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Ten Essays on Germany : DREAMS AND DELUSIONS The Drama of German History by Fritz Stern (Alfred A. Knopf: $19.95; 309 pp. )

November 29, 1987|John E. Rodes | Rodes, professor of history at Occidental College, is the author of "Quest for Unity: Modern Germany, 1848-1970" (Holt, Rinehart & Winston)

Ever since the public revelations about the Holocaust in 1945, the Germans faced the problem of coping with their past while historians of Germany had to wrestle with the task of trying to explain the inexplicable. How could the Germans, reputedly a people of poets and musicians, become the beastly torturers of the death mills?

Columbia professor, Fritz Stern, born in Germany and a U.S. resident since age 12, is one such historian groping for answers.

In this collection of 10 essays and lectures, some translated from the German, Stern uses biography and socio-psychological analysis to look into the German mind. His style is highly personal, a reflection of his first-hand encounters with some of the figures he discusses.

Stern is at his best when he intertwines the lives of three prominent Germans with the fluctuating fate of the Weimar Republic: first, the physicist Albert Einstein, an international-minded, anti-authoritarian pacifist, wavering between his status as an assimilated German Jew and a supporter of Zionism; second, the chemist Fritz Haber, the inventor of poison gas used by the Germans in World War I, a Jew converted to Protestantism and an intensely patriotic German who toward the end of Weimar, dreamed of a democratic Caesar who might rescue Germany, and third, the Social Democrat politician Ernst Reuter, distrustful of the centralized power of the state, an ardent believer in international cooperation who briefly flirted with communism. All three went into exile in 1933.

This first section of Stern's book, marred in places by tedious digressions on socio-political history, also deals with the German Jews' "burden of success." They were eminently successful in their rise toward the upper echelon of society, particularly in the scientific world, despite undisguised disdain and resentment from much of the German upper class.

As with non-Jewish Germans, the author argues, this search for greatness and their vast achievements after 1890 brought on anxiety, an ingredient of his theme of dreams and delusions. Jews faced the added strain of assimilation, however, when, after their gradual emancipation starting in the late 18th Century, they escaped their "condition of debasement and debarment." One wonders whether such an assertion is based on the debatable assumption that Jews were Jews first and Germans second. Why is this so frequently assumed about Jews while no similar view is expressed about, let us say, Catholics in England or Protestants in France after their own emancipation? Does Stern subscribe to Hitler's notion that Jewishness is a racial and not a religious issue?

The book's second section, "The Lure of Power," dealing with Nazism, is a mixed blessing. There are too many trite historical generalizations, including such platitudes as "National Socialism was not Germany's salvation but its destruction."

Yet, now and again, there are nuggets of insight. Protestant Germans, lacking in political training and prone to blind obedience to the state, had become increasingly secularized. According to Stern, Hitler offered a new pseudo-religion preached by a false prophet. In the wilderness of a lost war, a depression, political chaos and other miseries, Hitler appeared as a savior. Stern refers to Hitler's "threats, seduction, and intimidation," invoking the image of a hell-fire and brimstone preacher.

Then, two-thirds into the book, Stern switches themes, delving into Germany's role vis-a-vis the Western Alliance after World War II. There is substance here, but it hardly fits the "dreams and delusions" theme of the earlier part of the book. What made the author include such ill-connected chapters as a 1984 address to the American Historical Assn. on American historians' assessment of German history?

"Dreams and Delusions" contains some worthwhile essays, but the reader would be deluded if he took it to be quite a fully achieved book.

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