Speech by Ambassador Wittig in honor of Fritz Stern on the Occasion of the Sander Prize Award Ceremony

Oct 25, 2013

(as prepared for delivery:)


"I am delighted and humbled to have been chosen as a speaker in honor of Fritz Stern. I could not imagine a better first award-winner of the Sander prize!  And I am particularly pleased to announce to you tonight that I have been authorized by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel to transmit her warm personal greetings and congratulations to Fritz Stern as he receives this wonderful prize. This is certainly a rare tribute that the Chancellor pays to a man for whom she feels enormous respect and affection.

Fritz Stern arrived in New York City in October 1938. His family was driven out by the Nazis just a month before the “Kristallnacht”. The Sterns looked for a place to live. Instead of moving to Washington Heights, already known as the “Fourth Reich” because of its large community of German refugees, they settled down in Jackson Heights in Queens, a greener borough than Manhattan. Fritz was 12 years old. He was awestruck by this new world, yet overwhelmed by the thrill of freedom. But it came with a price: tremendous insecurity. What a difference to the shielded  world of his hometown of Wroclaw –Breslau in German - , a prosperous and culturally vibrant Silesian city, home of a famous university, where the Sterns and their forebears – mostly physicians – had led a life as highly respected members of a proud “Bildungsbürgertum”!

Fritz had one important asset: A battered old typewriter! So in the midst of a difficult transition from the old world to the new he became the “letter-writer” of the family. While his parents had to keep the family afloat, Fritz communicated with their scattered relatives in the old world and the new acquaintances in New York. Letter-writing became a passion, an inner impulse of the 12-year old. 

Soon he delved into politics: He appealed to New York’s great mayor, LaGuardia, to run again for office.  He applauded  Erika Mann, the eldest daughter of Thomas Mann, for her book on German education called “School for Barbarians” – a subject Fritz knew about, having suffered himself from exclusion and emerging hatred as the sole “non-Arian” in his school back in Germany. Observing the world around him with curiosity and engagement, writing profusely and with enthusiasm, and – like a good archivist - keeping carbon- copies of his letters - it seems that the young Fritz, who had to arrive prematurely at the threshold of adulthood, bore the seed of the later master historian already in him.

Expelled by the Nazis and belonging to a family of converted Christians, he became an American and a Jew, yet he symbolizes what many have called the “Jewish-German symbiosis”. Certainly he had already found the main topics that would shape his lifelong interest as a historian: Germany’s role in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Before embarking on that road, he briefly hesitated to decide which path to take: To follow the family tradition or his inner calling? He consulted no lesser an authority than Albert Einstein, a family acquaintance. Einstein was clear. He told young Fritz: “That’s simple: Medicine is a science, and history is not. Hence, medicine !”  What a blessing that Einstein –for once –was not right! And what strength and resolve of the young Fritz Stern to rebuff a genius!


Fritz Stern’s brilliant early work “The Politics of Cultural Despair” identifies one of the intellectual root causes of the rise of Nazi ideology. The attack of influential intellectuals in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (Lagarde, Langbehn, Müller van den Bruck) against modernity and liberalism - though hardly a uniquely German phenomenon- fell on particularly fertile ground in Germany, thereby undermining the fragile democracy of Weimar. Stern’s warnings against the temptations of German cultural pessimism kept recurring at later junctures of the post-war Federal Republic of Germany.

Of course, his undisputed masterpiece is the work on Bismarck and Bleichröder, his Jewish banker, called “Gold and Iron”. Stern had invested 16 years of scholarly life into this book about the relations between Germans and Jews. He discovered that Bleichröder not only supervised Bismarck’s growing fortune, but was deeply involved in politics and international finance – even serving intermittently  as Bismarck’s secret agent. Bleichröder epitomized what Stern called “the anguish of assimilation”:  As a patriotic parvenu and the wealthiest man in Germany, he became the ideal target for the rising anti-semitism. The Historian Golo Mann, another child of Thomas Mann, called “Gold and Iron” “one of the most important historical works of the past few decades”.

The Historian Fritz Stern produced towering masterpieces – he was moved by the lure of working in archives, but he was also imbued with what he himself called “intellectual-political wanderlust”. He liked to venture into new territory. As no other historian before him, he was intrigued by the German-Jewish pioneers of the modern scientific age, the second “Geniezeit” at the beginning of the twentieth century:
His masterful portraits of Albert Einstein, Paul Ehrlich, the founder of chemotherapy and the greatest luminary of Breslau, and of Fritz Haber, Nobel-prize laureate in chemistry (and incidentally a family friend and godfather of Fritz Stern – hence the name Fritz), those portraits are works of unparalleled intuition and sensitivity, recalling an era of German scientific excellence that prompted Raimond Aron to once say to Fritz Stern: “It could have been Germany’s century!”

What is so alluring about Fritz Stern’s way to approach history? First of all, the illuminating force of his own personal experience. His history is never bloodless positivism, it is underpinned by engagement and concern. For Fritz Stern, being a historian always means being a writer! His prose is a clear, artful narrative. He rarely theorizes. Hence the sheer pleasure of reading Fritz Stern. One reviewer compared his Bleichröder-book to a great nineteenth century novel: I am sure Fritz didn’t mind that comparison. Literature has always had a firm place in his intellectual cosmos. How could it be otherwise with a home back in Breslau, where Heinrich Heine poems were read to the children and learned by heart. The novels of Theodor Fontane were as important  to his insight into nineteenth century Germany as any other historical source.

Fritz Stern believes in the openness of history. There is no inevitability in history, no “Weltgeist”, no iron-clad laws that predetermine the fate of nations and individuals. For the historian that means: The past contains the seeds of many futures and is open to ever-changing interpretations.

Fritz Stern is a great believer in the power of ideas and the power of the individual to make a difference in history: Not only groundbreaking decisions of leaders, but also acts of courage of individual citizens that can acquire historic force. He has a penchant for dissenters and resistors. Stern is a historical portrait artist. His intuition, his sensitivity, yes, and his refined sense of historic drama stand out. And usually –somewhere – there is a biographical thread that binds him to his figures. Take his exceptional latest book (together with his wife Elisabeth Sifton) on Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi: Two German resistors against Hitler. What helped him to capture the essence of their personalities with sympathy and profound knowledge of their milieu? Their families were linked in the Berlin of the 1930s.


Undoubtedly Fritz Stern is the master historian of contemporary Germany, but to us Germans he is much more than that: He is one of the “good spirits” (ein “guter Geist”) of the Federal Republic of Germany. His own life story reflects the catastrophes but also the hopes of twentieth century Germany. He became not only an engaged observer of postwar Germany, but a coveted adviser and –if need be – an admonisher. I cannot think of any intellectual from abroad who commands such  enormous moral and political authority in my country.

That it would turn out that way was far from self-evident. By the end of the war, the young Fritz felt relief but also intense hatred vis-a-vis the Germans. How could it have been otherwise in the face of Auschwitz! But a couple of years later came the turning point: Fritz Stern attended the ceremonies commemorating the tenth anniversary of the attempt on Hitler’s life made on July 20, 1944. In his splendid memoir  “the Five Germanys I have known”  he described that day as a moving, even purging experience - meeting the families of those who had risked and lost their lives in the resistance against Hitler and yet were still denounced by many Germans as “traitors” (“Vaterlandsverräter”).
“I looked at the people in the courtyard – old, distinguished and sadly proud, dressed in mourning, faces hardened and humbled by suffering – I felt a sense of shame for my indiscriminate hatred of Germans.”  Five and a half decades later, on July 20 2010, Fritz Stern returned to Berlin to honour  the resistors against Hitler in the Bendler-Block, that bleak place where Claus von Stauffenberg and his circle were executed. His great speech to me is one of the most perceptive and sensitive accounts of the men and women of the 20th of July, of their milieu, their predicament, and their soul-searching.

Fritz Stern became a benevolent companion, a “Weggefährte”, of the Federal Republic of Germany. As a great American liberal, he knew about the fragility of freedom and the human potential for evil. Having studied the dangerous consequences of illiberal “cultural pessimism” and of the popular misconceptions of the so-called “unpolitical Germans” (as epitomized in Thomas Mann’s famous book of 1918), he is a fervent advocate of civic engagement. This is his message: Freedom is the greatest good of modern times, and civic participation in the “res publica” is both a duty and a privilege!

There was no greater joy for him than the peaceful revolutions in Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin that led to Germany’s reunification. He coined the famous phrase of “Germany’s second chance”. Indeed, a rare gift for nations. Contrary to many Western observers who looked at German unification with apprehension, if not fear, Fritz Stern embraced it without reserve, labeling the year 1989 “the brightest moment in Europe’s darkest century.”

Fritz Stern had the rare opportunity to translate his insights, the historian’s lessons from the past, into practical advice and political guidance for the present. Richard Holbrooke, the ebullient and innovative Ambassador to Germany, recruited him as “Senior Adviser” to the American Embassy in the mid-90s. What a memorable return to Germany: Fritz Stern as a diplomat – shaping US-policy in Bonn. He lived in both countries, trying to bring them together both intellectually and politically.


Fritz has been endowed with a gift for friendship. Myriads of Europeans and Germans can testify to that. Two stand out in particular. He called them “life-changing friendships”: Ralf Dahrendorf and Marion Gräfin Dönhoff – both exceptionally brilliant, liberal, transatlantic minds. And there is Helmut Schmidt, the admired statesman whom he befriended and whose official biography he was at one point tempted to write. It seems to me that friendship for Fritz Stern is not just an essential ingredient for individual happiness, it is a political category in the Aristotelian sense: “Philia – the friendship for the good – is the glue that binds citizens, the “polis” together. A body politic reduced to political power play without “philia” becomes soulless.

We owe to Fritz Stern “philia” (and I include here his wonderful wife Elisabeth) and we owe to him wisdom – never propounded in the style of a righteous “praeceptor”, but offered with humility, with rare generosity, and a fundamental human attitude. His life was shaped by the catastrophe of national socialism.  As a historian, he grappled with it, yet admitted that after a life of scholarly study, the triumph of the Nazis in Germany -a country of culture and education – retained ultimately a residue of something utterly inexplicable. He warned us – we who had never been tested nor tempted - against moral haughtiness in dealing with the past, in which people didn’t know what we know now.

May I add a personal note here: it was this enigma of the rise of the Nazis that turned me, as a young man, into a student of History and Political Science – and Fritz Stern became one of my intellectual lodestars!

Fritz Stern once said: “German-American understanding was a dictate of history, of politics and of my own life. I am a citizen of one country – the United States. But my love belongs to two languages.”

Germans are immensely grateful to Fritz Stern’s persistent benevolent, sometimes critical, involvement in post-war German Affairs. He helped us to gain confidence on the path to a responsible liberal democracy and to win the trust of our neighbors, our transatlantic friends, and our partners in the world. The lessons of the past – so wisely formulated by Fritz Stern – guide us in dealing with today’s challenges. I am therefore confident that we will not miss our “second chance”. In times of crises more than ever, the German people and their leaders will not forget that our future is inextricably linked to the well-being of a peaceful and prosperous Europe and a strong transatlantic partnership.

As a German, as a historian, and as a friend it is my great privilege to honor Fritz Stern tonight. He has given us so much: His scholarly work, his humanity and his friendship!"

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