In 1995 Fritz Stern was asked to replace Richard Holbrooke as keynote speaker at the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, since the latter was leading the American team negotiating the Bosnian Peace Accords in Dayton, Ohio. Praising Holbrooke’s diplomatic abilities, Stern writes, he “indulged in a historical fantasy” that had Holbrooke been around in July 1914, he might have single-handedly prevented the outbreak of World War I. “In which case neither he nor his Hungarian-born wife nor I would be here in the United States.”
This, in a certain sense, is the gist of Stern’s hefty new book: part memoir, part extended rumination on German history, part coming to terms with German-Jewish relations and his own involvement in that saga. For Stern and his family were the very embodiment of German-Jewish integration before it ended in expulsion and mass murder–members of a once glorious community who avoided death only by fleeing the country that so cruelly betrayed them. Five Germanys I Have Known is also a tale of encounters with the men and women who shaped Germany’s destiny in the twentieth century or were doomed by the course it took. It tells the story of one man’s triumph and of one land’s resurrection. But it contains a melancholy strain, a memory of all that was lost and will never be given the second chance afforded Stern and his German homeland.
University Professor Emeritus and former provost at Columbia University, Stern has been a major figure among historians of modern Germany for many decades. His first monograph, The Politics of Cultural Despair (1961), was an influential study of the cultural roots of Nazism in imperial and Weimar Germany. While examining what he termed German illiberalism and the complex relationship between German and Jewish elites–analyzed in his book Gold and Iron, on Bismarck and his Jewish banker Bleichröder–Stern has also taken part in some major scholarly/political controversies in the Federal Republic in the role of an insider-outsider, starting with the debate in the 1960s and ’70s over Fritz Fischer’s controversial books on Germany’s role in the outbreak of World War I and the continuities between German imperial and Nazi policies.
This status of one who knows Germany inside out, because he was born and raised there, yet is also an outside observer, having spent most of his life studying it in the United States, is particularly complex in Stern’s case. For he is a Jew from a family of converts to Christianity, although he practices neither religion. In one sense, this would seem to make Stern, who is 80 years old, a member of the new globalized humanity–postreligious, cosmopolitan, free of tribal loyalties. In another, more accurate sense, Stern embodies the tragedy of his generation of assimilated Jews, who were forced back into the identity they imagined they had escaped or transcended, as they were expelled from the nation they had so fervently adopted. It was under duress that Stern became a patriotic American and a Jew (without ever reconverting). And he chose an extra-European identity, tinged with a strong but highly ambivalent connection to Germany.
Here is one irony: In his recent and contentious autobiography, Peeling the Onion, celebrated German author Günter Grass not only admitted that he had served in the Waffen SS but added, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that by the time he had joined Himmler’s Black Corps, it was so infused with volunteers from all lands of the Continent that it virtually had become a European army. Thus Grass became a European by joining the most notorious murder squad of the twentieth century. Conversely, Stern became a European with his last-minute escape from Germany, merely a few weeks before Kristallnacht finally shattered the illusions of even the most ardent German-Jewish patriots.