Saturday, February 27, 2016

Book Review: "The Three-Body Problem" by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem (2006)
Cixin Liu (1963)
Translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu










415 pages

A fundamental tenet in work intended to reveal the physical laws of the universe is that these laws remain the same across time and space, that they are invariant: repeating the same experiment at a different time and location will --- must --- yield the same result. What would become of physics, and physicists, if they were to discover that this most basic assumption does not hold?

Precisely this unprecedented situation presents itself in Cixin Liu’s science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem. While performing experiments in super-colliders built to advance understanding of the most basic laws of nature, physicists record results from repeated experiments under the same conditions that show wildly different outcomes. Their core beliefs about their field shattered, many physicists begin to give up their work, some even committing suicide in despair. But do these experimental findings actually reflect the reality of the natural world, or are they instead being caused by an unnatural, perhaps even threatening, source?

Liu’s story opens in Beijing in 1967, during the early, frenzied years of the Cultural Revolution. The elite in China, including academics, find themselves persecuted in mass rallies led by the Red Guards. During one such session, at one of Beijing’s leading universities, young revolutionaries interrogate a renowned university physics professor for his teaching of reactionary, Western concepts, such as Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. As the professor’s daughter, Ye Wenjie, watches helplessly from the crowd, the young Red Guard members humiliate and eventually murder her father.

Soon after, Ye Wenjie, herself a graduate student in physics, falls victim to the same forces and is assigned to a logging operation in the northeastern mountains of China to be re-educated. Despite attempting to forget what she has experienced and sink inconspicuously into her work in the distant wilderness, she cannot entirely contain her educated upbringing and natural curiosity. Reacting to the devastation of the wilderness she observes around her, she inadvertently slips into a compromising situation that leads to a false charge of being a reactionary.

Upon her arrest, however, she is surprised to find that due to her background in astrophysics, the authorities give her the option of avoiding jail time if she agrees to work at a top-secret radio telescope project. She soon discovers the true purpose of the installation and, in reaction to all of the willful and seemingly inexorably spreading violence she has witnessed people commit --- against their fellow humans, as well as against the earth itself --- she makes a decision with dramatic and potentially devastating consequences for the world.

From the depths of the Cultural Revolution, the story then jumps to the present day. A nanomaterials scientist, Wang Miao, finds himself drawn into a secret, multi-governmental military operation set-up to investigate and understand a growing series of menacing events, among them a rash of ecologically destructive industrial disasters that are undermining humanity’s faith in the future, and a growing number of suicides among leading physicists in the face of experimental results that invalidate their fundamental assumptions about the natural world.

As his involvement deepens, Wang learns that one recent suicide was a physicist he had briefly met not long before: the daughter of Ye Wenjie. He also comes into contact with a fringe scientific organization that seems to be implicated in the strange events. The group claims to have contacted an alien species, one which has launched an invasion force toward earth, a move the group supports in the face of what they see as humanity’s apparently irreversible destructive tendencies. Initially dismissed as a group of crazies, Wang learns that governments have begun to take the organization’s claims more seriously. As he learns what has been happening out of the public eye, but seemingly in plain sight, he struggles to make sense of it. Are the strange events of the recent past really associated with an alien species, one with plans to invade Earth? And, to what extent are current events related to the secret work Ye Wenjie took part in decades before?

Liu tells a gripping story, filled with tense intrigue, sharp humor and fascinating explorations into the physical, computer and even social sciences. A part of the novel takes place in a complex virtual reality computer game that simulates the struggles of an alien world with three suns --- the Three-Body Problem of the title, while another take us to the reality of that distant world. Though as with most science fiction, some elements in the story seem over-simplified --- for example here, the surprising ease of understandable communication between humanity and the extraterrestrial world --- Liu does a wonderful job of describing the science that supports his story, while maintaining the pace of the action.

For Western readers, an additional joy of the novel is that it comes from a Chinese writer, and is set in a Chinese context. So many science fiction novels are US-centric: constructed around US, or at least Western, political and social norms, and with a strong assumption of US leadership built into the plot. In The Three-Body Problem, by contrast, the fateful change to the course of human history occurs in China, and the Chinese lead the international coalition of security forces working to counteract the growing threat.

Western readers also get to enjoy the at-times disconcerting but always intriguing encounter with character names and social interactions that lie outside our typical literary, and for that matter daily, experiences. From reading this novel we cannot help but emerge with a somewhat richer, more complex cultural understanding of China the Chinese people, one in which we come to recognize areas of fundamental difference, as well as others of shared human understanding and sentiment.  And, finally, do we not in part read for the pleasure of just such discoveries?

The Three-Body Problem is the first of a three volume set: I’m eager to read --- and review --- the next two books in the series.


Other reviews / information:

Have you read this book, others by this author, or similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

For more reviews of books of Science Fiction, click a link to my bookshelves of:
General Science Fiction or Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction

or click one of the following links to my complete bookshelves of:
Fiction or Non-Fiction

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Book Review: "Dreams and Delusions" by Fritz Stern

Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History (1987)
Fritz Stern (1926)










341 pages

Look back over the history of the 20th century, and Germany’s central role in European, and indeed world history invariably stands out: the rush to war in 1914, and its subsequent defeat at the hands of the Allies; the shaky attempt at democracy during the Weimar Republic, and its eventual dissolution as Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists attained and then quickly consolidated power; the dramatic military successes early in WWII, and the subsequent reversal into a crushing series of defeats culminating in the utter destruction of the country and its partition by the allies; the rapid evolution from enemy of the west into an important friend in the bulwark against communism, and the subsequent economic miracle that lifted Germany from the ashes of the war; the eventual shedding of post-war passivity, as an economically formidable, democratically strong Germany re-asserted itself on the European and world political stage; and finally the sudden, seemingly inconceivable reunification of the two German states as perhaps the signature event in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the iron curtain.

The what and the when and the how of these events have kept generations of historians busy; answering these important questions has served as the inspiration for countless volumes that describe and analyze the history of Germany in the 20th century from these perspectives.

But the why … is not the why the most fundamental question, the most critical to understand, not only to help us avoid repeating history but also to properly understand our present?

Why were Germans so susceptible to the National Socialist message in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s? Why did so many Germans, and most especially German Jews, not recognize the danger that National Socialists posed until it was too late? Why did the West Germans of the 1970’s begin to engage proactively and to a large extent unilaterally, with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European partners, moving out from under the shadow of the western partners who were guaranteeing German security?

In a series of engaging essays collected together as Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History, historian Fritz Stern examines these questions and others. He provides a thoughtful analysis, avoiding facile answers and sweeping generalizations, with an understanding that people make the decisions they do based on a complex combination of hopes, fears and experiences --- that what might at first glance be dismissed as people making irrational decisions and choices, can perhaps more effectively be understood as people making the decisions they do based on idiosyncratic justifications and expectations whose rationality requires a deeper understanding to recognize.

The eleven essays in the collection have been grouped into four sections. For several of the sections and individual essays Stern provides short introductions, describing how the pieces came about, and how they fit into the context of events that have occurred since they were originally written.

The essays of the opening section examine the struggles and challenges often faced by those hoping for a peaceful and prosperous German future. Three of these essays focus on individuals: the physicist Albert Einstein, the chemist Fritz Haber, and post-WWII politician Ernst Reuter; the fourth examines the history of German Jews. Through the lives of important figures in German history, or the historical development of the role and place of Jews in German society, Stern highlights Germany’s complex cultural history. In that context he then examines the social and political tendencies this history fostered, particularly in the critical period between German unification in 1871 and WWI. These essays lay the groundwork for understanding the torturous and ultimately calamitous path Germany took during the period between the two world wars.

The essays in the second section turn, then, to focus on that interwar period. Stern describes the inability of the Weimar Republic to gain sufficient support among Germans to enable it to impede the rise to power of the National Socialist party. Looking beyond the proximate causes that led to the failure of the Weimar government and the success of the National Socialists --- the often cited economic difficulties created by the crippling Treaty of Versailles and the hyper-inflation that followed --- Stern links the rise of National Socialism to deeper historical trends in German culture and society. He notes, for example, that although secularism took hold throughout Europe in the 19th century, many Germans were left with a deep, if hidden, spiritual void that, when combined with the lack of a stable political tradition to look back on amid the chaos of the interwar years, left Germans receptive to the rise of a strong political leader.

Stern also brings a nuanced view to the motivations of different groups in Germany during this time, and their culpability in what occurred. Whether discussing the nobility, the middle class, the proletariat or religious institutions, he forsakes simple generalizations, examining instead the cultural history that led each group to react to the rise of National Socialism as it did, how feelings about the regime may have evolved as it consolidated its power, and why recognition of the danger generally came too late. Even as he argues that some should have and could have known the danger early enough to push back, he notes that for complex reasons particular to their cultural upbringing and even to their class, they generally ignored the signs.

The third set of essays looks at the post-WWII period, in particular the 1970’s, as West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany) moved from being a quietly compliant partner of the west, with especially close ties to the US, to taking a more assertive stance in its foreign relations. Stern links these developments to a growing focus within Germany at that time on economic interests, and also to what he refers to as Germany’s unique position as “a powerful state with the deepest national grievance” (229), due to its division into two countries. While this split appeared permanent and unalterable in the 1970’s (and for that matter even into the late 1980’s), West Germans, according to Stern, were unwilling to completely concede to the historical inevitability of a permanent separation.

These concerns led West Germany to look eastward, developing improved relations with the Soviet Union, as well as East Germany and the other countries beyond the iron curtain. As Stern points out, West Germany already had a significant and important trading relationships with these countries, and, perhaps as important, felt strong ties to the many millions of Germans in East Germany and through Eastern Europe. Though West Germany did not intentionally distance itself from the West, this focus toward the east did introduce tensions in the West German relationship with its western partners, as goals and priorities relative to policies such as détente began to diverge.

The fourth and final set of essays discuss Germany’s influence on the study of history, through both the work of its own historians, and the study of German history in particular. German historians, Stern notes, led the development of the scholarly study of history --- historiography --- in the mid-1800’s; by way of comparison, he describes the study of history in the US at that time as more a hobby done by amateurs. US historians made numerous trips to Germany during that period to study and learn from German historians, Stern writes, with the goal of introducing German techniques and formalism to the study of history at US universities.

Despite their frequent presence in Germany in the 1800’s, however, US historians were not applying the new techniques they learned to the study of German history according to Stern; Germany, as a minor actor on the world stage at that time, was not seen as worthy of examination. This changed dramatically as Germany became more active in foreign affairs around the turn of the century, becoming an economic power that other European countries perceived as a threat to their interests. In addition, as tensions built in the years leading to WWI, the study of history in general, and Germany in particular, took on increasing nationalistic tones, with historical analysis and writings in many countries influenced by a desire to support national policy. The events of the rest of the 20th century only intensified this frequent collusion between the study of history and national policy in countries around the world.

In a separate essay, Stern examines the evolution of Capitalism in the context of German history. He focuses in particular on how the conflict between the Marxist and Capitalist points of view brought additional tension to the existing social divisions in Germany.  These tensions --- between the proletariat, the Junkers and the newly rich middle class --- had grown, in part, out of the significant changes in the Jewish involvement in German society in the late 19th century. The themes are similar to several of the earlier essays, but focus here on the economic influences.

The book concludes with the text of a speech Stern made to the West German Bundestag (the lower house of parliament) on the 17th June, 1987, to mark the protest on that day in 1953 by East Germans against their government’s harsh policies. In the essay Stern describes that uprising as part of “the ever nascent demand of Germans for freedom,” (294) reviewing the cultural context of this and earlier protests and revolutions in German history, as well as the way in which the commemoration in West Germany of the 1953 East German revolution is colored by political and social motivations. He examines the cultural context of protests and uprisings among Germans going back to the early 19th century, as they moved toward both a new social order, and unification of their many states into a single nation.

Originally published in 1987, the essays were written near an unrecognized precipice of events that would lead, unimaginably, to German unification just two years later; in the late 1990’s a new edition was published, with an added Preface in which Stern addresses the historic changes since the original edition appeared. Despite the unforeseeable events that lay in their immediate future, the essays are not dated in any consequential sense, as in them Stern looks back on important figures and key moments and relationships in German history since its unification in 1871. And those few written in the context of re-unification as an uncertain possibility in some distant future provide an interesting look back at the other side of the dramatic historical divide of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Though the essays collected together in Dreams and Delusions do not form a comprehensive review of German history, they do provide a fascinating examination of critical questions that arise naturally as one looks to understand the reasons behind the dramatic events in Germany in the 20th century. In examining why German society followed the path that it did in the years during and after the two world wars, Stern avoids simple explanations and easy conclusions. Instead he looks back to the effects on German society of the cultural developments that swept across in Europe in the 19th century, and their subsequent impact on German behavior in the 20th. And, as we seek to understand our current world, these essays remind us of the importance of looking beyond popular and potentially self-serving explanations, to the deeper roots of conflicts and their participants.



A More Detailed Look at the Essays in this Collection

The four essays of the first section, THE DREAM OF POWER, examine the challenges faced by those hoping for a peaceful and prosperous German future. Three of these essays focus on individuals: Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber, and Ernst Reuter; the fourth examines the history of German Jews.

Stern opens his essay on Einstein with the statement: “There was nothing simple about Einstein, ever. His simplicity concealed an impenetrable complexity.” (26) His now famous contributions to the study of physics generally overshadow the complex relationship he had with Germany according to Stern, who focuses on his role as a “public figure … the first scientist-hero to appear in the Western world.” (27)

Einstein appeared to be alternately repelled and attracted to Germany, or, more precisely, to aspects of German culture and civilization. Stern notes that already in his teens, finding the German education system hostile and ineffective, Einstein left Germany to become a Swiss citizen. On the eve of WWI he returned to Germany, joining what had become a major center of the scientific world. A pacifist through and through, Einstein was, however, one of the few not swept up in the nationalist frenzy that gripped Germany (and much of Europe) at the start of WWI.

With the rise of Nazism in the early 1930’s, Einstein left Germany for the final time, going into exile in the US. Recognizing earlier than many the danger that Hitler and the Nazi regime represented to world peace, he attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to warn the West of what he saw coming. Then, in the post-war years Einstein demonstrated what Stern finds a surprisingly “deep and all-consuming … antipathy to Germany” (50) --- the horrors of what had occurred during the war irrevocably breaking any connection he felt to his homeland.

In the second essay Stern turns to the life of the chemist Fritz Haber, famous for having discovered a process for fixing Nitrogen, a key element in fertilizer, out of air. Like Einstein, Haber was a renowned scientist and a Jew, though his relationship to Germany could not have been more different. Haber embraced Germany fully, even converting to Protestantism; he passionately supported Germany’s entry into WWI, even putting the prestigious research laboratories he headed in Berlin at the service of the state to develop weapons including, infamously, poison gas. With Germany’s loss in WWI, and subsequent status as a pariah state on the world stage, Haber actively, and largely successfully, began to rebuild bridges between the German scientific community and that of the rest of the world.

Where Einstein, however, recognized early on the danger of the rising fascist wave in Germany, and its associated anti-Semitic violence, Haber remained blind to its implications, seeing it as a passing moment, unable to believe that Germany and Germans would carry it through. Thus the even more acute devastation for Haber in the early 1930’s when anti-Jewish policies began to be implemented, and the violence escalated. Eventually driven into exile, he died less than a year later, bitter and broken.

The third essay covers Ernst Reuter, best known as the steady and courageous mayor of Berlin during the 1948 Soviet blockade and resulting western airlift. Stern describes Reuter as having come from a conservative, bourgeois German family; already in his early 20’s, however, he self-identified as a Socialist, much to the disappointment of his parents. Throughout his life Reuter passionately pursued ways of helping the working class overcome the restraints placed on them by the economic elite to enable “the creation of a just and secure democracy.” (90) Stern notes that Reuter was most comfortable at the level of local politics; after having spent the Nazi years in exile in Turkey, he returned as mayor of West Berlin to lead the city through the early post-war years, becoming “the first post-war official … to impress the Western world.” (77)

In the final essay of the first section, Stern examines the evolution of the involvement and place of Jews in German society. He opens with general comments on the challenges of this kind of research, noting, for example, that “memories not only fade; they are rearranged as well, in accordance with some perceived need of the present. Historians abet --- and sometimes correct --- this rearrangement of the past so that a society can find a tolerable or livable past for itself ….” (97) (Historian Eric Foner wrote extensively on this same challenge in Who Owns History; follow the link to my review.)

More specific to the question of the history of German Jewry, Stern argues that it is a mistake to look at it from the perspective of 1945 backwards, that is, to see the Holocaust as an “inevitable consequence” (99) of German history. He notes that such a starting point for research and analysis only blinds a historian to critical aspects of the history that do not appear to make the Holocaust inevitable. A second, related assumption he states at the outset is the importance of not self-limiting the study by feeling constrained by the “many taboos that have always clung to the subject.” (99)

Stern notes that for centuries Jews lived isolated from Germans, tolerated for the specific roles they played in economic life, but restricted from many forms of work and generally seen as “separate and inferior … in some essential ways depraved.” (101) As European society changed in the face of the political, social and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, a new focus on wealth developed that coincided with a devaluation of moral-religious authority, and began breaking down earlier barriers, such as the Christian tendency to hold Jews at arm’s length, and the Jewish passion to remain apart.

These changes in attitudes proceeded slowly and fitfully, according to Stern, but by the late 1800’s many Jews, if not entirely freed from prejudice and animosity, had become much more deeply integrated into German society; many, in fact, felt themselves to be German, going so far as to convert to Christianity. The extent of this feeling of German-ness, and the self-recognition of their importance as a group to German industrial and scientific success and progress made the subsequent rise of virulent anti-Semitic attitudes in the 1920’s and 30’s all the more shocking and hard to fathom for German Jews. It also led in some cases to an inability to recognize the danger early enough.

The second section, THE LURE OF POWER, contains two complimentary essays in which Stern describes aspects of German history that set the stage for the rise to power of the National Socialist movement in early 1930’s.

In Germany 1933: Fifty Years Later he moves beyond the typical causes attributed to Hitler’s dramatic success, such as the economic instability of the interwar years and the weakness of the Weimar government, to look for deeper, more fundamental cultural aspects that pre-disposed German society to support Hitler’s rise. The first of these he identifies as the secularization that occurred in the 1800’s. While in the previous essay he notes the dramatic impact this secularization had on Jewish life in Germany, here he examines the impact on non-Jewish Germans. He argues that these Germans gradually withdrew from religious practice
discreetly --- and the very silence or concealment added to a sense of guilt … [and the resulting] sense of void, of infinite boredom and pervasive falsehood, oppressed some of the young … and they proclaimed their yearning for a life more natural, more honest, less humdrum, less materialistic. (138)

According to Stern, the Protestant church during this period of secularization remained staunchly conservative, and supportive of the institutions of power; out of the excitement of German unification in 1871 and the German victory in the Franco-Prussian war came a tight bond between the church and the nominally secular government, a feeling that God was on the German’s side. Though this may have filled the spiritual void for Germans in the late 1800’s, Stern argues that the debacle of the Great War shattered German’s belief in the power both of the church and the state, leaving only a gnawing void that Hitler and his National Socialist party exploited and filled with spectacular ease.

The second element he highlights in the essay turns on the short period of nationhood that Germany had behind it when faced with the destructive result of the Great War: “The Germans did not have a protracted or unifying course in politics or self-government.” (140) Stern argues that historically, Germans tended to be more focused on the private sphere --- family, friends, self-cultivation --- than public life. Beyond particular dramatic events, the political world remained at a distance for most Germans, uninteresting and unimportant. Thus nationalist frenzy and euphoria galvanized the German population at the start of the Great War, as it did the peoples of other European countries. But when the war became a horrific and destructive slog, and finally ended in Germany’s unconditional surrender and subsequent vindictive reparations, Germans lost faith in politics and the governing process --- unlike the citizens of other European countries, they had no past stable political history to fall back on --- and so the dysfunction of the Weimar Republic became a self-fulfilling prophecy: lack of faith in government meant the Republic had little support, and the lack of support crippled its effectiveness, in turn further eroding German’s faith in it.

Hitler, then, effectively manipulated the void created by the secularization of German society, and the frustration with the democratic Weimar government, providing the strong leadership that people craved.

In National Socialism as Temptation, Stern examines the attraction of the movement for various groups in Germany. He argues that
most Germans reacted to it in much more complicated, vacillating, unclear, and inconsistent ways than we ordinarily assume they did. There were, of course, zealous disciples and determined opponents; but then there were disciples who evolved into opponents, and the opponents were not without their doubts either. (151) 
The secularization he describes in the earlier essays was one aspect of this. Another was the important early role students played in the rise of the National Socialists, as they looked for a strong leader to end the chaos they had come of age in. For their part, the German elite had experienced a loss of status in the Weimar republic and also had concerns that the deteriorated economic situation brought on by the Versailles sanctions, and worsened by the depression, might lead to revolution, and so further threaten their position. Thus, with exception of principled opponents of National Socialism, many Germans saw the potential benefits to themselves and their class of a strong leader, and so were at first willing to overlook the darker side of the party’s actions.

Stern provides examples of people in these groups who experience the temptation of National Socialism. Their remarks and behavior make clear how this search for a solution to the perceived weakness of the German political situation led many to see only the aspects of Hitler and his cohorts that appealed to them. This hopeful, willful blindness to the accompanying violence gave Hitler the critical time he needed to consolidate his power. In the initial months after he took power in early 1933, when it was possible to still vocally and actively oppose the new regime’s direction, the majority hesitated, blinded by their hopes. Soon thereafter it become too dangerous to speak out, and only those willing to martyr themselves for their conscience did so.

The essay also addresses the activities of the church. For Protestants, Stern argues, there was a built-in belief in bowing before authority, in compensation for man’s sins; furthermore, many protestant leaders embraced a return to a more conservative politics, after the liberalization of the Weimar years. The Catholic Church, for its part, managed to sign a concordat with the new regime, in which the church was guaranteed a certain level of independence, in exchange for remaining outside of politics. Such an agreement had been long sought by the Catholic Church with the Weimar government, and so church leadership initially welcomed the transition to the new, more conservative --- and seemingly more supportive --- regime. When subsequent events demonstrated the true, adversarial position of the new regime to organized religion, church leadership split over whether to stand up to the National Socialists, or pursue a policy of accommodating them.

The third section, PEACE AND THE RELEASE FROM GREATNESS, consists of a pair of essays on West Germany’s transition in the 1970’s and early 1980’s away from a passive, compliant partner of the U.S. and NATO, and toward a more engaged role in Europe consistent with what it viewed as its own political and economic self-interest. Both essays were written in the early 80’s, before the dramatic events leading to German unification were even imaginable. Fascinating alone for the picture of a Germany in transition that they paint, the essays also provide a powerful illustration of how truly and utterly the world has changed in the two plus decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Both essays address the same topic, and Stern points out in his preface to them that some overlap exists. Germany in a Semi-Gaullist Europe examines the changes in West Germany that led to a shift from focusing principally on economic recovery and security within the context of the US-led alliance of the West, to taking a broader view of German interests that included building complimentary relationships in the east, with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Stern notes that though West Germany’s allies --- most especially the US --- felt betrayed by the West German’s increased focus toward the east, West Germans themselves did not feel they were making a choice between two camps, but rather understood their actions as a natural outgrowth of their own economic interests, and their ties with Germans beyond the iron curtain, both in East Germany as well as in other countries in the Soviet bloc. One consequence of this new political direction, was that West Germany placed much greater importance on détente, and so were caught in a political dilemma in the early 80’s, as they watched the US begin to abandon it.

(This irony of this view from the early 1980’s alone is worth the price of admission: the West Germans were frustrated that the US was abandoning détente, because West Germany saw it as a path to better support Germans in East Germany and other countries in the Soviet bloc. Little could they imagine that this abandonment of détente, and the US pursuit of a more aggressive policy toward the Soviet Union, would be a part of a series of events that would culminate in 1989 with the re-unification of Germany and the opening of borders throughout Eastern Europe.)

In Germany and the United States: Visions of a Declining Virtue, Stern examines in particular the changing relationship between West Germany and the US in the post-war years through to the early 1980’s. He recalls the dramatic shift in the immediate post-war period, as the two warring enemies suddenly became fast friends, Germany seen by the US as the key bulwark against the Soviet Union, and Germany viewing the US as its principal guarantor of security. Germans idealized the US in the post-war period, Stern argues, seeing it as the modern society to be emulated after the disastrous previous 50 years of mistakes German society had made. The US, for its part, also had an idealized view of the situation, viewing Germany as an eternally grateful and compliant state that would support whatever policies the US proposed. Stern points out that neither of these views could be sustained.

As new generations came of age in both countries, and the experiences in Vietnam, Iran and with Watergate colored views of the US moral standing and strength, Germans began to separate themselves from American policy on some points. Stern argues that although many Americans found this disturbing from a country they assumed would be “permanently compliant,” (235) this shift was in fact unavoidable, a natural development in the relationship. Also complicating West Germany’s relationship with its US partner and European neighbors, Stern points out, was a latent concern about growing West German assertiveness and independence given Germany’s role in the two world wars. That this concern existed even among some Germans only highlights the understandable wariness in reactions to West German political assertiveness on the world stage.

After recognizing this complexity, however, Stern concludes:
Our values and our interests demand that the remaining, embattled democracies hold together and learn to live with their differences; they must aid other nations who seek to escape the clutches of authoritarianism. Interest and sentiment should tell us that there is no escape from our friendship, that at present there is no alternative to an alliance that protects the future. (239)

The fourth and final section of essays, HISTORIANS AND THE GERMAN PAST, examine the study of German history, particularly over the past century and a half. The first of three essays, Americans and the German Past: A Century of American Scholarship focuses on the impact of German historians of the 19th century on the development of a formal, scholarly approach to studying history, in particular in the US, and how the early relationship between historians in the two countries evolved from an initial state of being roughly the German masters and the American students, to a much more complex and sometimes contentious one over the course of the 20th century.

Stern notes that many American students of history traveled to Germany in the 19th century, which was considered to be the leading center for the formal study of history. These American students
realized that history was a serious profession, to be taught in special course in universities. They sought to transplant the characteristic German institution, the seminar, to American universities …. Amateur history became academic history. (248)
Not surprisingly, after an initial period of American historians returning home to recreate at US universities the formalism and techniques they had learned in Germany, subsequent generations of historians began to develop their own approaches and views on proper historiography, and the relationship between the historians of the two counties evolved from the early one of teacher-pupil, to a more scholarly, competitive one; the World Wars then cemented these differences by introducing a nationalist, political aspect to the study of history.

Stern points out that the early American students who traveled to Germany were not generally studying German history itself. Studying the history of the German people came first later, seemingly spurred by the rise of Germany as an economic and political power in Europe, that is, the rise of Germany in the world’s consciousness as a state that must needs be understood. Stern concludes the essay with a review of how American historians’ approaches to German history have changed over the course of the 20th century, including brief biographies of some of the key American historians who have studied the history of the German people.

Written in 1976, the essay Capitalism and the Cultural Historian reflects to an extent the economic malaise of that period, a consequence of events such as the oil crisis and the then recently concluded Vietnam War. The opening lines of the essay are unequivocal: “Talk of capitalism is endemic and in most areas of the world contemptuous. The detractors of capitalism are legion, its defenders few and uncertain.” (275) Stern finds, however, that the “stereotypes” of capitalism provide a “simplified drama,” and that “paradoxical[ly] the longer we live in capitalism the less we seem to understand it.” (275) With these opening thoughts, he then looks back to the tension between capitalism and anti-capitalist ideas in the 19th century Germany, building off the understanding he developed during his research in preparation for writing Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder and the Building of the German Empire.

Capitalism had few supporters in 19th century Germany in Stern’s estimation: the middle class benefited the most in the sense of increasing wealth, but struggled to shake off the stigma of “new money” that kept them from ascending to the status of nobility; the aristocrats, for their part, were contemptuous of the wanton, open pursuit of wealth, but found themselves forced to engage in it due to the strictures imposed on economic life by the rise of capitalism; the proletariat, meanwhile, largely understood that the new wealth was being built up on their backs, and thus were drawn to the newly spreading ideas of Marxism. The 19th century was also, as Stern describes in other essays in this collection, a time of growing secularism in Germany, and many drew a direct and condemning connection between this social development and the rise of capitalism.

All of the currents of distrust and fear over the new social order, and its associations with capitalism, led to increasing anti-Jewish sentiment in Germany according to Stern, and he uses he life of Bismarck’s Jewish banker Bleichröder as example.

He concludes with a call for further study of capitalism, particularly by historians, as opposed to economists who he feels focus more on the laws of the market and growth. He notes that
we might do well to ponder the paradox that one of the most valuable and insidious consequences of capitalism is anti-capitalism: valuable because of its reformist impulse, and insidious because beneath it often lurks a Utopian illusion that social evil springs from capitalism and that some, often nebulous, alternative would usher in a period of human brotherhood and goodness. (289)

The concluding essay, The Speech to the Bundestag, June 17, 1987, is perhaps the most personal of the pieces in the book. As Stern describes in a preface to the essay, West Germany had declared June 17th to be a holiday in commemoration of a violently subdued protest by East Germans against their government’s policies on that day in 1953, and the day was marked each year by a speech to the Bundestag; he was the first non-German to give that speech. Born in 1926, Stern and his family left Germany for the US in 1938, in the face of the violent anti-Jewish polices of the National Socialist regime. Not surprisingly given his personal and professional background, his remarks look back over German revolutions and uprisings of the 19th and 20th centuries.

He describes the revolutionary fervor that swept through the German states of the mid-19th century through the life of the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, born in 1810, who became “the first German poet to address the working class, the class that had the courage to revolt on June 17, 1953.” (294) Freiligrath spent his life writing poetry on the plight of the proletariat, and experienced the hopes that came with the 1848 Revolution, and the frustration of its failure to succeed.

Through the events of Freiligrath’s life and lines from his poetry, Stern highlights a characteristic of Germans that he mentions in several of the essays in this book, “the tension between the life of the spirit and the life of politics.” (295) He refers here to Freiligrath in particular, but the statement can also be seen as applying more broadly; as he states in an earlier essay:
It has often been said that Germans were even more remote from reality, more wirklichkeitsfremd, than other people. In the nineteenth century, they made a virtue out of the private realm. The Idealist injunction of self-cultivation, the veneration of art and culture, the special place of the family and of friendships, the often sentimentalized domesticity of German life --- all these verities were remote from concern with public affairs. (141)

Stern argues that this tendency in Germans led, in the wake of the failure of the 1848 Revolution, to a withdrawal from politics: “The apolitical came to be venerated, and yet contributed to the uncritical servility toward the state … that burdened the country” (303) under Bismarck and on into the 20th century, becoming “during the Third Reich [what] many spoke of [as] an ‘inner emigration,’ of a withdrawal from poisoned public life.” (304) In this speech he calls for this fundamental mistake to not be repeated, say in the wake of the failed East German protests of 1953. He calls for educating the public to become engaged, to play “a challenging, critical, uncomfortable role” (304) in order for democracy to survive, in Germany, and more broadly in the West.


Read quotes from Fritz Stern's writings

Other reviews / information:

I have also review Fritz Stern's collection of essays  Das feine Schweigen (The Polite Silence).  From my review (which can be found here):
[Stern addresses] the silence of (especially) the intellectual elite on topics that are sensitive and safest not talked about in public. The essays have the connection of discussing the negative, permissive effect that 'polite silence' has on unhealthy developments in societies, and of describing several historical figures who resisted to varying degrees the pressure to stay silent.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf