J.P. Stern

J.P. Stern Professor of German at University College, London, is the author of A Study of Nietzsche and of Hitler: The Führer and the People.

Communism’s Man of Letters

J.P. Stern, 26 September 1991

He was born György Bernát Löwinger on 13 April 1885 into one of the richest Budapest families. His father, the son of a quilt-maker from southern Hungary, left school at 13, was made branch manager of the Anglo-Austrian Bank at 24, and changed the family name to Lukács when the boy was five; in 1901 he bought the title of minor nobility, and in 1906 was appointed director of one of the largest credit institutions in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Georg dropped the ‘gentry-bureaucratic’ designation of von only on his conversion to Communism in 1918. The mother came from an ancient family of rabbis and licensed moneylenders to the Habsburg emperors, and remained contemptuous of her self-made financier husband. She had been brought up in Vienna, for which, like many similarly placed ladies from the provinces, she yearned throughout her life. To annoy her and as a sign of protest against her attempts to cultivate a Viennese salon in Budapest, Georg, her second eldest son, insisted on addressing her in Hungarian, which she spoke with difficulty. It seems that throughout his adolescence the boy couldn’t make up his mind which of his parents he loathed more. If Professor Kadarkay is to be believed (and he is obviously accurate and detailed on facts even though he is not very good at organising them, and ill at ease with most of the other things which the biography of an intellectual requires), there was only Georg’s sister Mici to negotiate cease-fires in the family.

Impatience

J.P. Stern, 30 August 1990

The four essays the young Nietzsche wrote between August 1873 and July 1876 (as part of a larger project that was never completed) are linked by his concern over the state of German culture after the victorious conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War and the proclamation of the Reich at Versailles in January 1871. These Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, written while Nietzsche was Professor of Classical Philology at Basle, are here translated as Unmodern Observations by different hands, under the editorship of Professor William Arrowsmith of Boston University.

Is this right?

J.P. Stern, 19 April 1990

How poignant newspaper headlines can be! Like this one: ‘Rabbi Julia Neuberger shares a feeling of permanent exile with the refugee poet’ (Observer, 11 March). And yet I find this a strange bit of information, because last time I saw the Rabbi on the box, laying down the law on some matter of profound moral concern – well, frankly, it wasn’t a permanent feeling of exile she conveyed to me, but a permanent feeling of having a jolly good time, and of being so much at home in the TV studio, you could hardly tell where the Rabbi ended and the studio began. ‘As German unification becomes a certainty, there is a growing disquiet among Jews,’ the Rabbi’s article begins; and it goes on: ‘Perhaps most strongly affected are those who are refugees, such as my mother, and children of refugees, who have seen the problems of rootlessness and question their own “identity” as a result of early memories.’ Well I’m sure that’s true of many people, but Rabbi Neuberger’s mother’s daughter doesn’t seem to me to suffer from ‘problems of rootlessness’, and if she questions her own ‘identity’, I daresay she will take good care to do it at peak viewing time. Could it be that, like many professional agonisers, Rabbi Neuberger is a bit of a humbug?’

Havel’s Castle

J.P. Stern, 22 February 1990

The social memory of small countries is punctuated by dates which recall national defeats. When the students of Prague assembled in the late afternoon of Friday 17 November 1989 in the city’s main thorough-fare, the Narodni Street, the purpose of their officially-sanctioned demonstration was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of one of their comrades, Jan Opletal, murdered by the Germans on 17 November 1939; at the same time they were remembering the death of Jan Palach, the student who, on 16 January 1969, burned himself to death at the foot of the statue of the country’s patron saint, the good King Wenceslas, in protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Soviet Union and three other countries of the Communist bloc. Now, for the first time in twenty years, ‘the grown-ups’ were taking the students and actors who joined them seriously: ‘our children shamed us into action.’ By 9 p.m. a crowd of some fifty thousand people were moving towards Wenceslas Square. The violence which the police (white helmets, riot shields and truncheons) used to disperse the crowd led to some broken limbs and numerous concussions, but there were no deaths. This is how Czechoslovakia’s ‘kind of peaceable revolution’ began, and it was over, without any further violence, 24 days later. It was not, to begin with, a nationwide uprising. Both television and radio were slow to give up-to-date news; people had to rely on West German stations and on Radio Freedom in Munich. In the provinces they suspected that these were the cavortings of a few crackpot intellectuals in Prague, most of whom had been in gaol anyway.

Germans and the German Past

J.P. Stern, 21 December 1989

The ‘white years’ of German history – the period between the end of the war and Adenauer’s first government of 1949 – were notable for two blank spaces in the national consciousness. The first was the space left by community spirit: in the material circumstances that followed on the bombing of Germany’s cities and the unconditional surrender of the German Armed Forces, Volksgemeinschaft, the centrepiece of National Socialist ideology and propaganda, gave way to individual interest, to the spirit of ‘everyone for himself’. But this in turn was part of a larger blank, a kind of national amnesia. With Hitler’s disappearance, his and his movement’s tenets, its ‘faith’ and goals, seemed forgotten, its actions beyond recall. It wasn’t merely that individual men and women were unwilling to speak of their own immediate political past: the ideology, indeed the very substance of that past, had become unavailable. Reinhart Koselleck in a recent essay recalls ‘the speechlessness of the Germans when, in 1945, they were faced with the catastrophe into which they had drawn countless people and countries. And to this day,’ he writes, ‘every attempt to find a language adequate to the mass annihilation seems to fail. Every effort to stabilise recollection by means of language comes too late – too late for those who were its victims, too late for the event itself.’ How does one stabilise such a recollection? Even today, fifty years later, the historians’ question can hardly be separated from the travails of the national identity.’

Deliverance

Daniel Johnson, 20 June 1996

Cambridge only woke up to the great achievements of Peter Stern when he died there aged 70 in 1991. Stern’s adoptive university, to which he found himself evacuated from the LSE after...

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One blushes to admit it

D.J. Enright, 11 June 1992

There are European authors, notably those writing in German, whom we perceive to be important, intimidatingly so, but with whom we find it hard to come to grips, despite the existence of...

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Orpheus in his Underwear

Harold James, 1 November 1984

In 1892 the English Wagnerphile Mary Burrell tracked down a proof copy of the autobiography dictated by Wagner covering the first 51 years of his life, which had been printed privately in an...

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Nietzsche’s Centaur

Bernard Williams, 4 June 1981

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872, when he was 27, and while he was a Professor of Classics at Basel. It had the unusual effect, for him, of attracting...

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A Human Kafka

Gabriel Josipovici, 5 March 1981

When Kafka died in 1924, not one of his novels had been published. He was known to a small circle – though Janouch’s testimony shows that that circle spread beyond his friends –...

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