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Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History
Fritz Stern's 1988 book Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History (republished with a new forward in 1999), relies on a series of loosely-related essays in order to deal with Germany's ongoing legacy of World War II and the Holocaust. The book was chosen because of its particular subject matter and methodological approach, because its series of essays makes for a more varied and interesting read than would be possible with a more straightforward approach. Stern divides his book into four sections, with each section discussing a different feature of German history surrounding World War II and its aftermath; Stern includes sections for "The Dream of Peace," "The Lure of Power," "Peace and the Release from Greatness," and "Historians and the German Past" (Stern vii-viii). Stern's position seems to be that the rise of National Socialism in Germany was the product of nineteenth century German attitudes regarding the country's place in the world coupled with rapid industrialization. Ultimately, Stern concludes, like so many others, that one must continually revisit and be aware of the past lest nations find themselves falling back into the pull of history as a result of complacency and historical ignorance. Although he was completely unsuspecting of the collapse of the Soviet Union and reunification of Germany that would take place just a few years after the book's publication, his analysis of German history nevertheless remains relevant as a study of the consequences of collective complacency and self-delusion.
As a secondary source discussing the lead up to and consequences of the rise of National Socialism in Germany, Stern's book relies on a mix of primary sources, biographical accounts, and literary and textual analysis. Stern is perhaps uniquely suited for writing such a book, because aside from his time spent as a history professor, his family actually moved from Breslau, a city in Poland, to the United States following the rise of National Socialism in 1938 (Birmele 257; Calleo 443). Thus, as a boy Stern discovered some of the immediate material and cultural effects of National Socialism firsthand, because at the age of twelve he was uprooted and began a new life in the United States. From there, he went on to receive a PhD from Columbia and become a history professor, such that the writing of Dreams and Delusions can actually be traced back in a kind of biographical line all the way back to National Socialism and German history itself.
This background contributes to the legitimacy of the book's overall emotional point, because pervading each essay is what one reviewer called "the author's alarm over publicly displayed frustrations and a new restlessness," a new restlessness that Stern fears will make "it hard, indeed impossible [for Germans] to grasp their own tormented past" instead of ignorantly and unconsciously making a return to the ideologies and attitudes of that past (Birmele 257; Stern 4). Stern's evident personal investment in the matter at hand, coupled with his long career of historical scholarship, leads the reader to believe that he is a trustworthy source of information and analysis on the topic of German history, because he is able to simultaneously recount large-scale historical shifts while imbuing them with the immediacy and drama of personal experience.
This approach works best in the first section, "The Dream of Peace," which is also the most biographical, including three different biographical essays. However, the most compelling of the essays in this section is on the ostensible success of the German Jewry, and how this success was always circumscribed within a system of historical and institutional racism and resentment. Stern does not employ a single approach to the subject as a whole, as evidenced by the inclusion of separate essays rather than chapters, but as hinted at above, he can easily switch between a discussion of history more broadly and the intensely personal interaction with that history which ultimately determines the course of humanity.
For example, in the aforementioned essay on the German Jewry, Stern discusses the variously fallacious interpretations of World War II that suggested "that only Germans or National Socialists could have committed so terrible a crime in so meticulous a fashion," but he always does so by the using the first-person plural, including himself in the group of historians and laypeople who have mistakenly and perhaps reactionarily considered the origins and consequences of the Holocaust. This particular approach makes his subsequent analysis of the historical success of Jews in Germany all the more convincing, because he effectively demonstrates how the historical (or ahistorical) understandings of a given event or phenomenon held by a group of people are precisely what structures their responses to new or emerging ideas. In this way, Stern is able to convincingly demonstrate how the rise of National Socialism was not an aberration or sudden event, but rather the end product of a history of anti-Jewish sentiment covered up by a convenient fiction of symbiosis, a fiction that utterly crumbled following the economic decimation of the first World War and Great Depression (Stern 99-100).
While one cannot state with complete certainty that there is a singular thesis to Dreams and Delusions, once again due to the fact that it is made up of sometimes disparate essays, and in the case of the last section, a speech, there are certainly common threads running through Stern's work that allow one to parse out the major things Stern would like to leave his reader with. In particular, there is no getting around the fact that Stern views the rise of National Socialism as something both completely comprehensible and understandable in the context of German history but nevertheless not something that arose inexorably or inevitably, as if one can only view German history "from the disaster backward" (Stern 99). Instead, Stern believes that while National Socialism was made possible, and even more likely, by certain cultural and historical characteristics of Germany in particular, it also was only able to become such a power through "the many acts of compliance, collusion, or willful passivity on the parts of so many others" (Stern 98). Thus, as much as there is a single thesis in the book, it is that National Socialism only succeed due to the complacency and ahistorical perspective of a wide portion of the European and American population, and furthermore, that the only way to prevent a recurrence of such ideology or others like it is to maintain a critical historical perspective.
It is for this reason that Stern does not offer a way to "reconcile" the Holocaust or otherwise "move past" it, but rather encourages his audience to learn about it in a much broader context than it is usually discussed. To achieve this end Stern relies on both primary and secondary sources, and as discussed above, moving between sweeping historical narratives and more immediate biographical examinations. The mix of sources and levels of critical magnification is helpful, because it keeps the book varied and manages to make Stern's case on a number of levels, something that might not have been possible had the texts been arranged into a more cohesive whole.
One must point out that the book does not substantially change a serious student of history's understanding of World War II and the Holocaust, because it is not like it offers any previously unavailable evidence in support of Stern's positions. In fact, many of the essays had previously been published elsewhere. However, what is novel is the particular tone and approach Stern takes, so that his message to remember the past or else come to regret it takes on new vibrancy and urgency even though it is a refrain heard from historians quite frequently about whatever their particular point of interest is. Thus, while the book does not offer an entirely…[continue]
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