Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: Fritz Stern's "Das Feine Schweigen" (The Polite Silence)

Das feine Schweigen  (The Polite Silence)  (1999)

Fritz Stern (1926- )

185 pages

Fritz Stern, a German-born American historian who has lived many years in the United States, and publishes both in German and English, collected together as essays in Das feine  Schweigen five lectures he presented at conferences in 1997 and 1998. Two of the lectures were originally in English, and translated into German for this book, which is entirely in German. (It does not appear the book has an English edition.)

The title of the book is difficult to translate in a few words; I have translated the German word 'Feine' as 'Polite', but the resulting translated title of 'The Polite Silence' is best understood in the sense of 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. Stern argues that Germans are especially prone to maintaining this 'polite' silence, and the five essays weave together events and personalities of the 20th century German history, particularly the years from the beginning of WWI to the beginning of WWII, to highlight the devastating effects this silence can have. This short book (less than 200 pages with notes and sources) is both a fascinating summary of this critical period in German, and world, history, and an enlightening, and often troubling, discussion of the dangers of letting falsehoods, exaggerations and unfounded attacks remain unchallenged --- a timely topic in a United States now mired in a public shouting match that has both the far left and the far right more interested in making political points than listening, and both often attacking voices that argue for moderation.

The five essays published in this book cover:

1) Jacob Burckhardt, a 19th century Swiss historian who Stern describes as having "forebodings of the  coming disasters" of the 20th century; in fact, many of the quotes that Stern pulls from Burckhardt's writings of the late 19th century are scarily predictive of what came to pass in the 20th and on into the present.

2) Max Planck, a 20th century German physicist who as a leader in the German scientific establishment starting in the 1920's, was caught between his desire to continue working as a scientist, and his unavoidable involvement in the politics of the time; Stern describes Planck's struggles, as the head of an important German research institute and more generally as one of Germany's leading scientists, to avoid the political fray in the 1930's and 40's Nazi Germany.

3) The interwar Weimar Republic in Germany; Stern describes the difficult circumstances in which the Weimar Republic formed at the end of World War I, and presents his view that the untimely deaths of several key politicians robbed the young and vulnerable republic of important and powerful moderate, republican voices (liberal and conservative) that may have been able to prevent the slide into fascism.

4) The epoch between the beginning of World War I in 1914 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which Stern describes as a period during which the ideologies of fascism and communism led to totalitarian states in which "the government had to deceived their people --- and [in large part] the people wanted to be deceived."

5) The impact on societies of 'polite silence', and how it can lead to the triumph of evil.

The first essay, 'Jacob Burckhardt: the Historian as a Contemporary Witness,' discusses some of the writings of Carl Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (1818-1897), a Swiss historian of art and culture, and an important early leader in the study of cultural history. Burckhardt's view was that to properly understand a culture it is necessary to look past the facts of what occurred, instead taking an approach that "deals with the inner soul of ancient mankind, and reports what the people were, wanted, thought, perceived, and were capable of … Thus the desired and planned is as important as what occurred, perception as important as any sort of doing."

Although Burckhardt wrote extensively about ancient civilizations, the focus of Stern's essay is on the deep insights Burckhardt had into the upheavals of the late 1800's as society embraced the changes introduced by the Industrial Revolution. He wrote about the transformations that the Industrial Revolution was bringing to European society, and what he saw as the resulting negative effect on cultural and intellectual life: "Burckhardt saw in 'acquisition and trade' the catastrophic end of the creative, independent human being, the suppression of intellectual life by all-powerful commercialism." He described "the emergence of 'terrible simplifiers,' of major deceivers of public opinion."  Already during the Franco-Prussian War (1870/71) Burckhardt predicted that "the most critical issue, however, is not the current war, but rather the era of wars into which we have entered, and to which the new cultural spirit must orient itself."  And, Burckhardt foresaw by almost a century President Eisenhower's 'Military-Industrial Complex:" Stern writes of Burckhardt warning that as "the power of the state becomes ever greater, militarism grows, and the 'Military-State must become a mass producer.'"

In the second essay, 'Max Planck: The Greatness of the Person and the Force of History,' Stern leaves aside discussion of Planck's impact as a physicist, and focuses instead on the roll he played in German history in the first half of the 20th century, describing Planck's early life and its influence on his later struggles of conscience during the Nazi years. Planck was born in 1858; his father's side of the family had a tradition of intellectual depth in the areas of Theology and Civil Law, while his mother came from an east Prussian minister's family. This set of traditions left Planck with a strong sense of patriotic duty to his country and its laws.

Planck pursued a broad education in the humanities, studying the sciences as well as developing into a gifted pianist. He eventually settled on the study of physics, and some years after graduating obtained a position in Berlin in 1889 as an Associate Professor, from which point his career advanced quickly. It was a time of strong growth in Germany in the area of the sciences, as German society held scientists in high-esteem, and the German state saw them as critical to the furthering of German prestige and power. Critically, for what was to follow, it was also a time when Jews were becoming more accepted as researchers and supporters of the sciences. It was in this environment that Planck rose to eventually become president (1930-37) of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft (KWG), an organization created in 1911 to promote scientific work in Germany.

Stern describes Planck as having developed a philosophical outlook in the early 1900's of the place of man in the larger workings of nature that was to strongly influence the remainder of his life and career, and become central to his handling of the challenges he faced during the Nazi years. Stern quotes from a speech Planck gave in 1929:
reason tells us, "that the individual human, that we humans together with the world we perceive around us, even together with our entire planet, are only small nothings within the large, incomprehensible,magnificent nature, whose laws do not align themselves with what is going on in a small human brain, but rather have come into existence before there even was life on earth, and will continue on, even after the last physicist has disappeared from the earth."
Stern argues that this philosophical outlook led Planck to hold few prejudices in his view of scientific work: he was blind to racial criteria in evaluating scientists and open to working with the broader scientific community outside of Germany. In particular his support for leading Jewish scientists in the KWG eventually brought him into conflict with the National-Socialist state, and with himself internally as he tried to reconcile his deep-seated sense of duty to the German state with his strongly held belief in the criteria of ability over race. Stern's essay culminates with the balancing act Planck played in the years before World War II as he tried to both continue the work of the KWG in support of scientific development in Germany and at the same time push back against the National-Socialist regime as it forced Jewish scientists out from the KWG and Germany.

In the third essay, 'Death in Weimar,' Stern describes the ill-fated Weimar Republic that governed Germany in the years after World War I. He focuses on two themes in this essay: the complicated environment in which the new republic formed and had to consolidate its legitimacy, and the important role, according to Stern, that the untimely deaths of five critical politicians played in the disintegration of the government.

Regarding the first of these themes, the environment in which the new republic formed, Stern argues that "if the German downfall of 1918 [ending WWI] had been a revolution not just in form, but also in spirit, then it could have broken mercilessly with the past and used the weapon of exposure to clearly show the guilt and greed of those who had led Germany to defeat." Instead, according to Stern, the republic was created to a large extent out of the existing political leadership, "because the top military command, with defeat imminent [and the majority of Germans demanding an end to war], demanded the creation of a democratic government that would negotiate the cease fire;" thus the new government was a re-organization of the existing political establishment, not a replacement with new leadership.

Stern argues that this path to the new government left the way open for nationalists to propagate what became known as the Dolchstoßlegend, the 'Dagger-Stab-Legend' --- the claim that Germany's defeat in WWI was not due to poor military strategy or lack of strength, but because the German military and the German state were 'stabbed in the back' by a part of the German population that had failed to show sufficient patriotic vigor. The politicians of the new Weimar Republic many of whom had also been members of the old government were unwilling to implicate themselves by revealing the documented evidence of the ruinous decisions made by the German military and state leading to and throughout WWI. (Concern about the allies becoming even more punitive in their victory also played a role in concealing this history.) With millions of wounded unable to work, the economy destroyed by the war and the eventual world-wide depression, and no effective counter-argument from the new government, there was a large portion of the population open to believing this myth, and the nationalist call to blame the communists, socialist and Jews for Germany's defeat. The nationalists were able to effectively use this myth to cripple the Weimar Republic, and eventually take power.

The second theme of the essay grows out of the first. Stern argues that the Weimar Republic, weakened by both the failed German economy and the nationalist propagation of the Dolchstoßlegende, suffered a fatal blow from the early and unexpected deaths during the decade of the 1920's of four prominent, moderate politicians. These politicians (Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Stresemanns) represented positions across the political spectrum, but all believed in and actively supported the idea of a democratic republic. Stern describes the background and upbringing of each of these leaders, and the role they played in trying to stabilize the new government. He concludes by pointing out that:
Death in Weimar was a hardened anti-republican. Bring to mind in comparison [to the deaths of the four politicians listed above] the unusually long lives of four men who were among the most powerful enemies of the Weimar Republic: Alfred von Tirpitz, Paul von Hindenburg, Wilhelm II. and Alfred Hugenberg, who all lived to beyond 80 years old.
He admits, finally, that it is impossible to know what effect it would have had on the development of Weimar Republic into the 1930's if the four republican leaders he describes would have lived and continued their work inside the government, but he argues persuasively that their deaths were a significant negative blow to the already weakened state.

The fourth essay, 'Forced Mendacity,' deals with the period from 1914 to 1989, which Stern describes as a separate historical epoch which started with:
The First World War, which legitimized escalating violence, [and] was the beginning of a chain of atrocities started by nation-states, and this chain was driven to the absolute extreme of two large ideological movements that arose out of the war, that usurped government and constructed the characteristic form of tyranny for our century, totalitarianism.
He describes how these two ideological movements, Bolshevism and fascism, made use of the violence and hatred that arose out of the First World War to create and enforce a culture of deception and lies. This period ended, Stern argues, in 1989, when men and women demanded the right, as he quotes Václav Havel, "to live in truth."  In the following, I will only skim over the thread of ideas and the detailed historical descriptions Stern presents in this fascinating essay.

Stern describes how the two ideologies of fascism and Bolshevism arose out of competing philosophical traditions of the 1800's, and once in power resorted to any violence necessary to eliminate their enemies and ensure the path to their particular utopias. He argues that there is a tendency to see the similarities between the two systems, which can blind one to the differences that did exist.  The heart of the essay is a description of the ways in which "organizational lies" were propagated and maintained by the governments of these ideologies and of the different forms which they took.

For Germany, Stern argues that the pattern of lies and deception grew out of the fundamental deception of WWI: the concealment of the poorly thought out and often frivolous strategy decisions that led Germany into the war and the censoring of the losses occurring to the German army. The silence surrounding these topics, even after the war was over, further weakened the young Weimar Republic by playing into the hands of the nationalists who argued that Germany had only lost due to the betrayal of non-patriots (as described also in the third essay, above). Stern describes how and why the decisions were made to withhold the truth --- fear of further instability and revolution at the heart of it --- and argues that the true result of this silence was to empower the enemies of the new republic and ultimately enable them to bring the republic down.

Stern argues that as the two ideological movements of fascism and Bolshevism consolidated their power during the years between the two world wars, they used each other as the arch-enemy, against which they fought, and the fight against which permitted any means necessary. The truth, according to Stern, was that the two ideologies actually had a common enemy, "bourgeois life and bourgeois values, … liberal Europe and human rights."

He describes in detail the German government's decision in 1917 to help Lenin return to Russia in the hopes that he would help make successful the revolution that was breaking out there, and then make peace with Germany. This strategy in fact worked for a time, as the revolution did succeed, and Lenin did make peace with Germany on German terms, terms very costly to Russia; but Lenin's focus was on a world-wide revolution to follow the one in Russia. What grew from Russian attempts to promote world-wide revolution was a push-back from the capitalist West, a push-back that saw its most extreme flowering in the fascist governments of national-socialism. The essay describes the ability of Hitler and his followers to master propaganda and to produce hatred, and use these things to control and to a large extent win over the support of the population.

The final essay, 'Polite Silence and its Consequences,' is the shortest of the five, and expands on the central theme of the book. Stern borrows the expression 'das feine Schweigen' from Friedrich Nietzsche, and describes it as "genteel silence, the silence for the protection of one's own human propriety --- it is close to a pernicious silence." His focus is on silence in the political-social arena, and its affects on society, and on the idea that "most people and peoples tend to hold tightly to 'comfortable illusions' (as Edmund Burke called it), in order to protect themselves, their families and communities, and their own nation." (He allows that this kind of silence must be differentiated from the heroic silence of someone who does not want to betray another.)

Stern focuses on what he argues is a strong, historical tendency of Germans in particular to maintain this polite, protective silence, and on the impact it has had on Germans and Germany in the 20th century; in this he sees as complicit all Germans, but is particularly critical of the historians, writers and politicians who knew the truth, often speaking it in private correspondence first revealed decades later, but who held their silence publicly. (He points out the ability of the intellectual elite in other countries --- Dickens in England, Balzac in France --- "to represent their own land and its classes with relentless harshness," and that they had only pale counterparts in Germany.)

The power of the examples he uses to illuminate his argument is that it becomes clear how silence during one disastrous period leads inexorably to the next disaster. He describes the silence of many in the political and social elite during WWI, when the set-backs and defeats that Germany was suffering at the front were censored from the public, while several prominent Germans in private were discussing the imminent defeat of the German army. They were unwilling to go public with their thoughts, however, in deference to the 'Fatherland' and the risk to their honored place in society, which meant that the German public was shocked at the sudden surrender in November 1918, unable to fathom how what they had been told was impending victory had so quickly turned into defeat. Add to that the decision of the politicians of the Weimar Republic in the early years after WWI to conceal the records showing the "arrogance and stupidity" (Stern quotes here German Historian Friedrich Meinecke) of the German regime in 1914 as they led Germany into war, and the National-Socialists found a German public willing if not eager to believe in their claims that the German army had not been defeated by the allies in WWI but had rather been 'stabbed in the back' by defeatists at home --- communists, socialists and Jews. (The third essay in the book, discussed above, goes into more detail on these events during the Weimar Republic.)

As the National-Socialists gained strength during the 1920's and eventually took power in the early 1930's, Stern points out that Hitler, despite his ability to dissemble, was clear on what his intent was. Stern writes that "political enemies were at the mercy of terror, beatings, torture and humiliation: never the less, the silence was not broken. Then came the expulsion of Jewish and politically 'unreliable' colleagues from universities, clinics and all public positions, and this also was accompanied by very few protests." Stern grants that speaking out would be difficult in such circumstances, but argues that although "martyrdom cannot be expected or demanded, certainly a preventive civil courage can be learned and attempted." From his point of view the rise of Hitler and the National-Socialists was neither the natural "culmination … of German history … [nor] an accident or chance." He sees the silence of the intellectual elite and the willingness of the German public to allow itself to be deceived as playing together to facilitate the rise of National-Socialist party as it first took power inside the Weimar Republic,then eliminated the republic all together, thus setting in place the path to WWII and the holocaust.

Stern concludes the essay by examining the early years after WWII, and the attempts again by some in Germany to cover up what has happened, and the public actions of others to investigate and bring public the dark corners of the past.  As a historian, he points out the responsibility that he and his colleagues have to speak the truth publicly. He warns that their voices can "today be easily drowned out by propagandists, which reminds one of Burckhard's warning about the 'terrible simplifiers' [tying back in to the first essay in the book]. More dangerous are the media … who trivialize the terrible." He argues the importance of detailed and thoughtful investigations into the past, to avoid such trivialization. These concerns lead to a concluding quote from Nietzsche,
"'I did that,' says my Memory. 'I cannot have done that,' says my pride, and remains unrelenting. Finally, my Memory gives in."

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:

Geret Luhr, in literaturkritik.de

Adam Kirsch, in The New York Sun

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