Fritz Stern
Fritz Stern; drawing by David Levine


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. Is this not highly remarkable?

Politically, German Jews were mostly liberal. Stern’s great-grandfather, Sigismund Asch, a medical doctor and early social democrat, was a legendary figure known in Breslau as “der Alte Asch.” Every morning at dawn he offered free treatment to the poor in his clinic. He became one of the heroes of the aborted 1848 bourgeois revolution and was thrown into jail for a year. Ten thousand people were said to have applauded a speech he gave in the city’s main square exhorting the insurgents not to be content with civil rights but to think of the workers too, the weavers and miners nearby in Silesia who worked twelve hours a day and were “wailing from hunger.” He then read out to them Heine’s famous poem “The Silesian Weavers”:

Im düstern Auge keine Träne,
sie sitzen am Webstuhl und fletschen die Zähne:
“Deutschland, wir weben dein Leichentuch,
wir weben hinein den dreifachen Fluch—
Wir weben, wir weben!

“Ein Fluch dem Gotte, zu dem wir gebeten…
Ein Fluch dem König, dem König der Reichen…
Ein Fluch dem falschen Vaterlande,
Wo nur gedeien Schmach und Schande…
Wir weben, wir weben!”

(In somber eyes no tears of grieving;
Grinding their teeth, they sit at their weaving:
“O Germany, at your shroud we sit,
We’re weaving a threefold curse in it—
We’re weaving, we’re weaving!

“A curse on the god we prayed to, kneeling…
A curse on the king of the rich man’s nation…
A curse on this false fatherland, teeming,
With nothing but shame and dirty scheming…
We’re weaving, we’re weaving!”1)

Ferdinand Lassalle, the first leader of the German workers’ movement, was also a Breslau Jew. The young Stern was named “Fritz” after his father’s close friend (and patient) the famous chemist Fritz Haber, who had been named by his patriotic father Siegfried after the Prussian king Frederick “the Great.” A convert like the Sterns, Fritz Haber was something of a national hero at the time; he had recently been awarded the Nobel Prize for his invention of a process to synthesize nitrogen from air, which made it possible for Germany to have both gunpowder and fertilizer during World War I. Otherwise, by mid-1915, at the very latest, it may have run out of both. Stern compares Haber’s contribution to World War I to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s work at Los Alamos during World War II. “Bearing Haber’s name,” he writes, “has meant something to me all my life: a gift and a burden.” During the war, Haber had also developed poison gas, which he hoped would break the stalemate of trench warfare. Under Haber’s personal direction, the Germans used poison gas outside the town of Ypres, which enabled them to advance their front line a few dozen feet across scorched ground littered with asphyxiated French conscripts, yellow mucus frothing their mouths.2 Haber also developed and experimented with the deadly gas Zyklon B. “The horror of Haber’s involvement with the gas that later murdered millions, including friends and distant relatives, beggars description,” Fritz Stern has written elsewhere.3


His first and last names, he writes, signified different origins and loyalties: “Fritz, after all, is very Germanic, while Stern is recognizably Jewish.” It may explain, he suggests, his own later doubts about his religious identity.


These and other personal conflicts run through Stern’s unusual autobiography. In 1979, when he was walking through the still-bombed-out center of Berlin with Raymond Aron, the two men agreed that if it were not for Hitler, the twentieth century might have been Germany’s century. He had a grudging admiration for Germany of the kind voiced by Charles De Gaulle when he first ventured to Russia during World War II. Amid the ruins of Stalingrad, site of the farthest advance and greatest defeat of the German army, De Gaulle muttered to an aide, “Quel peuple!” An aide inquired, “You mean the Russians?” “No,” said De Gaulle, “the Germans.” Stern cites De Gaulle’s remark approvingly on the first page of his book. The general’s judgment, he writes, says much about the German drama of the past century, which De Gaulle had grasped clearly. Germany had “corrupted and nearly destroyed historic Europe”—and civilization itself—and yet its “prodigiously creative” people “would be indispensable for the postwar recovery of Europe.”

Stern’s family and many of their friends were so attached to Germany that they delayed their escape to the United States until almost the last moment. As a decorated war veteran his father may have felt relatively safe. Strangely enough, his medical practice grew during the first years of the Third Reich; his patients included Gentiles until 1936. Fritz’s sister suddenly developed strong Christian feelings and insisted on being confirmed. A priest of the Protestant Confessing Church was finally found to welcome the girl to his confirmation class. He told the other youngsters that a “non-Aryan” would be joining them, to which one responded, “Then we have to be especially nice to her.” Her parents attended her confirmation. Fritz refused to go despite family entreaties.

The family bought at this time an automobile and an X-ray machine for Dr. Stern’s practice. And yet in school, Fritz’s books were deliberately thrown to the floor. This hurt less than the remarks of Herr Müth, his math teacher, who asked the class: “If three Jews robbed a bank, and each got a part of the loot proportionate to their ages, how much would each get?” There was frequent use of euphemisms, as when concentration camp inmates were said to be in “protective custody.” Many years later Stern insisted that only village idiots would not have known what was going on in Dachau. Some Germans who heard him professed to be upset.

Czechoslovakia was close by and, to retain their sanity, the family traveled there often to get away from the Third Reich. They also made frequent trips by train or airplane to Italy, France, Denmark, England, and Holland and on one occasion remained abroad for half a year—hoping perhaps that the nightmare would pass, halfheartedly also exploring possibilities of emigration. After the Nuremberg Laws outlawing the employment of younger “Aryan” women in Jewish homes, they were pleased that their two housekeepers, both over forty-five years old, could continue to work for them. They left Germany dangerously late, on September 24, 1938, only six weeks before the notorious Reichskristallnacht pogroms, long after Jewish passports had been stamped with a big “J.” Stern’s father cried bitterly when they finally left Breslau on their way to America, a spontaneous outbreak of feelings by a man mourning a destroyed past, concerned about an uncertain future. The twelve-year-old Fritz, however, felt nothing but joy. He would soon be a deeply committed American liberal. A German interviewer asked him a few years ago, “What occurs to you when you hear the word Heimat?” He surprised himself, he writes, by answering promptly, Heimatlos—homeless.4


He seems to have been a precocious, politically aware boy, who read many newspapers and grew up in an atmosphere of books and the hallowed cult of Bildung, the precious cultural heritage Jews optimistically believed they shared with all other Germans. Strictly brought up, he was expected to read the classics at an early age, learn long poems by heart, and, together with his sister, entertain his elders with poetry recitals and theatrical productions. He was certainly aware of the evil the Nazi regime stood for and of those—some of them acquainted with his parents—who had fought it and failed. In Stern’s view, Nazism was not an “accident”; it had deep roots in German political culture. But it could have been prevented.

He remembers his parents’ dismay at the slow death of the Weimar Republic and the astonishingly easy and quick imposition of brutal dictatorial rule. What had taken three years in Fascist Italy, Hitler achieved in less than three weeks. On the eve of the family’s departure for America, the director of the liberal private school Stern attended readily assured his mother that Fritz’s departure would be kept from his classmates. Nevertheless, the word got out, and a scrawl on the class blackboard announced that the Jew Stern was leaving for Palestine. He came to know the Weimar Republic only in its last years, but its collapse was the main formative event in his life. He writes: “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.”

The sacralizing of German culture continued to be part of his later upbringing in the tight community of New York’s German-speaking academics in which his family lived. Before they became American citizens, war broke out and, as officially enemy aliens, the family once again became outcasts. For each visit they made to Long Island an official permit was required. The Sterns seem to have assimilated to American society more quickly than many others. His father resumed his medical practice and his mother, who already in Germany had switched from physics to child psychology, opened a Montessori kindergarten. In America Stern felt embarrassed about coming from a converted family that continued to celebrate Christmas: “I was not attuned to organized religion of any kind, so I never thought of ‘unconverting.'”

At Columbia University he first studied medicine, following the family tradition, but quickly switched to history, showed great ability, and was appointed a professor of European history at a relatively young age. He would spend months every year in Germany, first as a graduate student writing his dissertation on the intellectual and social background of the German conservative movement during the nineteenth century, later as a visiting professor and researcher in German archives. In 1993, at the invitation of US Ambassador Richard Holbrook, Stern accepted an appointment as “historian in residence” at the US embassy in Bonn. German newspapers were surprised by this unusual appointment: one wrote that he was giving Holbrook “private lessons on the past to help [him] read the future.” In fact, Stern learned much from the CIA’s station chief at the embassy, who told him that the East German Stasi “had penetrated West German intelligence from the beginning.” In a slightly provocative and ironic manner, a high German government official asked him at a diplomatic dinner: “And what is it exactly that you do at the embassy?” Surprised at his tone, Stern replied: “I tell them what you [Germans] were, what you are, and what you could be.”

In considering the circumstances that led to Nazism, Stern always took a broader, European view. He once opened a graduate course at Columbia University with the words: “There is no such thing as German history. There is only European history.” And yet, the emphasis was always on Germany. Stern is best known for his book on Bismarck and the Jewish banker Gerson von Bleichröder, who had rendered Bismarck valuable political services and had made him rich, as well as for several other pathbreaking studies on German nationalism in the nineteenth century, including The Failure of Illiberalism: Essays on the Political Culture of Modern Germanyand The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology.5 The latter considers the works of three highly influential conservative German thinkers, Paul de Lagarde (1827–1891), Julius Langbehn (1851– 1907), and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck (1876–1925). Writing under different historical conditions, all three had a visceral hatred of liberalism, which they saw as the principal evil. Everything they scorned in modern life had sprung from liberalism, which they associated with capitalism, democracy, and Jewish intellectualism.

The pathology of anti-liberalism has afflicted many other societies, including America, and Stern observes that the collapse of Weimar under pressure from anti-liberal forces was full of lessons. In America, and later in Germany too, he was intermittently drawn into political life. In a recent speech at the Leo Baeck Institute of New York, Stern warned against the current pseudo-religious transfiguration of American politics, and the apparent longing in some parts of the country for a new authoritarianism. Hitler, too, had seen himself as a leader appointed by providence. There were, he clearly implied, some similarities in the mood then and the atmosphere in America today.

Throughout his long academic life, Stern has studied and taught German history from an American perspective and American history with an awareness of the lessons of the German past, which continue to be relevant, with the US caught up both in a continuing war and in domestic conflict over the use of torture and the largely unchecked power of the executive. At the same time, Stern has opposed false analogies. During the Vietnam War he found it alarming that America’s leaders invoked the danger of another Munich. “Nothing in Vietnam,” he writes, “bore any relation to that earlier situation.” In an Op-Ed article published in The New York Times in 1988, after Reagan attacked the Democrats for being “liberal, liberal, liberal,” Stern wrote that liberalism was one of

America’s noblest traditions…. [It has] transformed the world. Its greatest victory had been the American Revolution; its greatest pronouncement, the Declaration of Independence; its greatest bulwark, the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights.

At its worst, he continued, in a typical cautionary remark, liberalism has been “class bound or it has entrusted its largeness of spirit to the narrowness of bureaucratic power.” He had, he recalls, put “everything he cared about” into that short article. “I had studied the calamity of anti-liberalism in Germany,” the first of its kind and and pertinent to this day. C. Vann Woodward commented:

Shame on all American historians that they had to wait for a colleague in European history to rise to the defense of their tradition, their country, their credo, their very calling under vile attack from a vulgar reactionary.

As a committed liberal in America, Stern drew from the demise of Weimar conclusions that were the opposite of those drawn by another well-known intellectual refugee from Germany, Leo Strauss of the University of Chicago, who became one of the gurus of American neoconservatism. Strauss saw in liberalism a diseased, pathetically self-destructive outgrowth of the Enlightenment; Stern saw liberalism as ultimately the only antidote to totalitarianism. The collapse of the Soviet empire has proven him right.

It was probably inevitable that over the years Stern would become prominent in Germany. His advice was sought by independent intellectuals, politicians, and public officials. He traveled to Germany so regularly—often three or four times a year—that he gradually acquired a second German life. For decades he has lived in two worlds simultaneously, and worried about both. For years after the war, Germany remained haunted by the ghosts of its past. During my own visits I often wondered about the previous life of the friendly person whose hand I was shaking in the corridors of the Bundestag and in the editorial rooms of newspapers. Germany was not an easy country to decipher. Many former Nazis were to be found in the universities and the civil service; after his years of lambasting Nazi crimes, a well-known anti-Nazi historian in Aachen turned out to have been, under a different name, a close collaborator of Heinrich Himmler. Contrition was pursued with proverbial diligence—Gründlichkeit—but it was often accompanied by feeble excuses and self-pity. The speed with which the Nazis had taken over Germany was matched after the war by the speed with which most Germans in the Western Zones of occupation became enthusiastic “Democrats” and in the East avowed Communists.

Stern writes affectionately of his closest friend in Germany, Marion Dönhoff, a strong-willed former countess of East Prussian origin who was at first political editor and later the editor in chief and publisher of the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit. During the early Fifties, within an hour of Die Zeit’s acceptance of an essay by the radical right-wing legal philosopher Carl Schmitt, whose teachings had contributed to the rise of Nazism, Dönhoff publicly resigned her post. She stayed away from the weekly for a full year until younger, more liberal editors took over. Under her guidance Die Zeit later became the leading liberal publication in West Germany.

Slowly, as Stern observed, things were changing. The evidence presented in the Eichmann and Auschwitz trials, in Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, and in revealing books by German historians like Fritz Fischer, author of Der Griff nach der Weltmacht (Germany’s Aims in the First World War) sank in. Fischer argued that the First World War had not been stumbled into by European leaders who bore equal responsibility for the catastrophe, but had been instigated by Germany in a bid for world power. He showed that its war aims in 1914 had been astonishingly similar to those of Hitler twenty-five years later. Generational change had a huge effect. What Stern calls the “liberating battle” over war guilt came in 1964, when he took part in a public debate on Fischer’s book at the Grand Auditorium of the Free University in West Berlin. When Stern came out strongly in Fischer’s defense, more than a thousand students cheered his speech. The applause was thunderous and prolonged. (I happened to be there.) The mass-circulation national newsweekly Der Spiegel published the text. Overnight, Stern became famous throughout Germany.

Stern made no secret of his sympathy for the Social Democratic opposition but had close relations with Christian Democratic politicians as well. In 1987, under the conservative Kohl government, Stern was the first foreigner asked to address the Bundestag in Bonn on the single national German holiday, July 17, the anniversary of the 1953 workers’ uprising in East Berlin. He displeased many of his listeners. “Reunification” had been the sacred slogan of German postwar politics. Some conservatives challenged Poland’s postwar western borders and spoke of reunification within the borders of 1939. In his speech, Stern described the East Berlin workers’ uprising as a rare and heroic instance of Germans struggling, as in 1848, for liberty and a better, freer life—not necessarily “reunification.” “The memory of the many victims of the uprising must not be misused,” he told the Bundestag, and asked the legislators to remember that “an undivided Germany had brought unspeakable misfortune [Unglück] to other peoples and to itself.”

Although Stern made it entirely clear that what counted was the freedom of the East Germans to choose their own destiny, the conservative press, including the prestigious papers Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Welt, attacked the “appalling mistakes” made in the speech of an unnamed American historian and Jewish refugee. This was followed by a flood of nasty letters from readers. The liberal press, for example Die Zeit, defended him. In retrospect his speech was certainly one of the most perceptive to be given in the German postwar parliament.


The five Germanys of Stern’s title are Weimar, the Third Reich, the West German Federal Republic, Communist East Germany, and the reunited Germany after the collapse of the East. We could also include “ancestral,” i.e., nineteenth-century Germany, which Stern claims he understands “best” since he has studied it throughout his professional life with “proper distance and a measure of detachment.” In one of his most fascinating chapters, Stern presents a striking portrait of this “ancestral” Germany filled with telling small details of day-to-day life in a remarkable but now extinct civilization. Describing the life of upper-middle-class German Jews—including his own family—before and during World War I, he evokes a social class of quietly privileged people, many of them professionals, often liberal—and yet, amazingly, still little concerned with national politics. “Wives [were] often their [husbands’] cultural equals, in aesthetic matters, their superiors.” Not a few were quietly feminist.

His parents, Stern writes, retained a kind of silence about what we would call their identity. They were never openly boastful of their German and Christian affiliations; nor did they deny their Jewish roots. What makes this chapter so interesting is that Stern discovered a trove of documents about his family and their friends, thousands of letters his parents had brought with them when they came to the United States in the fall of 1938: letters to each other—including a bundle written by his father to his future wife during World War I in which he served as a gradually more and more disillusioned infantry officer on the Western Front—to and from friends, colleagues, and relatives as well as letters written by several previous generations. The letters had been left neatly ordered and bound and bundled in wooden boxes. They give Stern’s social and cultural portrait a rare quality of immediacy and a unique charm, with none of the sociologese and self-interested generalizations of some political Zionists or contrite Germans.

Breslau had been the home of the family for generations. His great-grandparents and their descendants—nearly all of them doctors—shared in the growing prosperity of the city. Some were Stadtverordnete—members of the city municipal council. Yet, as Stern concludes, there remained a kind of tension or implicit difference in almost every aspect of their coexistence with Germans. The rate of intermarriage between Jews and Germans in Breslau had risen from 11 percent in 1890 to 52 percent during World War I. Through intermarriage—and as doctors—Stern’s family was able to enter Gentile life somewhat more intimately than others. And yet they, too, frequently remained segregated or self-segregated. The many converts to Lutheranism in Stern’s family on both sides should not obscure the fact that, as converts and descendants of converts, they often married other converts and their descendants. Their principal friends were Jews or fellow converts. Their lives were governed by a very particular ethos, much of it, he says, unspoken and habitual, but based on the culture they had absorbed.

Hours before his death in America, Stern’s father quoted Homer to him in Greek; and he left Stern his large collection of German classics. Throughout their lives his parents and grandparents had been, or at least tried to be, living equivalents of the characters in the Bildungsromane that educated Germans had been reading ever since Goethe established Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795–1796) as a model of self-improvement. Jews had become emancipated at a time in German history when “high culture” was becoming an integral part of Germanness and the Jews clung to it until the end. Bildung signified not simply “education” but the formation of character and moral sensibility. It gave these secular people a kind of certainty about how life should be lived.


During one of Stern’s early visits to Communist East Germany, his landlady asked him how old he had been when he left Germany. “Twelve,” he said. “Oh then, such a short time,” she said. He replied: “It sufficed.” It was easier, at first, to make sense of East Germany than of its more fortunate Western twin. East Germany reminded Stern of the dictatorship he had experienced as a child. The regime and its followers produced the same sort of pageantry in celebration of state power and engaged in the same demonization of a phantom enemy—American capitalism and its West German satellite. Its people were punished more severely for Hitler’s crimes than the West Germans were. The leading West German theologian Heinrich Grüber commented that East Germany was the place where after the war God was punishing the Germans for their sins.

West Germany was infinitely more complex and contradictory. Stern had deep doubts about how mature it had become and how reliable. The thought of resettling there never even occurred to him, he says, or to his parents. For years after the war, he remained distrustful of all things German. He writes that even some of Germany’s own leaders, including Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Federal President Theodor Heuss, were known privately to share a distrust of German commitments to democracy. Former Nazis served in Adenauer’s cabinet. The continuing celebration of “culture” in West Germany allowed West Germans to excuse their great failures of the past.

In the postwar years, Stern hardly imagined that the so-called “provisional” half-state of West Germany would become so important to him. Over the years it did. The changing attitudes of younger Germans and the emergence of politicians willing to face up to Nazi crimes caused him to change. Students rose up against their still Nazified universities and against an older generation that preferred to avoid the reality of the Nazi years. Willy Brandt’s rise to power, thanks largely to young voters, signified a radical turn in German politics. Brandt, an exile during the Third Reich, had arrived back in Germany after the war wearing a Norwegian army uniform. He recognized the postwar Oder-Neisse borderline with Poland, which Adenauer, in order to please his right-wing voters, had refused to do, and he famously went to Warsaw where, at the memorial to the Jewish ghetto uprising of 1943, he fell on his knees, head bowed, in what was, Stern writes, “the most poignant gesture we have of true political contrition—of apology as an act of courage.”

The reunification of Germany in 1990 troubled many Europeans, fearful of another wave of aggressive German nationalism, especially in Britain but also in France. A British cabinet minister even insinuated that a reunified Germany might now achieve peacefully what Hitler had vainly attempted through war. Stern disagreed. He believed that the liberation of East Germans from the Communist dictatorship and their incorporation in the Federal Republic of Germany—if it was firmly anchored in the European Union and the West—deserved strong support. He was one of five prominent American and British historians summoned by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to a “private” but by now famous meeting at Chequers, at which the British prime minister seemed to expect confirmation of her view that Germans would never change. Her unspoken assumption seems to have been that, as Churchill once put it, the Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Stern was one of at least three participants at that meeting who contradicted her. He, along with others present, felt very strongly that the Federal Republic “did represent something radically new in German history,”6 and much of his engrossing, finely composed book tells how he arrived at that view.7

So far, he has been been proven right. This year’s World Cup soccer championship in Germany, which Germany almost won again, was accompanied by German flags billowing throughout the country, something unprecedented in the flag-and-nationalism-shy Germany of the past sixty years. Newspaper columnists spoke of a rebirth of national pride. But soccer fans of both sexes also wore the flag as sarongs on otherwise nude bodies or painted their cheeks or eyelids red, black, and gold with some faint suggestion of self-irony. It was mostly a good-natured craze and ebbed with the end of the games. Roger Cohen of The New York Times wrote that the hearty support of the German team amid what amounted to a national festival had jolted the country toward what he called a new “lightness of being.” Defeat, it seemed, “has not deadened that.”

This Issue

October 19, 2006