Vol. 29 No. 18 · 20 September 2007

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Anything but Shy

In his discussion of Fritz Stern’s Five Germanys I Have Known (LRB, 7 June) Thomas Laqueur writes that Stern ‘craves approval and fears exposure’; he is ‘a scholar who craves honours’, his ‘life driven by the next lecture opportunity … by the pursuit of fame and recognition’. He chides Stern for enjoying the company of ‘famous new colleagues’, a feeling (according to Laqueur) ‘all too common among academics’.

This ad hominem assault would be distasteful from any quarter. But it is pretty ripe coming from an academic whose own website (http://history.berkeley.edu/faculty/Laqueur/) lists every bauble he has received, every important lecture he has ever given, and even takes the trouble to inform visitors that Thomas Laqueur was once a ‘Guest of the Rektor, Wissenschafts Kolleg zu Berlin’. In matters of aspiration, apparently, the professor knows whereof he writes. But how can even he be so sure that when Stern took a prominent stand at Columbia in 1968 he acted not from principle but in pursuit of the approval of his mentor Lionel Trilling (it ‘had to count for something’)? Has it never occurred to Laqueur that a scholar might speak out from simple conviction, and not just in order to ingratiate himself with an academic constituency? Perhaps not.

Laqueur contrasts Stern unfavourably with other prominent German émigré historians. They (‘George’, ‘Peter’ – note Laqueur’s own famous connections) did not seek recognition from their country of origin: they were ‘too distinguished … to need honours’. Whether anyone ‘needs’ honours would seem difficult to determine; but it is certainly not true that Stern’s gifted contemporaries have eschewed tribute when it has been offered. The achievements of Peter Gay, George Mosse, Eric Hobsbawm and Raul Hilberg have all been copiously recognised (belatedly in Hilberg’s case). Hobsbawm may not, according to Laqueur, have ‘the slightest interest in winning special recognition from Germany’. But he was pleased to be appointed a Companion of Honour. And why not? In Hobsbawm’s own words, ‘even revolutionaries like to be in a suitable tradition.’ What would Laqueur make of Hannah Arendt, who greatly enjoyed her success with Germans (they even named a train after her)?

Doubtless he would disapprove. For while Laqueur chides Stern for eschewing football matches and draws a dismissive contrast between Stern’s interest in ideas and Bildung and the laudable attention paid by others to ‘sexuality’, what seems particularly to vex him is that Stern is so venerated in Germany – and not, like Mosse for example, in Israel. Are we to understand that if Germans shower praise on Stern in particular, this is thanks to his ‘failure to come to terms with the great questions of the age that German history raises’. Really? And who is Thomas Laqueur to pass this judgment? The distinguished professor of ‘European cultural history’ comprehensively misconstrues the concluding passage from The Plague which serves as Stern’s epigraph: the ‘rats’ – whose return to ‘some well-contented city’ was anticipated by Camus and who shadow Stern’s account of his own and Germany’s past – are not just Nazis or Germans. That would be too reassuring. Camus was writing about the fragility of republics, the complicity of intellectuals and the seductions of political evil. These are the great questions of the age and they haunt Stern’s many books and essays on Germany just as they haunted Camus, Arendt, Aron and others. If Laqueur can’t see this, he should stick to the history of masturbation.

Tony Judt
New York

Thomas Laqueur writes: I’d like to be clear here. I was not passing judgment on the life or the honour-worthiness of Fritz Stern in my essay. I was not reviewing his CV; I was reviewing his book. Of course, when that book is a memoir, the lived and the literary blur, but I tried very hard to maintain the distinction. I speak of ‘Stern’s exemplary life of liberal civic involvement’, his active support of civil rights causes and his opposition to the Vietnam War to make clear that I am not being critical of his political views or actions generally but of particular claims. My piece was about Five Germanys I Have Known and the way its author construed his life and about what that construal did or did not contribute to an understanding of 20th-century Germany – the ostensible subject of the book.

I would agree with Tony Judt that the questions Camus raises are still ‘the great questions of the age’. However, I was not reviewing the work of Camus – or Hannah Arendt or Raymond Aron – but of Fritz Stern. My interest was not in the general applicability of a quotation from The Plague to 20th-century history but in the particular instances of the supposed ‘seductions of political evil’ that Stern discusses.

I questioned, for example, whether witnessing the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s made evident the ‘anti-democratic’ tendencies of the Columbia student movement in 1968 and offered as potential counter-evidence the positions taken by other refugee scholars who, unlike Stern, were supportive of the students. I do not question that Stern thought and, in fact, acted out of principle. But it is Stern who confesses to craving the approval of older and illustrious men and Stern who remembers the approving face of his mentor Lionel Trilling looking down on him from the gallery during the faculty debate.

Likewise, I do not suggest that Germans ‘shower praise on Stern’, as Judt puts it, thanks to his ‘failure to come to terms with the great questions of the age that German history raises’. What I do say – after a paragraph describing what I take to be diversionary literary strategies of all sorts in this book – is that Stern’s ‘failure of rhetoric is thus a failure to come to terms with the great questions of the age that German history raises’. And, before I make the case for this claim, I say that ‘this is a pity, because when Stern does report on his experiences of Germany he is informative and knowledgable.’ My aim, as a reading of my remarks in context would make clear, was to identify the uneasiness that Stern has in seeing his own life as emblematic of the great questions of the age.

Judt’s comments on my discussion of honour and recognition raise a more delicate matter; he may be right to detect a more judgmental tone here. I would not be at all surprised to find that Eric Hobsbawm was pleased to have become a Companion of Honour. I don’t know, but I suspect ‘bemused’ or ‘amused’ might also describe his reaction. But why would he not be pleased; we all enjoy honour and recognition. That said, Aristotle has it right when he says that honour as a foundational good ‘seems too superficial to be what we are looking for, since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honour rather than on him who receives it’. I did find that there was something not altogether attractive about a life that its author – both in the sense of the man whose handiwork that life is and the man who wrote the account of it – construed as a course of honours awarded and approval bestowed. Because Five Germanys devoted so much space to these matters it raised a general question about honour-seeking and honour-giving: why, in such a talented generation of émigré scholars did this man, the baptised son of a baptised son of a baptised son, come to be the recipient of so many honours as Germany tried to come to terms with its National Socialist past? The answer, as Aristotle suggests, would have to do not only with his intrinsic virtue but with his striving and with the disposition of others.

Let me turn now to Norman Zide’s letter of 16 August. I was not so much wrong as imprecise in claiming that Paul Weiss in 1946 was the first Jew to get tenure at Yale. However, Zide does not get it quite right either when he says that the great anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir, appointed in 1931, was the first, and therein lies a revealing tale of anti-semitism in the Ivy League. Dan Oren in Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale (1985) puts the case succinctly:

All the changes in Yale attitudes toward the hiring of faculty crystallised in the appointment of philosopher Paul Weiss as full professor in Yale College in 1946. When the college and university appointed him, he became the first Jew to hold the rank of full professor, complete with tenure and the further trappings of senior rank. At that time Yale took a step from which there was no turning back.

What Oren makes clear, and what I should have specified, is that Weiss was the first Jew to be tenured in Yale College (the heart of the university), and that his appointment was a historically decisive moment for the institution as a whole.

There had been tenured Jews in other faculties for decades but their integration into the university depended on their passing as something else. Milton Charles Winternitz, the distinguished pathologist, for example, was appointed dean of the Medical School in 1920, 11 years before Sapir went to Yale. But ‘Winter’, as he was called, never publicly admitted to being a Jew; he harboured, his daughter said, a ‘fantasy about being a gentile’; and he was a vocal, aggressive anti-semite. And, because of all this, he succeeded, if one wants to call it that, at Yale and in New Haven. Despite some protests from the neighbours he was able to buy a house where he wanted; despite some grumbling at the Graduate Club, the centre of town-gown sociability, he was invited to join.

The case of Edward Sapir was different. His appointment was in the graduate faculty, and came about because of a new president’s efforts to bring brilliance to Yale by doing an end run around the entrenched College faculty. Sapir was a ‘gentleman’: exclusion on grounds of ‘pushiness’ and ‘vulgarity’, as covers for anti-semitism, did not apply. But he was a Jew with an active interest in Jewish affairs. He and Morris Cohen, one of the most distinguished philosophers of his day, who had earlier been denied an appointment at Yale, together founded the Conference on Jewish Relations as well as a journal that concentrated on studies of the place of Jews in the modern world. And for being openly Jewish Sapir was blackballed at the same club that had admitted Winternitz, one blow among others that, as Zide suggests, was hugely embittering. (Sapir was elected to the lesser Faculty Club but never crossed its threshold.)

Rivonia Days

R.W. Johnson suggests that Nelson Mandela’s speech at the Rivonia trial may have been written by the leader of the defence team, Bram Fischer (LRB, 16 August). The suggestion is completely unfounded. I was junior counsel in the defence team. One of my responsibilities was to gather research material that Mandela requested while preparing his speech. He spent many hours working on it, on occasion editing it in the light of the comments of his colleagues and lawyers, and right up to the day it was delivered, made changes to the wording. The architecture, tone and thrust of the speech were his and his alone. The demeaning suggestion that he may not have been the author is simply untrue.

Arthur Chaskalson
Sandton, South Africa

R.W. Johnson says that ‘in both Mandela’s trials he opted to avoid cross-examination (and thus taking an oath) and decided instead to make a moving political speech.’ But that is not true. My father was a junior prosecutor in the treason trial in the 1950s, and has told me that Mandela chose to give evidence under oath and submit to cross-examination although he was not obliged to do so. He was cross-examined for some days and impressed even the prosecution by his open and forthright manner.

Johnson goes on to say that, when Mandela was cross-examined in the Luyt trial in 1998, ‘it was a disaster,’ and that the court made credibility findings against him. This isn’t true either. I was lead counsel for Mandela in that case. Counsel for Luyt aggressively cross-examined Mandela but did not impugn his honesty in any way: he made that clear in his closing address by stating that ‘we do not question the president’s integrity or honesty.’ Despite this concession, the trial judge made adverse findings about Mandela’s evidence. Mandela was, however, vindicated on appeal by the unanimous finding of the Constitutional Court that there was no basis on which it could be suggested that his evidence had been anything but honest and true.

Wim Trengove
Sandton, South Africa

R.W. Johnson writes: No one doubts that Mandela spent a lot of time on his speech. However, I have found that among those close to the main actors there is a pervasive impression that he received considerable assistance with it. Bram Fischer, Lionel Bernstein and many of the others were able men in that regard and Bernstein’s role in drafting the Freedom Charter is well known, although ANC mythology still has it that this was somehow put together by ‘the people’. It was quite common for better educated whites to ‘ghost’ speeches for blacks in that era: indeed, I wrote such speeches myself. The ANC politician whose speeches I helped with was a brave man – he had to give those speeches, not me.

When I spoke of ‘both Mandela’s trials’ I was referring to Rivonia and Mandela’s earlier trial for incitement, when he claimed to have no obligation to obey the law (since he couldn’t vote), insisted he could not receive a fair trial and attempted to have the judge recused. He appeared throughout in traditional African dress and used his statement to great effect, turning the trial into a political event, like Rivonia. I didn’t refer to the treason trial since Mandela was only one of 156 accused and it would be odd to refer to that as ‘Mandela’s trial’. I am surprised that Wim Trengove is keen to acknowledge his father’s prosecution role in that disgraceful, trumped up trial.

In the Luyt trial Mandela had to appear after one of his ministers and a chief civil servant had been forced to admit to the court that they had lied under oath, claiming that there was ‘nothing wrong in lying to protect the president’. Justice De Villiers questioned the credibility of Mandela’s evidence, suggesting it might ‘be due to a lack of veracity, or unreliability, or a combination of these factors’, adding that ‘the president’s overall performance on the witness stand was less than satisfactory. His overall demeanour is, to my mind, subject to material criticism.’ (Mandela had refused to address the judge as ‘Your Lordship’.) For a president to receive such a public dressing-down was indeed disastrous.

Luyt objected, not unreasonably, to the case being appealed to the Constitutional Court. As Justice Van Schalkwyk put it in his book, One Miracle Is Not Enough, ‘the perception remains that the Constitutional Court under the leadership of its president’ – Arthur Chaskalson – ‘is an ANC or ANC-sympathetic institution.’ Luyt went further, pointing out, truthfully enough, that all the judges on that court were personal friends of Mandela. When the court behaved as he had predicted it would Luyt remarked that ‘it was about as surprising as hearing that the All Blacks had beaten Japan.’

The Real Ulises Lima

It’s not entirely true, as Benjamin Kunkel states in his welcome piece on Roberto Bolaño, that ‘Distant Star concerns the sole poet in Bolaño whose work we are able to read’ (LRB, 6 September). The Savage Detectives, being the definitive novel about the Mexican cultural scene of the 1970s, is also a roman à clef. Having lived in Mexico City, I recognised several friends and acquaintances, some transparently re-created, others fragmented or combined, leading to no end of speculation in some quarters. But the model for the wandering poet Ulises Lima is plainly Mario Santiago, who with Bolaño founded the radical, anarchic Infrarealist Movement on which the ‘visceral realist’ group in the book is based. The Infras’ only collective publication was Pájaro de calor in 1976: they hated the literary establishment and thought of poetry as a way of life, chronicled in photocopied pamphlets at emotional café readings. Charismatic and wilfully maudit, Santiago was a poet of huge talent, somewhat wrecked but still writing long after the group broke up. He died under a bus in 1998.

Lorna Scott Fox
London E8

Where the Money Goes

Ed Harriman (LRB, 6 September) offers a highly selective and distorted account of a recent audit by the Special Inspector General for Iraq (SIGIR). He unfairly implies that Bechtel earned a ‘king’s ransom’ for questionable and unaudited reconstruction work in that country. The vast majority of payments to Bechtel by the US Agency for International Development were passed through to Iraqi and other subcontractors or reimbursed our documented costs. All of our costs were closely scrutinised by the Defense Contract Audit Agency, as noted in the Sigir report. In fact, according to Sigir, the agency questioned only .02 per cent of Bechtel’s invoices.

Harriman implies that Bechtel racked up unconscionable ‘support costs’, neglecting to cite Sigir’s conclusion that Bechtel’s ‘support-cost percentage is in line with the support costs incurred by other major contractors – both in Iraq and in the United States’. Finally, Harriman notes Sigir’s finding that only 11 of 24 projects in our Phase II contract ‘clearly met their original objectives’. He fails to cite Sigir’s explanation that ‘the scope of work and funds available changed over time.’ Security threats and changing government priorities – including the ‘reprogramming’ of funds to boost military programmes, which cut our original budget by half a billion dollars – led USAID to modify many of our original assignments. As any responsible contractor would, Bechtel went on to meet USAID’s revised objectives.

USAID stated in its addendum to the Sigir report: ‘Bechtel performed exemplary work that was responsive and cost-effective to the US Government and the American taxpayer.’

Jonathan Marshall
Bechtel Corporation, San Francisco


A mistake on our part made it seem that Marc Kusnetz (LRB, 6 September) worked for a US news organisation in 2005. This was not the case.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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