• Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Five Germanys I Have Known - Fritz SternSee larger image
See Hi-Res Jpeg image


email/print EmailPrint

Five Germanys I Have Known



Book Buy
Ebook Ebook 
    
Share this book with friends through your favorite social networking site. Share:           Bookmark and Share
Add this title to your virtual bookshelves at any of these book community sites. Shelve:             
sign up to get updates about this author
add this book's widget
to your site or blog

About The Author

Fritz Stern

Fritz Stern, University Professor Emeritus and former provost at Columbia University, is the author of many works of European history, including Gold and Iron:Bismarck, Bleichröder and the Building of the German Empire and Einstein’s German World.

Stay In Touch

Sign up to recieve information about new releases, author appearances, special offers, all related to you favorite authors and books.

Other Books You Might Like

cover Buy

More formats
eBook
The Long Recessional
The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks
“Readable and reliable . . . [Gilmour’s] assessment of the political background of Kipling’s writings is exemplary.” —Earl L....
  
cover Pre-Order

More formats
eBook
My Grandfather's Gallery
A Family Memoir of Art and War

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
A singular man in the history of modern art, betrayed by Vichy, is the subject of this riveting family memoir On September 20, 1940, one of the most famous...
  
cover Buy
A Sentimental Murder
Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks
One April evening in 1779, Martha Ray, the pretty mistress of a famous aristocrat, was shot dead at point-blank range by a young clergyman who then attempted...
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
Forgotten Land
Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks
Until the end of World War II, East Prussia was the German empire’s farthest eastern redoubt, a thriving and beautiful land on the southeastern coast of the...
  
cover Buy
The Crofter and the Laird

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks
When John McPhee returned to the island of his ancestors—Colonsay, twenty-five miles west of the Scottish mainland—a hundred and thirty-eight...
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
My Two Italies

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
A poignant personal account from a child of Calabrian peasants whose lifelong study of Italy unveils the mysteries of this Bel Paese, “Beautiful Land,” where...
  
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
Sorry!
The English and Their Manners

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
A humorous and charming investigation into what it really means to have proper manners Most of us know a bit about what passes for good manners—holding...
  
cover Pre-Order

More formats
eBook
Berlin Now
The City After the Wall

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
A smartly guided romp, entertaining and enlightening, through Europe’s most charismatic and enigmatic city It isn’t Europe’s most beautiful city, or its...
  
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
The Late Scholar
Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane Investigate

Minotaur Books
When a dispute among the Fellows of St. Severin's College, Oxford University, reaches a stalemate, Lord Peter Wimsey discovers that as the Duke of Denver he is...
  
cover Buy

More formats
Audio eBook
Ladies' Night

St. Martin's Griffin
Take a splash of betrayal, add a few drops of outrage, give a good shake to proper behavior and take a big sip of a cocktail called…Ladies' Night!   Grace...
  
cover Buy
Sticker Activity ABC

Priddy Books
Children will love learning the alphabet as the find the stickers, answer the questions, and color the pictures in this fun activity book! Featuring over 100 stickers.

EXCERPT

FIVE GERMANYS I HAVE KNOWN
CHAPTER 1
ANCESTRAL GERMANY
THERE HAVE BEEN FIVE GERMANYS I have known since my birth in 1926, but it is the Germany I didn't know, the Germany of the years before World War I, that I think I understand the best. That Germany I have studied in my professional life, with proper distance and a measure of detachment. Only when beginning this book did I discover the thousands of letters my parents brought with them when we immigrated to the United States in 1938: bundles of letters, neatly wrapped or placed in wooden boxes, that had been left unopened since they were brought here; letters from earlier generations of my family, from my parents' friends and colleagues, family letters written in the peaceful times of that earlier Germany; and a trove of letters written to and by my father when he was at the front in the Great War. The letters are conversations about the mundane and the unusual; they take for granted the unspoken assumptions of that earlier time. They touch on all manner of subjects, and they confirm, amplify, and modify what scholarship has taught me. They speak with a special immediacy, and even their silences bespeak the customs of their time. Many, I now realize, would have served me well as illustrative footnotes to my earlier work or prompted second thoughts.
Home to at least four generations of my family was Breslau, capital of Silesia, in eastern Germany, a city with different masters and its own disputed history. Its origins went back to medieval times, its growth favored by its location on the banks of the River Oder, which flows into the Baltic. In early centuries,it was a Polish city called Vretslaw--a fact that Germans later tended to forget. When I grew up there, I knew that it had been part of the Habsburg Empire, until the day in 1741 when the young Prussian king, Frederick II, later known as Frederick the Great, wrested all of Silesia, the jewel of the Austrian Empire, from Empress Maria Theresa, a major moment in the astounding rise of Prussia. After 1871, Breslau became part of the newly created German Empire, a federal structure that apportioned some powers to its member states and allowed the great, ancient German states such as Prussia, Bavaria, and Saxony to retain their monarchies. Prussia was preeminent in the Reich by virtue of its size and tradition, and this was symbolized by the fact that the Prussian monarchs doubled as German emperors.
The citizens of Breslau had multiple overlapping civic identities: they were Silesians, with their own dialect; Prussians with austere traditions; and Germans, heirs to an old national culture. Breslau was the second largest city in Prussia. Many of Breslau's citizens in the nineteenth century were partisans of the struggle for the twin goals of unity and freedom--that is, for a German nation-state with the basic civic freedoms guaranteed in a modern constitution. Their liberal dream was shattered with the failure of the revolution in 1848; the Prussian king granted a constitution in 1850 that reserved executive power to the monarch (still deemed of divine right), though it provided for a legislature with some budgetary powers to be elected by (almost) universal male suffrage according to a three-class voting system (depending on the amount of direct taxes paid). Skipping over the details, one need but remember that this was a blatantly plutocratic system--and of course it had unanticipated consequences. After a decade of reaction and repression, during which the German economy grew significantly, the prosperous bourgeoisie of Silesia and elsewhere sent a liberal majority to the Prussian Diet.
In the face of this liberal opposition, the king, in a desperate effort to safeguard his monarchical power, appointed Otto von Bismarck as prime minister. Bismarck, a passionate but unconventional monarchist, fought the liberals and divided them--by fulfilling their wish for national unity. Under his leadership, Prussia was victorious in three wars in a span of only eight years, culminating in the victory over France in 1871 and the concurrent establishment of a unified Germany, with its federal structure leaving important powers to the member states. Prussia's old aristocracy and army struggled to maintain political dominance, but Bismarck also provided for a German parliament, the Reichstag, to be elected by universal male suffrage. He resorted to this revolutionary principle of universal suffrage (and was consequently often labeled "awhite revolutionary") because he assumed that a conservative peasantry would outnumber the detested liberal bourgeoisie. This was a miscalculation: the exuberant growth of Germany's industrial capitalism created a different society--with an ever-swelling proletariat swamping a shrinking peasantry and sending its own, socialist, deputies to the Reichstag.
Most middle-class and professional Germans rejoiced that national unity had been achieved at last--pleased about or accepting of a country that combined the rule of law with a monarchical-authoritarian order at home and ever-increasing power abroad. The deepening divisions within the new Reich--Bismarck himself began to call Socialists and politically organized Catholics "enemies of the Reich"--were partly obscured by the astounding growth in every kind of power and by the often overweening pride in seeing Germany rise to dominance in Europe. Left-liberals, with their commitment to popular sovereignty and tolerance, were a declining minority within the Reich; the discrepancy between the ever more conservative Prussian Diet, determined to preserve the anachronistic political system, and an increasingly progressive Reichstag, presaged an ultimate conflict. But only a very few contemporaries recognized the contradiction between a dynamic modern society and an anachronistic political system marked by a coalition of overlapping elites--East German landowners (Junkers), powerful industrialists, the armed forces, and high civil servants. Put differently, in a dynamically growing capitalist country an economically declining agrarian aristocracy was desperately clinging to power, while the once-liberal middle classes felt squeezed between the old rulers and the ascendant Social Democrats, an ever-growing political by-product of Germany's industrialization. There were many Germans who realized the need for political reform--a frightening prospect to the entrenched powers.
My forebears reflected the successes and the contradictions of this world. To them, "the German Question" seemed settled after 1871; they were mostly absorbed in other things than national politics. After his dismissal in 1890, Bismarck became an idol for many of them--there was a virtual cult that celebrated the "strong leader," a dangerous view to which some of my family succumbed. Municipal politics, however, were different: the voting system favored, in urban local affairs, the prosperous bourgeois class that still happened to be liberal.
My great-grandparents and their descendants participated in the prosperity and prominence of Breslau, a dynamically expanding commercial-industrial center with a large agricultural hinterland and rich coal mines to the southeast. The population of the city grew apace; between 1861 and 1910 it quadrupled,from 128,000 to half a million; of these, 60 percent were Protestant, 35 percent Catholic, and about 5 percent (20,000) Jews. Breslau had a proud civic life and a vibrant cultural one--the two closely related. German cities competed for cultural distinctiveness, with their bourgeois fathers striving to replicate for their class and era what princely courts had done before.
A key institution in Breslau's cultural life was the Schlesische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, established in its modern form in 1811, during the Prussian Reform Era that had responded to the forces unleashed by the French Revolution with a carefully controlled "revolution from above." It replaced a Catholic university that had been founded in 1702 by Emperor Leopold of Austria, and it was Prussia's first nonconfessional university, with both Catholic and Protestant theological faculties. After four decades of penurious mediocrity, it became eminent--in medicine, even preeminent--and internationally renowned. The state sustained the university, while the city fathers promoted Breslau's cultural life--as evident in theater and music, in its academy of arts--attracting talent in all fields. Breslau wasn't comparable to Berlin or Munich or Vienna, but it was ambitious and successful.
Given its important industrial sector, exemplified by the Borsig engineering plant, Breslau also had a growing proletarian population. In the early 1860s, Ferdinand Lassalle, a converted Jew and son of a Breslau merchant, had become the first leader of a German working-class movement, a non-revolutionary alternative Marx. And for decades, Breslau had a strong Social Democratic Party and radical groups to the left.
The Jewish community of Breslau was as diversified as any in the German lands. Some Jewish families had lived there since Jews were first readmitted to the city in 1744; others, attracted by Breslau's urban opportunities, had moved there from smaller towns in the countryside. A few had come from farther east, so-called Ostjuden, who thought of Prussia as a promising haven. Breslau Jews were rich and poor, Orthodox and Reformed, traditionalist and fully assimilated; as we shall see, some Jewish men lived a full civic life while women pioneered in social work and communal responsibilities. Jews, barred from certain careers, as in the army, or hindered in others, as in the civil service, were disproportionately concentrated in trade and the professions; and they were disproportionately represented in the highest rungs of the public educational system. Also, they were disproportionately wealthy, that is, they were major taxpayers and philanthropists.
In many ways, my forebears--going back to my great-grandparents, born in the 1820s and 1830s--exemplified this commonality and diversity. My fourgreat-grandfathers, my two grandfathers, and my father were all physicians, and their successes and setbacks were characteristic of their class--increasingly prosperous until at least 1914, and professionally innovative and eminent, with a very distinct ethos.
Of my four grandparents, who were exceptionally close friends, I knew only my maternal grandmother, Hedwig Brieger, who died in 1939 in our small flat in Queens; her husband, Oskar, had died in 1914. My paternal grandfather, Richard Stern, died in 1911, and his widow, a year later, leaving my father, Rudolf, aged seventeen, an orphan, with an older and a younger sister.
The Sterns and Briegers belonged to what we have come to call the Bil-dungsbürgertum, bourgeois citizens of some means who cherished what all Germans of their class cherished, Bildung, that goal of self-formation and education that sprang in part from knowing and exulting in the great works of culture, the classics, poetry, music, and the arts. It was assumed that this cultural heritage, or patrimony, molded one's code of behavior, the values one professed and tried to live by. Many Germans quietly believed that theirs was a country of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers); others wore this culture all too loudly, and by 1873 the then still obscure Friedrich Nietzsche coined for them the term Bildungsphilister (cultured philistines). By the late nineteenth century, this cultural heritage was more and more fused with an exuberant faith in science and progress. Wissenschaft, the German term for science, had a special, sanctified aura, connoting both an ordered and verifiable body of knowledge and the dedication to the pursuit of truth; Wissenschaft had a moral character, implying total seriousness. For many, Bildung and Wissenschaft became twin deities, a faith fortified by the continuous advance of science as a life-transforming phenomenon, made still more attractive by the austere ethos that scientists adhered to. Goethe had given a warrant to this conceit with his oft-invoked dictum: "He who possesses art and science has religion; he who does not possess them needs religion." In those years and for many people, science was still innocent, an emancipatory force as against the intimidating orthodoxies of the Christian churches.
The father of my paternal grandmother, Sigismund Asch, born in 1825, was a legendary figure in Breslau: in 1848, a newly minted medical doctor, he took a leading part in the revolutions of that year, when, incited by the uprisings in Milan and Paris, Germans went to the barricades with diverse aims, of which national unity and civic freedom were the common denominators. Asch added his own radical social goals, for he was outraged at existing injustice and poverty (he had been raised in lower-class conditions) and filled with democraticfervor; in his speeches he demanded an end to indirect taxes and the institution of the ten-hour workday, a most radical idea at that time. Asch often referred to the Silesian Weavers' Riots of 1844, early protests against capitalist power and the exploitation of individual artisans. Gerhart Hauptmann's celebrated drama of 1892, The Weavers, evoked the conditions of immiseration that had given rise to their futile rebellion.
The newspapers reported the doings of this tall, lean young doctor, with his impressive rhetorical powers, when he addressed various protest meetings. Once, in September 1848, amid another demonstration that threatened to storm Breslau's royal residence and thus precipitate a battle between revolutionaries and armed soldiers, Asch pushed himself to the front of the crowd, warning against violence. The soldiers, he repeatedly cried out, were "the unwilling instruments of black reaction." To harm them would be "the greatest injustice," because they were bound by oath to resist the demonstrators and they deserved "respect." That and other protests remained peaceful. By December 1848, however, Asch left the Democratic League, disappointed by the intolerance and radicalism of his allies. His earlier hopes were dashed when the old order, somewhat modified, was restored.
Since he had been involved in producing placards denouncing the huge costs for royal extravaganzas at the expense of the poor, the authorities charged Asch with lèse-majesté. After a judicial delay, in May 1851 he was sentenced to a year's arrest under especially harsh conditions. After his release and his marriage to the daughter of a prosperous Jewish merchant, he concentrated on his medical practice, gaining notice by holding office hours at dawn for indigent patients. He charged his rich patients enough so that he was able to treat the poor for nothing, and often he unobtrusively left money in the latter's homes so that they could buy the medications he had prescribed. In 1863, he was elected Stadtverordneter, or representative to the city council, a position he held for sixteen years, and in which he fought for various causes concerning urban improvement and public health. He became a celebrated figure, honored as the subject of various plays and known for his family connections with progressive movements throughout Germany: one of his sisters-in-law, Lina Morgenstern, née Lina Bauer, became an early feminist leader.
Asch had three children: one, Betty, converted to Protestantism at the age of fourteen; another, Toni, married a young doctor, Richard Stern, my grandfather. Asch himself died in 1901, in the city where he was affectionately known as "der Alte Asch," publicly mourned and properly buried in the Jewishcemetery. His son, Robert, also a doctor, was my mother's obstetrician at my birth. I have always delighted in this democratic ancestor!1
Der Alte Asch may have seen his revolutionary hopes defeated, but he could find satisfaction in his medical practice and in his engagement in liberal reformist work. His children, facing different conditions, felt less incentive to engage politically. Their public lives centered on their work; their private lives concentrated on family and friends but were quietly shadowed not by the "German" question, but by what became a new phase of the "Jewish" question. As we shall see, Jewishness posed the deepest quandaries, so deep that one rarely talked about them.
For centuries, Jews and Germans had been separated by visible and invisible walls. Jews had lived under various disabilities, and were scorned for their (enforced) penchant for peddling and money changing, for their strange clannish orthodoxy, and for their attachment to a primitive divine dispensation that Gentiles believed could be fulfilled only in Christianity. Jews and Christians were divided by a common God. But great changes had come at the time of the momentous flowering of German thought--the great Idealist Age identified with the German Enlightenment and classicism, when Lessing, Herder, Kant, Goethe, and Schiller transformed German culture. That is when some German Jews began to feel the attraction of emancipated European life, and began to wish for what has been called assimilation or even integration. By the end of the eighteenth century, some German states decreed the partial emancipation of Jews; Prussia followed in 1812.
The subsequent history of German Jewry--the trials, triumphs, and ultimate tragedy--which remains of surpassing importance in the history of the world, provided an ever-changing context in the lives of individual families, mine included. I have grappled with and written about this subject for all my professional life: here the barest summary must suffice.
In the late eighteenth century, Jews made their first appearance in German intellectual life. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) came to Berlin in 1743, met his exact contemporary Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in 1754, and these two philosophers, both of them interpreters of Enlightenment thought and related theological questions, became friends. Lessing was a philosopher and great dramatist, whose play Nathan the Wise was deemed the most compelling argumentfor toleration of all religions. Mendelssohn had six children, of whom two converted to Protestantism, two daughters to Catholicism; his grandson Felix was the genius composer who in his music celebrated Reformation Christianity.
Thus conversion to Christianity appears at the beginning of the modern phase of German Jewry and remained a theme in German Jewish life to the very end. Motives varied with individuals and time: Heinrich Heine converted in 1825, considering, as he said, that baptism constituted the entrance ticket to European culture. Conversion became ever more common right down to the Nazi period, but it still involved only a tiny minority of all the Jews who lived in German lands.
The legal emancipation of Jews came in stages, beginning with Prussia's decree of 1812, which removed most civil disabilities. By 1869, Jews were recognized as possessing all legal rights and duties of German citizens. However brief, the road from ghetto and exclusion to legal equality and material opportunity had been painful and precarious. Legal equality did not quash ancient prejudice, and in the new age, Jews remained tacitly banned from positions of political power, indeed from all visible identification with dignified power; in the unified Germany of post-1871, the sanctum sanctorum, the officer corps, was closed to them. There was something asymmetrical in almost every aspect of German Jewish coexistence. Barred in some fields, Jews succeeded beyond all expectations in others: disproportionately prominent in the free professions, in law, medicine, and journalism; a major presence in trade and banking; disproportionately wealthy, their children disproportionately successful in higher education. In the late nineteenth century, German Jews achieved an unprecedented preeminence in the natural sciences, fields in which Germans and Jews complemented one another and collaborated in what may well have been a singular crucible of genius. But the need to excel, instilled by tradition, was nurtured by hostility.
In retrospect the ascent of German Jewry constitutes one of the most spectacular social leaps in European history. But success bred resentment, which was newly inflamed when in the early 1870s a great economic bubble burst, involving many tales of corruption. Jewish financiers were involved in some of the scandals, and a regular hate campaign began that blamed Jews as the all-powerful agents of corruption. It was in this context that a German publicist coined the very word anti-Semitism. The attacks, some of them in respectable journals and petitions, demanded at least a partial revocation of the Jews' emancipation. This didn't happen, but German anti-Semitism continued, not in some steady, inexorable fashion but with ups and downs, though there was ararely articulated, latent continuum of prejudice, as there was in every country--in other countries perhaps even more strongly than in Germany, where Jews met with an equal measure of hospitality and hostility. No wonder, then, that German Jews had a shaky sense of identity, that ambivalence was a common feeling among them--but then, Germans generally have always had difficulty with their identity, and as Heine once said, Jews are like the people they live among, only more so.
For many German Jews, Jewishness was a charged and private matter about which they spoke only rarely. Yet it marked their lives. In European life, particularly before the Great War, decorum was all-important, and one did not discuss in public subjects such as sexuality and money. Some Jews may have thought that their innermost feelings about Jewishness also deserved to be passed over in silence. But then, Jews also were great disturbers of this decorum: Heine as brilliant satirist of German sentimentality, Marx as analyst of the power of money and capital, Freud as explorer of sexuality. As Freud once put it,
A great imaginative writer may permit himself to give expression--jokingly, at all events--to psychological truths that are severely proscribed. Thus Heine confesses: "Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one's enemies-but not before they have been hanged."
Still, many German Jews felt so genuinely at home in their German milieu, so attached to German culture, that they lived in hopes that anti-Semitism, precisely because of its pre-modern roots, would disappear in their new, bright, secular, and scientific world. Jews and Christians lived alongside one another, separate for the most part but together in prescribed realms such as schools, obligatory military service, business, municipal affairs, and in many voluntary or professional organizations, in clubs, in hobbies. But in no field did Jews enter Gentile life more intimately than as physicians--as confidants and comforters in those pre-psychotherapeutic days. In imperial Germany, the physician's white coat was the one uniform of dignity to which Jews could aspire and in which they could feel a measure of authority and grateful acceptance.
My grandparents, two doctors and their wives, and their circle of friends, colleagues, and assistants exemplified the wide range of responses to a world at once enticing and hostile. In a culture in which Bildung and Wissenschaft had profoundly altered the traditional outlook of many religions, Jews faced very special quandaries. How could one reconcile ancient rituals and proscriptions with the prevailing post-Darwinian secular-scientific outlook? Like so many educated Protestants, my grandparents arrived at a worldview that fused a distillation of Christian ethics with rational precepts and national sentiment, the whole enveloped with a proper sense of awe. For Jews like them, a further step to integration was conversion to Germany's "national" religion, Lutheran Protestantism, a step made easier by the fact that that religion had become theologically undemanding by then, having made its peace with modern life, with the spirit of capitalism, and with science. (This was in contrast to the austere Catholicism prescribed by Pope Pius IX, with his canonical denunciation of modern life.)
My great-grandparents and grandparents fully shared in this Kulturreligion, which gave them a self-evident commonality with non-Jews. I suspect they knew their German lyric poetry far better than their Hebrew psalms (if they knew these last at all); they felt an uneasy estrangement from Jewish rituals and practices. And this transformation had happened so swiftly! In the course of but two or three generations, German Jews had lost their particular dialect, a form of Yiddish, or Judendeutsch, and had become entirely Germanified, though probably they had occasional recourse to a few Yiddish words when they couldn't express something in any other way. They delighted in the German language, which in serious and playful efforts, in prose and poetry, they mastered with elegant ease. And still, they carried a memory of past apartness. I think they thought of Jewishness as both stigma and distinction.
Many Jewish families, especially prosperous ones, were steeped in this kind of civic-cultural religion, so distant from the demands of Orthodox Judaism, if more compatible with the prevalent form of Reform, Liberal Judaism. But some of them wished to go even further and, breaking with ancestral ties, convert to Christianity. What in the early nineteenth century had been primarily a philosophic-emotional step gradually acquired an all-too-practical aspect. Conversion, as it was called by many, apostasy by others, eased most forms of social and economic ascent--some of Bismarck's ministers were Protestants of Jewish descent--so while no doubt conversion had many motives, even the purest grounds for it carried a taint of opportunism.
Consider but one example from the life of a friend of my grandparents,Fritz Haber (1868-1934), a chemist of great talent and vaulting ambition who in 1892 converted--to the dismay of his father. The conversion certainly eased Fritz's academic career, which eventually made him a towering figure in the German scientific community, with a Nobel Prize as ultimate recognition. Haber had been thirsting for a university post, denied to him because he was a Jew. This is why Gentile mentors urged their academic students to convert, though pride or filial piety or self-respect kept many--such as Haber's closest friend Richard Willstätter or the celebrated industrialist-statesman Walther Rathenau--from taking that step. Like many others, these two thought it dishonorable to take a spiritual step that would afford material advantage. Many converted Jews continued to feel an ineffable affinity with their former co-religionists, but after a generation or two, some children of Jewish descent didn't even know of their Old Testament roots. They began to feel they belonged to the "evangelical" (or, rarely, "Catholic") group to which their identity papers assigned them. They were Christian by choice and often by faith.
In the first generation at least, converts were often regarded with suspicion by both new and old co-religionists. But--and this is nowadays often forgotten--it was only during the Third Reich that, by declaring race and not religion as a determinant of a person's civic identity and worth, Christians of Jewish descent were reconverted into "non-Aryans" and made subject to the same persecution as Jews, hence Jews tout court. In this respect, Hitler was successful: most people today think of Felix Mendelssohn, say, or Fritz Haber as a Jew, although that is not what their status was in Germany during their lifetimes. (Israelis, too, count these "apostates" as Jews, especially if they have won Nobel Prizes or are otherwise distinguished.)
My paternal grandparents, Richard Stern and his wife, Toni, née Asch, converted as adults, and they had their children baptized at birth: Lotte, the eldest, born in 1893, my father born two years later, and Marga, born in 1900. My maternal grandparents, Oskar Brieger and his wife, Hedwig, née Lion, never converted. Their extensive correspondence, however, clearly expresses their affinity to a Christian outlook, and they baptized their children at birth, of whom my mother, Käthe, was the second, born in 1894. My grandmother Hedwig, as I remember, considered herself Christian. Put differently, the converted Sterns were more conscious of their Jewishness than the unconverted Briegers.
The two families were exceptionally close friends for decades. The fathers were colleagues, and for years the families lived virtually next door to each other. Their principal friends were fellow converts, Jews tolerant and understandingof their baptism. Jews and converts intermarried, the latter perhaps more often with Jews than with ur-Christians, though among all three groups, close friendships existed. The two families vacationed together; their children went to the same schools, even to the same, very formal, dancing classes, which mixed the young of all confessions or none.
My grandfathers attended to both their Christian and Jewish patients with equal care and worked harmoniously with their Christian colleagues. Both families had Christian nursemaids and servants, who in many instances remained with them over decades, in a trusted if unequal relationship. In all this, the two families appear to have retained a kind of silence about what we would call their identity, neither openly boastful of their German and Christian belongingness nor openly denying their Jewish roots. They adopted a certain style of life and with it a definite ethos, much of it unspoken and habitual.
My grandfathers and their colleagues had a "calling" (the German word is Beruf ) that was at the center of their lives, and this patriarchal calling had a commanding place in the family. Among the great callings in the free professions--medicine, law, the clergy--medicine was probably most highly regarded, combining as it did welfare, sacrifice, and science. We know that German Jews flocked to medicine; at the end of the nineteenth century, nearly half of Breslau's doctors were Jews or of Jewish descent. That all my immediate male forebears were doctors may say something about the effectiveness of the patriarchal model, of the comfort of following in one's father's footsteps or of having one's footsteps followed. But there was more to it than that: by the late nineteenth century, the ancient art of healing had become even more enticing, for it was now a science as well, and its discoveries proved life-transforming.
My doctor forebears were the direct heirs of a generation of clinicians committed to creating and expanding a scientific basis for medicine. They set out to discover the microbacterial origin of disease and to seek remedies through immunology and chemotherapy. During this period, professional organizations and journals multiplied and medical research became an international enterprise. One of the earliest of these German physicians was Bernhard Naunyn, whose self-chosen motto was: "Medicine will be a science or it will be nothing." For Naunyn and all those who followed him, science--that is, ceaseless work in the laboratory--was the indispensable supplement to the physician's intuition and his unfailing solicitude for the patient. At the bedside of the sick, the physician's old virtues of trust and human empathy prevailed: medicine at its best remained an art and a science. My grandfathers, even as medicine was becoming ever more "scientific," were also, inseparably, devoted clinicians.
My grandfathers' correspondence exudes a sense of privileged duty, and their progeny continued this tradition. The two men collaborated in the clinic and in medical societies, and they lived in a world of pure science. Even their most casual correspondence shows this. In 1896, for example, on a postcard written in his tiny scrawl, Haber addressed "dear Stern" (using the familiar du), answering a complicated question about chemistry. Paul Ehrlich, the founder of chemotherapy and ultimately the greatest scientific luminary of Breslau, wrote letters about scientific matters to both my grandfathers, often to thank them for supplying him with samples from their clinical material for his experiments. After Richard Stern's death, Ehrlich sent his handwritten condolences to Stern's widow: "I can tell you that I always esteemed and loved the suddenly deceased to the highest degree--equally as man and character, as an eminent representative of science who mastered equally theoretical research and clinical responsibility as only the fewest do." The letter was penned in Ehrlich's idiosyncratic orthography, and without capitals, which saves time. Science was a faith, a bond, a career. The obituary of my grandfather Brieger, written by his chief assistant, put it well: "Work was for him ... not just duty, it was what life was about [Lebensbedürfnis], and for him it was a pleasure."
Perhaps we have forgotten just how central work was for that generation. It gave meaning to life, and it sustained health even as overexertion damaged it. Theirs was a generation that understood Tolstoi's praise of what he called the work-cure, the Arbeitskur. Practitioners at the time took this ethos for granted; it deserves our respect. I suppose I feel a certain genuine as well as conventionally prescribed ambivalence about descending from this privileged if embattled class. I have to ask myself whether my unbridled admiration for their ethos is a compensatory gesture. The admiration may be, but their devotion to their calling is beyond question.
Their wives, often their cultural equals or, in aesthetic matters, their superiors, chose their own duties and responsibilities--not just at home but outside it, in community and educational work--and they had their own calling in providing for and presiding over the family home, and ensuring the moral education of the children. My quietly feminist grandmothers certainly did not conform to the stereotypical view of German women restricted to KKK (Kinder, Küche, Kirche: "children, kitchen, church"). And I remember that, in Breslau, my maternal grandmother shared responsibility for a quite common enterprise of the time: a Kinderhort, a home that provided full-time care for indigent children.
The choice of a career was taken with the greatest seriousness by both menand women in my family. An undated letter from my grandfather Richard Stern to his father, Heinrich, makes this clear. (Heinrich had an exceptional reputation; in 1862 one of Germany's foremost internists, Theodor Frerichs, who had been a professor in Breslau and was briefly to be Bismarck's physician, recommended the young Stern for a post because of his "rich experience" as "a thoroughly conscientious and experienced assistant in the All Saints' Hospital and as a doctor to the poor.") The father had counseled the son to go into medicine or law, but the son was determined to study mathematics and physics. "In the choice of a career calling," he wrote, "every person has to consider two factors: the material conditions and the inner happiness that the career might provide. Disregard of the former indicates an unthinking enthusiast [Schwärmer], of the latter a superficial cynic."
The son wanted to discover whether he had the requisite talent to pursue his choice, preferably at a small university, where in the end he might get an assistantship and hope for an academic career. Medicine, he added, aroused disgust in him, and in law he foresaw a life of boredom, quite aside from his lacking the rhetorical gifts that the law demanded. The fact that this letter is one of the very few the family kept from that early period could be an accident, but more likely the letter was preserved because it was exemplary. It certainly bespeaks self-critical seriousness and ambition on my grandfather's part, a respectful wager on autonomy. I don't know whether my grandfather explored these earlier interests before he, too, turned to medicine, in which field, as we shall see, he excelled.
These family letters suggest something of the nature and expected closeness of family bonds. They give us a picture of how life was lived or how the writers wanted it to be lived; they articulate what was taken for granted and what seemed quirky or exceptional. Parents and family friends offered advice and admonition, affirming basic rules of conduct. Literary allusions abounded, and a light or humorous touch softened the didactic rigor or severe tone.
I have the daily letters of Oskar Brieger, my maternal grandfather, to his fiancée, Hedwig, from the year 1889--letters on average six to eight pages long. He was in Vienna and Halle, finishing his specialization in the new field of otolaryngology, having to do with ear, nose, and throat diseases. (His father was a physician in Kosel, in Upper Silesia; hers, Dr. Lion, was a physician and co-owner of a liberal daily in Breslau.) Their letters are remarkably candid, fervent love letters that also contain ruminations about life in general. In June, Oskar wrote from Halle of his utter disgust with the Saxon dialect, which made him sick and "melancholy"--and led him to this revealing remark: "in thecourse of time a major conversion has come over me: I have become a passionate friend of Jews ... I am incredibly happy at every typically crooked nose I see on the street. That reminds me of Breslau. Of course in this hovel of anti-Semites nothing but boring blondness, blown-up beer faces decorated with dueling scars." Because he himself was fair-haired, he was taken to be a Christian, and thus heard all manner of anti-Semitic talk.
The other subject referred to frequently in the letters was Richard Stern. In 1889, Oskar intimated that Richard's conduct had compromised Toni Asch--a renowned beauty, and from a family that demanded special respect--and that if he now had the gall to drop her, she would be forced to lead a life of spinsterhood forever. How Richard had offended Toni isn't clear, but circumstantial evidence suggests that he had avowed his love but then proved indecisive. He had somehow violated the moral code of the time--though it is unlikely he had compromised her physically, and Oskar had no forgiveness for such behavior; in any case, within a year or so, Richard married Toni, and relations remained unscathed and close, though for decades the solid yet sentimental Briegers would mock the ironic, brittle Sterns. I can testify to this myself.
Conventions dictated manners, the outward form of morals. And moral education and correct conduct mattered intensely: one was expected to follow a code in dress, speech, financial life--to say nothing of the more serious matters of love, marriage, truthfulness, and fidelity. Infractions reflected on the entire family. Parental admonitions, freely given, survive in some of these letters. Thus Toni Stern writing to Rudolf, her fourteen-year-old son, reaffirmed "regulations on conduct" while visiting another family, and at the same time enjoined him to be solicitous of his younger sister, who would be alone at home under the care of the trusted nursemaid. He needn't take her to a pastry shop: "more valuable for her and more difficult for you is to muster a steady kindness and readiness to help. By giving her a good example you educate her more deeply than by all manner of sermons and eternal admonitions. Doesn't some example of rising above self which you may by chance witness affect your own conduct more effectively than all the brave instructions you receive?" Rudolf's imperfect schoolwork was alluded to as well, but surely he would improve after the holidays. Characteristically, the father added two lines at the bottom to his "dearest Rudi," affirming that he subscribed completely to the mother's injunctions.
At another time, the mother explained that of course she had shown the boy's confidential letter to his father, whose judgments he should treasure,quite aside from the fact that he must always be aware that "husband and wife can't have secrets between them, least of all about matters concerning their dear children." Moreover, he would eventually feel the same "unconditional confidence" in his father that he already had in his mother. A small child's natural tie to his mother ripens into a special relationship between them, "but it is equally natural that the growing man who must enter life with all its dangers and struggles will turn for advice and support to the accomplished man, the father, who has experienced all that and very differently from the mother." You are lucky, she added, to have both your father and your mother. Many a poor child must face the world alone.
These admonitions and injunctions may sound banal, but they expressed a strong implicit bond between the generations: the advice so freely given was part of what parents could do for their children's Bildung. This was also an expression of a secular-rational world in which the responsibility for moral education fell on the parents, though obviously there were other voices as well. (I happen to know, for example, that the confirmation classes presided over by one Pastor Wackernagel much impressed my parents.) So parental certainty--itself mirroring the prevailing sense of a world in order--informed a young person's view. Harmony and rebellion coexisted: father-son conflicts, a great theme in German life and literature, were generally conducted openly; everyone knew the ultimate sanctions of disassociation or disinheritance. There was infinite pain in the disputes, but that, too, was a sign of their moral seriousness, so different from the parental diffidence of later times.
In the years before the Great War, my grandparents had a kind of certainty, which they felt they should transmit, about how life should be led. These were the living equivalents of the Bildungsromane, the novels on which young Germans had been reared for generations. Books had a central place in the two families: one began with the classics at home and continued in school (in the hours before his death, my father quoted Homer to me in Greek); in adolescence one was expected to go beyond the assigned, to live, so to speak, in the great novels and dramas. Schiller called the theater a moral institution, and the children in the Stern and Brieger families followed their elders in their awe of, if not necessarily in their taste for, great drama or acting.
My father's library, which I inherited along with part of his huge medical library, is a treasure-house of German culture: the collected works of Goethe and Heine, exacting books on philosophy and religion, with bookplates showing an idyllic snow-covered village and the date of the book's acquisition (often 1912, the year after his father's death and just before his mother's). It may be my déformationprofessionelle to have excessive affection for a world in which great literature was a living presence. Perhaps this love of books didn't make those generations any wiser or more attractive than later ones, and it probably encouraged a certain pride of class, a defining superiority--yet it bore a seriousness and certainty that helped to nurture them. Of course, there could be a surfeit of entombed spirit and the danger of succumbing to Bildungsphilistertum.
Oskar Brieger, having served his required year in the army, finished his medical studies in the new specialty of otolaryngology; at the age of twenty-eight, he became the first head of this department at the leading municipal hospital in Breslau, All Saints', and in 1907 he was appointed professor. He published a wide range of papers, belonged to the board of the German Otological Society, founded the international journal in the field, and developed a flourishing private practice. Meanwhile, Richard Stern--who may have been exceptionally ambitious and austere but was also, I believe, fragile and uncertain--became a respected internist and outstanding diagnostician, and diagnosis in those pre-X-ray days demanded a much greater intuitive gift than in our test-equipped world. He was devoted to the many facets of his work; a sought-after clinician, he was also a researcher who in 1896 published a pioneering study of the traumatic origins of internal diseases, based on his own observations and on existing international literature. Industrial accidents were very common at the time, and since Bismarck's progressive social legislation provided for workers' compensation, doctors had to determine if a physical (or even psychic) trauma might have been responsible for debilitating, even fatal, diseases of internal organs. Richard's book became a standard international work in forensic medicine--coming as it did from the country that was the laboratory of social insurance. He became an expert witness in court cases, asked to establish whether a given trauma could have caused a subsequent disease or death. To render a medical opinion in such cases was scientifically complex and, for the victim or his family, of immense importance, as it was for the state and its fiscal responsibility.
In addition to this much-hailed pioneering work, Richard Stern made important discoveries in clinical bacteriology and the bacterial etiology of disease, then the frontiers of medical science. In 1900 he was appointed associate professor at the University of Breslau, itself a place of exceptional standing in medicine. At the same time, he was appointed head of the university Poliklinik, or outpatient department, a position of considerable responsibility, and made chairman of internal medicine at All Saints' Hospital, where Brieger headed the ear, nose, and throat department. The next and highest rank was Ordinarius,or full professor, a rare position for anyone to attain, and especially hard for someone of Jewish descent. In 1909, Richard Stern was offered this position at the University of Greifswald, in northern Germany, in a provincial city close to the Baltic Sea with none of the cultural advantages of Breslau, where he was meant to succeed Oskar Minkowski, a stellar internist who as a young doctor discovered in animal experiments the etiology of diabetes mellitus, the essential step that years later led to the discovery of insulin.2 Minkowski had been Naunyn's prize student, but as a Jew he had been held back. He had finally received and accepted a call as Ordinarius in Breslau.
Richard was attracted to Greifswald--after all, it offered important teaching responsibilities and high prestige. His wife prepared the children for the move in the fall of the year. But, apparently having fallen into a state of melancholy indecision, Richard first accepted and then declined the offer. In June 1910 he wrote to his friend Fritz Haber, acknowledging the latter's solicitude about the issue and saying that he was very slowly recovering from the tumultuous nonevents of the previous fall, but "still thinking too much of past happenings." The chance that he had declined haunted him; the trauma, to use his language, had intensified his melancholic streak and plunged him into a depression, from which he was hoping to recover fully. In the same letter he mentioned that he was planning to go on holiday to the North Sea and inquired whether Haber would remain loyal to Pontresina, an idyllic Alpine village near St. Moritz. But a year later he died quite suddenly at the age of forty-five. Newspaper accounts I have found about Richard Stern's death give different stories about a long or short illness. (As a child, I had always been told that he died of influenza.) He was buried at the Maria Magdalena Cemetery in Breslau; the many obituaries in medical journals emphasized his scientific research, his clinical excellence, and--with exceptional warmth--his qualities as teacher and mentor.
His death in 1911 affected my life half a century later. In the very last days of my father's life in 1962, I was in the midst of having to decide whether to stay at Columbia University or accept an invitation to teach elsewhere. My parents remarked that at least the decision wasn't as hard as the choice between Breslau and Greifswald. Then, a few years later, my relative and good friend the physicist Otto Stern casually referred to my grandfather's suicide. Shocked, I immediately asked my mother what my grandfather had died of; with charac-teristichonesty when confronted, she acknowledged that he had died of an overdose of sleeping pills; it was, in fact, her father who had been called to Richard's deathbed to sign the death certificate. I was troubled by my parents' secretiveness about this, and still regret their deception, though I realize how much pain my father must have felt at the loss, which the subsequent repression of the truth only emphasizes.
Perhaps Richard Stern had been anguished at having made the easier choice: Breslau, after all, was familiar turf, where he and his wife were part of a cluster of distinguished colleagues who doubled as a network of friends. Among those closest to him were not only the Briegers, but Paul Ehrlich and the dermatologist Albert Neisser, discoverer of the gonococcus, also a converted Jew and a physician's son. In 1909, Neisser was appointed full professor of dermatology, the first such chair in Germany. By all accounts, Albert and Toni Neisser enjoyed a very special social presence in Breslau, with a grand villa and garden, elaborately designed and decorated, home to a celebrated salon of artists and writers, including Gerhart Hauptmann, the architect Hans Poelzig, the painter Fritz Erler, and the musicians Adolf Busch and Artur Schnabel. Albert's brother Gustav was a lawyer, or Justizrat, adviser to various enterprises, a liberal city councilor, and also a close friend to several generations of Sterns and Briegers. Albert Neisser died in 1916. (His successor at the university was Joseph Jadassohn, who was later considered "the most famous dermatologist in the world." Known in my family as Sepp or Onkel Pu, Jadassohn was already a friend of the Briegers and Sterns in the 1890s, and he remained a friend of my parents until his death in 1936. I remember him vividly.)
There were Gentile friends and colleagues as well, foremost among them the outstanding psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer, some of whose numerous children went to dancing school with my parents. Ties to the Bonhoeffer family remained close for decades. Another fabled member of the psychiatric faculty was Alois Alzheimer, who observed and described the symptoms of senile dementia, and was the first to relate them to pathological changes in the brain. In 1890, Johann Mikulicz, student of the incomparable Theodor Billroth in Vienna and one-time assistant of Joseph Lister, was appointed professor of surgery; he acquired a worldwide reputation for his new operative techniques carried out under new aseptic conditions; Ferdinand Sauerbruch, one of his pupils, was in turn to have Rudolf Nissen as his star assistant--a lifelong friend of my father's and of mine.
A recent history of Breslau's medical faculty records that many foreign visitorsand students flocked to the university, including American doctors, such as the neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing (1869-1939) and the Mayo brothers, who in 1889 went home to Minnesota to establish their famed clinic. No wonder they had come to Breslau: it did have a galaxy of preeminent physicians!
The Briegers and the Sterns, joined by three other families, spent many summer holidays together in a small village, Krummhübel, in the mountains south of Breslau, on the Silesian border with Bohemia. The children founded a "club" there, with its own elected leaders and statutes, the principal activity being to write and perform plays, and created their own entertainment for themselves and their appreciative elders. In some way, their activities duplicated an adult Breslau club, the Akademisch-Literarischer Verein, a student organization that originally served as a primarily Jewish substitute for the Gentile university fraternities that excluded Jews. The ALV comprised alumni and students, another intergenerational effort involving men and women, and held frequent feasts with lectures and poetic, witty persiflage. For years, Gustav Neisser was its head.
This older generation, born in the 1860s, gradually established themselves, overcoming prejudices and benefiting from the scientific and material progress of the times. They came to lead comfortable, respected lives. Oskar Brieger, at some point in the early years of the new century, treated the director of the Breslau Academy of Arts, Hans Poelzig, already a well-known architect and slated to become even better known. Family legend has it that in gratitude for Brieger's having saved his life, Poelzig offered to design for the Briegers a whole range of furniture for their capacious new dwelling at Königsplatz, at once home and office. I believe Poelzig's favor was richly rewarded. That furniture has had its own history, as we shall see.
My impression is that the generation of my parents, born in the 1890s, had an easier childhood and more cheerful prospects than their parents. They started life on a calm and prosperous voyage--only to be caught in a storm of violence that their elders could not even have imagined. Perhaps that mixture of felicity and seriousness in the early years gave some of them the psychological stamina to cope with the terrors of later times.
Those two generations were not much concerned with national politics, though the wives and sisters addressed what was then called "the social question," hoping to ameliorate the lot of underprivileged children, for example, while the men were used to a world of international scientific collaboration and rivalry. They were patriots in a cosmopolitan world. Some were liberals, some conservatives, but they all thought that the Rechtsstaat, the rule of law,was the unassailable bedrock of civic existence. They witnessed the reign of Emperor Friedrich, Queen Victoria's son-in-law and the very embodiment of German liberal hopes, who by the time he ascended the throne in 1888 had been left speechless by cancer of the esophagus; he died after three anguished months. His son, Wilhelm II, was of a different mold: arrogant, reactionary, the very epitome of strident tactlessness, though in his own way open to scientific and technological innovation. Many in my family were bemused by, even critical of, this feckless young monarch. But awareness that politics could threaten or destroy their lives came to them, as to most Germans, only with the Great War. In 1907 my twelve-year-old father began "a newspaper," of which only the first "issue" survives, in which he noted with satisfaction that in that year's election, the democratic parties had not scored further gains: he surely came to this class-bound political view via his parents.
What mattered most to this cluster of quietly privileged people was their private life--family, career, friendship. The outside world may have seemed remote and unchanging, and yet German society--in which an ever-growing, organized, educated proletariat imbued with social-democratic hopes challenged the old elites who governed a semi-authoritarian monarchical state--was anything but stable. By 1912 the Social Democratic Party had the largest representation in the national parliament, the Reichstag, with limited but expanding powers. How long before radical reforms or revolution would threaten the social order? Imperial Germany was a strange hybrid, a magnificently disciplined modern society with an antiquated political order. As Walther Rathenau wrote in 1907, "What cultural criteria justify the fact that Germany is being governed more absolutistically than almost all other civilized countries? ... We cannot maintain a separate climate for ourselves forever."
And what about Germany's adventurous role in the world, its much-touted entry into world affairs, its high-sea fleet built to challenge British power, its imperial ambition, and its prestige-driven policies that affronted the other major powers? Wilhelmine arrogance was mixed with pervasive anxiety that Germany's powerful neighbors were "encircling" the country, trying to throttle its legitimate growth. Germany was at the geographical center of Europe, with more neighbors at its borders than any other country. For a long time German lands had been Europe's anvil; the new Germany was the hammer.
My impression is that my forebears were among those prosperous Germans who paid but intermittent attention to the great political questions of the time. They knew important cultural innovators such as Hauptmann and Poelzig, early representatives of German modernism. But were they aware of the greatcultural and emancipatory movements of the Belle Epoque? Probably not. After all, Germany was not rent by a Dreyfus Affair (there could be no Dreyfus in Germany, since a Jewish officer on the German General Staff was unimaginable), nor was it threatened by a time bomb akin to the Irish question in Britain. Confident patriotism was a birthright of the prosperous citizen; local and charitable activism was the principal civic concern.
Certainly the young had other matters on their minds. My parents were educated in Breslau; my mother, Käthe Brieger, went to a private school in the first few years and to a girls' public school later, where Lotte Stern was her classmate and best friend. This Realgymnasium--there were no classical gymnasia for girls--offered a practical form of higher education, emphasizing modern languages, mathematics, and science. The Abitur, or final school examination, allowed for automatic admission to the university, and having passed her Abitur in May 1912, Käthe immediately enrolled in the University of Breslau to study mathematics and physics. It was a rare pursuit for a woman at that time--the whole notion of a professional career for a woman was still suspect. But her father's ambition for her had gently encouraged her to choose this path; his confident expectations spurred her all her life.
My father attended the Johannes Gymnasium, a school founded in 1872, at the height of Germany's and Breslau's civic liberalism, with the explicit aim of being a bastion of religious tolerance; it was the only Gymnasium in Breslau that had Jewish teachers, and by the end of the century a quarter of the staff was Jewish. The Prussian state looked with suspicion on the school, but the strong liberal wing of the municipal council cherished it. My father passed his Abitur in 1913 and that spring began his medical studies in Breslau; he spent the next semesters in Munich--successively attending several universities being a German academic custom.
The year 1912 was the year my father became an orphan. He had his two sisters as both comfort and responsibility, and his father's sister, Grete, kept in touch with them. (I remember her as a somewhat humorless spinster who had begun and abandoned an academic career but kept up her literary-scientific interests.) The family had a legacy of sustaining intergenerational friendships, and among the friends who became substitute parents were the Briegers, who, for example, invited my father to join them on their Swiss holiday in Pontresina, where Haber also vacationed. Albert and Gustav Neisser also kept a protective eye on him--and in the medical world he was just entering, many internists would recognize his name. And it was precisely in the years of his parents' deaths that he built up his library--he lived with his books.
Books were part of the serious side of life, of what his family thought of as moral education. So was the advice passed on by one's elders. In congratulating my mother on having passed the Abitur, Toni Neisser expressed the prevailing ethos, adorning her advice with a string of pearls: "I would so much want to tell you today what for me has been most important in life: to be able to be active, to be able to do without, to be able to feel joy and to be able to suffer, to be able to love, to admire. If you are able to do this as well as you have done your studies, you'll be able to say your life was sublime [herrlich]." This was indeed the prescribed attitude to life, though it didn't dampen the high spirits that my mother, in particular, could enjoy.
Toni Neisser's anything-but-casual remark fastened on something that her generation, unlike ours, took for granted: in a world of abundant comfort, a high value was put on renunciation, on knowing how to do without. There was a fear of indulgent luxury, of ostentation, of excessive ease, all of which bore the danger of decline and decadence. Criticism of such self-indulgence was not so much a pragmatic counsel (fear of a rainy day) as a moral tenet, part of a now-secularized, once-Christian--more specifically Calvinist--faith. It was a secular bow to the virtues of modesty and thrift. I am reminded of Buddenbrooks, the novel by the twenty-six-year-old Thomas Mann that was published in 1901, with its portrait of a bourgeois family in decline. Mann gave epic expression to a pervasive fear that wealth and luxury marked the road to perdition--to say nothing of his equally pervasive disdain for ostentatious wealth. He was my father's favorite modern writer. "Decent" people feared disgrace as well; der Alte Asch had a prescription for the failed ones that has a certain piquancy: give them a revolver or a passage to America, that ultimate escape for the adventurer or the miscreant.
Everyday thrift enhanced the pleasures of family celebrations and holidays, which were major occasions marked by festive meals, in turn requiring proof of proper bearing. I don't know when the earlier generations had ceased observing the Jewish holy days, but I do know that beginning with my parents' time, Christian holidays were duly celebrated--Easter; the Advent Sundays; St. Nicholas's day, with the fearsome character with the switch; Christmas, with the tree and its lighted candles, the singing of carols, presents, and the special meal.
In equal contrast to the workaday world was the annual vacation, with or occasionally without children, the travel with heavy baggage to the sea or the mountains, the time to restore one's health after habitual overexertion, the time to read, to meet up with or make friends, often the time for cultural pilgrimages to Italy or France, to the fabled spas in the vast Dual Monarchy or toprimitive inns in simple villages. Frontiers, after all, were open, visas rarely required, and the prevailing gold standard served as a kind of common currency.
For this compressed portrait of my family's life my sources are family letters and photographs and, to a lesser extent, oral tradition. I have tried to hear the varied voices of the time, and I know that they may perhaps sound implausibly idyllic, that what they preserved on paper may well already have been purged or "elevated." Certainly the scenes they describe seem idyllic compared with what came later. But they couldn't--they shouldn't--have seemed idyllic to them at the time: there was too much poverty, too much disease, too short a life span. There was hardly a family that had not experienced grave illnesses--tuberculosis, syphilis, diphtheria--and many had endured the worst ravage, an infant's death. Physicians' families knew all about this. And there were constant reminders of death everywhere, with the public expression of private grief: women in mourning dressed for at least a year in the prescribed black, men with their black armbands. Death was publicly acknowledged, while the advent of birth--pregnancy--was kept hidden or referred to only in polite circumlocutions.
Of course the outside world had always impinged on these private lives--sometimes dramatically, as at the moment of German unification, in 1871; sometimes gradually, as with the industrialization of Germany and with its increasing political discord. And there were the occasional bomb-throwers, mostly anarchists venting their rage at crowned heads and other representatives of a hated order. But I doubt that many Germans--or indeed Europeans--took a full measure of what the consequences might be of the sharpening antagonisms among the great powers. To be sure there were sudden crises--the Russian Revolution of 1905, Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, a second Moroccan crisis in 1911--threatening alliances, and ever-greater military expenses; but the presumption was for continued peace, even perhaps for greater international understanding, given the Hague Convention and the Socialist International, with its pledge to oppose all war. Perhaps peace, progress, and prosperity would endure.
At first, then, few realized that the assassination in 1914 in Sarajevo of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, posed a more ominous threat. The killing, it was assumed, had been the work of someone in the Serb underground, a manifestation of nationalist fury against Austro-Hungarian rule. It took almost a month for people to grasp that Europe was on the brink of war. On July 28, Käthe Brieger, busy with her university studies, wrote her parents: "I don't want to say anything about the war because I discuss that subjectall the time from right and left and without any pleasure. In short, I hope this time we shall still find a pacific way out." It was not to be: Encouraged by Germany's leaders, Austria declared war on Serbia, and Russia mobilized. Three days later, Germany declared war on Russia, then on France, and began its invasion of neutral Belgium--which in turn led Great Britain to go to war against its German challenger.
Most Germans, trusting the official line and lies, believed that the war was a "defensive" one, to protect the threatened fatherland. They greeted it with an outburst of patriotic fervor, with religious enthusiasm. Or at least the German elites did, notably the university professors, giving the war their moral and religious blessing, assuming that a great sacrifice would purify the nation and end the foul and enervating peace. The clergy joined the nationalist chorus: God had imposed this moral test on a people who must once more grasp the nobility of sacrifice and of death in defense of a righteous and endangered nation. Even the Social Democrats joined in, abandoning decades of pacifist opposition to all imperialist wars and accepting the official line that the fatherland was in danger. The external threat had at long last unified Germany and transcended all political divisions. Here at last was a release from an unheroic, humdrum existence, from self-satisfied indulgence and Mammon-worship. Out of this great test would come a national rebirth. Many Germans soon glorified the "August days" of exaltation--and only the fewest (Albert Einstein among them) realized that Europe had stumbled into an all-consuming catastrophe. None, not the most prescient of skeptics, could envision the carnage that was to follow.
The German response resembled a nationalist orgy, a morally uplifting mixture of hyperpatriotism and religious passion. The other belligerent countries experienced milder versions of this divine madness, but Germans seemed peculiarly vulnerable to mystical exaltation. The most important--and outrageous--example of this new spirit was the "Manifesto of the 93" of September 1914, a statement addressed to "The Civilized World" and signed by most of Germany's best-known artists and scientists, my grandparents' friends and intellectual heroes among them. It denied German responsibility for the outbreak of the war, defended the breach of Belgium's neutrality, and avowed the identity of German militarism and German culture. The "Manifesto" outraged the very people it was supposed to impress: elite opinion-makers in neutral countries. Was this a sign of a political autism aggravated by war?
Nineteen-year-old Rudolf Stern joined the many other young men who immediately volunteered for military service. He could have continued his medicalstudies or enlisted for medical service in the army, as many of his friends and fellow students did. Instead he chose the army, probably as the braver alternative and because he, too, was beguiled by the pervasive idea that the war would be a short march to victory. He left behind his older sister, Lotte, whom he cherished and admired, and younger sister, Marga, for whom he felt a special responsibility.
Two kinds of uniforms may be said to characterize the extremities of life in the first half of the twentieth century: the soldier's and the camp inmate's. The former was somehow a symbol of honor, but it also identified a break: the wearer now belonged to another world, uprooted in space and spirit, living in a state of enforced camaraderie but almost always at some point having to witness or experience unnatural death. The latter was a totally powerless victim of degradation, subject to torture and death. I see a far-off connection between the two: the brutalization that soldiers experienced in the Great War may have prepared a world that condoned the barbarism of the camps.
Rudolf arrived on the western front in March 1915, assigned at first to an artillery regiment. It was a life spent in dugouts and trenches, whether in times of heavy barrage or relative calm, with periods of recuperation in some rear position and infrequent home leaves. Boredom alternated with fear, as moods and quarters changed. One's movements were always at the command of others, often superiors one judged inferior. But one's inner life was free, and Rudolf was subject to intense, anxious self-scrutiny in these strange and dangerous surroundings, charged with thoughts about a future that might never be. The ever-present threat of death heightens the sense of life, as Freud and others have observed, and this was also true for the many who remained at home, anxious about their fighting kin, increasingly burdened with anticipatory grief.
Several sets of my father's wartime correspondence survive, including many letters between him and his close friend Käthe Brieger--the tone of their correspondence is not that of two people thinking of marriage--from his godfather (whether real or self-designated, I do not know), Gustav Neisser, and from his sisters and friends.
One of the first pieces of news exchanged was calamitous: Käthe's father, Oskar, had out of pure patriotism volunteered for service in an army hospital (he also demanded that his daughter Käthe and his prospective daughter-in-law, Käthe Friedenthal, a girl from a prosperous Breslau family of Jewish descent, should serve as nurses in his section, crowded with the injured from the eastern front). Suddenly, on October 20, 1914, he died of two massive strokes.He had been attending to both soldiers and civilians, operating under emergency conditions and giving himself no rest. In a letter of condolence to Ernst, Oskar's eldest son, who was already in the army medical service on the western front, Albert Neisser reported that the autopsy had shown grave arteriosclerosis; it had been merciful that he never regained consciousness and thus was spared "the only truly awful moment in dying, the bidding farewell." (The remark indicated either Neisser's own fears or his wish to reassure the son that the latter's absence at the time of his father's death should not heighten his pain). Neisser admonished the young Brieger to follow the example of his father, a man whose friendship he had cherished and "who always only lived and worked for others."
All manner of evidence tells us that Oskar Brieger had been an exceptionally genial, generous person with natural charm and an immense capacity for friendship shown to many people over his twenty-five years as head of the ear, nose, and throat department at All Saints'. His chief assistant, Dr. Goerke, while treating me once for a painful middle-ear infection, talked to me of my grandfather with unforgettable love. My father had been deeply attached to him. The Briegers' had been a happy companionate marriage, and he was an adored father as well. His sudden death left the family in deepest grief.
My grandmother now had to care for the two youngest boys, who were still in school but close to being called up. Yet she also quickly assumed some of her husband's responsibilities while continuing her own work with children--and her comforting letters to those closest to her at the front. One response from Ernst, written to his mother in the spring of 1915 from Lens in France, observed, "Now we are in total quiet. That you think it odd that apparently so near the heaviest fighting there can be places of absolute quiet is not surprising. For us this incredible coexistence of war and peace appears even more incredible." His mother's life had been violently disrupted by death and grief, actual and prospective. She faced all kinds of practical challenges, not to mention uncertain finances, and the ever-worsening scarcity of food when the British blockade became more effective. Her letters suggest that at times she managed to nab some luxury, often so that she could send it on to the front or save it for men on leave. We know that relatively prosperous people such as she could successfully scrounge for more than the scant rations available to everyone: this was in fact a major source of growing discontent and divisiveness in the country.
Most of Rudolf's letters had a common refrain: regrets or reproaches at Käthe's silence. He was hungry for news, for contact with the world he had leftbehind, at once so close and so unimaginably distant. They exchanged family news and reported on their respective experiences--on Rudolf's side at times defensively sarcastic, on Käthe's side ever friendly, sometimes teasingly reproving. And when Rudolf's sister Lotte became engaged to Richard Kobrak, somewhat to her brother's chagrin--he had hoped for a more promising and likeable partner--a fleeting exchange seemed to rule out a similar step for them.
The Kobraks were part of the outer circle of Stern-Brieger friends. Richard was a converted Jew, but not all members of his family were. Neisser reported in a letter that Fritz Kobrak was about to enlist in the field artillery "but not without first undertaking the move to the decent state religion." This rare comment about the difficult subject becomes even stranger as it continues: "Because Jewry [Judentum] as we know it is not a religion but a misfortune." A photograph of Lotte's and Richard's wedding shows them standing in my grandmother's garden, with some of the men in the party dressed in resplendent uniform.
So between Rudolf and Käthe the letters continued in their fraternal way. The only indications of deeper feelings--aside from the fact of the correspondence itself--were the repeated and lamented misunderstandings between them. They often discussed literature, both classical and contemporary works, and Rudolf betrayed a slightly mocking, even condescending tone when writing to Käthe about books (though he solicited her help about specific problems in chemistry and physics). Their tastes were catholic, with frequent mention of Kant and Goethe, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Books by the last two Rudolf sometimes took with him when, as a member of a new air force unit in 1916, he went up in balloons to observe enemy activity behind the lines: high-altitude reading!
During the Allied offensive at the Somme, in July 1916, he wrote, "I do have to say that my position can't necessarily be regarded as life insurance and that a few times I had exceptional luck. Also in military matters I remain an optimist, I have seen our infantry move forward and the fellows laughed so that tears came to my eyes. Of course there are other types as well, but that this is still possible with us commands respect."
Sometime in 1917, he volunteered for the nascent air force, specifically as an observer of enemy position from a balloon. Occasionally a very private note was struck: in November 1917, having been ordered to another balloon unit, he traveled via Brussels, where he went shopping: "But then I recalled my contractually fixed idealism and hastened to the picture gallery where ... I stayed till five o'clock ... In the evening, idiot that I am, I traveled to the front and reportedmost obediently to Koluft 7 [headquarters of his balloon unit] the next noon, but it was too early and I could have stayed longer in Brussels."
After two years of war, other thoughts crept in. From 1916 to 1918, he repeatedly but vainly sought to get extended leave so that he could sit for his Physikum, a prescribed examination taken in the middle of one's medical studies. Others had received such leaves, and still others had never interrupted their studies at all, but had completed them in short order and only thereafter served in the army's medical service. Repeatedly Koluft rejected Rudolf's requests; he could have done without such signs of his indispensability.
As the war years dragged on, Käthe's career went through various successful phases: after her father's death, she returned to her physics studies, as had been her father's wish, and she briefly taught science in the upper grades of Gymnasium to students only a few years younger than she. By 1918, she had received her doctorate in physics, with a thesis concerning the structure of crystals, based on recent experiments by Max von Laue. Then, with her doctorate in hand, still very rare for women, she embarked on a new career, explaining to Rudolf that she much preferred to work with children: "To find work that doesn't deal with instruments but with people, and especially with children whom one can help, and where, as I hope, there won't be rocky obstacles that might threaten my talents with destruction, where in short there is no maneuvering along abysses of ignorance--for me, such work is not work but only joy." And in the spring of 1918 she gave some lectures on women's suffrage in various cities and repeatedly in the Upper Silesian city of Kattowitz.
My father's letters said relatively little about conditions at the front. This was not, I think, out of fear of censorship; he indicated quite freely where he was stationed, what French or Belgian towns or villages he had visited, to what town he rode to visit Käthe's brothers. He also wrote about some landscape, some moonlit ride that reminded him of home, that stirred up all manner of sentimental thoughts.
The deepest introspection he confided to a diary that he kept for a short time in 1916-1917, written, as he put it, when his previous life had collapsed like a house of cards. In the years just before the war, he had been in thrall to the memory of his father, wishing above all to achieve his eminence. He recalled that in 1910 he had gone through a religious crisis (this was a year after he and Käthe had been confirmed) and eventually came to accept his disbelief. Scattered though his wartime correspondence are disillusioned remarks about clergymen at the front. He thought that he needed people but that people did not need him because he was an unfriendly person. Like many soldiers, he found the war akind of journey outward and inward, the discovery of an external world beyond the familiar and an occasional search for the self beneath the uniform.
In the spring of 1915, Gustav Neisser--Onkel Gustl, as that wise and benevolent friend was called--wrote my father, deflecting his thanks for care and gifts and acknowledging only that his own peace of mind [Seelenruhe] had wilted: "But even worry about you is an enrichment of my life, and I wouldn't want to miss or exchange it for indifference to your fate. In what kinds of existence you must now find yourself!! In fact it must be marvelously interesting to observe in oneself how a nervous and cultivated person accepts this return to the most primitive [ursprünglichsten] form of life. But I very much wish for you that these lofty experiences don't last for too long." He added that he thought they wouldn't because "old Haber [Fritz's father] told me yesterday sottissimo voce" that his son's secret discoveries were now being practically tested. This chilling reference was to Fritz Haber's fevered experiments with the production of poison gas weapons--which in fact were first used in April 1915. Neisser ended the letter ironically: "Heil Haber and Hindenburg!" (Hindenburg was Supreme Commander of the Army--and that coupling would have pleased Haber rather more than it would have the field marshal.)
Neisser caught the strangeness of wartime existence, aware that the rawness of life in the field prompted reflections on "normal" civilized life. He must surely have been concerned also for his own son, Hans, who was in the army as well. He sensed how the constant cycle of exhaustion and exertion, of danger and release, would affect the soldier. And he knew that the war brought together fellow soldiers from the most diverse and unexpected backgrounds, from different classes, regions, and religious faiths. For some it was a democratizing experience. My father had a superior from East Prussia, Major von Hatten, with whom he came to be on good terms--a connection that in peacetime would have been most unlikely.
Still on the western front, my father was made a noncommissioned officer and, in late 1915, received the Iron Cross second class; still later, he was awarded the Iron Cross first class for particular bravery, a much rarer decoration. After having survived the horrors of Ypres and the Somme, he volunteered for duty in the expanding air force units, specifically as a balloon observer. As a child, I loved hearing about his ascents in the gas balloons, usually tethered to the ground by ropes, to observe enemy activity. A single burst of machine gunfire sufficed to set fire to a balloon and send it crashing to the ground, and by 1918 the Allies had clear air superiority. But even before that, Gustav Neisser had warned my father: "Wouldn't such a big pear [the balloonshape] make a splendid target for the English?" Still, the new assignment was an adventure; it took him away from the trenches, and in between flights he had a more comfortable life in quarters away from the front line. By May 1917, he had been promoted to lieutenant in the reserve, a position involving new responsibilities, such as training recruits for this branch of the incipient air force, and providing new privileges, foremost among these the services of an orderly.
The letters my father received from Onkel Gustl offer an astonishing commentary on the political mood of the time, for Neisser was entrusted with various semiofficial responsibilities in Berlin and had excellent connections everywhere. No doubt he, too, had thought that the war would be won in short order, for German troops were everywhere on enemy soil and only victory eluded them. But gradually Neisser's comments reflected one overriding concern: to bring the horror to an end. His candor--about rumors of political maneuvering, about military matters--was remarkable, and over the years he became increasingly "defeatist," and then unambiguously critical of German policy. In World War II, any one of Neisser's political comments would have sufficed for a death sentence on charges of defeatism.
Neisser's reports on family and friends were regularly supplemented by political asides. He belonged to the propertied elite that had access to the governing classes, and he grasped their culpabilities. He wrote as the German patriot he felt he was--and only gradually did he come to realize that the noisy, self-appointed super-patriots represented the gravest threat to Germany. In early 1915, he was pleased with German victories, assuming that they would hasten the end of the war. He noted that Haber's weapon of poison gas had contributed to the victory at Ypres--and said not a word about the horror of the new weapon or the fact that its use violated international agreement. In April, right after Ypres, he reported on the rumor that negotiations with Britain were under way and that people in high circles were wondering whether she would have to pay fifteen or twenty billion marks in reparations. (He was right in only one respect: German leaders assumed that the defeated Allies would pay for German debts incurred during the war. The precedent for Allied reparations was the indemnity of five billion francs that Bismarck had imposed on the French in 1871.)
There were the odd lighthearted remarks: my father had failed in finding books Neisser wanted, but "Once you have marched into Paris and begun to plunder the Louvre, continue to think of me." But he turned serious in the same letter, and wondered what people in twenty years would say about the fact that for six months Europeans fought over some local position while the Japanese"in all quiet swallowed the greatest parts of Asia." He also mentioned rumors that we now know had no basis in fact--that peace with France was near, and that Germany was ready to cede some parts of Alsace-Lorraine, leaving Britain and Russia to pay for the war.
In June 1915, Neisser again reported on peace rumors--himself incredulous--but noted that the official press had toned down its hate songs while "the privileged war enthusiasts escalate their rage." By now he had come to believe that Germany bore a large share of responsibility for the war: the building of a high-sea fleet, Admiral Tirpitz's great project, had posed a mortal threat to British power. In Neisser's mind--and that of many others--Tirpitz was a "misfortune," a powerful force against all reason. Neisser reported on the many splits within the German leadership: he scorned the extremists for whom Tirpitz was a hero and sided with the civilian chancellor Theodor von Bethmann Hollweg, who doggedly tried to preserve a moderate course, arguing against the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare. When he lost in February 1917, the predictable result was that the United States entered the war. Neisser recalled with dismay the earlier German "madness about world-mastery" [Weltüberwinderwahn], the failure to understand that Britain was unbeatable. At the height of the murderous battle of the Somme--which my father experienced at close quarters--Neisser wrote that he hoped the Germans would lose some ground because only "a bitter lesson" would suffice to subdue the annexationists. As the war dragged on, Neisser's tone became more bitter. What were Germans fighting for, what were the nation's war aims? Wartime secrecy hid the details, but people gradually learned that the military leadership, increasingly in the hands of Hindenburg and his titular subordinate but actual superior, Quarter-master General Erich Ludendorff, along with captains of industry and professional right-wing chauvinists, harbored the most extreme war aims, designed to ensure German supremacy over Europe for all time. Bethmann Hollweg, the chancellor, was a conscientious realist and moderate, but he was increasingly powerless against the others; indeed by his mere presence he served as a cover for the extremists.
Still, Neisser's letters remained high-spirited, intimate, irreverent. He once offered to write more often if Rudolf promised that the letters would never be published, even if he were to rise to still higher positions--an unlikely ascent, he added, because he was not going to give up his "anarchist" views, acquired because even the Social Democrats had become accommodationist. And as to the risk of putting pen to paper, he repeated an anecdote told him by Heinrich Dove, vice president of the Reichstag, about the rabbi whom he knew in hishometown of Rogasen who had said to him, "Material goods and money I don't have and can't leave to my children, but each receives some lesson for life." Dove asked for a similar gift, and the rabbi told him, "Never write anything in writing" [Schreiben Sie nie etwas schriftliches]. Delight in paradoxical Jewish wit was quite common, and this particular example became a favorite in subsequent letters and postwar conversation.
My father had an unappeasable hunger for Neisser's news; the letters were, he once wrote, his sole spiritual fodder. In September 1915, Neisser explained his occasional silence: "Only acute war psychosis paralyzes the expression of my thoughts. I am in such total despair about the monstrous madness that we are condemned to experience that I don't know what to write you or others." That indeed had become his deepest conviction, and it was radically different from the conventional sermonizing of the time--and probably even somewhat different from the view of the recipient, who believed in the necessity of the war for a longer time.
By the end of 1916 it became clear that the Social Democratic Party, the largest in the Reichstag, was about to split: eminent leaders from the left and right wings, outraged at their conformist colleagues' support of an imperialist war, seceded and formed a radical opposition group, the Independent Socialist Party. Even moderates recognized that if the war was to be fought successfully, internal reforms were needed. Prussian conservatives turned radical: they mobilized all their power to oppose these reforms and any effort at a reasonable peace. In 1916, Neisser was invited to become a member of the "Deutsche Gesellschaft 1914," a self-constituted important club of elite Germans ranging from conservatives to right-wing Social Democrats and including a number of prominent Jews--the industrialist Walther Rathenau, the banker Max Warburg, the great theater director Max Reinhardt among them. The members discussed politics among themselves, but some members used the club to advance reasonable policies. Neisser clearly sided with political moderates such as Ernst Troeltsch, philosopher and theologian, who demanded a reformist course. By now Neisser was recognizing Germany's superpatriots as the greatest internal danger. I believe his son Hans, also on the western front, shared his father's disillusionment, but it took my father longer to lose the faith.
In March 1918, on his twenty-fourth birthday, Rudolf was brooding over his own delayed career and uncertain life. He had been feeling moments of war weariness, and he wrote to Käthe, "My readiness to sacrifice was also time-bound, and with the passage of time, personal desires come to the fore." He was more than exasperated with his superiors, whose "brutality, mendacity, andboundless stupidity" he found disgusting. Käthe may have reproved him for these remarks, for in a subsequent letter he offered this rejoinder: "You people have no inkling of what the war is really like ... some kinds of vileness can sometimes really throw one off balance."
At that point, Rudolf apparently shared everyone's high hopes that Ludendorff's massive offensive against Allied positions on the western front would succeed, supported as it was by an added million men from the eastern front, freed because Lenin had accepted the German peace terms at Brest-Litovsk, Carthaginian as they were. The German armies did break through Allied lines, but the great prize, the capture of Paris, eluded them, in part because of pervasive weariness. This fatigue took hold of Rudolf as well. It did not take much for him to fall into melancholy contemplation--or sentimental weakness, as he called it. In late March he had to order the leveling of eight fruit trees to clear a launch pad for the balloon, "and gone were all good spirits, and I felt an incredible yearning for my childhood, for a good microscope ..." Then the hope for peace receded, and at the end of April he mentioned, à propos of some reading he had done, "that my comrades in the first thirty years' war had a very much nicer life," though "the so-called dependents found it rather unpleasant even in comparison to our bread and meat rationing, especially if they belonged to the third religion [Confession]." (I was startled when I first read this implicit comment that 1914-1918 was the beginning of a second Thirty Years' War; decades before seeing this letter, I myself had used the phrase "second Thirty Years' War" to refer to 1914-1945. The first Thirty Years' War, 1618-1648, had ravaged the German lands, and the people had suffered from terrifying violence, hunger, and pillage; one third of Germany's population perished, so it is understandable that memory of the war haunted Germans for centuries.)
"The third religion" was a typically veiled and quite rare reference to Jewishness in my father's letters. And yet we know that at the home front, anti-Semitism was becoming virulent in the course of the war. In 1916, the War Department had ordered a confidential census of the number of Jews in the German armed forces, a response to the widespread canard that Jews were shirkers. The results, not disclosed until after the war, disproved the malicious charge, but the very institution of such a census suggests the degree to which Jews were thought separate and suspect. By 1917, the Fatherland Party had great success with its wildly pan-German and anti-Semitic program. In March 1918, Rudolf asked his younger sister for the address of the League for Combating Anti-Semitism.
In mid-July 1918, German troops were close to Paris, but then the Allies, reinforced by American troops, began a successful counteroffensive, forcing a continuous German retreat. At the end of September, General Ludendorff, virtual dictator, suddenly lost his nerve, fearing that at any moment the German army might collapse. Hence he demanded that the Kaiser instantly appoint a parliamentary government, including representatives of the democratic parties, that in turn might immediately appeal to President Woodrow Wilson for an armistice. This was a clever, cynical move to shift political responsibility for Germany's defeat: an army should be the father of victory, while civilians--and democrats at that--should shoulder the defeat and the liquidation of a lost war. Weeks passed in negotiations between Wilson and the German government; meanwhile the country was beset by strikes and massive anger at the continued fighting and dying. Yet, by late October, it was clear that an armistice--with exceedingly harsh conditions--would indeed finally end the slaughter.
Neisser, realizing that immense hardships awaited Germany, foreswore any gloating at having foreseen the disaster. However, the young should take heart, he wrote, for a new world is being born: "People everywhere want peace. And too many eyes have now been opened so that the powers that work in the dark will not soon be able to begin their deadly [unheilvoll] work again." He reflected on his political experience; for his generation, life had begun with
the new glow of the German Reich, and thereafter we experienced nothing but decline. The broadest strata of the Bürgertum combined with the old powers of reaction to engage in the most brutal pursuit of material interests and thus wrecked every strain of true liberalism. Hypocrisy and lack of inner freedom triumphed everywhere, and year by year the split between the propertied classes and the rising fourth estate widened. How all these things affected our foreign policy will have to be a subject for the future. We are now at the lowest point, and the inner renewal will begin, not only with us but in other cultured countries of the world.
He wouldn't live to see this new world, he wrote, but perhaps, like Moses, he would at least be allowed a glimpse of the promised land. But not even that: he died suddenly in mid-December 1918, a victim of the influenza epidemic. He did not live to witness how the evil powers of the past, with still more vengeful hatred and mendacity, would poison "the promised land."
The evolution of Neisser's political views--here but briefly summarized--shows how, over time, Germans began to divine the truth beyond the veil of liesand by 1918 were clamoring for peace, some even for peace and social justice. But the subjects Neisser did not mention deserve notice as well: he wrote very little about the fierce political struggles over democratic reforms, even though his views on these were implicitly clear, and he wrote nothing about the dramatic increase in rabid political anti-Semitism that began in 1917.
The gist of Neisser's judgments was common coin among admirable moderates; in 1918-1919, Ernst Troeltsch wrote pseudonymous articles that expounded similar judgments about the imperial regime. In 1918, Rathenau published an appeal to German youth, decrying as "the most shameful and the most un-Germanic [thing] that has happened in this war ... the reckless, shameless showering of self-praise. Nothing has so contributed to the decline of morals in this country, to the disdain for law ... as this prolonged self-glorification." (A year earlier, he had warned Ludendorff against the continuing deception of the German people.) Many Germans expressed these views in private and in their letters but kept silent in public for fear that open German acknowledgment of guilt would feed Allied vindictiveness; they probably couldn't imagine that silence would favor nationalist mendacity at home and encourage the false myth of victorious German armies being stabbed in the back.
By August 1918, the tide of war had turned decisively: the Allies broke through German lines, and Ludendorff's fears about a possible collapse intensified. Rudolf experienced both the misery of those terrible autumn days and the precipitous decline in morale. On September 28, the very day on which Ludendorff asked the Kaiser to appoint a democratic government, Rudolf wrote to Käthe, "In the last three days I have once again seen so much misery and wretchedness that even my brutalized being can't handle it." He hoped that Käthe would have congenial work for the winter, the more so as he would take on the Sisyphean task of combating "the subversive and pro-sabotage propaganda in the army. Yes, if you could help me in this or if I had a tenth of your courage, your youthful energy and optimism, but I am suited for this role as a gravedigger is to be a life-insurance agent."
Until mid-October he preserved his faith in the cause, angered by those who espoused "defeatism." He was bitter at the loss "of cohesion ... in broad circles in Germany," replaced as it was by what he saw as massive selfishness. He caricatured the feeling: "Never mind if Alsace goes down the drain or, for all I care, the whole German Reich, the main thing is for me to have enough to eat." German youth, he thought, was schooled in "a foolish Hurrah-Patriotism," but didn't have an inkling "of the true nature of a state and the place of its citizens." He wrote scathingly of friends and relatives who, from a left and probably socialistposition, had become critical of the German cause, though he acknowledged as self-evident that with Germans, too, "there has been a great deal of sin because of stupidity, malice, and delusion." "In this time of rogues it is really difficult to know what one should do," he added, and he would be satisfied "so long as my active fellow soldiers [Kameraden] and those who wish to appear as such consider me an uncertain warrior [Kantonist] and a reddish defeatist, and my friends ... uncle Gustav, etc., take me for a nice fellow but a narrow and pan-German polluted militarist." Käthe wrote a few days later that she and many others believed Germany could have had a better peace in 1916 and "many lives have been sacrificed for naught."
Until the late fall of 1918, Rudolf sought to preserve a kind of inner balance between the dominant sense of loyalty and duty and the intermittent upsurge of "sentimental weakness." "My father told me once some twelve years ago," he wrote, "that the best weapon against world weariness [Weltschmerz] was work. I should remember this, he said, even after he was gone. Because of this legacy, I remember that conversation so vividly and it has already and repeatedly proved to be restorative." A faith in the healing or sublimating power of work, the Arbeitskur, may have had a special appeal to German Jews.
But as my father gradually realized that the mendacity and class egoism of Germany's wartime leaders had senselessly prolonged the suffering, he felt angry and betrayed. He certainly emerged from the war purged of all nationalist views and with a disillusioned, cynical attitude about German politics. Of his wartime experiences in the trenches, he rarely thereafter talked, though he spoke somewhat more readily of his time with the balloons, and as a very young child in Germany, I was quietly proud of his service, rank, and decorations. But once Germany ceased to be a home--that is, when Hitler came to power--I thought he had fought on the wrong side, and later, as a teenager in the United States, I even felt embarrassment about his wartime service.
By the end of October, Rudolf had suffered not only the trauma of his country's defeat and the angry feeling that the four years of war had been senseless, but also the trauma of a very dangerous illness. In mid-July he had contracted jaundice, recovering only in early August; by September he was back with his balloon unit. But in late October he was rushed to an army hospital with a case of influenza--it was the beginning of the global scourge that killed more than ten million people. The head doctor, taking note of his very high fever, pronounced him moribundus and ordered that the family be notified at once, perhaps allowing for a final visit.
My father heard this diagnosis from his sickbed, and rebelled against thesentence. Knowing that the greatest danger of so high a fever was to the heart, which needed stimulation to combat it, he sent his orderly in search of two bottles of champagne and some strong coffee. He imbibed the medicine and survived the crisis. What the story, now of course a family legend, may lack in medical plausibility it makes up for in testimony to a family's pleasure in celebrating great moments with champagne. Typical of the confusion of those last wartime weeks, his relatives and the Briegers received first the telegram indicating that he was out of danger and only later the summons for a final visit.
There were other communications, too. After he heard the fatal diagnosis, and when he was not at all confident that he would recover, my father wrote a farewell letter to Käthe on October 25, avowing in the face of death the feelings and expectations to which in the preceding four years he had never referred: "I must thank you because every experience of true happiness I have had since I have grown up I owe to you ... And today you will believe me, if in the most sacred seriousness, I assure you that you wouldn't have been happy with me and that you wouldn't have made me happier than you have already. Therefore chin up and fulfill my greatest wish: achieve happiness because you have the stuff it takes as few do ... Good night, as always, R."
Copyright © 2006 by Fritz Stern

You May Also Be Interested In

cover Buy

More formats
eBook
The Corrections
A Novel

Picador
Stretching from the Midwest at midcentury to the Wall Street and Eastern Europe of today, The Corrections brings an old-fashioned world of civic virtue and...
  Bonus
cover Buy
Hot, Flat, and Crowded 2.0
Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America

Picador
A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year A Washington Post Best Book of the Year A Businessweek Best Business Book of the Year A Chicago...
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
Abroad
A Novel

Sarah Crichton Books
Not since Donna Tartt’s The Secret History has a novel this intoxicating captured the headiness and dark temptations of university life. The old Etruscan...