Within a week of Fritz Stern's arrival in New York in 1938, the 12-year-old was banging out letters on his battered typewriter to friends and relatives left behind in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The steady correspondence – and carbon copies he saved – marked the early signs of a historian in the making. And what a historian.
From the day he taught his first Western Civilization course at Columbia University 60 years ago, Stern has sought to understand and explain Germany's tortured past. Stemming from his personal experience as a Jewish émigré during the Third Reich, he evolved into what he calls an "engaged observer" of history, becoming an adviser and friend to West German, other European, and US politicians and diplomats, and a prize-winning author and lecturer.
Now, Stern's experience and scholarship come together in Five Germanys I Have Known. Part memoir, part history, the book follows Stern and Germany on a path of personal and political reconciliation: from the world of his Christian-convert forebears – a line of doctors – in imperial and then Weimar Germany, through Hitler's Germany, the two postwar Germanys, and finally, united Germany.
These days, many non- fiction works on Deutschland zero in on some untold story of the much picked-over Nazi era. Stern instead sweeps through the decades, bridging continents and generations, creating an overview that, if not groundbreaking, is useful in its breadth.
But the "partial memoir," as Stern calls it, is a challenging format in which personal story and historic narration can get out of balance.
Like a loquacious uncle, Stern is full of stories, some more interesting than others. A book of 500-plus pages demands much of a reader, and this one could do with paring down, even the elimination of an entire chapter, "German Themes in Foreign Lands." In the epilogue, he concludes with yet another personal anecdote of reconciliation, when what really begs to be addressed is what he thinks of Germany's first leader from the East. Instead of exploring whether Chancellor Angela Merkel can break down the psychological wall still dividing her country, he reduces her to a footnote – literally.
At least once, the personal appears to interfere with the historical. Stern grants President George H.W. Bush a sentence-worth of credit for German reunification. Yet, of the four World War II allies, the US was the only wholehearted backer of the historic joining. Does Stern overlook Bush's vital role because he disliked his political attacks on "liberalism," also discussed in the book?
In other sections, however, the personal and historical hum along like a well-tuned Mercedes. The chapter on the Third Reich is absolutely gripping, from details of Stern's math class ("If three Jews robbed a bank, and each got a part of the loot proportionate to their ages ... how much would each get?") to the perplexing question of German submission to Nazism.
Similarly, Stern holds his readers captive when, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall, he and a few experts are invited to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's country residence at Chequers and must press to overcome her suspicion of the German people.
Other stints as an "engaged observer" – as a friend of former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt invited to pore over his personal archives; as a special adviser to US Ambassador to (united) Germany Richard Holbrooke; as guest speaker to the West German Bundestag, or parliament – provide Stern with a compelling perch from which to share observations.
Key ones are these: that the Third Reich was not inevitable; that Nazism took on an almost religious appeal for Germans; that civil courage can bring down tyranny; and that a child who nearly lost his life to the Holocaust could learn to embrace the land that his family fled. Students of Stern at Columbia have doubtless absorbed these lessons, and more, over the decades. Now others will have a chance as well.
• Francine Kiefer is an editorial writer for the Monitor. She was the paper's Germany correspondent from 1989-1993.