The Five Germanys I have Known by Fritz Stern

Friday, August 8, 2008

There is the wonderful scene in Woody Allen's "Manhattan" when he is at a party with what could be a "cast from a Fellini film". He is talking about how Nazis are planning to march in New Jersey and recommends that he and others gang up with bricks and bats to go teach them a lesson. One of the other party guests responds that he read a devastating satire piece in the Op-Ed section of the NY Times on the issue. Allen's response is that satire is one thing "but bricks and baseball bats really get to the point."

When I read Fritz Sterns epic memoir I couldn't help but chuckling every now thinking back to this scene. Stern is one of the top German historians in America. His life began in a part of Germany that now belongs to Poland. In the lead up to WWII Stern, age 12, and his entire family immigrated to the USA therefore escaping persecuting at the hand of Hitler. Stern's career as a professor at Columbia University allowed him to become a leading expert in the country and people who he justifiably despised for having forced to leave his country of birth. Stern's quest throughout the post World War II period is to explain "the German question" through rigerous historical study. A second compenent of his work was explaining his discoveries while also applying socialogical theories to current events shaping that period in time. He does so very effectively and does not at all come across with rancor towards the Germans.

The most amazing thing about reading this book, which combines history within the context of a memoir, is how for fifteen dollars I was able to read over the past few weeks an accumulation of knowledge and experience amassed over a period of 70 years - condensed into 500 pages. This is the power of reading! Overall, I enjoyed the book and learned so much about our modern history. Stern has lived an incredibly rich life having met and befriended numerous top figures in politics, academics and science. Truly impressive.

However, I do have a few rants regarding Fritz's book. The first is in regards to the Woody Allen scene mentioned above. I remember one point in the book where Fritz Sterns became enraged by some occurrence of current events, I believe regarding the Vietnam war. His furious outrage drove him sit down and write an op-ed letter to the Times. With all that rage I sure feel sorry for the poor stamp which certainly had to pay a dear price. At times Sterns belief in the effects of the written word seemed too overblown.

The second objection I had to his memoir - did Stern ever make a mistake in his remarkable life? I would have liked to have seen reference to an instant or two when the choice he made was the wrong one or a direction he took he reflects back on with a certain regret. It would have added a level of humbleness and humility that was lacking throughout.

Finally, I was bothered (jealous?) of how he described the countless number of brilliant people he met. I never knew there were so many synonyms for the word "intelligent" but Stern managed to use all of them when talking about his family, friends and acquaintances. It seemed like everyone he knew was smart beyond all belief. Fritz, hang out with some stupid people every now and then. It may do you some good.


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