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Professing the Past, Debating the Present View other pieces in "The New York Times"
By Mark Danner October 25, 1987

The Drama of German History
By Fritz Stern
323 pp.,Alfred A. Knopf

On West Germany's ''Day of National Unity'' this summer, a dapper, white-haired, German-born American stood in the Bundestag, facing the President, Prime Minister and other high officials of the West German Government, and spoke about German history. For Fritz Stern - whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1938, when he was 12 years old - becoming the first foreigner to address the parliament on West Germany's national holiday was a singular honor in a career laden with honors. But the American historian's words set off a firestorm of indignation that has persisted to this day, underscoring an ineluctable fact: to profess the German past is very often to debate, passionately, the German present.

''One sentence many found particularly objectionable,'' Mr. Stern recounted recently in his spacious office in Columbia University's Low Library: ''was: 'An undivided Germany brought unspeakable misfortune to other peoples and to itself.' I meant it simply as a historical statement, but it was taken by some as some kind of moral justification for the division of Germany.''

''Because of the German past,'' he said, ''everything the Germans do is, as it were, magnified by their own past - and by the fact that it is the one country in Europe that has an enormous national grievance, namely the division.'' But isn't ''the grievance'' itself merely a concrete representation of that past? ''The question is whether the Germans take it as a concrete representation of the past, which indeed it is, or whether they somehow gradually build up the legend that it was really to a large extent the fault of others - and that therefore others need to undo it.''


© 2021 Mark Danner