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Published on: May 20, 2016
R.I.P.
Fritz Stern, 1926–2016

Honoring one of the leading historians/intellectuals linking the United States and Germany.

Fritz Stern passed away on May 18, at age 90, in New York, NY. No better tribute can be paid to him in death than one paid to him in life on November 17, 2007, when he was the recipient of the “Preis für Verständigung und Toleranz,” from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. That tribute is contained in the Laudatio delivered at that event by the late Richard C. Holbrooke, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany.

Chancellor Kohl, Chairman Blumenthal, Fritz Stern, Dear Friends:

When we honor Fritz Stern, we honor also—with a sense of astonishment—the strange, tormented course of the relationship between Germany and the United States for the last 150 years. A closeness in the 19th century—intellectual, economic, and political—was broken in 1917 and completely shattered during the Nazi era. Yet history gave us another chance to build close relations, and a series of far-sighted leaders on both sides of the Atlantic seized it. All of us are the better for it.

In Germany, this took a frank acknowledgement of the crimes committed by its own leaders with the enthusiastic complicity of millions—yes, millions!—of ordinary Germans. This terrible historical truth is embodied in the very idea of this remarkable museum, as well as monuments to, and actions by, so many German leaders from Konrad Adenauer on.

On the American side, the effort for reconciliation owes much not only to the men of the Truman era, but to a later generation of Americans who had been forced to leave Germany as children because of their Jewish roots, but who, once the war ended, looked beyond the Holocaust to help rebuild ties with Germany. One of these is the Chairman of this great museum, Mike Blumenthal, whose book, The Invisible Wall, traces six generations of his forebears, through growth, opportunity, progress—and then tragedy. My own family is another example of this story, and I am so glad that my beloved uncle—born in Hamburg, exiled to Argentina, and now a resident in Switzerland—is here tonight as another living witness to this drama.

No one is more evocative of this history than Fritz Stern. He is one of Germany’s greatest unintentional gifts to America, and he has, in turn, devoted his life to helping Americans and Germans understand Germany through close examination of its—and his own—past.

Fritz Stern was born in Breslau, from a family where the men were mostly physicians, the beneficiaries, like my own family in Stuttgart and Hamburg, of the gradual, progressive emancipation of Jews between 1812 and 1869, when they received the full rights of German citizens. But, as Fritz has written, in his beautiful, essential memoir, Five Germanys I Have Known, “legal equality did not quash ancient prejudice.” His generation, and that of his parents, would be the one to pay the full, terrible costs of anti-Semitism. He was seven when Hitler became Chancellor, and he remembers bringing the newspaper home to his father, who, he realized, without understanding why, “knew it was bad news.” At that time, Fritz did not know he had Jewish roots. This was speedily corrected by his father after he made an anti-Semitic remark to his own sister. He began to feel he was not quite German, but he says now that he was uncertain of his identity.

His family left in 1938. He felt relief and joyous excitement. Only later did he realize that, as Heine had written, “The love of freedom was a prison’s flower.” He had gotten out just in time. He spoke no English.

Over the next seven decades, Fritz became the leading historian/intellectual linking our two countries. His books, notably Gold and Iron, and his speeches in the Bundestag and elsewhere made him a major cultural figure beyond that of an ordinary historian. Of course, I knew Fritz was not ordinary. We had become friends in 1969. But I had only a dim sense of how important until I became the American Ambassador to Germany in 1993. Knowing little about Germany, I asked Fritz to take a leave of absence from Columbia University and join me in Bonn as a special senior advisor. This he did. I soon discovered that I was not the Ambassador who had brought Fritz Stern to Germany—I was the Ambassador who had accompanied Fritz Stern to Germany. Fritz was respected in America—but he was a rock star in Germany. He intrigued the press; the New York Times wrote, “his herringbone tweed jackets and wild white hair stand out in embassy corridors trod by clean-cut young diplomats.” He educated those young diplomats, and reached out to Germans who did not normally have contact with the Embassy. He alerted us to trends and problems in Germany that regular Embassy officers were unaware of.

His five months in Bonn were his longest stay in Germany since he had left in 1938, and his generous portrait of our days together is a revelation of re-connecting and re-discovering. In 1994, as he was leaving, he was elected to the prestigious German Orden pour le Merite. Before Fritz left, he took one last solitary walk along the Rhine, and, wrote, “a sudden feeling of deep contentment came over me: this was the kind of German landscape, serene and beautiful, that my parents had been attached to. I had never felt this kind of sympathetic contentment before, and it seemed as if I understood my parents better. I felt their innermost loss as perhaps I never had before…. I realized how special my American stay in Germany had been, bringing the two parts of my life together. It marked a new stage of reconciliation; on the surface and within myself.”

At the end of his memoirs, still seeking greater self-understanding, he writes: “I am a citizen of one country, but my lore belongs to two languages, equally endangered, one common culture, equally neglected.—My gratitude belongs to the country in which my children and grandchildren can be raised in freedom. For the fact that I sense this gratitude so keenly and that I have experienced friendship as so vital a gift—for this I thank the country that once forced me into exile and with which I have forged new ties.”

No one can say it better. Fritz Stern is a living national treasure for both our countries. As the generations that lived the drama fade, we need, more than ever, his voice and his enduring writing to inform future generations—generations are in great danger of forgetting with all the risks that entails—of what we owe each other. There are more lessons to learn, and we still need Fritz Stern to teach them. Thank God we have him here tonight, a great teacher for us all.

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