17 December 2012

Book review: Five Germanys I Have Known

Five Germanys I Have Known, by Fritz Stern, 2006

Fritz Stern was born in Breslau, Silesia, in 1926. His father, grandfathers, and numerous other relatives were doctors, which was one of the few professions allowed for Jews at that time in Germany. His parents escaped in 1934 or so, but not all of his family or friends were so lucky.

This book is a combination memoir and history of Germany since about 1900 in 520 pages. As such, it is a fairly high-level overview which expects a certain basic familiarity with German history.

I had trouble getting interested in the text initially; the opening chapter, Ancestral Germany, focuses on the activities of his immediate ancestors during the late Bismarckian/early Wilhelmine eras and the Great War. The brief chapter on the (brief) Weimar Republic starts to be more interesting, partly because it's an era I'm not familiar with.

Stern intertwines his personal life--fleeing the Nazis, adjusting to life in New York City, becoming a historian and professor at Columbia--with historical events. His perspective as a German Jew, naturalized as an American citizen, is complicated. Germany was his home, German his native tongue, and he was expelled from his home. Yet he dedicated his life to the study of German history and to the development of modern Germany through that understanding of history.

The list of people Stern met in the course of his career is astonishing: Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, Willy Brandt, Henry Kissinger, Richard Holbrooke.

Once I got into the book, I enjoyed reading it. I would recommend it to other people who want a good, high-level overview of recent German history from a personal perspective. If you don't already have a modicum of familiarity with German history (ie, if you don't know who Adenauer, Kohl, or Brandt are), I would suggest reading this book with wikipedia open on your computer or phone.

Stern is very good at explaining the greater significance of events and linking them to each other, but this is not an introductory German history text.

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