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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Five Germanys I Have Known’ Combines a Memoir with Historical Analysis of the Madness That Afflicted Germans – and the World

Posted by kinchendavid on November 28, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV – One of the most telling anecdotes in Fritz Stern’s “Five Germanys I Have Known” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30.00, 560 pages) involves the German-born author and a fellow émigré Konrad Bloch, a Nobel laureate and Harvard Professor of Chemistry attending a 1981 conference convened by the West German chemical firm Hoechst to determine why Germany had fallen behind the U.S. and Britain in the sciences.

At a critical point in the conference, Stern and Bloch “looked at each other in silent wonderment: Couldn’t the Germans see the one obvious cause for their nation’s decline? Do you expel some of your best talent with impunity and without consequences? Why this silence among these utterly enlightened participants?….Perhaps the subject was too embarrassing to mention, the point too obvious to make.”

Why did the people running Germany’s largest chemical firm neglect to ask the obvious question, about the loss of talented Germans – mostly Jews, but many Gentiles, too, during the rise of the Third Reich. My personal shorthand for this phenomenon is “German Amnesia,” but the way Europe – especially France – is acting these days, maybe “European Amnesia” is a better term!

Bloch was a German Jew, and Stern, although baptized a Lutheran, was considered Jewish under the Nuremberg Laws that defined Judaism as a “race,” apart from the so-called “Aryans” in the German pseudoscientific chamber of horrors. (Somebody forgot to tell the Germans that the word “Aryan” describes a language group that includes the Persian and Sanskrit languages, not a race or ethnic group).

The Stern family left their native Breslau – now the Polish city of Wroclaw – in 1938, when Fritz Stern was 12. His father had served with distinction as an officer in the German army in World War I, but the madness sweeping what British historian Mark Mazower has called the “Dark Continent” drove the Stern family to the real Promised Land, America.

Many have wondered what happened to the Germans – called by Gen. Charles de Gaulle during WW II “Quel peuple!” (“what a people!”) – that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. Stern, a distinguished historian, the former provost of Columbia University, a friend and classmate of legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) when both were undergraduates at Columbia – says that de Gaulle understood instinctively the “deep ambiguity that hovers around German greatness.”

Germans were not only the destroyers of historic Europe, as Mazower eloquently describes in “Dark Continent: Europe’s 20th Century” – they also helped create it. The “gifts” of Hitler enabled the Allies to defeat Nazi Germany – and they included many European Jewish scientists, who could have served their native countries had not madness of the deepest, darkest kind descended upon Europe.

Mazower isn’t mentioned in Stern’s very readable volume, but the good professor serves up a steaming dish of scorn for best-selling writer Daniel J. Goldhagen (“Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” “A Moral Reckoning”) in the best tradition of academic small mindedness. Goldhagen is characterized as a “social scientist,” not a historian by Columbia emeritus history professor Stern. Academics, needless to say, are the ultimate turf warriors!

Stern says Goldhagen oversimplifies matters by defining everything in terms of historic German anti-Semitism. Stern has a point, but I believe Goldhagen and Mazower also score excellent points with their books. Something happened in Europe in the 20th Century that twice plunged the world into catastrophic conflicts – conflicts that diminished but didn’t disappear after 1945, as Mazower points out.

There’s an obvious question that Stern himself raises only briefly: Why didn’t the Lutheran Church in Germany rise up as one and defend and protect converts like the Sterns? Could it be that the hatred of Jews for which Martin Luther was infamous trumped the conversion process in the German Lutheran Church? The Catholics don’t fare any better during the Nazi regime, for the most part failing to protect Jewish converts to Catholicism. I think both Catholics and Lutherans were “willing” collaborators with the Nazis – to borrow part of Goldhagen’s title. There were, of course, a few exceptions, precious few indeed.

Stern’s “Five Germanys” are the Weimar Republic into which he was born, the Nazi tyranny from 1933 to the defeat of Germany in 1945; the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany; the German Democratic Republic (DDR) or Communist East Germany and the reunited Germany of the past decade and a half. He could have called it six Germanys, since his father served in the Kaiser’s army of the German Empire.

Stern’s career has included stints beyond academia, including the nearly six months he served in 1993-4 as “senior advisor” to newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Holbrooke, a young scholar and diplomat who had known Stern since 1969 when he studied under the older man. Holbrooke was an East Asia expert who had expected to be posted to Tokyo, a job awarded by Clinton to Walter Mondale. Holbrooke, whose mother was a German Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, wanted an expert on Germany and Stern was the man he asked for. By the way, I will soon be reviewing a book by Holbrooke’s wife Kati Marton about nine Hungarian Jewish refugees who changed the world, a book called “The Great Escape.”

“Five Germanys I Have Known” is at once a work of history and historiography by one of the greatest practitioners of the latter (see his “Gold and Iron” and “Einstein’s German World”) and a memoir of one of the darkest hours in the all-to-often sordid history of humankind. As one who subscribes to the definition of history – in the words of Arnold Toynbee (who disagreed with the idea) as “one damned thing after another,” I recommend this readable and idiosyncratic memoir.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.fsgbooks.com

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