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Fritz Richard Stern (born February 2, 1926) is a German-born American historian of German history, Jewish history, and historiography. He is a University Professor Emeritus and a former provost at New York's Columbia University. His work focuses on the complex relationships between Germans and Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries and on the rise of National Socialism in Germany during the first half of the 20th century.
Fritz Richard Stern was born on February 2, 1926 in Breslau, Silesia, to a locally prominent medical family of Jewish heritage. His father, Rudolf Stern, was a physician, medical researcher and a veteran of the First World War. His mother, Käthe Brieger Stern, was a noted theorist, practitioner, and reformer in the field of education for young children. Through family, friends, and colleagues, they were connected with some of Europe's (and later America's) leading scientific and cultural figures.
The family had converted from Judaism to Lutheran Protestant Christianity at the end of the 19th century, while sharing the increasingly secular worldview frequently found among Germany's educated classes. Stern was baptized shortly after his birth and named after his godfather, Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber (also a Christian convert from Judaism). Nonetheless, the family emigrated to the United States in 1938, forced to leave by the virulently anti-Jewish policies of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist government and the increasing violence against all Germans of Jewish ancestry.
The Sterns settled in New York City, in the Jackson Heights section of the borough of Queens. There, Stern spent the remainder of his childhood, attended public school and quickly learned English while his parents reestablished their respective careers. He then attended Columbia University where he received his bachelors, masters, and PhD. His professors included Lionel Trilling.
From 1953 to 1997, he served as a professor at Columbia, obtaining the eminent Seth Low chair before attaining the rank of University Professor. Stern also briefly served as provost of the university. He is recognized in the United States and in Germany as an eminent historian.
Topics of writings
The focus of much of Stern's work is attempting to track the development of the rise of National Socialism in Germany and its characteristics. Stern has traced the origins of Nazism back to the 19th century völkische movement. In Stern's opinion, the virulently anti-Semitic völkische movement was the result of the "politics of cultural despair" experienced by German intellectuals who were unable to come to grips with modernity. However, Stern rejects the Sonderweg interpretation of German history. In his view, the ideas of the völkische movement were merely a "dark undercurrent" in 19th century German society. In the 1990s, Stern was a leading critic of the controversial American author Daniel Goldhagen, whose book Hitler's Willing Executioners Stern denounced as unscholarly and full of Germanophobia.
Another major area of research for Stern has been the history of the Jewish community in Germany and how the Jewish culture influenced German culture and vice versa. In Stern's view, this interaction produced what Stern has often called the "Jewish-German symbiosis". In Stern’s view, the best example of the "Jewish-German symbiosis" was Albert Einstein.
- The Politics of Cultural Despair (1963) – This was Stern's dissertation which focused on three major figures in the rise of illiberalism, Paul de Lagarde, Julius Langbehn, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck.
- The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present (1970) – A collection of writings from various people, gathered together and edited by Stern, to give a survey of historiography from the eighteenth century to the twentieth.
- Gold and Iron (1977) – A book centered on Gerson Bleichröder, the personal banker and friend of the other subject of the book, Otto von Bismarck. Through the two men Stern tracks the development of the uneasy relationship between Jews and Gentiles in late nineteenth century Germany.
- The Failure of Illiberalism (1973) and Dreams and Delusions (1987) – Both books are collections of essays and transcribed speeches concerning 19th and 20th century Germany.
- Five Germanies I Have Known (2006) – Stern addresses the question: How could so civilized a nation be responsible for the greatest horror in Western history? Interweaving historical analysis and personal narrative, Stern looks at the five versions of Germany he has known: the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, postwar West and East Germany, and post 1990 unified Germany.
- (editor) The Varieties Of History, From Voltaire To The Present, New York : Meridian Books, 1956, 1960, 1972, 1973, ISBN 0-394-71962-X.
- The Politics Of Cultural Despair; A Study In The Rise Of The Germanic Ideology, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1961, 1963.
- co-edited with Leonard Krieger The Responsibility Of Power : Historical Essays In Honor Of Hajo Holborn, London : Macmillan, 1968, 1967
- The Failure Of Illiberalism, London, George Allen & Unwin 1972, ISBN 0-04-943019-X.
- Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire, New York : Knopf, 1977 ISBN 0-394-49545-4.
- Germany 1933: Fifty Years Later, New York, N.Y. : Leo Baeck Institute, 1983
- Dreams and Delusions: the Drama Of German History, New York : Knopf, 1987 ISBN 0-394-55995-9.
- Einstein's German World, Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1999 ISBN 0-691-05939-X.
- Fritz Stern: Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels: Ansprachen aus Anlass der Verleihung, Frankfurt am Main : Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels e.V. im Verlag der Buchhändler-Vereinigung GmbH, 1999.
- Five Germanies I Have Known, New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006 ISBN 0-374-15540-2
- "Imperial Hubris: A German Tale", essay in Lapham's Quarterly, Winter 2008.
- Helmut Schmidt, Fritz Stern: Unser Jahrhundert: Ein Gespräch. C.H. Beck, München 2010.
- 1994: Pour le mérite für Wissenschaft und Künste
- 1999: Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels
- 2002: Honorary doctor of the University of Wrocław
- 2004: Leo-Baeck-Medaille Leo Baeck Institute
- 2005: Deutscher Nationalpreis
- 2006: Großes Verdienstkreuz des Verdienstordens der Bundesrepublik Deutschland mit Stern und Schulterband
- 2007: „Preis für Verständigung und Toleranz“, Jewish Museum Berlin
- 2008: Internationaler Brückepreis
- A Fundamental History Lesson by Fritz Stern