Five Germanys I Have Known

Fritz Stern

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

560 Pages



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Winner of the American Philosophical Society's Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History The "German question" haunts the modern world: How could so civilized a nation be responsible for the greatest horror in Western history? In this fusion of personal memoir and history, scholar Fritz Stern refracts the question through the prism of his own life. Born in the Weimar Republic, exposed to five years of National Socialism, and finally finding a haven in the United States in 1938, he became a world-renowned historian of modern Europe whose work opened new perspectives on the German and German-Jewish past; his critical commentary soon became part of the public debate in Germany itself. Weaving together interpretative narrative, Stern brings to life the Germanys he has experienced: Weimar, the Third Reich, postwar West and East Germany, and the unified country after 1990. His friendships with leading German intellectuals and politicians give him special insights into their struggle to create a liberal democracy. He shows that the tumultuous history of Germany, alternately Europe's strength and Europe's scourge, offers political lessons for citizens everywhere—especially those facing or escaping from tyranny. Throughout this book, Stern, himself a passionately engaged citizen, looks steadily beyond Germany to issues of political responsibility that concern everyone. Five Germanys I Have Known vindicates his belief that, at its best, history is our most dramatic introduction to a moral civic life.


Praise for Five Germanys I Have Known

"The opening chapter, set in an 'ancestral Germany'—before Stern was born, in 1926—is the book's greatest pleasure, offering a glimpse into an educated Jewish milieu of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is so richly detailed that it reminds one of the early works of Thomas Mann, or of Stefan Zweig's portrait of the same period in Austria, The World of Yesterday . . . By probing history for answers to how Germany progressed from radical illiberalism to Nazism, Stern has created a cumulative canon of warning signs for the degeneration of any great nation's politics. The more personal history in this book adds power to an argument that has been a lifetime in the making."—Tom Reiss, The New York Times Book Review

"[Stern's] impressive book combines haunted childhood memories with learned insights and reflections . . . Engrossing, finely composed."—Amos Elon, The New York Review of Books
"A historically valuable document of a happy life in difficult times."—Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

“[Combines] the objectivity and intellectual rigor of the academic with the warmth and intimacy of the memoirist . . . Anyone having an interest in 20th-century European history will find the book engrossing.”—Roger K. Miller, The Janesville Gazette

"How could a civilized nation be responsible for one of the greatest horrors in human history? Five Germanys I have Known seeks to answer this question, blending history with history with personal memoir and presenting a celebrated scholar’s insights on his life in Germany and in the U.S. In blending in personal anecdote rather than simply providing a historical overview, a good deal of personal insight and German cultural exploration is provided, making this suitable not only for college-level and high school collections discussing issues of international policy, German history or ethics, but for any interested in German issues.”—The Midwest Book Review

“Fritz Stern, perhaps the greatest living historian of modern Germany, has produced a fascinating memoir that meditates on the profound changes he witnessed in Germany and helps us understand that nation’s complex and tortured past. Through his own story, presented in a lucid and engaging narrative that often reads like a good mystery novel, we are treated to rare insights into the forces that moved the 20th century by a scholar superbly qualified to make sense of his own experiences. Readers of this important book are thankful that as a young man Fritz Stern did not listen to the advice given to him by Albert Einstein: to study medicine and not history . . . In this lively book that fuses memory and history, Stern illuminates the five Germanys he experiences: Weimar, the Third Reich, post war West and East Germanys, and the unified country after 1990. His friendship with leading German intellectuals and politicians, and their American counterparts like Richard Holbrooke, as well as his scholarly acumen, give him unique insights into Germany’s struggle to create a liberal democracy. Stern shows how the history of the five Germanys can be read as a text that reflects on the fragility of democratic liberties and the ease with which they can die if left unprotected. This book is rich in detail, perspective and historical wisdom, as well as reflections on the trauma of the German-Jewish refugee experience, and the resilience of many who were able to forge productive and dignified lives.”—Jewish Book World

"A fascinating memoir by a historian meditating on the changes he has witnessed in Germany and Europe. Five Germanys I Have Known is filled with insight, drama, and wisdom."—Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

"It is no exaggeration to say that, for both Americans and Germans, Fritz Stern is a living national treasure—a revered historian whose historical masterworks have illuminated the German question and helped us to understand that nation's complex and tortured soul. Now he sums up his life—as an American born in Germany. Through his own story, he illuminates in a deeply moving and personal light the two very different countries where he has left such an enduring mark. This is an important memoir, certain to become a classic."—Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany

"This brilliant and insightful volume of memories and analyses is a treasure to teachers and students of contemporary history."—Elie Wiesel

"A wonderful book: an interpretation of modern Germany by its greatest living historian and a rare memoir of a twentieth-century life by a man superbly qualified to make sense of his own experiences. Fritz Stern's pointed reflections upon the fragility of democratic liberties and the unpredictable ease with which they can wither and die should be required reading for every informed citizen."—Tony Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

"Though the twentieth century was the American Century, Fritz Stern takes us on a journey that give us pause in that historical assessment. Behind most of the signal events of the last century—World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and even the founding of the state of Israel—you will find either a direct German hand or a compelling German cause and effect. Fritz Stern's new book takes our understanding of Germany and its role in events that have affected mankind for the last hundred years to new levels. It is a must-read!"—Milt Bearden, former CIA official and coauthor of The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown with the KGB

"From growing up in a vanished Germany to serving as Allen Ginsberg's college debating team partner to being apparently the first historian-in-residence at a U.S. embassy, Fritz Stern has had a remarkable life. Readers of this intriguing book are extremely lucky that he disobeyed the advice given to him as a young man by Albert Einstein: to study medicine and not history."—Adam Hochschild

"Based on the experiences of his family and himself as well as on his long and distinguished career as a historian, Fritz Stern's Five Germanys I Have Known is at once a deeply personal and a rigorously scholarly book. No one is better able to explain the complex blend of accomplishment and disaster that has characterized Germany's modern history."—James Sheehan, Stanford University

"A diary of reason, recording an unsentimental faith in freedom born of brutality and nurtured by the rigorous study of history. One of Germany's unwitting gifts to America, Fritz Stern continues to enrich both societies with scholarly and purposeful appeals to the better nature of each."—Max Frankel

"A wise and deeply moving memoir by a human being and scholar of exceptional quality, as well as an astute guide to Germany of the last seventy-five years."—Louis Begley

"Readers who follow Stern's comments on the Germanies he experienced . . . will be impressed by the range of his contacts and the effort at balance and judiciousness even when paired with very strong views. The author also offers some insight into the trajectory of his own scholarly work that has done so much to illuminate the world of Otto von Bismarck and of Germany in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."—Gerhard L. Weinberg, Journal of Military History

"Eminently interesting . . . The book . . . is a good example of the work of a fine teacher . . . It is also a fine introduction to modern German history, and there is much charm in Stern's unambiguous embrace of his past . . . Five Germanys is the record of an exemplary American life."—Norman Birnbaum, Columbia Magazine

"This book is a summation and memoir by master historian Stern, one of the foremost historians of 19th- and 20th-century Europe, whose writings have influenced generations of students and scholars as they have wrestled with the great questions of European history during this period. Beginning with a poignant recollection of the vanished world of his boyhood in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), after World War I, Stern goes on to describe his forced emigration to New York (with his physician father and educator mother) when the Nazis came to power. He goes on to trace his development as a student and then as a committed and engaged scholar as his homeland moved from World War II to occupation, division between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, and, finally, today's unified country. Stern's explicitly liberal approach to history and politics runs throughout his reflections on his own wide-ranging scholarly and civic involvement in Germany and on the issues of Germany's role in the world today. Not a conventional history, this work provides insight into the development not only of Germany but also of a morally committed scholarly life. Academic libraries with other books by Stern should consider this one as well."—Barbara Walden, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Library Journal

"Stern traces 100 years of his homeland's history, at the same time telling the story of his coming-of-age as an intellectual and a citizen. Despite its title, the book really describes six Germanys: the pre-World War I 'ancestral' country of the author's parents; the Weimar Republic, in which he was born, in 1926; Hitler's Third Reich; the West and East Germanys of the Cold War; and the unified, post-Communist nation. The obvious dividing line in Stern's life is 1938, when his Jewish family narrowly escaped the country. Transplanted to New York, he grew up as Germany provoked and then lost World War II. In 1946, he embarked on an academic career that focused on German history just as his native country was beginning decades of change. As a historian, he writes, his professional life has been dedicated to investigating how 'the human potential for evil became an actuality' in the Germany of his youth. The author engagingly mixes personal experiences, including friendships with poet Allen Ginsberg and historian Richard Hofstadter, with the politics of the times, ranging from Konrad Adenauer's leadership of West Germany to the ideological turmoil that raged on Columbia's campus in 1968. His underlying concern is the individual's responsibility within society. For Stern, the only choice is an engaged citizenship, standing up for liberal values when they are threatened by autocrats and radicals from the left or the right. He faults Germans who went along with Hitler's hatred of Jews as well as young American dropouts of the 1960s who chose to detach from society rather than work to change it. Those who do not defend for their freedoms, he writes, endanger them. An expansive, eloquent fusion of 'memory and history' that examines the moral questions posed by the political and social upheavals of the last century."—Kirkus Reviews

"One of the twentieth century's most distinguished scholars of modern European history, Stern has been the psychological explicator of the past, the effort to understand historical events as they were perceived by those who experienced them directly. Having grown up in pre-war Breslau (in what is now Poland) before emigrating to New York in 1938, Stern has been dedicated to studying the cultural context of Nazism and the mind-set of its adherents. He now addresses the most incessant question of twentieth-century European history—how a nation as civilized as early-twentieth-century Germany could be responsible for the greatest horror in Western history—through the lens of his own trajectory through European and American history. Oscillating between historical narrative and memoir, Stern fuses the ambiguities and self-deceptions of Germany history from Weimar to the present with affectionate memories of his family; he also celebrates his engagement with the century's defining intellects, including Fritz Haber, Lionel Trilling, and Chaim Weizmann. The result is a brilliantly intimate portrait of both history and historian that shines with optimism about what the world can learn from Germany."—Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

"In 1944, upon visiting the desolate ruins of Stalingrad, Gen. Charles de Gaulle reportedly said, with a touch of awe, 'Quel peuple!' He was referring not to the Russians but to France and Russia's mutual enemy, the Germans. According to Stern, former provost of Columbia University and among the most venerable of America's German historians, de Gaulle grasped the 'deep ambiguity that hovers around German greatness': Germans were not only the destroyers of historic Europe but also its creators. In this fascinating memoir, Stern looks back over the 'five Germanys' his generation has seen—the Weimar Republic, Nazi tyranny, the post-1945 Federal Republic, the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic and, lastly, the reunited Germany of the present—and explains how he came to reconcile himself with his birth country (which his Jewish family fled in 1938) as it has come to terms with its new place in today's more cohesive and peaceful Europe. His history, says Stern, can be read as 'a text for political and moral lessons, as a drama in dread and hope.' The book's intriguing structure makes it a wonderful combination of history, memoir, analysis and even poetry."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1ANCESTRAL GERMANYTHERE 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
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  • 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.