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A number of readers have written to ask me for book recommendations for the holiday season. My top pick, and certainly the best newly published work I’ve read in the last year, is Fritz Stern’s Five Germanys I Have Known. The work is simultaneously a memoir by one of America’s greatest historians and a study in the transformation of a nation over the course of a century–a period which proved as much of a roller-coaster ride as any nation has experienced in the modern age. Former Columbia Provost Fritz Stern answers six questions from No Comment.
1. You have crafted an autobiography that focuses on Germany, the nation from which you came and which developed into a professional passion for you as an American academic. But there seems to be a rather bittersweet quality to the first chapters of the book, in which you portray the Wilhelmine era and Weimar, but also pay special attention to Silesia and to the city of Breslau, where you grew up, and to the mixture of German, Slavic and Jewish communities that characterize it. And of course one of the curious aspects of the book is that “your” Germany is no longer part of Germany at all, as Breslau became Wroc?aw and Silesia became part of Poland. Do you think these roots on the periphery of Germany situated you better as an observer of the nation and its relationship with its neighbors and the world?
I focused on Breslau as my native city; it has special characteristics and I had special access to its history via family letters and memorabilia. Its south-eastern location put it close to the Polish and Czech borders — and the fact that a trip to the Sudeten mountains and to Prague were short distances proved important to me in my youth under Hitler. The fact that it ceased being a German city may have given me a better, closer perspective on postwar Germany, and it certainly gave me a special interest in Polish life, in Polish efforts to come to terms with the German past of their newly gained territory. And I was proud of Wroc?aw as a bastion of Solidarno??!
2. In 1979, at the centenary of the birth of Albert Einstein, you were in Berlin with Raymond Aron. You mused on the Germany that “might have been” noting that one great country had dominated the culture of its age in Europe’s history—first Spain, then France, Holland and Britain. During the first decade of the twentieth century decisive things occurred which caused it not to be Germany. Can you describe what the key turning points were, in your mind?
Before 1914, it was still a live possibility: Germany had a preëminent position in science and industry, in culture in the most general sense. Politically, it was in a largely unacknowledged conflict between autocracy and aspiring liberal-democratic reform, and internal conflicts contributed to Germany’s reckless or at least imprudent foreign policy that ultimately and decisively contributed to the outbreak of the Great War — which in turn destroyed Germany’s possibility of becoming Europe’s preëminent power. The imperial hubris of German leadership during the war prolonged the catastrophe and left Germany in a state of latent civil war.
3. Your first work, ‘The Politics of Cultural Despair,’ can be seen as an exercise in tracing Fascism back to its intellectual roots. But you also quote and speak of Thomas Mann quite a bit, and it seems that Mann’s political odyssey, from being the cultural conservative of ‘Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen’ to the cautious and then progressively more assertive defender of liberal democratic values in works such as ‘Von deutscher Republik’ could have been the trajectory of the German intelligentsia, with starkly different historical consequences. On the other hand, Kurt Tucholsky, who also figures as a sort of cultural hero for you, seems very dismissive of this sort of speculation—“a country is also what it tolerates,” as he wrote in that famous letter to Arnold Zweig. Is there a fair role in the writing of intellectual history for the “might have been” speculation?
Yes, Thomas Mann’s trajectory — it only took him some four or five years to come to accept democratic forms — could have been exemplary for others. It could never have shaken the utterly provincial and resentfully anti-western attitude of so many German academics of all levels. I checked in my book: Tucholsky doesn’t even make it to the index. Yes, historians ought to ponder “might-have-beens,” provided they do so carefully, conscious of constraining context. But they need to be aware of contingency and accident…. That’s why I objected to the once popular explanation of Nazism by books with titles like From Luther to Hitler. I remember thinking in 1945 that in the late summer of 1940 there were probably manuscripts floating around with the title Why England Fell.
4. Near the end of your book, discussing the legacy of Auschwitz, you say that this was “a negation of Western civilization. But it should also remind those of us who live in fragile democracies that authority should never be divorced from accountability.” These were, to me, the most striking lines of the entire book. You were making a point that was universal, of course, but also—signaled by your use of the first person—something that weighed on your mind about the world today, as you are writing. Am I right about this? Are we not today witnessing the fact that democracy is always fragile, even in a nation that feels confident of its democratic heritage and institutions?
Yes, democracies are always fragile — by their very openness. A nation that “feels confident of its democratic heritage….” is probably somewhat less vulnerable to subversion — but that would presuppose that such a nation really understood its heritage and had a genuine historic sense.
5. I was intrigued by your discussion of Leopold von Ranke, and particularly the gem you dug out of volume 54 of his collected works: “We see before us a series of events which follow one another and are conditioned by one another. I say ‘conditioned’ I certainly do not mean conditioned through absolute necessity. The important point is that human freedom makes its appearance everywhere, and the greatest attraction of history lies in the fact that it deals with the scenes of that freedom.” It’s a remarkable statement considering Ranke’s reputation as the positivist who the disdained historical idealism of Hegel, the Marxists, or even the Whigs in the line from Macaulay to Trevelyan. Are you telling us that there really was an idealist Ranke lurking deep under the surface?
I hesitate to pronounce on Ranke in such short compass. Yes, there was far more to him than the positivist strain usually attached to him. In this sentence, I see a clear rejection of any determinist scheme, any notion of historic “necessity.”
6. German-American relations have seen their ups and downs over the last fifty years—I can still remember Helmut Schmidt complaining bitterly about Jimmy Carter’s unpredictability—but I can’t remember a time when German confidence in its trans-Atlantic ally was ever quite as low as this. Recently we even had Schmidt suggesting in an interview with ‘Die Zeit’ that given the choice between the Bush White House and the Putin Kremlin, the latter seemed safer and more predictable. A shocking statement. Do you see an easy path to the restoration of good relations between Berlin and Washington once George W. Bush is gone? What do you see as the flashpoints for the relationship now?
I doubt that the bilateral relationship on the governmental level will ever be as close again as it was during the cold war or even as it was right after September 11. Germany has to consider its European links and, increasingly, its links to Russia and Asia. The prerequisite to better relations would have to be the de facto abandonment of American unilateralism.
Fritz Stern’s Five Germanys I Have Known was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and can be ordered here.
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“Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.”