Tuesday, November 27, 2018

ET: Almanac

When General Charles de Gaulle made his first trip to Russia, in the winter of 1944-45, he went to Stalingrad, site of the farthest advance and greatest defeat of the German army. In the First World War, de Gaulle had been wounded fighting against the Germans at Verdun and had been imprisoned by them for more than two years, and in the Second he was leader of the free French fighting them. Legend, with a proper touch of verisimilitude, has it that amid the ruins of Stalingrad he muttered to an aide, "Quel peuple!" The translator inquired, "You mean the Russians?" "No," said de Gaulle, "the Germans."

The general's lapidary judgement at that place of devastation says much about the German drama of the past century, which he grasped clearly. He was speaking of a "people" who between 1870 and 1939 had thrice attacked his country, whose power had corrupted and nearly destroyed historic Europe, and who were guilty of a genocidal crime unique in Europe's history. But he also knew that the German people had been prodigiously creative and that they would be indispensable for the postwar recovery of Europe. He grasped the deep ambiguity that hovers around German greatness.

This book records my experiences with the five Germanys that my generation has witnessed. I ws 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 potential for evil become an actuality in Germany?

Decades of study and experience have pursuaded me that the German roads to perdition, including National Socialism, were neither accidental nor inevitable. National Socialism had deep roots, and yet its growht could have been arrested. I was born into a world on the cusp of avoidable disaster. And I came to realize that no country is immune to the temptations of pseudo-religious movements of repression such as those to which Germany succumbed. The fragility of freedom is the simplest and deepest lesson of my life and work. And when an unvarnished picture of the past, always indispensable, seemed difficult, I recalled Ernst Reuter's great credo of 1913: "The faith of democracy rests on faith in history."

In my work as a historian in the postwar years, I was only intermittently aware of the ties between my life and my studies; fully committing myself to the historian's craft, I knew that while Clio allowed for many ways of serving her, all of them demanded a measure of detachment--enlivened, one hoped, by empathy and a disciplined imagination. I studied and taught the German past with American eyes and for American students and readers. But my full American life eventually came to ahve a vital German component, because as an American historian of Germany, I was drawn into German controversies about the past, which were roiling a defeated and divided nation, itself the principle battleground of the cold war. Perhaps I didn't quite anticipate that when one fully lives with the upheavals of one's own time--by turns destructive and uniquely constructive--one comes to see the past in new, more complex ways. Also, I realized more and more that the lessons I had learned about German history had a frightening relevance to the United States today. And gradually I acquired another German life, parallel and subordinate to my American life. I came to live in two worlds simultaneously, learning from both. Remnants of black-and-white thinking receded, and the past became a fabric of shifting colors.

Fritz Stern - The Five Germanys I Have Known

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