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Can It Happen Here? -- Fritz Stern: similarities of 20s Germany + US

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bobbieinok Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Oct-09-06 10:55 PM
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Can It Happen Here? -- Fritz Stern: similarities of 20s Germany + US

By Fritz Stern.
Illustrated. 546 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.)

Can It Happen Here?

Published: October 8, 2006

In November 2005, Fritz Stern received an award for his life’s work on Germans, Jews and the roots of National Socialism, presented to him by Joschka Fischer, then the German foreign minister. With a frankness that startled some in the audience, Stern, an emeritus professor of European history at Columbia University, peppered his acceptance speech with the similarities he saw between the path taken by Germany in the years leading up to Hitler and the path being taken by the United States today. He talked about a group of 1920’s intellectuals known as the “conservative revolutionaries,” who “denounced liberalism as the greatest, most invidious threat, and attacked it for its tolerance, rationality and cosmopolitan culture,” and about how Hitler had used religion to appeal to the German public. In Hitler’s first radio address after becoming chancellor, Stern noted, he declared that the Nazis regarded “Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life.”

Stern was of course not suggesting an equivalence between President Bush and Hitler but rather making a more subtle critique, extending his idea that contemporary American politics exhibited “something like the strident militancy and political ineptitude of the Kaiser’s pre-1914 imperial Germany.” At 80, Stern has just published a sprawling memoir, “Five Germanys I Have Known,” and as with that speech, he does not file away his experiences of Nazism in a geographical or temporal box.

The opening chapter, set in an “ancestral Germany” — before Stern was born, in 1926 — is the book’s greatest pleasure, offering a glimpse into an educated Jewish milieu of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is so richly detailed that it reminds one of the early works of Thomas Mann, or of Stefan Zweig’s portrait of the same period in Austria, “The World of Yesterday.”

Stern was from Breslau, a Prussian industrial city, and was raised in a medical family; his four great-grandfathers, two grandfathers and father were all physicians. His paternal grandparents had converted to Christianity in the 1890’s, and his mother’s Jewish parents had her baptized — though this would mean nothing to the Nazis. Paragons of a society that worshiped achievement and knowledge, the family happily understood their lives to follow what Tolstoy called “the work cure.” Yet they read widely in all other fields and insisted that art, poetry and the classics be a daily part of life. (In the hours before he died, years later, Stern’s father would quote lines of Homer to him in Greek.)

The full nightmare of the Third Reich still lay around a historical corner, and much of what distinguishes the Nazi chapters of Stern’s memoir is the way the horror arrives slowly, strangely, in jarring images appearing along the edges of a civilized upper-middle-class life. After 1933, Stern’s math teacher gives the class word problems like: “If three Jews robbed a bank, and each got a part of the loot proportionate to their ages ... how much would each get?” Stern learns about his own Jewish background only when he uses an anti-Semitic epithet against his sister and is set straight.

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Mnemosyne Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Oct-09-06 11:09 PM
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