Germany’s descent into barbarism under the Nazis and its moral and political regeneration after the war still resist explanation. In Five Germanys I Have Known, Fritz Stern, the leading American scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century German history, reflects the two faces of Germany through the prism of his own life in both countries. His impressive book combines haunted childhood memories with learned insights and reflections on German and American history. Its main concern is expressed in its emphasis on the fragility of democracy everywhere.
Stern was born, in 1926, in the Prussian royal Residenzstadt of Breslau (now Wrocl/aw in Poland), the only son of a German-Jewish family of prominent Breslau physicians, themselves the offspring of three or four generations of prominent Breslau physicians, nearly all baptized at birth as Lutherans. His mother, who had a doctorate in physics, came from a similar background. Baptism, as Heinrich Heine wrote, was the entrance ticket to European society, opening many doors but closing others. At the Breslau Jewish Hospital, Stern’s father could serve only as a “consultant” because he was a Jew who had been baptized at birth. Referring to the attitudes of Jewish doctors toward colleagues like his father, whose families were converted, Stern writes, “It must have been hard to have been persecuted for belonging to a group that also partially repudiated you.” His father tellingly referred to baptized Jews like himself as followers of the “third” religion. (In the university medical auditorium in Breslau, he once saw a psychotic patient let loose a nationalist harangue full of venomous anti-Semitic remarks; the patient was applauded by the assembled medical students and by some of the doctors.)
Most German Jews at the time either were converted to Christianity or practiced Reform Judaism or something close to it. Ritual differences had been waning for years. Lutheranism as practiced at the time by upper-middle-class Germans was a civic and cultural religion comparable to Reform Judaism. Members of both faiths gathered around decorated trees at Christmas or Hannukah and exchanged presents. Lutherans and Reform Jews celebrated the Sabbath on Sundays. Lutheran children upon being put to bed recited:
I trust in God and His embrace
In Christ’s blood and His good grace.
The evening prayer of Reform Jewish children differed by two words:
I trust in God and His embrace
In His mercy and good grace.
There remained a tension between German Gentiles and German Jews, including those long converted to Christianity. Many Jews succeeded beyond all expectations, mainly in medicine, law, journalism, and the natural sciences, a field “in which Germans and Jews complement one another… in what may have been a singular crucible of genius,” Stern writes. Success bred resentment. A form of social segregation remained. A report in the Breslauer Morgenzeitung on the annual ball of the Breslau chamber of commerce in 1876 was revealing:
Our Jewish and Christian merchants have marketed, discounted, dined and supped together. They’ve even intermarried, but they never dance with one another …
What Fritz Haber Did November 16, 2006