The last few exhibits in the new museum at Yad Vashem, the ‘Site of Names and Memory’, on a hilltop outside Jerusalem where the murdered of the Holocaust are commemorated, come as no surprise: photographs of survivors struggling to reach Palestine; the triumphant founding of the state of Israel. The final galleries also contain a re-creation of a hut from a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, as if to return to the illusions out of which the tragedy grew.
Yad Vashem begins with a room: a full-scale model of a middle-class German-Jewish parlour from between the wars. Visitors can look in through the cut-away wall and see shelves of books, a piano, reproductions of high art. A sign explains that German Jews thought that they could become part of the dominant culture by embracing the ideals of Bildung – a belief formed by engagement with art, philosophy and learning – which this room embodies in the way a 17th-century Dutch interior displays order and cleanliness. The exhibit is explicitly meant as a synecdoche for the German Jews’ dangerous assimilationist fantasies; the rest of the spike-like, 180-metre long, obstacle and horror-filled space makes clear the tragedy of their error.
Fritz Stern also begins with a room. In 1979, he returned to his hometown, Breslau, now Polish Wroclaw, for the first time since 1938. He wrote about this ‘homecoming’ for his children not long afterwards, and now uses that private account as a public introduction to his book. Much had changed: the apartment where he had grown up was gone; empty lots and unappealing socialist-style buildings had taken the place of familiar sites. But much was the same. The building where his father, a doctor, had had his clinic was still standing. So was the Jewish hospital where his father hadn’t been able to practise as a regular physician because he had been baptised at birth. Also still standing, miraculously, since the city had been devastated by its Nazi defenders as well as by the attacking Russians, was his grandmother’s house, with its reduced, but recognisable garden. His aunt and uncle had been married there; they were murdered at Auschwitz.
Some children let Stern in by a back gate; he ate his fill of gooseberries, ‘as if’, he writes, ‘somehow to assert my right, not to the garden or to the house, but to my own past’. (Someone has probably made a study of berries in the German imagination but, if not, it is a subject worthy of attention. I can think of no culture in which the words, Erdbeeren, Himbeeren, Brombeeren, Stachelbeeren, as well as the fruits, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, have so deep a resonance and are more closely associated with place, memory and longing.) As he was about to leave, an elderly man came down the large curving staircase. Stern struck up a conversation. His interlocutor turned out to be a former Polish cavalry officer who had survived Auschwitz; he invited Stern in.
The once magnificent house was on an altogether different scale from the one the Yad Vashem room might have come from. A huge balcony overlooked what had been a much larger landscaped garden; a beautiful Persian rug remained from his grandparents’ time and the house had been fitted with handmade, architect-designed furniture. For all their differences, the two rooms – one in Jerusalem and one in Breslau – share the poignancy of illusions broken and love unrequited, even if they do not point inexorably to the Zionist denouement.
Stern’s ancestors stood at the pinnacle of the Bildungsbürgertum, the cultivated middle class, who regarded culture generally and Wissenschaft – science in the broadest, purest sense – as the core of an ethical and useful life, both private and public. All four of his great-grandfathers, both grandfathers and his father were successful, well-regarded doctors. The physician’s white coat, as Stern writes, ‘was the one uniform of dignity to which Jews could aspire and in which they could feel a measure of authority and grateful acceptance’. Although medicine was in the 19th century, as it is today, far from a pure science, it held out the promise of a dispassionate, unideological, rational approach to the ills of the body, both social and individual. It was, in Max Weber’s sense, ‘a calling’, a secular equivalent to being chosen by God for his purposes. Germany’s Jews embraced this calling: at the beginning of the 19th century, perhaps 2 per cent of German doctors were Jews; by the early 20th century, at a time when Jews constituted something like 1 per cent of the population, they provided 16 per cent of all doctors. The proportion was far higher in big cities. Excluded from the higher ranks of the civil service and the military, medicine offered them entry into the life of the nation.
For Stern’s people, the ‘German question’ had been settled in 1871; Bismarck was their hero; they were, if anything, more German than the Germans. Jewishness in their circle was an identity expressed more through inclusive friendship and family connections than through belief or institutional connections. (Social and professional exclusion reminded you who you were.) Two of Stern’s grandparents had converted to Christianity as adults; two never did, although their children, including Fritz’s mother, were baptised, and these grandparents, perhaps more than those who had formally embraced the dominant religion, had an affinity with the ‘Christian outlook’ that saw Protestantism as more a commitment to good order than to God.
Both Stern’s parents were baptised, and although he seems never to have had much interest in religion, his sister did. She insisted on going to confirmation classes in 1935, at a time when Nazi Christians – sadly, not an oxymoron – were actively trying to purge the church of non-Aryans. (Her pastor was jailed for resisting such measures.) As a boy, Stern regarded her religious interests as ‘caving in’; now he can see that for her to abandon her Christian faith in response to racism would have been giving in as well. In any case, until 1933, the Sterns’ Jewishness was even more attenuated than it was for other secular, assimilated Jews. (They were technically not Jewish. Religion under the Kaiserreich and under Weimar was not just a cultural or private category but a juridical one; citizens paid taxes that were distributed to specified religious bodies or to designated charities. Conversion happened not just in the eyes of God and one’s conscience but in the eyes of the state.)
Stern’s ancestors on both sides were among the great and the good. One, Sigismund Asch, took part in the 1848 revolution, was jailed for his liberal commitment, and went on to become a city councillor in Breslau and a revered citizen. He took special care to treat the indigent in his medical practice. One of ‘old Asch’s’ sisters became a prominent early feminist. It was said in the obituary of Stern’s maternal grandfather that ‘work was for him … not just duty, it was what life was about.’ The correspondence between this man and his good friend Stern’s paternal grandfather ‘exudes’, Stern writes, ‘a sense of privileged duty’. Work was redemptive. His parents’ generation continued the tradition. Käthe Stern, née Brieger, earned a PhD in physics before founding a kindergarten, inventing various pedagogical games and starting an after-school club. Rudolf Stern became an expert on the traumatic origins of disease and a skilled and popular consultant.
The ancestral world of the Sterns was not so far from what would in Britain be called ‘Victorian’. Not surprising, perhaps, given how much Thomas Carlyle took from German literature and philosophy; how important Goethe was for George Eliot; how much Matthew Arnold admired German education. It is also telling how compatible a veneration for Kultur was with the Victorian values of service and civic engagement. (The big difference is that the great and good of Breslau in the 19th and early 20th centuries more or less made their peace with an undemocratic regime dominated by the Prussian military class and with an administrative cadre more divorced from society than their counterparts in Manchester would have tolerated.) Rudolf Stern fought in the Great War and, as late as October 1918, wrote letters home complaining bitterly of the defeatism of friends and relatives. Stern’s uncle by marriage, the great Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, after whom he was named, invented poison gas as a contribution to the war effort. He also won a Nobel Prize for inventing a process for synthesising ammonia.
The end of the war brought disillusionment but not despair. The great events of Weimar – the political turmoil, the street battles, the assassinations, the increasingly virulent anti-semitism, the cultural confrontations and even the 1930 election that Haber and probably Stern’s father recognised as a dangerous turning point – left the foundational cultural assumptions of the 19th century largely intact. Haber laboured to bring the German scientific community back into the international fold. Stern’s parents acted as if they had a bright future in Germany, moving their family into a large flat and buying bespoke Bauhaus furniture. Rudolf set up new consulting rooms. Stern’s mother did educational work. They had Jewish and non-Jewish friends among Breslau’s civic and political elite. The occasional SA man selling Nazi newspapers did not spoil idyllic family holidays. Private life did not mirror public turmoil; somehow, faith in civic life and progress survived.
When he steps back as a historian, Fritz Stern more or less confirms that his parents were not deluding themselves. Weimar Germany suffered enormous political difficulties, but the defenders of the Enlightenment fought a good fight under extremely difficult conditions: inflation, deflation and depression, the trauma of defeat, a flawed constitution. They held on longer than in other parts of Europe; ‘stolid, often unimaginative’, theirs was still a defence of democracy.
Stern is, of course, right that the success of National Socialism was not inevitable, though exactly in what way Weimar is, as he says, ‘full of lessons for all of us’ is unclear. In any case, the family memories that Stern embeds in a general account of the short-lived republic offer none. Supporters of democracy underestimated the emotive power and ruthlessness of the National Socialists, but even if they had been blessed with miraculously acute political antennae it is unlikely that they would have been able to induce Stalin to allow Communists to co-operate with socialists in the battle against Fascism, or to fix the regime’s flawed constitutional arrangements.
On the night of 30 January 1933, ‘ancestral Germany’ crumbled. But it did not come down all at once and Stern skilfully weaves together the well-known but still poignant, still terrifying, story of the Nazi takeover with the history of a family that managed to keep going. The first victims of the new regime were not Jews but socialists and Communists, who were expelled from political life and in many cases sent to the newly built concentration camps. Labour unions were abolished. And fear was planted in the hearts of even – perhaps especially – the most decent citizens. Stern’s father, after much anguish, decided not to attend the public funeral of his friend Ernst Eckstein, the local leader of the Socialist Workers Party, who had purportedly committed suicide in a concentration camp. The first indecencies were thus inflicted not on putative non-Germans but on the newly proclaimed enemies within. Still, life continued. After voting in the March 1933 elections, Stern’s parents felt confident enough about the political situation to leave their children at home and go on holiday to Italy.
Then the campaign against the Jews began in earnest. Haber, the great intellectual presence in the extended Stern family, was forced out as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry at Berlin-Dahlem. (He resigned before he was fired.) ‘In my whole life,’ he confided to Einstein, ‘I have never felt so Jewish as now.’ Young Fritz, too, came to feel for the first time that he was not ‘Aryan’, a word that had had little resonance before. He knew nothing of his Jewish origins until his father’s severe lecture after he directed an anti-semitic remark at his sister. Then the seven-year-old began to learn who he was, or at least who he was considered to be by the new political masters of Germany.
Stern tells again the story of the expulsion of German Jews from the political, professional and cultural world they had done so much to build. More revealing is the unexpected story of continuity in small things. Yes, someone painted swastikas on Fritz’s rabbit cage, but the rabbits were safely moved to his grandmother’s garden. Yes, the family saw anti-semitic signs in a village they drove through near Breslau en route to a holiday cottage, but when their car went into a ditch on the way home a bus stopped to help and a group of uniformed veterans cheerily pushed it back onto the road. Yes, Aryan doctors sent Rudolf fewer referrals – although some remained friends – but since 50 per cent of Breslau’s doctors were Jewish, the semi-boycott did not have a huge impact; an important SS man consulted Stern’s father on the illness of his mother-in-law, and Fritz subsequently visited her in hospital. The family continued to take foreign holidays, in Denmark, Holland and Prague, and Fritz’s parents went to the United States to explore the possibilities for emigration. The Sterns started to think about leaving in 1935; in 1938, six weeks before Kristallnacht, they sailed for New York.
Two things stand out from Stern’s story. The first is his chilling conclusion that, had Hitler died in the summer of 1936, before the Holocaust and the devastations of war, he would today be hailed in Germany as a hero. Bread and circuses, roughly speaking, count for a lot. The other is more personal. Each family’s story is different: visas for the Sterns came through smoothly, with only minimal backstage manoeuvring. They left with his father’s library; they had money abroad; they took household possessions with them. And, most important, they left with their dignity intact. Had he witnessed his father being arrested after Kristallnacht and his mother begging for his release he would probably not, he writes, have been able to live a life as intimately tied to Germany as his has been.
No one, as far as I know, has studied the question of fathers and sons in the unravelling of the German-Jewish relationship. But the failures of fathers, often brave failures, took their toll. My former colleague Reinhard Bendix tells a story very different from Stern’s. At five in the morning on 2 June 1933, his father, the jurist Ludwig Bendix, was arrested, not for being a Jew but for having once, as a lawyer, defended a Communist. Bendix was taken first to Spandau prison, where he had served as a guard in the Great War, and then to one of the new concentration camps. The point was to teach him a lesson, but Bendix persisted in acting as if the rule of law still prevailed. Once released, he contacted the Gestapo to find out the details of the case against him and to be assured that there would be no legal objections to his practising as a ‘legal counsellor’ now that he had been excluded from the bar. He did not take the hint that permission to emigrate to Palestine could be easily obtained. He tried to establish himself as a ‘counsellor’ and the Bar Association immediately sued him for infringing their monopoly. He won the case but the presiding judge ruled in his favour only after a tirade of anti-semitic remarks and character assassination. ‘However foolish one may wish to call this … to maintain my own integrity I thought it indispensable to claim to the last all the rights available to me under the law,’ he wrote in his memoirs. Arrested again in 1935 and sent to Dachau, he emerged in 1937 with plans to sue the Gestapo and expose abuses of human rights at the prison.
Reinhard and his sister destroyed the brief, tried to stop their father in his quixotic efforts to petition the Berlin police chief to have an anti-semitic poster removed from his office door, and generally viewed the old man’s incomprehension at ‘being made an outcast in the country to whose well-being he had devoted the work of a lifetime’ with a combination of disbelief and exasperation. ‘Young people,’ the son writes, ‘are often unjust in judging their parents.’ Ludwig Bendix never recovered, either in Palestine, where he wrote about trying as a German to assimilate in a new land, or in the United States.
Rudolf Stern managed better. He took the medical licensing examinations in New York and went on to become a prominent physician. In a city not known for its shortage of brilliant Jewish doctors, the baptised son of baptised parents, for whom Zionism was an irrelevance, he was chosen to care for the ailing Chaim Weizmann. Fritz carried his father’s portable electro-cardiograph to the great man’s Waldorf-Astoria apartment and his ‘father was in attendance’ when the call came to say that Weizmann had been elected president of the new state of Israel. A friend of Fritz Haber’s had made the original referral: the bonds of the German intellectual aristocracy remained intact. When, in 1944, Käthe Stern had some worries about the materials she had developed for teaching arithmetic, she called on Albert Einstein, another friend of Haber’s, for reassurance. Her 18-year-old son came along. Einstein asked him what he was planning to do with his life. The boy confessed that he wasn’t sure. Einstein told him that if the choice was between history and medicine he should choose the latter: ‘Medicine is a science, and history is not.’
Young Fritz started pre-med but ended up studying history at Columbia, where Allen Ginsberg was his debating partner. He stayed on for graduate school, left for a few years to teach at Cornell, and then took a job at his alma mater, where he has remained. And so ends the book-within-a-book that has drawn deservedly favourable reviews.
Somewhere around page 200 another book starts. In 1950, while still a student, Stern returned to Germany; in 1954, he gave his first lecture course there. The remainder of the book is about his encounters with the land of his birth in its various political iterations: the West, i.e. the Federal Republic from the 1950s to the 1980s; the East, i.e. the GDR; and finally, the new reunited Bundesrepublik.
This ‘second’ book makes dispiriting and increasingly painful reading. The summaries of late 20th-century German history are fine, although not particularly revealing. It is the memoir that is the problem, not because the life it recalls was a failure but – curiously – because it was an endless stream of successes that did not keep the demons at bay. On the last page, Stern reports on the standing ovation he received at the end of his speech accepting the enormously prestigious Peace Prize of the German book trade in 1999. His wife asks: ‘Are you happy?’ ‘If not now, when?’ the 73-year-old man replies. When indeed?
This second book was almost bound to be a let-down. The German Jewish story, however often retold, is mournful and melancholy even when, as in this case, the denouement is relatively happy. The life of a professor is hard to dramatise. Accounts of lectures and lecture tours, précis of countless publications, reports of committee meetings, seminars, and brief encounters with famous people are not terribly interesting to outsiders. One very soon tires of prizes and honours. But this second book misses lots of chances to be engaging: it sidesteps the sort of reality that could not be avoided in the earlier part.
There is a joke about a crowd of Germans pouring out of a tourist bus that has stopped in front of the Pearly Gates. They see two signs. One points to the left: ‘Heaven.’ The other points right: ‘Lectures about Heaven.’ The Germans all head to the right. And so does Stern. One entire chapter – 54 pages – does not even pretend to be about Germany but is about lecturing about Germany over the course of 15 months under the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation. Lectures and summaries of Stern’s work are the backbone of the second book: ‘My lecture course at the Free University was on …’; ‘I tried to put the three thinkers in the context of German intellectual and political history.’ There then follows a fuller account of what he said or wrote on each occasion and a review of how these interventions were received. Stern’s archives must be enormous. Even when he admits he knows little about a subject he usually gets good reviews and lets readers in on them. Claudio Veliz writes to tell him that his article on repression and reform in Latin America was ‘thoughtful and perceptive’. And when, as is more often the case, he is writing about some topic of European history, he gets rave reviews from all sorts of famous people. The president of the Federal Republic, Richard von Weizsäcker, sends Stern a note to tell him that he had read one of his lectures ‘with liveliest interest and gratitude’; McGeorge Bundy says that he thought another piece ‘uncommonly good’ and Lionel Trilling found an earlier draft of it ‘smashing’; George Kennan thought that he had never seen a better account of Soviet historiography than Stern’s (‘brilliant and unanswerable’); C. Vann Woodward, a ‘master historian’, tells him that, after reading only the introduction, he already knew he had much to learn from Stern’s first book. ‘And the personal letters!’ Stern received about his second book: J.K. Galbraith called it ‘sublime’, the Listener compared it to Buddenbrooks.
All three Germanies that Stern knew as an adult are unfailingly mediated through lectures, summaries of published writings and reports on reviews of lectures and writings. Why he chose this form is not clear. His published work has a strong narrative voice and a point of view firmly anchored in the moment of writing. Perhaps in a memoir he was simply not able or willing to reflect from the vantage point of the present on a past life. Maybe that life was too hectic to sustain such reflection. He says of himself that perhaps he was ‘unconsciously opting for a life on the run, at the cost of reflection and learning’. He certainly kept on the move. It comes as a shock near the end of the book to learn that the barely five months Stern spent in Richard Holbrooke’s Bonn embassy as the ambassador’s adviser in 1993-94 were the longest continuous period he had spent in Germany since he left as a teenager in 1938. The total time he spent in the GDR can be counted in weeks.
The book’s form may have a certain prophylactic motive. Stern craves approval and fears exposure, and his rhetoric works to keep readers at bay by mediating experience and recounting success. In Sweden Stern got to talk – ‘again’ – with Olof Palme; in Iran David Rockefeller arranged for him to meet the shah; in Egypt he met Boutros Boutros-Ghali. And in India, Italy, Poland, China and other places he met scores of ambassadors and important intellectuals. He confesses that he seeks out the company and approval of those he calls his betters. When he is inducted into a select academy he writes that he delights in being ‘able to admire’ his famous new colleagues: ‘a pleasure balanced, I think, by the pain of well-developed self-doubt – I rejoiced in being among their company.’ But there isn’t much reflection on this feeling, an all too common one among academics.
The problem is not just that he fails to use his personal life as a prism to refract his times. The break-up of his long first marriage and his growing friendship with and subsequent second marriage to the editor Elisabeth Sifton goes by in a couple of paragraphs. We probably don’t need to know any more, although this brief revelation does raise a question of balance. Do we need the whole page that follows, where we learn how fortunate it was that because Stern first had an operation to repair a spinal stenosis and then a heart attack, rather than the other way round, he was able to do cardio-rehab by hiking during his next holiday in Switzerland, which he couldn’t have done had the problems come in reverse order?
By writing about lectures and their reception, rather than about things in themselves, about life, Stern can avoid revealing what he now thinks and feels about various matters. Instead we learn what he thought or said in a succession of pasts. Meta-observation supplants observation; life outside the lecture – and outside the highest circles of academia, politics and the media – seems not to exist, or is taken up with preparing for the next engagement; time is frozen in texts and précis of talks past; important questions both about the paradigmatic figure of Stern himself, and about his world, go unasked and unanswered. The failure of rhetoric is thus a failure to come to terms with the great questions of the age that German history raises.
This is a pity, because when Stern does report on his experiences of Germany he is informative and knowledgable; when he writes, for example, about his distress at the vilification of Willy Brandt, the chancellor who had kneeled at a monument commemorating the victims of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto; or observes that his great friend Marion Countess Dönhoff, the aristocratic publisher of Die Zeit, still longed for her ancestral lands in the East; or writes of his dismay that politicians on the right still hoped that the Polish border was not permanently fixed. (His account of the countess’s funeral, attended by a small group including Henry Kissinger, is one of the finest pieces of writing in the book.) Even his remarks on Brandt end by describing what he would write ten years later and a quote from what he actually did write in 1971.
Stern is occasionally aware of how time has frozen over as he refers back to all these lectures. He writes, for example, that he regrets his failure, in the past, to write about National Socialism’s admirers abroad. But there was nothing to stop him making up for this omission in his memoir. The ‘marvellously austere’ James Conant, a former president of Harvard, one of Stern’s mentors for a brief time and high commissioner in Germany after the war, a man whose vigour and knowledge, Stern says, were matched only by Arthur Burns in the 1970s and Richard Holbrooke in the 1990s, might be a case in point. Conant sent delegations from Harvard to various functions at German universities and played host to Nazi officials at Harvard even after Kristallnacht and after German universities had been purged of Jewish academics. (This might have meant little to the president of an Ivy League university since these institutions at the time had few or no Jews on their faculties. The first Jew to get tenure at Yale was Paul Weiss in 1946.) In his role as a leading chemist, Conant advised Dupont not to hire the refugee scientist Max Bergmann because he was ‘definitely of the Jewish type’. Postwar German democracy was nursed along by men like Conant, who weren’t raging anti-semites but the polite sort, the sort who were perfectly happy to lend the prestige of America’s premier university to Nazi institutions. What exactly would Stern have us make of such things?
This brings up the larger question that looms over this book. It is written under the sign of Camus’s The Plague. One ‘should bear witness’, says the epigraph with which Stern begins; one needs ‘to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence’; to teach that ‘the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years … that it bides its time.’ The allegory is all too clear in the first part of the book, as it tells the story of what happens when the political rats are allowed to go forth and triumph. It may well be that Stern’s exemplary life of liberal civic involvement – he supported civil rights causes, opposed the Vietnam War, spoke out against Reagan’s going to Bitburg cemetery, and writes critically of his adopted country’s attack on Iraq and on individual liberties at home – is born of a passion to live out what he learned in a time of pestilence. Certainly, most of his serious historical work is engaged in some way with what went wrong in Germany. But the ideal of active citizenship is very familiar. And the threat of a renewed Nazism seems remote.
Too much of the second part of the book seems disingenuously marshalled under the banner of ‘never again’. Stern was a leader, he proudly reports, of the so-called ‘Stern gang’ – an odd allusion to the 1940s Zionist terrorist group – that opposed making concessions to Columbia students in 1968. Whatever the merits of the case, it is hard to believe that he really thinks, as he claims he did at the time, that the idealistic student radicals of 1960s Columbia shared much with the quite differently motivated Nazi students of 1930s Germany. Although he allies himself with other émigré academics, the fear of a reborn Hitler Youth in 1960s New York has to be more of a post hoc justification of views held for other political and personal reasons than a real motivating force: that his mentor Lionel Trilling nodded approvingly at every point Stern made at a crucial faculty meeting had to count for something. (No one has researched the question of how refugees from Nazi persecution reacted as a group to the student unrest of the Vietnam War era. At Berkeley, the two most important supporters of the Free Speech Movement at the Law School, Richard Buxbaum and Hans Linde, were Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution; the refugee scholar Leo Lowenthal, a leading member of the Frankfurt School, also sided with the FSM students. Others were on the side of the administration at various times or not engaged at all.)
More important, Stern does not address the question of whether Camus’s warning has much to do with the remarkable rise of a democratic Germany out of a defeated land that was, at best, only superficially cleansed of its Nazi, anti-democratic, governing elite. Early in the book, Stern writes bitterly about his encounters with academics who had a few years before supported National Socialism, shared the broader cultural anti-semitism of much of Germany’s Weimar professoriat, and were wholly unapologetic, if not downright dishonest, about their past. He writes that Konrad Adenauer may have made a mistake in not purging the civil service and judiciary more thoroughly. (Most of the judiciary and civil service of the Federal Republic had served the Nazis, as had some politicians of sub-cabinet and even cabinet rank.) And, he suggests, Germany might have been different had its leaders been able, for example, to honour rather than ignore or despise the memory of the 1944 Stauffenberg plot, in which aristocratic members of the German army tried and almost succeeded in assassinating Hitler. (Their opposition had to do with the fact that the officers had renounced their oaths of allegiance to the Führer.)
Once we are launched on the story of lectures given and praised, it is difficult to follow the influence of Camus’s writ on Stern’s account. He is right that Fortuna smiled on the Federal Republic, but he doesn’t tell us how she made her good graces felt. And he certainly doesn’t tell us what role the mastery and assimilation of a deeply compromised past played in building a democratic present. We would all like to believe that coming to terms with a blighted history is a necessary step towards regeneration and a stable democracy. But we will not learn from this book about reparations, the post-Nuremberg trials, the integration of German refugees from what had been Poland and further east: it tells us nothing about specific acts intended to make the world right again through a confrontation with history. By the time of the massive engagement with the Nazi past in the 1970s and 1980s, the result largely of the maligned student movement of the 1960s, the danger of the rats returning was surely slight. Most of the original rats had retired. A constitution that avoided the pitfalls of Weimar and the West’s overwhelming interest in Germany remaining a democratic country during the Cold War were important. Mastery of the past slowly gave Germany and the German language a new moral legitimacy.
And if the danger was from Communism we learn nothing new here. Stern spent almost no time in the East and his responses to it are totally predictable. How the rats were challenged there and ultimately expelled does not interest him. Neither is he curious about the fact that, for a very long time, decent people supported the regime even if they were also critical of it. The remarkable story of the GDR’s expulsion in 1976 of the singer, poet and committed Communist Wolf Biermann because of his advocacy of reform, and what that symbolised, goes unnoticed, which is a bit like writing about the United States during this period and not mentioning Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, only worse. More generally, Stern never seems to have gone to a concert or a football match, talked to a cab driver, or met anyone lowlier than a full professor, major writer or government minister.
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.
George Mosse might seem more likely. He wrote more extensively than Stern about the cultural roots of National Socialism and Prussian militarism. But there would be no romance. He had no need of, indeed something of an aversion to, engagement with postwar Germany. His grandfather was Rudolf Mosse, the founder of Germany’s first modern ad agency and owner of a major newspaper. George grew up in a fabulously wealthy, culturally important family, with buildings named for it in central Berlin andpalaces in the nearby countryside. He eventually got some of the family’s property back and lectured often in Germany; his books were translated into German. But becoming who he was meant precisely not offering himself as the scion of a great Jewish family returning home.
Mosse made his life in middle America, at the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin; his political engagements were with the Wisconsin Democratic Party rather than the Council on Foreign Relations. Students adored him and he was devoted to them. Mosse is pictured in his memoirs with the keys to his first car, a gift from students when he left the University of Iowa, and with a group of graduate students at a conference in Amsterdam. Stern is shown with John Paul II, Henry Kissinger and Willy Brandt, and addressing the Bundestag with Chancellor Kohl and Foreign Minister Genscher in the background.
More important is that Mosse, from an assimilated, secular, anti-Zionist family, eventually found a spiritual home in Israel. He had this in common with his friend Laqueur, with whom he ran a journal and the Wiener Library in London; Laqueur, too, taught in the United States for many years, but unlike Mosse he had gone to Palestine in the late 1930s. Gershom Scholem, one of the 20th century’s great scholars of Judaism, ‘forgot’ to hand Stern the Einstein medal he was to receive when he visited Israel to help celebrate the physicist’s centenary. Stern wonders whether Scholem’s aversion might have been caused by his book on Bleichröder and Bismarck and a sense that it could be read as an argument for assimilation. Mosse, on the other hand, suggests that he himself was welcomed by Scholem out of pleasure at the irony that the grandson of a prominent German anti-Zionist should be teaching in Israel. The irreligious Mosse thrived in the academic culture of Israel as Stern did in the public culture of Germany.
Germany needed its returning Jewish refugees for moral legitimacy, but not everyone would do. Stern was perfect. Mosse – homosexual, shy, drawn to new homes in Israel and England – was not viable. Neither was the Communist Eric Hobsbawm, one of the 20th century’s greatest historians, who, though Austrian, was living in Berlin when he was expelled. Arno Mayer, a major historian of European diplomacy and political culture who ended up at Princeton, wasn’t politically presentable either. In any case, he was from Luxembourg, even if German was his mother tongue. And, one suspects, here too the feeling was mutual. Neither Hobsbawm or Mayer had the slightest interest in winning special recognition from Germany.
Raul Hilberg, whose research on the Holocaust laid the foundation for the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, might have welcomed more attention. His academic career was not filled with the honours that his contributions deserved. But the story he told was not nearly as comforting as Stern’s. Hilberg’s Holocaust was less the result of a culture of political despair or of some other 19th-century failure of Bildung than of the quotidian decisions of hundreds of thousands of Germans to drive trains, arrange timetables, ship poison gas, account for stolen valuables – shoes, household goods, hair – and perform the many small jobs it took to murder millions and profit from those murders. The people who pulled the switches, signed the orders and pushed the paper were running the Federal Republic when Hilberg’s uncompromising book first appeared in 1961. It took almost thirty years for a major German publisher to translate The Destruction of the European Jews. By the 1980s he was welcomed back, mostly by young audiences. But Hilberg was not intellectually or politically clubbable from the perspective of the pre-1968 generation. And, more generally, one has the impression from his memoir of a man made prickly by academic adversity, a man also whose class background did not allow him to fit easily in glittering circles.
Stern is consummately clubbable. The story of his encounter with Einstein is retold in every press account of his prizes as if his brief brush with Wilhelmine greatness redeems a lost past. That’s fine. But Stern sells himself short by narrating a life driven so powerfully by the next lecture opportunity, by the desire to be in the company of his betters, by the pursuit of fame and recognition. There is nothing wrong with ambition but one wishes its objectives were more edifying.
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