Letter from Wroclaw: Remembering Fritz Stern
I was born into a world on the cusp of avoidable disaster….
(Fritz Stern, The Five Germanys I Have Known, 2006)
Professor Fritz Stern, one of the foremost historians of modern Europe, died on Wednesday, May 18, 2016, in his home in New York. His death is a profound loss to the whole world, but it should resonate especially strongly here in Wroclaw, his native city. Fritz Stern was a great ally of Poland and of Polish Wroclaw who greatly valued the country’s democratic development and the city’s post-1990 openness to its multicultural historical legacy. He spoke of his appreciation in his texts and in person on the occasion of his returns here – in 2002 when he received the Honorary Doctorate from the University of Wroclaw and in 2011 when he personally attended the ceremony at which the former German President Richard von Weizsäcker received the first Fritz Stern Professorship established in the historian’s honor. In 2013, in a video message screened during the second Professorship award ceremony (this time granted to Joschka Fischer) Fritz Stern expressed his admiration for contemporary Wroclaw, which he considered “a stunning example of [post-Cold War] reconstruction.” After the period of state socialism when the German past of the city was suppressed, in “the new progressive and enlightened Wroclaw the earlier brilliant life of Breslau has been acknowledged.”
Fritz Stern was born in Breslau during the hopeful period of the Weimar Republic on February 2, 1926 and his family was well connected to important intellectual and cultural figures in Europe, including Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber or Paul Ehrlich. His father Rudolf followed the family tradition and became a respected medical doctor and researcher and his mother, Käthe Brieger held a doctorate in physics and was a pedagogue and a reformer in the field of early childhood education. Both parents received their doctoral degrees from the University of Wroclaw. The family escaped Breslau during the rise of anti-Semitic Nazi terror in 1938 and settled in New York where Fritz Stern received education and eventually graduated with a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. After a period of teaching at Cornell University in the 1950s, Stern returned to Columbia where he worked as a professor until his retirement in 1996. Between 1980 and 1983 he was the University Provost and in 1992 he served as a senior adviser to the American Embassy in Bonn.
The decline of the Weimar Republic and the coming to power of National Socialists in the 1930s, which Stern experienced as a child growing up in Wroclaw, profoundly influenced his life and career. In his memoir, The Five Germanys I Have Known, he writes: “I was born into the German predicament that de Gaulle understood so well; I remember my parents’ dismay at the slow death of the Weimar Republic during my early childhood and the swift establishment of National Socialist tyranny thereafter, a tyranny accepted by so many and opposed by so few. I remember their friends who were defiant defenders of democracy and who were defeated, some of them murdered, incarcerated, or exiled. Though I lived in National Socialist Germany for only five years, that brief period saddled me with the burning question that I have spent my professional life trying to answer: why and how did the universal human potential for evil become an actuality in Germany? Decades of study and experience have persuaded me that the German roads to perdition, including National Socialism, were neither accidental nor inevitable. National Socialism had deep roots, and yet its growth could have been arrested. I was born into a world on the cusp of avoidable disaster.”
In addition to the Five Germanys I Have Known (published in Polish in 2008), Stern’s outstanding books on modern German history include The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (1961), The Failure of Illiberalism: Essays on the Political Culture of Modern Germany (1972), Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History (1987), Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder and the Building of the German Empire (1977), or Einstein’s German World (1999). In most of them, he focuses on the role of German intellectuals and political and cultural leaders in the failure of democratic and liberal politics. In his latest book, No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi: Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State (2013), which he wrote with his wife, Elisabeth Sifton, he resurrects from oblivion two exceptional figures of modern German history – the pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi. Against the general acceptance of Hitler’s regime, Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer belonged to the courageous few Germans, who openly and courageously resisted Hitler’s racial thought and actions. They both suffered long imprisonment and were murdered at Hitler’s express orders in April 1945. Stern’s last book is a brilliant conclusion to his lifetime’s work as an engaged public intellectual who was able to show, better than anybody else, the context for the demise of German democratic politics. But the implications and lessons of Stern’s work are universal, , reminding us of the fragility of freedom and democracy worldwide. They are also important testimonies to the lives of victims who can no longer speak for themselves. “We owe the victims of the last century’s descent into an inferno of organized bestiality an enduring awed memorial: a prudent vigilance — and the knowledge that the bacillus that killed them did not die with them. Camus was right.”
“I am therefore confident that upon my death these books, once vertrieben or expelled, will find a new home in the new Wroclaw.” (Fritz Stern, June 2013)
Fritz Stern’s ties to Wroclaw were deep and special. Shortly after his visit in 2011 he decided to donate his personal collection of almost 3,000 books to the Wroclaw University’s library. The collection accumulated over seventy years, which according to his wish shall be brought to Wroclaw after his death, includes historical and literary works in English, German and French, with a focus on German history, World War I and National Socialism as well as masterworks of German literature. Some of the oldest volumes originate from the private collection assembled in German Breslau before WWII and transported to the United States following the Stern family’s forced exodus in 1938. This generous donation from one of the greatest world historians was an enormously important personal and public gesture. In a speech recorded on this occasion in his apartment near Columbia University in New York and screened in Wroclaw in 2013, Fritz Stern reflected on his decision: “I think my intention of moving these books from New York to my native city also involved private gain. It was a means of combining filial piety with public purpose. They might remind my children and their descendants of the lives of their forbears and they might learn from the disaster that befell so many victims of this outburst of unprecedented barbarism with its pseudo-scientific veneer.”
Fritz Stern’s gift of books from New York to Wroclaw was a cosmopolitan act of reconciliation and engagement by a public intellectual, who believed and dedicated his life to the work of reconciliation. His historical knowledge and experiences made Stern very skeptical to extreme political agendas on both the right and the left end of the spectrum and lied at the foundations of his unequivocal support for the European project, which he termed “the brightest spot in Europe’s darkest years” following the era of Nazi barbarism that drove his family out of Germany, took the lives of many of his relatives and subsequently left his native city in ruins. Professor Stern’ death comes at a moment in Polish and European history when skepticism toward the European project is gaining in prominence, and past resentments are being resuscitated and performed with symbolic and physical violence. His wish that his family’s books, “once vertrieben or expelled, will find a new home in the new Wroclaw” is a gift to his family’s hometown that challenges us to learn from the past and think about Europe’s future.
Fritz Stern’s passing marks the disappearance of a world that once was and will no longer be — the world of Jewish intellectuals who were born in Europe, which they were forced to leave in the face of Nazi terror, and who kept deep connections to the continent and were its important and unfailing allies. I think of them all the time when I walk the streets of Wroclaw, Prague, Vilnius, Krakow or Berlin with my students with whom I try to decipher and rescue from oblivion the traces of their former presence. I think of how much poorer we are now and forever will be without them. But there is no one that I think of more than Fritz Stern, the historian and friend who did so much to make the world better through his magnificent scholarship and wisdom.