Monday, November 14, 2016

Fritz Stern

Fritz Stern, from the NYT Obituary.
Fritz Stern (1926-2016) was a historian of German culture and a professor of history at Columbia University. He served as provost of Columbia from 1980 to 1983. His interest in the deep roots of Nazi culture have more resonance now than I would like to think about. He wrote: "I was born into a world on the cusp of avoidable disaster.... The fragility of freedom is the simplest and deepest lesson of my life and work."

The decline of German cultural leadership, according to Stern, dated to 1914, when German intellectuals signed the "Manifesto of the 93" declaring loyalty to the German war effort. Stern wrote:
"Most of these men had once cherished German scholarship and had admired a country that in so many ways had been full of promise, with its astounding creativity in the sciences and its legacy of music and the arts. In truth, Germany had been a country of thinkers and poets. But the old bonds snapped in October 1914, when ninety-three of Germany's leading artists, scholars, and scientists signed the Manifesto of the 93, defiantly addressed 'to the Kulturwelt,' proclaiming German innocence, insisting on the absolute identity of German culture and German militarism, defending Germany's invasion of Belgium, and denying all allegations of atrocities." (Einstein's German World, p. 210)
From Stern's obituary in the New York Times, May 18, 2016:
"Like many German historians of his generation, Professor Stern sought to explain the causes behind the events that upended his own life and that of his family, Jews who lived a prosperous, assimilated life in Breslau until oppressive conditions forced them to emigrate to the United States in 1938.

"'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 potential for evil become an actuality in Germany?' he wrote in the introduction to 'Five Germanys I Have Known,' a blend of memoir and history published in 2006."
I've recently been reading Stern's book Einstein's German World (1999), where he describes the lives of several important scientists and others who were Einstein's acquaintances. He knew several of them personally, as his father, a physician, was their friend and in some cases their doctor. He points out that by the time he was writing, few people still had direct memories of the time and of the people in his book, which makes it all the more interesting.

I've enjoyed my reading so far, and I hope to read other books by Stern.

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