Cover image for Einstein's German world
Einstein's German world
Stern, Fritz, 1926-2016.
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Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
335 pages ; 25 cm
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DD239 .S74 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The French political philosopher Raymond Aron once observed that the twentieth century "could have been Germany's century." In 1900, the country was Europe's preeminent power, its material strength and strident militaristic ethos apparently balanced by a vital culture and extraordinary scientific achievement. It was poised to achieve greatness. In Einstein's German World, the eminent historian Fritz Stern explores the ambiguous promise of Germany before Hitler, as well as its horrifying decline into moral nihilism under Nazi rule, and aspects of its remarkable recovery since World War II. He does so by gracefully blending history and biography in a sequence of finely drawn studies of Germany's great scientists and of German-Jewish relations before and during Hitler's regime.

Stern's central chapter traces the complex friendship of Albert Einstein and the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Fritz Haber, contrasting their responses to German life and to their Jewish heritage. Haber, a convert to Christianity and a firm German patriot until the rise of the Nazis; Einstein, a committed internationalist and pacifist, and a proud though secular Jew. Other chapters, also based on new archival sources, consider the turbulent and interrelated careers of the physicist Max Planck, an austere and powerful figure who helped to make Berlin a happy, productive place for Einstein and other legendary scientists; of Paul Ehrlich, the founder of chemotherapy; of Walther Rathenau, the German-Jewish industrialist and statesman tragically assassinated in 1922; and of Chaim Weizmann, chemist, Zionist, and first president of Israel, whose close relations with his German colleagues is here for the first time recounted. Stern examines the still controversial way that historians have dealt with World War I and Germans have dealt with their nation's defeat, and he analyzes the conflicts over the interpretations of Germany's past that persist to this day. He also writes movingly about the psychic cost of Germany's reunification in 1990, the reconciliation between Germany and Poland, and the challenges and prospects facing Germany today.

At once historical and personal, provocative and accessible, Einstein's German World illuminates the issues that made Germany's and Europe's past and present so important in a tumultuous century of creativity and violence.

Author Notes

Fritz Stern was born in the former German province of Silesia (now in Poland) on February 2, 1926 to a prominent family that had converted from Judaism to Christianity. The Sterns felt increasingly threatened by Hitler's reign and left for New York in 1938. He received an undergraduate and master's degree and Ph.D. from Columbia University. He taught at Columbia University for more than 40 years, specializing in European history, before retiring in 1997.

He wrote several books during his lifetime including The Politics of Cultural Despair, The Failure of Illiberalism, and Five Germanys I Have Known. He occasionally advised government officials including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on German reunification in the early 1990s and held government positions like being appointed a senior aide to Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, in 1993. He died May 18, 2016 at the age of 90.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Stern, an eminent historian, is particularly interested in how German scientists responded to the anti-Jewish undercurrents of their society. He examines the lives of four scientists--Max Planck, Paul Ehrlich, Fritz Haber, and Albert Einstein--whom he extols as leading lights of Germany's second "Age of Genius" (the first having been the era of Goethe). The impingement of politics on each scientist animates the essays: Einstein was famously an anti-imperialist pacifist; on the other hand, chemist Haber contributed crucially to Germany's explosives and poison gas production in World War I. But, as Jews, both went into exile after 1933. To illustrate further the untenability in an embittered post^-World War I German society of even patriotic Jews, Stern recounts the tragedy of Weimar foreign minister Walter Rathenau. The general question of the depth of anti-Semitism gets a fuller airing in Stern's sharply critical appraisal of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996), a hit with the German public but not with historians like Stern. Seasoned ala carte essays on continuing controversies in German history. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Distinguished historian Stern (Gold and Iron, Dreams and Delusions, etc.) presents a rich collection of essaysÄsome scholarly, others more personalÄwritten during the past decade. The book's first part centers around the lives of four visionary scientists (Paul Ehrlich, Max Planck, Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein), allowing Stern to draw attention to what he calls "Germany's second Geniezeit," or Age of Genius, an era filled with great promise and yet punctuated by war and violence. His subjects, internationally acclaimed figures in modern science, were also committed German patriots, all of whom (except Einstein) were outspoken supporters of the German war effort in 1914. The extended chapter on Haber and Einstein meticulously documents the careers of these two highly assimilated German Jews who, despite numerous obstacles, managed to become leading public intellectuals of their time. In the second half of the book, Stern reevaluates major debates concerning the First World War, German unification, the representation of the Holocaust and contemporary German-Polish relations. Without ever pointing an accusatory finger, Stern's approach helps readers to grasp how the extraordinary potential for "what could have been "Germany's century" ended so disastrously. Stern launches a corrective to the notion of German peculiarity, insisting instead on the greater universal import of interpreting the German past. As he persuasively argues, "No country, no society, is shielded from the evils that the passivity of decent citizens can bring about. That is a German lesson of the twentieth centuryÄfor all of us." (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Columbia historian Stern (Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichr”der and the Building of the German Empire) presents a collection of compelling essays written over the last decade. The loose theme of the first section is Jewish men who succeeded in pre-Nazi Germany; in the second section, Stern delves into themes of current German historiography. Collections of essays can be uneven in quality, but the only weakness here is an essay on Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, which seems out of place. "Historians and the Great War" is a fascinating look at how personal experience in the trenches of World War I affected the later writing of historians. "The Past Distorted: The Goldhagen Controversy," in which Stern points out flaws in Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (LJ 3/15/96), is worth the price of the book. Biographical essays on Paul Ehrlich, Max Planck, Fritz Haber, and Walther Rathenau illuminate figures who have not received much attention in English-language publications. Highly recommended for academic libraries and any public library that holds Goldhagen's book.ÄRandall L. Schroeder, Wartburg Coll. Lib., Waverly, IA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In this well-documented, extremely readable collection of Stern's articles, the author focuses on German or German-educated scientists such as Max Planck, Paul Ehrlich, Chaim Weizmann, Albert Einstein, and Fritz Haber. What makes this compendium a must for those interested in European history is that Stern not only places all of these people within the history of science, but also discusses how they both reflected and influenced the times in which they lived. The underlying theme of the book is the "Jewish Question." These scientists thought about, wrote about, and in some cases were consumed by their Jewish heritage because of persistent and growing antisemitism. Stern also stresses the loyalty that many of these exceptional men displayed toward their country; they were caught among the pulls of their nation, science, and religious heritage. All of these essays have been published before, and there are a few places where the information is repetitive, but to see these prominent geniuses placed side-by-side makes wonderful reading. Stern also encloses a critique of Daniel Goldhagen's book (CH, Jul'96), which seems slightly out of place here except to make the point that all Germans were not "Hitler's Willing Executioners." All levels. G. R. Sharfman; Hiram College

Table of Contents

A Note From the Authorp. ix
Introductionp. 3
Part 1 The Promise of German Life
Chapter 1. Paul Ehrlich: The Founder of Chemotherapyp. 13
Chapter 2. Max Planck and the Trials of His Timesp. 35
Chapter 3. Together and Apart: Fritz Haber and Albert Einsteinp. 59
Chapter 4. Walther Rathenau and the Vision of Modernityp. 165
Part 2 The Great War and Consequent Terrors
Chapter 5. Historians and the Great War: Private Experience and Public Explicationp. 199
Chapter 6. Chaim Weizmann and Liberal Nationalismp. 223
Chapter 7. Freedom and Its Discontents: The Travails of the New Germanyp. 253
Chapter 8. The Past Distorted: The Goldhagen Controversyp. 272
Chapter 9. Lost Homelands: German-Polish Reconciliationp. 289
Notesp. 303
Acknowledgmentsp. 325
Indexp. 329