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Culture

A free spirit and critical voice: Fritz Stern

One of the world's most renowned historians, German-American Fritz Stern, died on May 18 at age 90. He spent his life analyzing world history and observing how it impacted current developments in Germany and Europe.

"Gold and Iron" (1977) is one of Fritz Stern's most important works, a very personal exploration of the historically momentous relationship of Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and his Jewish banker, Gerson von Bleichröder. The uncommonly fascinating book reveals world history through the biographies of two powerful men.

Despite the fact that his family had fled from Nazi terror, Stern always declared that he had several good contacts in Germany and had no reservations about working there. He maintained a lively correspondence with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and German President Richard von Weizsäcker as well as with the journalist Marion Gräfin von Dönhoff, publisher of the weekly newspaper "Die Zeit."

Fritz Stern with former President of Germany, Richard von Weizäcker, Copyright: Imago/Eastnews

Frittz Stern with former President of Germany, Richard von Weizäcker, during a visit to Poland in 2011

Observing political developments in Europe and reunified Germany with great interest, Fritz Stern commented on the refugee crisis and the rise of the far-right in 2015: "I have been following this with great concern," he said in an interview with the Cologne newspaper "Kölner Stadt Anzeiger." "The [PEGIDA] rallies in Dresden are appalling. On the other hand, there are also strong demonstrations for humanity and peace that should be highly valued."

Family fled anti-Semitic Germany

Fritz Stern was born on February 2, 1926 in the then Prussian city of Breslau (now Wroclaw, in western Poland). His mother had a PhD in physics; his father came from a family of doctors. His parents were Christian converts from Judaism; their son Fritz was baptized as a Protestant. His godfather, the famous scientist Fritz Haber, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918. In 1938, the family fled Nazi Germany and emigrated to the US.

Completing high school there, Stern was advised to study medicine by none other than Albert Einstein, another emigree from Europe and a family friend. He chose history instead and became a naturalized US citizen in 1947. His PhD thesis at New York's Columbia University in 1953 was on radical nationalist currents in 19th century Germany. He later served at Columbia University for several years as a professor of European history.

Fritz Stern, Copyright: Imago/W.P. Prange

Stern giving a lecture in Berlin

Warning against an 'age of anxiety'

Stern observed closely how the young Federal Republic of Germany developed in the post-war context, with persons who had been involved in Nazi structures remaining in positions of power.

He also warned against the authoritarian core of the student protest movement of 1968, with a faction that later radicalized to the extreme left in Germany.

Throughout his life, he remained an unconventional, alert and independent analyst of political life and was a valuable political adviser to the US State Department and the German government.

Frequently traveling to Germany to give lectures, he had a loyal readership in the country and took on visiting professorships in Berlin, Mainz - and most recently in 2007 in Jena. In interviews he said that he found these exchanges with young students very stimulating.

Watch video 12:06

Interview with Fritz Stern from 2014

In 1987, Fritz Stern held a speech at the "Bundestag," Germany's parliament, that made him known to a wide audience in the country. The speech centered on the uprising of June 17, 1953 in East Germany. Stern saw those protests as a "revolt for a better, freer life" and not a "revolt for reunification." This view contradicted that of then Bundestag President Philipp Jenninger and earned him harsh criticism in the country.

After German reunification, Stern spent several months in the country in 1993-94, serving as a close adviser to US ambassador Richard Holbrooke and others. The historian declared he was shocked by the "degree of depression" and the lack of political optimism in this new Germany.

Promoting German-Jewish reconciliation

In 1999, Stern was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for his lucid yet popular political essays and for his "strong contribution to German-Jewish reconciliation." An exceptional intellectual and moral figure of authority, the historian also received several other awards.

In 2006, he published an extensive autobiography, "Five Germanys I Have Known," relating his personal life against the background of five of the country's different historical periods, from the Weimar Republic to reunited Germany.

A critical spirit

Fritz Stern and former German Foreign Minister Joschka, Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/M. Ngan

Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer presenting the Leo Baeck medal to Fritz Stern

In Germany, Fritz Stern is remembered best for his conversations with former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt about the political causes of Nazism and the Holocaust - causes that he believed still affect the country. The two great thinkers spent several days discussing, and the exchange was published in 2010 under the title "Unser Jahrhundert: Ein Gespräch" (Our Century: A Conversation).

Another book, recording the conversation Stern had with then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a member of the Green Party, about history, politics and going "against the current," was published in 2013.

One of his last books, published in 2013 and titled "No Ordinary Men," was a double biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, both in the anti-Hitler resistance. Fritz Stern reached age 90 in February 2016. His lifelong curiosity and sharp intellect made him a figure of inspiration for generations to come.

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