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Five Germanys I Have Knownby Fritz Stern
Excerpted from Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern. Copyright © 2006 by Fritz Stern. Published in August, 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
When General Charles de Gaulle made his first trip to Russia, in the winter of 1944-1945, he went to Stalingrad, site of the farthest advance and greatest defeat of the German army. In the First World War, de Gaulle had been wounded fighting against the Germans at Verdun and been imprisoned by them for more than two years, and in the Second he was leader of the Free French fighting them. Legend, with a proper touch of verisimilitude, has it that amid the ruins of Stalingrad he muttered to an aide, “Quel peuple!” The translator inquired, “You mean the Russians?” “No,” said de Gaulle, “the Germans.”
The generals lapidary judgment at that place of devastation says much about the German drama of the past century, which he grasped clearly. He was speaking of a “people” who between 1870 and 1939 had thrice attacked his country, whose power had corrupted and nearly destroyed historic Europe, and who were guilty of a genocidal crime unique in Europes history. But he also knew that the German people had been prodigiously creative and that they would be indispensable for the postwar recovery of Europe. He grasped the deep ambiguity that hovers around German greatness.
This book records my experiences with the five Germanys that my generation has witnessed. I was born into the German predicament that de Gaulle understood so well; I remember my parents dismay at the slow death of the Weimar Republic during my early childhood and the swift establishment of National Socialist tyranny thereafter, a tyranny accepted by so many and opposed by so few. I remember their friends who were defiant defenders of democracy and who were defeated, some of them murdered, incarcerated, or exiled. Though I lived in National Socialist Germany for only five years, that brief period saddled me with the burning question that I have spent my professional life trying to answer: why and how did the universal human potential for evil become an actuality in Germany?
Decades of study and experience have persuaded me that the German roads to perdition, including National Socialism, were neither accidental nor in-evitable. National Socialism had deep roots, and yet its growth could have been arrested. I was born into a world on the cusp of avoidable disaster. And I came to realize that no country is immune to the temptations of pseudo-religious movements of repression such as those to which Germany succumbed. The fragility of freedom is the simplest and deepest lesson of my life and work. And when an unvarnished picture of the past, always indispensable, seemed difficult, I recalled Ernst Reuters great credo of 1913: “The fate of democracy rests on faith in history.”
In my work as a historian in the postwar years, I was only intermittently aware of the ties between my life and my studies; fully committing myself to the historians craft, I knew that while Clio allowed for many ways of serving her, all of them demanded a measure of detachment—enlivened, one hoped, by empathy and a disciplined imagination. I studied and taught the German past with American eyes and for American students and readers. But my full American life eventually came to have a vital German component, because as an American historian of Germany, I was drawn into German controversies about the past, which were roiling a defeated and divided nation, itself the principal battleground of the cold war. Perhaps I didnt quite anticipate that when one fully lives with the upheavals of ones own time—by turns destructive and uniquely constructive—one comes to see the past in new, more complex ways. Also, I realized more and more that the lessons I had learned about German history had a frightening relevance to the United States today. And gradually I acquired another German life, parallel and subordinate to my American life. I came to live in two worlds simultaneously, learning from both. Remnants of black-and-white thinking receded, and the past became a fabric of shifting colors.
As I came to know something about my third and fourth Germanys—the extraordinary democracy that developed, not without controversy, in the Federal Republic, and the less well known dictatorship of the Soviet-dominated German Democratic Republic—luck and predisposition to civic action made me “an engaged observer,” to use the phrase that Raymond Aron with much greater justification used about himself. I was intermittently drawn from my study and classroom onto the fringes of political life in both Germany and America, and counted myself lucky to be able to see and respond to historic events that were shaping the new Europe in its new relations to the United States. I still thought of this as the public work of history.
For decades, I shied away from writing about my private experiences: I wanted to keep the professional and the personal properly apart. But right after I had returned for the first time to my native city of Breslau in Germany, now Wroclaw in Poland, I did write a private account of it for my children, and I called it “Homecoming 1979.” Only now do I fully realize the ironic, perhaps even self-delusionary character of my title: a “Homecoming” was precisely what it was not. I had gone to Wroclaw out of the deepest kind of curiosity; I dont think I realized then that the journey had been a quest, that somehow I needed to see that my home had been destroyed and that the country into which I was born had ceased to exist. My sense of loss was overlain by an all-pervasive gratitude for having found a second, better home in the United States. But that little essay was, indeed, my first effort to write personally about going back to where I had begun, and I offer it here as a record of my earliest retrospective impression.
* * *
The northeastern route by which we drove to Wroclaw, to Breslau, was strangely unfamiliar; in the old days, we had always been lured toward the south, to the Czech-Bohemian mountains, or to the west, to Berlin and beyond. But the north-east—where the Poles had re-created their own state and their own independence in 1918—had seemed a distant, vaguely hostile land. For most Germans, the Poles were at best an object of bemusement, at worst of contempt.
Polish road signs announced approaches to Wroclaw; we had no way of knowing when we had crossed the old Polish-German frontier. In 1945, after a war in which Poland had suffered the most terrible devastation (and the calculated liquidation of its elites by both Germans and Russians), the Soviet Union annexed the eastern parts of the country to the Ukraine, and the Allies agreed that in compensation Poles should “administer” the German lands east of the Oder-Neisse Line; these included Silesia, with its ancient capital of Breslau. Expelled from their eastern provinces, hundreds of thousands of Poles perforce moved west. They “cleansed” the lands new to them of some three million Germans, and every sign of former Germann(Correct this)ss was meticulously erased.
I had suffered too much in Breslau to have regretted that the city had passed to new masters or to feel compassion for the Germans expelled from it. My family had come too close to extermination for me to have felt sympathy for unknown Germans, whether dead or driven out. My basic response right after the war was, so be it, the expellers have themselves been expelled. But what remained was curiosity about the place and some unreasoned, stubborn loyalty to the integrity of the past.
I had read of Breslaus fate in 1944-1945, but to see the consequences of it was something else. As German forces were retreating in the east, Hitler had ordered Breslau to become a fortress city and to hold out against the advancing Russian armies. In January 1945, the SS commander of the city ordered its immediate evacuation, forcing hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to leave under the most horrendous wintry conditions, and trapping untold numbers of others in the desperate city. Breslau withstood a Soviet siege for forty-five days, with brutal house-to-house battles and constant Soviet shelling, along with horrific destruction initiated by its own German commanders: in the midst of the siege, and in an orgy of brutal destructiveness, Hitlers minions had ordered an airstrip to be built in the very middle of the city, presumably to allow for supplies to come in—at the cost of thousands of German and non-German lives and the devastation of whole neighborhoods. Hitler was already dead and Berlin captured when Breslau finally surrendered. This perverse defense of Breslau was madness turned against itself, a murder of self when there were no other victims left to kill. Those horrible few months were blindly sacrificial: the last-ditch defense served no purpose, save as the final instance of that unquestioned obedience to Hitler that had already turned the world into a nightmare of disaster.
Wroclaw showed both the signs of the wartime destruction and the drab post-war socialist reconstruction. I recognized nothing in it until we came to the center of town and a web of one-way streets that obstructed our way to the hotel, where I instantly recognized—and by which I could instantly orient myself—the massive red-brick Polizeiprasidium, the building that had always stood as a bastion of oppression, where in early 1933 the SA Nazi storm troopers had murdered my fathers friend and patient Ernst Eckstein, and where in 1938 my mother and I brought my father for “an interview” at eight in the morning, preparatory to our emigration. It was still a police headquarters, but now a Polish one.
At the Hotel Monopol—the best of Breslaus old hotels, now musty and run down—they told me that they had no double room, only a suite. In fact, it was the best suite in the hotel, with a huge balcony facing out to the old city theater across the street. Prominenz, or the old elites, usually stayed here before; when Hitler visited Breslau in July 1938, had he stayed in this very suite? I wondered. What a strange return for a native son: in style, with an American wife, with a reservation made by the American embassy in Warsaw—and with no one to return to. I felt myself an irrelevance in what had once been my city but now had Polish street names and resounded with Polish voices.
That evening we took my old streetcar, the number 8, to where our apartment house should have been, along the route I had taken daily to and from school. I had thought it was a fair distance, too long to walk; in fact, it was only four stops on the streetcar. The route had once been along streets with Breslaus best shops and elegant apartment houses and villas; now there were plenty of empty spaces between old buildings, along with drab new structures going up—the cinder blocks of socialist construction, without color or form, square, squalid, and ugly.
Our corner apartment house stood no more, though the stately office building across the wide street had survived. When we had moved to this street in 1930, and until about 1936, when I was ten, it had been called Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse, but then, a while after Hitlers purge, in 1934, of the leadership of the SA (including, as I remember well, the hated local SA leader, Edmund Heines), the street was renamed Strasse der SA, which I minded every time I had to write it.
We moved on: to my fathers little clinic in a side street; that building, too, had survived and now was an old-age home. We passed a major intersection with its post office, where as a child I had so often posted letters to people abroad having to do with my familys efforts to emigrate: the all-consuming hope of those years. Then, on a parallel street, about ten minutes from where we had lived, I went looking for the Jewish hospital (Israelitisches Krankenhaus) where, because my father was a Jew who had been baptized at birth, he could serve only as a consultant but not as a regular attendant physician. It must have been hard to have been persecuted as belonging to a group that also partly repudiated you. The I.K., as we called the hospital in my childhood, was still there, with its big red-brick buildings, the back ones evidently still a hospital. We finally found a date chiseled in the wall (1902) and the letters i.k.—the sole survival of its distant German past, of a time when this had been the clinic for Breslaus flourishing Jewish population.
The next morning, I tried to navigate from the hotel to Scheitnig, an easterly part of the town between the river and a huge old park. After several false starts (near the center of town all the old landmarks were gone), I saw a familiar bridge, remembered there was a second bridge, and then headed straight for the Maria Magdalen Gymnasium, which I attended from 1936 to 1938. There it stood, just as I had remembered it, a little older, faded, but still “modern” in its late-Weimar design. We went inside—the same stone staircase, the same floors, locked classrooms, directors office.
My grandmothers house, Wardeinstrasse 13, was about three minutes from my school. It, too, had survived—with all the traces of forty years wear and dis-repair. Two youngsters let us go into the garden in the back: it was diminished, part of it having been given either to the neighbors or to a community sports field nearby, but it still had the same delicious gooseberries, the same strawberry beds, the same staircase curving up to the main floor of the house. It was in this garden, during the First World War, that my fathers sister, Lotte, and Richard Kobrak were married. They died in Auschwitz.
After I had taken as many pictures and eaten as many gooseberries as I could—as if somehow to assert my right, not to the garden or to the house, but to my own past—we were about to depart when an elderly gentleman came downstairs and went out the front door, following his wife to their car. I went up and asked him—we communicated in French—whether we could go upstairs, explaining that my grandmother had once lived there and I wanted to see it again. He kindly let us in, and once I was upstairs, I recognized it all. He took us to Omas living room, now his. The walls were covered with paintings, drawings, and prints—and before I had a chance to grasp the meaning of them, the man opened his shirt and showed us a tattoo mark on his upper chest: he had been five years at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Buchenwald, he explained, and the pictures were of him in prison garb, of children in camps, of other camp scenes. On a table was a wooden statue of Father Kolbe, the priest who had volunteered his life in the camp to spare anothers. The man, whose name was Czeslaw Ostankowicz, said he was a writer, and he gave my wife, Peggy, a copy of his book on his camp experiences; “anus mundi” he called the first section.
This is when the feelings returned. Here was this Polish ex-cavalry officer—largely oblivious to my being a German, a Jew—who now lived in my grandmothers house and who had gone through the very experiences that my parents and I had only narrowly escaped. That this impressively robust man now lived in my grandmothers once-handsome and so unsocialist home gave me satisfaction; I felt grateful appreciation. I asked to see an adjoining room, which had been my Tante Gretes, where a huge balcony overlooked the garden; we went out onto it, and Peggy took pictures of him and me shaking hands there—the transfer of a claim, gratefully and joyfully carried out on my part, as if suddenly, for one brief moment, all the tangled past made sense. I told him I was glad he was there. It was a sudden moment of happy acceptance: in that mad world, something had gone right. Seeing my aunts beautiful rug still there did not disturb my feelings. Then we finally left, having long tried his wifes patience. A chapter closed.
We drove around some of the adjoining streets, looking at neighboring houses, and then returned to my school, and to the street where Tante Grete had lived before she moved in with my grandmother. And precisely opposite my old school I saw a street sign indicating that the street was now “ulica Rosenbergow.” The street on which I had been beaten up for being a Jew was now named for two American Jews, the atomic spies whose trial, conviction, and execution had made them martyrs of the European left! Perhaps the only street in Wroclaw named after Jews, and my street!
Somehow, despite it all, I still felt possessive about some corners of Breslau, though returning to a city that was built on repudiation of the past made it easier to accept the disappearance of my own past. I had to admit that in some ways, going back to a Polish city was easier than if it had still been German; Germans in Breslau, living there as if nothing had happened, would have stirred resentment. As it was, I felt none, only an occasional annoyance at the Poles for having erased all signs of the citys (and my) German past—as if at that point they could have done anything else!
On the way back from Julius and Ethel Rosenbergow, we drove along the park of Scheitnig and then back across the River Oder to where I remembered the old university clinics were. They, too, stood—nineteenth-century red-brick buildings exactly as I remembered them from my earliest childhood, when we had lived nearby. Perhaps seeing them was what most excited me—the places so closely associated with my parents and their friends, where my father had worked, and where I might have worked if fate had not dispatched me elsewhere. Peggy asked why Breslau had had such a distinguished medical faculty, where Jews especially had excelled. I didnt fully know the answer, but those few remnants of Breslaus clinics and the villas where the doctors had lived stirred up no unpleasant visions of what once must have been a happy life, with some rough harmony between achievement and reward, between hope and fulfillment.
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