Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History
The Two Germanies since 1945
A Voice From Germany
Die Abschiedsrede [The Farewell Speech]
Ten years ago, in a book called Anmerkungen zu Hitler (“Annotations to Hitler”), Sebastian Haffner wrote:
Whether we like it or not, today’s world is the work of Hitler. Without Hitler, no divided Germany and Europe; without Hitler, no Americans and Russians in Berlin; without Hitler, no Israel; without Hitler, no de-colonization, at least not so fast, no Asiatic, Arab and Black-African emancipation, and no downgrading of Europe.
The list might be extended. Without Hitler, no burden of memory, no searing and indelible recollection of inhumanities committed and tolerated, no frightening new awareness of the fragility of republican government, no—or anyway less—nagging doubt about the stability of democratic institutions in our present and future.
It is these memories and doubts that sound the strongest note in, and give coherence and internal consistency to, the speeches and papers written for special occasions that are the substance of Fritz Stern’s new book. The Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University has never doubted the centrality of Germany in the Western experience, the fact that, “for over a century, ‘the German question,’ in all of its guises, has had a decisive bearing on the history of the world.” But he also feels that, while Hitler’s Third Reich was “a lesson in history that still haunts our collective memory,” it does so in a fashion that is progressively “dim and distorted,” and his new book is intended in large part to sharpen our recollection, to persuade us to ask ourselves once more how these things could have come to pass, and to help us be vigilant for signs of their recurrence.
It is entirely appropriate that Stern should begin his book with the lines from Heine’s long poem “Germany: A Winter’s Tale”:
The land is held by Russians and French,
The sea’s by the British invested,
But in the airy realm of dreams
Our sway is uncontested.
The Germans, for centuries atomized and powerless in comparison with the nation-states that surrounded them, were always dreamers. Even in the time of their greatest discontent, they had the dim memory of the glory of their medieval empire and the hope that Frederick Barbarossa might be a once and future king to sustain them; and in the nineteenth century these romantic notions were transformed into the liberal dream of a new united Reich, embodying constitutional government and civil liberties, that would be respected by other nations and would contribute to the promotion of the general welfare and international peace. This persisted even after the high hopes engendered by the founding of the empire in 1871 had been disappointed, and after what Friedrich Meinecke once called “the Pan-German-militaristic-conservative combine” had driven Imperial Germany into the fateful adventure in 1914. The resultant defeat was so shattering that it encouraged many in the Weimar years to believe that it must be the prelude to the final realization of their hopes for a peaceful Germany in a peaceful world.
This was the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.