical of the mendacity of individuals – then to make a place for himself in the new Germany.

When he went back to Germany Stern made every effort to establish contact with important people. He wanted, for example, to meet an old family friend from Breslau, Hermann Lüdemann, who was speaking at a tenth anniversary commemoration of the attempted coup against Hitler. It turned out that he needed an invitation to get in; supplicating at the gate was of no avail. Stern rushed to a stationery store to buy paper and an envelope, and, when a policeman was slow to agree to deliver his message to the former minister-president of postwar Schleswig-Holstein, Stern offered to take it himself. (Lüdemann, Stern tells us in a footnote, asked a third party whether Stern told jokes as well in English as in German.) Important people were drawn to him; this was not a one-way street. Helmut Schmidt, for instance, wanted someone to write about him; Stern was looking for a new project. ‘Ten days in Schmidt’s archives were wondrous’; Helmut and Mrs Schmidt were ‘wonderfully hospitable’.

In part, Stern’s success is a matter of individual psychology, age, the times and individual passions: man, moment, milieu. The older generation of historians of Germany who emigrated to the United States – major scholars like Hans Rosenberg, Hajo Holborn or Dietrich Gerhard, all students of the great Friedrich Meinecke in Berlin – were certainly interested in re-establishing scholarly relations with the land of their birth. Some went back to teach, others to retire, others not at all. But they were too distinguished, too secure in their learning, too attached to their students and to their new lives to need honours from Germany or have much interest in hobnobbing with political figures.

More to the point, there was almost no one else in Stern’s generation who had a deep interest in making it in Germany. His exact contemporary, Peter Gay (born Peter Fröhlich), did not return until 1961, when it proved almost unbearable. This too may be a matter of fathers; Peter’s was a lamp wholesaler who had to forge documents to escape and never succeeded in building a new life in Colorado. The son did end up writing about Weimar culture, but built his career by studying the Enlightenment, sexuality and psychoanalysis. No cathexis on Germany. Walter Laqueur, roughly Stern’s age and like him from Breslau, says that he felt remarkably at home when he returned after the war. But, he writes in his autobiography, ‘I did not find German postwar politics and culture particularly fascinating; in any case, the lack of passionate interest has been mutual.’ So he was not a candidate for the Stern role....
Read entire article at Thomas Laqueur in the London Review of Books

comments powered by Disqus