Fritz Stern

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Fritz R. Stern
Born (1926-02-02)February 2, 1926
Breslau, Silesia, Weimar Republic
Died May 18, 2016(2016-05-18) (aged 90)
New York, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Fields Historiography
Institutions Columbia University
Alma mater Columbia University
Influences Lionel Trilling

Fritz Richard Stern (February 2, 1926 – May 18, 2016) was a German-born American historian of German history, Jewish history and historiography. He was a University Professor Emeritus and a provost at New York's Columbia University. His work focused 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, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), to a locally prominent medical family of Jewish heritage.[1] His father, Rudolf Stern, was a physician, medical researcher and a veteran of the First World War. His mother, Käthe Brieger Stern (de), was a noted theorist, practitioner and reformer in the field of education for young children. Through family, friends, and colleagues, they were connected with a number of leading scientific and cultural figures in Europe and later in the U.S. For example, when trying to decide on his career objective while in college, Stern discussed choosing between history and medicine with Albert Einstein.[2]

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.[1] Stern was baptized shortly after his birth and named after his godfather, another member of the city's intellectual élite, the Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber[3] (also a Christian convert from Judaism). The Sterns emigrated to the United States in 1938 to escape the virulently anti-Jewish policies of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist government and the increasing violence against all Germans of Jewish ancestry.[1]

The family settled in New York City, more specifically in Jackson Heights, 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.[4]

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.[1]

Beginning in 1954, Stern taught frequently as a guest lecturer at the Free University in West Berlin.

In 1990, he helped persuade British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that a reunited Germany, firmly anchored in the West, would pose no threat to Europe. Thereafter, in 1993-94, Stern served as an adviser to the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Holbrooke. In 2010, Stern spoke at the former German military headquarters building, the Bendlerblock, on the 66th anniversary of attempted assassination of Hitler.[5] Looking back in January 2016, he told an interviewer, "Sometimes I bemoaned the fact that I had to grow up amid the disintegration of a democracy; now, at the end of life, I am having to experience again the struggles of democracy."[6]

Fritz Stern died on May 18, 2016, in New York, aged 90.[7]


The focus of much of Stern's work an attempti to track the development of the rise of National Socialism in Germany and its characteristics. Stern 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 rejected 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 was 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 often called the "Jewish-German symbiosis". In Stern’s view, the best example of the "Jewish-German symbiosis" was Albert Einstein.

Select works[edit]

  • with Elizabeth Sifton, No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters against Hitler in Church and State, (New York Review Books Collections: 2013, ISBN 978-1590176818.
  • (German)with Helmut Schmidt, Unser Jahrhundert: Ein Gespräch. C.H. Beck, München, 2010. A conversation between the historian and the politician.
  • The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present, New York: Meridian Books, 1956, 1960, 1972, 1973, ISBN 0-394-71962-X.
  • co-edited with Leonard Krieger The Responsibility of Power: Historical Essays In Honor Of Hajo Holborn, London: Macmillan, 1968, 1967. A survey of historiography from the eighteenth century to the twentieth.


The Fritz Stern Professorship at the University of Wrocław was established in his honor in 2009. The first person appointed to hold that chair was former German President Richard von Weizsäcker.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d "Fritz Stern, prominent historian and academic, dead at 90". Daily Mail. Associated Press. May 18, 2016. Retrieved May 19, 2016. 
  2. ^ Grimes, William (May 18, 2016). "Fritz Stern, a Leading Historian on Modern Germany, Dies at 90". New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2016. 
  3. ^ Hannes Stein (18 May 2016). "Er war der Schutzengel der freien Welt: Wer wissen will, was westliche Werte sind, muss Fritz Stern lesen. Zeit seines Lebens hat der erzliberale Historiker gegen den Kulturpessimismus angeschrieben. Nun ist er gestorben. Ein Nachruf ... (He was the guardian angel of the free world: Anyone wishing to know western values must read Fritz Stern. During his lifetime the arch-liberal historian wrote against cultural pessimism. Now he is dead. An obituary ... )". Die Welt (online). Retrieved 28 May 2016. 
  4. ^ Judt, Tony (September 20, 2007). "Anything But Shy". London Review of Books. Retrieved November 8, 2011. 
  5. ^ Ansprache von Prof. em. Dr. Fritz Stern, New York/USA. In: Retrieved 15 August 2012.
  6. ^ Schmitt-Tegge, Johannes (January 28, 2016). "Historiker Fritz Stern: «Wir stehen vor einem Zeitalter der Angst» Interview". Greenpeace-Magazin (in German). 
  7. ^ "Stern, a star German-American historian, is dead". Deutsche Welle. May 18, 2016. Retrieved May 17, 2016. 
  8. ^ "Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels" (in German). Retrieved May 19, 2016. 
  9. ^ Johnson, Don Hanlon (2008). The Meaning of Life in the 21st Century: Tensions Among Science, Religion and Experience. Yoko Civilization Research Institute. p. 61. Retrieved May 20, 2016. 
  10. ^ "Deutscher Nationalpreis 2005" (in German). Retrieved May 19, 2016. 
  11. ^ Bundespräsident Horst Köhler (September 28, 2006). "Laudati" (in German). 
  12. ^ "Former German President awarded the Fritz Stern Professorship of Wrocław". March 23, 2011. Retrieved May 19, 2016. 

External links[edit]