Born to a Jewish family in Hildesheim just four years after the end of World War I, Günther Stern fled Germany two years before the start of World War II. He settled in Missouri, joined the U.S. Army, and as one of the “Ritchie Boys”—a group of German-speaking intelligence officers trained in Camp Ritchie, Maryland—was dispatched to the front lines. Stern was an early arrival on the Normandy coast, landing on D+3 (three days after D-Day). For the past three quarters of a century, Professor Stern has lived in Michigan as a scholar of German and comparative literature. He continues to lecture here and abroad.
Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Gedmin and Associate Editor Sean Keeley spoke with Professor Stern as he prepares his forthcoming autobiography. The following interview has been edited for clarity and expanded after the initial conversation.
TAI: Can you begin by talking about the shape of your early life in Germany?
Guy Stern: I was born in January 1922 in Hildesheim, a medium-sized town in Northern Germany. My father had a small clothing store there. And until the Nazis came to power, we were under the impression that this was a particularly receptive small town, and an ecumenical living environment. My father worked himself up, from being an employee of a clothing store to opening his own store. He sent me first to a Jewish elementary school, and then to a German high school with mostly Protestant students. But I felt in those first years, 1932 or 1933, absolutely no antagonism. I felt well in the town. There were get-togethers between my family and our fellow citizens of Hildesheim. And then either that illusion was crushed, or people became unable or unwilling to continue contact with their Jewish neighbors.
TAI: As a child during Weimar, were you aware of the sense of grievance around Germany’s loss in World War I, the “stabbed-in-the-back” mentality?
GS: Yes, I went to my mother when I heard that the Germans had lost World War I. My early readings told me that Germany had gone from one victory to another. Her answer was concise: “Wir haben uns zu Tode gesiegt!”—“We conquered ourselves to death.” On another occasion she condemned Germany’s readiness to go to war and used strong language because two of her brothers had paid a heavy price. Her brother, Felix, was killed in a battle in France and her brother, Willy, was severely wounded during the gas warfare and was unable to take long walks or do strenuous tasks for the rest of his life.
On the other hand, her father gathered his family on Heldengedenktag, the holiday for commemorating the war dead. Once or twice we happened to be in Vlotho that day and he held a short speech as the patriarch of the family. “Let us think of my heroic sons and what they did for our fatherland,” he said.
TAI: Do you remember a distinct turning point when your family’s experience in Hildesheim began to change?
GS: Yes. Obviously, when the Nazis came to power end of January 1933, a change took place. In fact, on January 31st, my father brought my brother and me together and told us to be extremely careful, to not stand out, to not make waves, because caution for us was essential. He compared us to invisible ink, meaning that we would someday reappear, but right now, we had to be almost invisible. So we followed that advice.
It was well-taken because even close friends who were non-Jews made a sort of retreat from us. The parents of my fellow students in Hildesheim sometimes took the first steps back, and they told their children that it would be dangerous or would hurt their careers if they continued to be good friends to us.
TAI: Do you remember other turning points that we now mark as steps in Hitler’s rise: the 1932 elections, the Reichstag fire, the Night of the Long Knives?
GS: My father feared the rise of Hitler, but also added that he like so many other German chancellors before would quickly do himself in. In the election of 1932 my father voted as usual for the Staatspartei [a short-lived party that sought to combine social liberalism and nationalist corporatism – ed.].
I remember hearing the news of the Reichstag fire, but more vividly, the daily news on the trial that followed it and the condemnation of van der Lubbe [the communist accused for having set the fire – ed.]. My parents remarked on the courage of the lawyers for the German Communists.
As for the Night of the Long Knives, my father believed that the assassination of [Storm Trooper head – ed.] Ernst Röhm would weaken Hitler. He sent me to the railroad station where the main Zurich newspaper was for sale and asked me to buy a copy. He felt that the newspaper account strengthened his prediction that Hitler’s hold on the Nazi Party would wane.
TAI: What about the Nuremberg Laws? Did those affect your family?
GS: Yes, my mother was very sorry that we had to give notice to our maid, Hilde. And my father complained ever more frequently about his loss of customers after the passage of the laws.
TAI: You eventually made it out of Germany to America, and then returned to Europe during the war as one of the “Ritchie Boys.” Tell us about that experience.
GS: I had left high school in Germany two years early, saved some money, and was taken in by an uncle, my mother’s brother, who lived in St. Louis. After working a series of jobs, such as a bus boy, I entered St. Louis University. Then in my sophomore year, Pearl Harbor happened. After trying unsuccessfully to enlist in Naval Intelligence—at that time, they had restrictions against non-native born Americans—I was eventually drafted and had my basic training in Camp Barkley, Texas. Then I was suddenly transferred to Camp Ritchie, Maryland—hence the “Ritchie Boys” nickname.
There we had intensive training for about nine weeks in all aspects of intelligence work. When the war moved closer to the United States, many of my fellow Ritchie Boys and I were shipped to England, where we awaited the invasion. I was assigned to be one of the early arrivals at Normandy three days after D-Day. Ten minutes after our arrival, I had my first prisoner. At that time, staying close to the shore, we were asked to provide tactical information. Where were artillery units stationed? What were their guns? What was the immediate plan of the enemy?
Later on, when we had a breaking out of the beachhead and struck out deeper into France, I was asked to be the head of the Survey Section of my particular unit, attached to First U.S. Army. There I was asked to answer many of the inquiries we received from other units, for example, how the Germans were able to so quickly replace damaged tracks and rolling stock to get their supplies and troops to the front lines.
I was also involved in a new approach of mass interrogation to assess the orders coming from German headquarters. We wanted to know about the arrival of new troops, what their capabilities were, and at the end of the war, whether the Germans had the capabilities to engage in gas warfare as they had in World War I.
TAI: How did you feel at that moment, going back to the country where you had grown up?
GS: I felt not that I had left Germany, but that Germany had left me. The tradition in which I grew up until I was 11 years old had disappeared. It was overpowered by dictatorship, tyranny, and brutal force, and that was not my country. I became an American patriot. This country had saved my life. I was absolutely devoted to my duties in the Army, with whatever strength I could supply. So there was no real conflict in fulfilling my duties as an American. I was absolutely convinced of the superiority of the American democratic system, and I still hold to that.
TAI: You would subsequently settle in the United States after the war and become a scholar of German literature, with a particular focus on the Weimar period. What do you make of this period in German literature?
GS: Early Weimar Germany saw an interlinking of various groups across the political spectrum. There were numerous examples of Jewish historians, intellectuals, and artists interacting with their counterparts throughout German society, and great collaborations were possible. That, slowly, was suppressed. Ever more stringent restrictions were put on Jewish artists and authors, so they were forced either to retract their contributions or to go into exile—and sometimes both.
TAI: You’ve written a book about the Neue Merkur, a Weimar-era literary journal period that published many of Germany’s leading writers. Tell us about this journal.
GS: The magazine was a victim of deflation following inflation, and it folded in 1925. So it wasn’t a victim of Nazi censorship. I’m one of the few people who has tried to preserve its legacy.
I see the magazine as important for introducing the German public to such diverse foreign authors as D.H. Lawrence and Isaac Babel. Some of Germany’s leading intellectuals also contributed to the magazine, including Ernst Bloch and Franz Oppenheimer. I’ve also tried to remind the public of the tremendous contributions of the editor, Efraim Frisch, by publishing essays by him in a 1963 volume.
The epilogue in my study of the Neue Merkur quotes the famous theater director, Kurt Hirschfeld, praising Frisch’s comprehensive knowledge of European literature (German, French, Russian, and Polish) and his equally comprehensive knowledge of Jewish literature, both religious and secular. I also republished the best stories of the Neue Merkur in a collected volume, which contained aphorisms by Franz Kafka and short stories by Martin Buber and by Frisch himself.
TAI: One of the most famous novels of the period is Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. It’s recently come out in an acclaimed new English translation. Why do you think that particular novel has such staying power?
GS: I think it has to do with the author’s role in Germany. Döblin was not only an author but also a physician, who catered to people who were unable to afford doctors. He demonstrated a kind of activism that I think we still need. Döblin’s idealism reverberates in that novel and in several of his others. He was always on the side of the disadvantaged, telling their stories. That certainly applies to the book’s anti-hero, Franz Biberkopf: a murderer who has just been released from jail. I also admire his approach of using, as did such near contemporaries as James Joyce and John Dos Passos, his protagonists’ internal monologue.
I have taught this novel in my seminars. It’s an adventure story, of course, but it also seeks to uphold the principles of democracy—that all of us, all citizens of a country, are entitled to be protected, even if they cannot cope with the vicissitudes of life coming their way.
TAI: What other books of that period capture a sense of the time?
GS: Leonhard Frank is one of the authors who does. I have also long favored the works of Rudolf Frank. His work was often a kind of warning, much like Philip Roth some ten years ago with The Plot Against America, about the troubles that can undermine a democratic country.
TAI: You also have a particular interest in exile literature.
GS: Yes, I have often taught about this. Going through that mass of exile literature, through the ages and across the nations, has been one of the keystones of my career.
TAI: Two particularly famous exiled writers of the time were Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, who fled Germany and Austria, respectively, as opponents of the Nazis. How do you evaluate their work?
GS: I have written about my perception of Thomas Mann in a lengthy chapter in a German volume, The Thomas Mann Handbook. My chapter is entitled, “Thomas Mann and the Jewish World.” I’ve also written about my personal encounter with Thomas Mann when I was a high school student in St. Louis.
I have written only one article on Stefan Zweig. I did, however, discover and track down a rare portrait of Zweig done by the painter Walter Kornhas for an exhibit at Munich’s Gasteig about four years ago. I consider Zweig one of the most important chroniclers of the Weimar period, both in his non-fiction works and in one of his last works, “The Royal Game” (“Die Schachnovelle”). To me that novella represents a portrait of the exiled intellectual who is trying to cling to the past and gets fixated on that pursuit.
TAI: Let’s move to the present. Today in the United States and parts of Europe, there is a concern that democracy is in trouble and that there’s a new authoritarian temptation. Do you see that?
GS: Well, I’m familiar with all the reports on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, and also that anti-Jewish attacks in the United States are happening more frequently than in the past. I think that’s something we all have to be alert to.
In Germany, leaders have taken some concrete, necessary steps to combat anti-Semitism. It’s one of the few countries in Europe that has really called attention to anti-Semitism by appointing officials to address the problem. And I have long argued that one must respond forcibly and in the spirit of democracy as soon as signs of anti-Semitism arise.
TAI: We know that history does not repeat itself; conditions in the West today are fundamentally different than they were in Weimar Germany. Having said this, do you think there are parallels between that time and our own?
GS: I think it has relevance. We have seen recent attempts to suppress the democratic tradition of free speech, and that is always an incipient danger for a successful democracy. Democracy, I’ve said elsewhere, is a delicate flower, and it is Jefferson who said, “The price of democracy is eternal vigilance.”
TAI: Do you see attacks on free speech coming more from the Left or the Right?
GS: I cannot take a partisan side. I would say that wherever we encounter infringements on our Constitution and on our rights, these are danger points. We have to watch and take counter action.
TAI: Do you see any tension between protecting free speech and preventing the worst kinds of hate speech? How do you allow all voices to be heard and still guard against extremism?
GS: Having been closely allied to life on campus for more than 50 years, I have always leaned toward the expression of free speech. But I see no need to give demagogues a free forum.
TAI: Today’s Germany is democratic, stable, and prosperous, but also, like many EU countries, riven by internal conflicts and the rise of right-wing populism. Do you have concerns about German democracy, or democracy in Europe for that matter?
GS: Yes, the rise of parties on the far Right is a new danger, and in Germany, it has spawned some surprising results at election time. There are now German representatives from the far Right in the European Parliament, in various state legislatures, and in the Bundestag. As I said previously, this has to be watched.
I don’t believe it’s a pressing national danger right now. Again, I commend the German leadership for having established watchdog offices both at the federal level and in various state parliaments. I see some other governments trying to cope with these right-wing parties by seeking an alliance with them. I think that is the wrong way to go.
TAI: What do you say to those who argue that some voters for these right-wing populist parties are indeed extremists, but others are merely discontent with Berlin or Brussels and feel like the mainstream parties are not representing them?
GS: I am not that much involved in politics, but the situation brings to my mind Lincoln’s words: I wonder “whether a nation so conceived will long endure.” We are being tested. We will, to my optimistic way of thinking, pass this test. We sometimes come through by the skin of our teeth.
TAI: You’ve had an extraordinary life. You saw the rise of fascism, Nazism, and communism. You saw the division of Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and German unification. What are the broad lessons you’ve learned from this history?
GS: I echo a statesman of my times, Adlai Stevenson, who said in a campaign, “Change for the sake of change has no merit in itself.” And the advice I have given always to my students is: Think for yourself. The application of critical thinking is essential, even when we are being taught to follow one party or the other. Think for yourself. This is one of the bulwarks of a democracy.
TAI: Two final questions. First, do you have a favorite book?
GS: I can’t specify any single book, though as I’ve said, exile literature remains a touchstone for me. But I think what we need right now is literature that could offer a counterpoint to what is pernicious in our system of democracy and our republic. I am not answering your question precisely, but I’m saying we need models—not utopian ones —of a nation that makes its way out of various crises and will persist.
TAI: Finally, on a personal level, what’s the secret to a long, healthy, and happy life?
GS: Emulate a life of morality and ethics, which has been demonstrated by past leadership. The wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, or the eloquence of both Roosevelts—those examples would stand anyone in good stead.