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Historical Comparisons: Fritz Stern Publishes "Five Germanys I Have Known"

"Can It Happen Here?" is the headline of the NY Times review of the Fritz Stern's memoir:
In November 2005, Fritz Stern received an award for his life's work on Germans, Jews and the roots of National Socialism, presented to him by Joschka Fischer, then the German foreign minister. With a frankness that startled some in the audience, Stern, an emeritus professor of European history at Columbia University, peppered his acceptance speech with the similarities he saw between the path taken by Germany in the years leading up to Hitler and the path being taken by the United States today. He talked about a group of 1920's intellectuals known as the "conservative revolutionaries," who "denounced liberalism as the greatest, most invidious threat, and attacked it for its tolerance, rationality and cosmopolitan culture," and about how Hitler had used religion to appeal to the German public. In Hitler's first radio address after becoming chancellor, Stern noted, he declared that the Nazis regarded "Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life."
Stern was of course not suggesting an equivalence between President Bush and Hitler but rather making a more subtle critique, extending his idea that contemporary American politics exhibited "something like the strident militancy and political ineptitude of the Kaiser's pre-1914 imperial Germany." At 80, Stern has just published a sprawling memoir, "Five Germanys I Have Known," (, and as with that speech, he does not file away his experiences of Nazism in a geographical or temporal box.
About the frequent Nazi comparisons:
Outraged by the facile interpretations of Nazism floating around in the 1950's — "all the tomes and slogans about Germany’s inevitable path 'from Luther to Hitler'" — he charts his own, more subtle interpretation of what caused the Third Reich. Over the years Stern protests the ways radicals abuse the memory of Nazism to support their present-day political agendas, whether the 1960's students who called authority figures fascists and Nazis, or those today who compare foreign leaders they dislike to Hitler and cry "Munich" at every diplomatic gesture.
Yet the value of Stern's work is precisely that it has refused to keep Nazism safely on the other side of a historical and geographic chasm. His first book, "The Politics of Cultural Despair" (1961), is one of the durable masterpieces of 20th-century history because it seems to locate the roots of a peculiarly modern malaise. As he explained in a later edition of the work, "I attempted to show the importance of this new type of cultural malcontent, and to show how he facilitated the intrusion into politics of essentially unpolitical grievances."
Hitler comparisions are still very popular:
•  Secretary Rumsfeld has German roots, used to visit his relatives in Germany in the 80s, and should know German history.

Still he compared Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez with Adolf Hitler in a speech at the National Press Club:

He's a person who was elected legally, just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally and then consolidated power, and now is of course working closely with Fidel Castro and Mr. Morales and others.

Has Chavez massmurdered any minorities or invaded another country in his eight years in office? Besides, while Chavez was elected president by more than 50% of the popular vote in 1998, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor by President Hindenburg in 1933. Hitler's party had been the strongest party in the Reichstag, but did not receive more than 35% of the popular vote. Still it was a failure of the Weimar democracy.
Hugo Chavez was able to consolidate his power due to the high oil price and the US addiction to oil. Venezuela received $ 16 billion (pdf) in oil revenues from the United States in 2004. According to the BBC, he responded by comparing President Bush with Hitler:

The imperialist, genocidal, fascist attitude of the U.S. president has no limits. I think Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W. Bush.

Chavez called President Bush "the devil" at the UN General Assemply in September 2006. Is that better or worse than his previous Hitler comparison?

•  Stupid comparisions with Germany's most famous politician are still very popular. History News Network's "Hitler Watch" tracks the use of Hitler by politicians, journalists and polemicists and includes the flagrant exploitation of the Holocaust. Their latest item links an Inside Higher Ed piece (October 12, 2006) about Kevin Barrett, a controversial adjunct at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who wrote in an essay "like Bush and the neocons, Hitler and the Nazis inaugurated their new era by destroying an architectural monument and blaming its destruction on their designated enemies."

•  Another controversial comparison: According to DW World, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, said on October 24, 2006: "Anti-Semitic and far-right attacks have become so blatant and aggressive that it brings to mind the years after 1933" when Adolf Hitler come to power.

Endnote: Fritz Stern was awarded a prestigous national award by Germany's Federal President Koehler (Speech in German) on September 28, 2006. His memoir at
"Five Germanys I Have Known" at and


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David on :

I have not read Prof. Stern's new book yet, but as a student I read and admired "The Politics of Cultural Despair", which explains the ideological roots of Nazism. It is interesting that one of the "conservative revolutionaries" who wanted to destroy Weimar liberalism in Germany was Leo Strauss - often cited as the father of neoconservatism.

Assistant Village Idiot on :

The implication being that Strauss helped bring in Hitler, David? The Hitler comparison is brought out because it is easier than arguing coherently. If you can get your audience to associate something with Hitler, then they will dislike it. Nothing more need be said. It works to a lesser extent with Stalin, the Crusades, or the Inquisition. That sort of argument is an equal-opportunity slander. Wherever your opponent is on the political spectrum, he will do something that is a little bit like someone diabolical. It might ordinarily be legitimate to single out important aspects of what one's opposition is doing and use a frightening historical precedent as an analogy. That is what Rumsfeld's comment could be taken as: Chavez was elected; that's not enough - Hitler was elected too. But such logical use of concepts becomes immediately associated with all the emotional associations, and the emotional comparison is made, even if there is not a strict logical connection. Rumsfeld's comment may have been sly in this way, or it may just have been thoughtless. Odd that Stern would bemoan facile comparisons with Naziism and then make one himself. Fascism is forever descending on America but somehow lands in Europe.

IH on :

Assistant Village Idiot: I suggest that you read the book first before you make a judgement about it.

bruceree on :

(Comment removed)

Pat Patterson on :

Pay for your ads don't steal other people's space!

Possum on :

What's significant? That "conservatives" attacked "liberalism" as the greatest threat? What if "liberals" attacked "conservatism" as the greatest threat? THAT'S nothing to worry about? It's what it IS that means something, not who's doing it. Using "religion" to appeal to the public? What about using "fear of relgion" to appeal to the public? Or using "secularism" to appeal to the public? In other words, this guy might as well say that a certain slur put on blacks is bigotry but put on Americans is not. Baloney. See the subtle demonization of the right going on here? It's getting old. I'm of the moderate left myself, but this demonization of the right is getting ridiculous. Fascism blooms on both extremes of the political spectrum. It is the enforcement of confomity, uniformity, political correctness - as in what it's named after = a bundle of uniform sticks bound together by external forces (such as self censorship)...NOT a network of internal human relationships that has integrity as a whole.

Don S on :

"What if "liberals" attacked "conservatism" as the greatest threat? THAT'S nothing to worry about? " Possum, that's not threatening. That's normal! As I can tell you from 20 years of experiencing such attacks. It's no surprise that Herr Doktor Stern is attacking 'conservative intellectuals' as nazis - that also is routine. No, what's surprising is that Doktor Stern is being a little more subtle about it that the usual broadside attack. 'Conservative intellectuals' lead inexoriably to national socialism is his implied argument. That's a little rich because if EPA tracked the numbers of 'conservative intellectuals' on the faculty of American universities they would be required to declare them an endangered species. Let's not forget that US academia have been far more conservative than the current crop in times past - yet national socialism has not reared it's ugly head in the US. Unless one counts Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, reagan, Clinton, and both Bush's as national socialists. Quite a few of todays academics do just that (not remotely a majority). Nevertheless it's tyhings like these which help form the impression that overindulgence sniffing airplane glue was a major life forming experience of large numbers of university academics....

IH on :

"Herr Doctor" Stern? Professor Stern is an American, albeit of German origin. Having grown up in Nazi Germany and lived their into the 1960s, interested in history, and following German political events, I found his book truly engrossing. And it's highly readable to boot.

Possum on :

In the top part of this post, we have Stern ominously telling us that American conservatives are behaving as Hitler's Nazi did. In the bottom part he turns around an accuses American conservatives of doing WHAT HE JUST DID. That's projection, a sign of intellectual dishonesty. If Rumsfeldt had said something to the effect of "Look out for Chavez because he's behaving just like Hitler did," Stern would have a legitimate accusation. But that isn't what Rumsfeldt was saying. He was simply saying that dictators can be elected, and Hitler is an example of shockingly bad one who WAS elected. That's all. That's not comparing Chavez to Hitler. That's just saying, "Don't blow Chavez off just because he's elected." And I'm sorry, but Rumsfeldt is right about that. I find it hard to believe that an educated intellectual like Stern accidentally makes such egregious logical errors with examples and analogies. And I also find it hard to believe that he accidentally accuses someone else of doing a thing he himself does.

Don S on :

The Rumsfeld comments comparing chavez with Hitler (albeit in a very limited manner) were unfortunate. The trouble arises from the economic illiteracy of much of Europe and most of the US left - which dominates the educational systems of the US and Europe. There are more apt comparisons for Hugo Chavez than Hitler. Juan Peron of Argentina and Salvatore Allende of Chile pop into mind, as does Benito Mussolini (albeit the similarities with Mussolini are less pronounced than with the former). One could even compare Chavez with Pinochet or Castro in certain respects. The trouble is this economic illiteracy. Europeans (and many leftists) regard Allenda and Peron as social democrats (particularly the former). They were nothing of the kind. When Peron came to power Argentina was a first world country. When he died they were far from it because Peronism destroyed the Argentinian economy. Allende was following a similar path, even more destructively than Peron did. Mussolini was not good for Italy. Europeans and leftists tend to fall in love with dictators. They did it with Mussolini who famously 'made the trains run on time' (he did no such thing). They fell in love with Stalin and Castro. The romance du jour is with Chavez. Rumsfeld therefore has a problem. He can make an apt simile and people will say 'what's not to like?' or he can go for the shocker and endure the complaints of literalists like Joerg. Given that Rummy and his boss are regularly compared with the dread Adolf he probably sees some kind of rough justice in using the Dread one's name. Personally I find only 5 or 6 figures in world history truly worthy of comparison with Adolf Hitler. In rough order of scope of destruction Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Stalin, Hernando Cortes, Francisco Pizzarro, and perhaps Mao Tse Tung.

Isolationist on :

Don S, In terms of scope of destruction of human life, Rachel Carson needs to be added to your list.

David on :

Fritz Stern has an excellent Letter to the Editor in today's NT Times: "In “The Era of What’s Next” (column, Oct. 26), David Brooks posits that between 1980 and 2006, a conservative ideology held sway. This characterization of the chronology strikes me as unhistorical. Does he really not see that instantly upon his inauguration in 2001 President Bush broke with longstanding foreign and domestic policies that had been supported by both parties, substituting a chaotic recklessness in every respect, a subversion of the Constitution, finally provoking with his ill-planned and maladministered actions in Iraq a universal disillusionment with America’s place in the world? In the last six years, America has been led not by conservatives but by radical right-wingers, empowered by an astounding plutocratic machine, infused by a neoconservative ideology that believes in projecting American power — even in defiance of American interests and capacities. Since 2001, genuine conservatives have seen the G.O.P. desert its basic principles; actually, the country is now in desperate need of leaders who truly represent the rectitude and realism associated with traditional conservatism. Fritz Stern New York, Oct. 27, 2006 The writer is university professor emeritus at Columbia University."

Don S on :

The basic question is [i]Can "it" happen here?[/i] ("it" being a political movement with similarities to National Socialism, Fascism, or the Falange. The answer just as clearly is 'yes'. Having gotten that far the likes of Fritz Stern seem to believe that the debate is finished - when actually it has not yet begun. There is a non-zero chance of national socialism occurring in any nation on earth. Including (apologies to our hosts) Germany, Italy, Spain, and the US. The true question is 'how likely is it?'. To answer that one has to look at history and try to divine the stresses which brought these movements to power. If we can do that we can then look at the modern situation and try to divine where it may happen again. National Socialism came to aobsolute in only two major countries; Germany and Italy. The Falange formed part of the Franco government - but Franco himself wasn't a Falangist. They were influential but did not rule. ^There were small national socialist type movements in Britain and France. Whether national socialism took any significant political root in the US depends upon whether one views Huey Long as fascist or not. There was also the isolationist movement including the German-American Bund prior to WWII - but they were always a small organisation. Germany and Italy (and Spain) were in many ways opposite cases. Germany was a superpower down on it's luck whilst Italy and Spain were the 'poor men' of continental Europe at the time - and had eben for a long time. One could also say that Italy and Spain were 'superpowers' down on their luck - but only if one measures the timeframe in centuries rather than decades (as in the German case). Spain and Italy had been European superpowers - but not since the 17th century. Nevertheless I think a connection can be made here; national socialism had it's biggest successes in three countries which had been great but were so no longer. This is not enough of course; one could say the same about France and Nederlands - yet national socialism never took deep root in either place. There is an element of economic stress as well. All three NS countries were under great economic stress with large political, cultural, economic, and sometimes religious gaps between city and countryside. How does this apply to the present day? Look for countries which have been great but are no longer and which are under a ton of economic and cultural stress. Look for nations which are 'poor relatives' in the club of rich countries - or nations whose relative position in the 'rich' nations has taken a long-term fall. Judging by these criteria I don't belive the US is a promising candidate. Italy, Poland, France, Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Belgium, and the Baltic states would all seem much more likely candidates judging on historical criteria. Under other circumstances I might add Germany and Austria to the list - but I judge that other historical factors make that outcome extremely unlikely for at least another generation. Outside of Europe I might look to South Africa, Brazil, and perhaps India or China might make the list. What factors might turn the US national socialist? Look for a major long-lasting economic dive. I decline measured in decades. The US was arguably hit the hardest of any country on earth by the Great Depression but did not become fascist - so presubably it would take longer than a decade for this to change.

Assistant Village Idiot on :

David, where would that excellent letter of Stern's be? The one you pasted in instead comes straight out of Daily Kos.

David on :

Sunday New York Times Letters to the Editor (Oct. 2)

David on :

Sorry - mis-typed: Sunday Oct. 29 NY Times

Assistant Village Idiot on :

Ah, you missed my point, perhaps intentionally to chide me. I don't find Stern's letter to be at all excellent. The myth that there was agreement about foreign affairs between Republicans and Democrats, the juiced up phrases such as "subverting the Constitution," and "universal disillusionment with America's place in the world" bespeak a person who is first silly, and only after, bigoted.

David on :

Fritz Stern experienced the rise of Nazism first-hand as a Jew in Germany. His life work has been to understand how that could have happened - and to warn about dangerous echoes he sees today in the world. "Silly" and "bigoted" are not adjectives I would use to describe the man.

Don S on :

Yup, David - he did. He sees the 2% similarity and misses the 98% difference. I think he's the kind of chap who would see the return of the Third Reich in whatever place he hives. He lives in the US. Lucky us.

Don S on :

I'm re-reading a Pat Conroy novel this week 'Beach Music'. Conroy is one of the best american writers currently active - I recommend him. In this novel there is a character who might provide a little insight into Fritz Stern. This character is a holocaust survivor married to another survivor living in small-town South Carolina. This is a severely scarred man having been part of the Judenrat in a ghetto (the Judenrat were councils of leading Jews in a city who dealt with the Nazi authorities). The authorities often required the Judenrat to decide which Jews would be shipped out or killed in reprisal for the killing or injury of guards). Collaberators in a sense. The point which stuck in my mind is that this damaged man is living in the middle of Christians (very few Jews in small-town South Carolina) and he sees - nazis. He has no rational reason for feeling this way - but he's waiting for his neighbors to come for him and his family. I wonder whether this might not provide insight into Professor Stern's opinions?

David on :

Don S., Agreed on Pat Conroy (recently finished "My losing Season") but your comparison of Stern with the character in "Beach Music" is off the mark. Stern was a boy when his parents fled Germany in 1938 - just before Kristallnacht, so he did not experience the Holocaust first hand, nor was he forced into any terrible compromises like the Judenrat. If you read his work, you will see that he writes with grace and not without humor. But he is a serious scholar who has won every accolade as a historian. In no way is he the embittered, paranoid character in Conroy's novel. Fritz Stern is an American citizen who loves his country and is grateful for the freedom he and his family enjoyed after escaping certain death in Germany. Like others, he feels compelled to speak out when he sees his beloved country on a wrong path.

Don S on :

Ever heard of survivor's guilt, David? It takes all kind of forms.....

Alison on :

David common. Anyway I know what you are talking about. [url=]jump higher fast[/url] guide.

Assistant Village Idiot on :

Yes, I don't deny that Stern might be intelligent, or sincere, or have an interesting perspective. But I have been hearing about this imminent American fascism since my student days in the 60's. People keep announcing that it's developing, that it's just around the corner. Stern's comments in his letter are very black-and-white, that everything is changed, that Bush is a radical, with phrases like "astounding plutocratic machine," and those I cited above. Such claims require more than just impressions and disagreement, but very high levels of evidence. Stern is not making any measured comments about things being troubling, or tending in bad directions, but making enormous claims. In doing so, he is indeed silly. His own words betray him.

Mike Perry on :

I quote: "In Hitler's first radio address after becoming chancellor, Stern noted, he declared that the Nazis regarded 'Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life.' How pitful. Much like Nietsche, Nazism loathed the "pity ethics" of Christianity and the Catholic and Protestant churches were only German institutions to publicly oppose Nazism, as even the most casual reading of the European and U.S. press in the 1930s will reveal. Einstein noted just that in a 1941 interview. Compare that to the legal profession, where the only judge to openly oppose Nazism, as noted in Ingo Muller's Hitler's Justice, was an active member of the Confessing Church. Or compare it to medicine, the profession that had the highest percentage of party members (40% versus 6% of the German population). Or, even more disturbing, the fact that 79% of the leaders of Germany's environmental movement joined the Nazi party. Nazism, we should never forget, pioneered wet land and endangered species laws. Even more disturbing are the Nazi-like antecedents during World War I. The "softness" of German academia to murderous tyrants like Saddam is nothing new. I'm working on a collection of G. K. Chesterton's writings during WWI, and he regularly blasts German professors and for good reason. The list of German intellectuals who defended the invasion of Belgium reads like a Who's Who of eminent world-class scholars. And the idea of a Germanic race superior to all others, was a well-accepted dogma in late nineteenth century historical scholarship, even Harvard echoed it. Just a few days ago I was working on an article on that very point and in it I quoted Harvard's first PhD in political science speaking on Germanic racial superiority. Sadly, I've come to agree with Chesterton's wartime remarks that something had gone tragically wrong with how Germans think and that something was linked to how Germans were educated. And there's no denying the truth of his warning that, if something drastic was not done, within thirty years Germany would launch a war that'd be far worse than the Great War. He even predicted that Poland would be the trigger for that war. --Michael W. Perry, author of the soon-out Chesterton at War

Anonymous on :

I think Stern is aware of all that. Stern just said that Hitler (ab)used Christianity for his own purposes.

David on :

Fritz Stern on "Germanic Christianity": "It was the pseudo-religious transfiguration of politics that largely ensured his success, notably in Protestant areas, where clergy shared Hitler’s hostility to the liberal-secular state and its defenders, and were filled with anti-Semitic doctrine." The best history of the "Deutsche Christen" movement is by Prof. Doris Bergen: "Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich"

IH on :

I've been following this, and I wonder how many of the posters have actually read the book?

Gerry on :

I don't know about the book. But I do know about the summaries of the book, and the NYT letter from Stern. So Stern reminds me directly of German, Polach, Hungarisch, and other European Communist immigrants. Some of them, in a sense, never managed to actually 'leave' the old country/world intellectually. Let me remember - Lubisch - Berthold Brecht (hiding out in America, lying through his teeth about not belonging to the KPD), Peter Lorrie, and many, many others. The CPUSA was full up with agents from Eastern Europe, and they were not here to just seek asylum, it was all Comintern, all NKVD, all of the time. Ask General Kalugin (Columbia grad., NKVD agent). I think Stern is a crank, and now in old age, quite possibly insane. G

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