Historian Fritz Stern warns we are facing a dangerous period of social anxiety

Historians in the News
tags: Fritz Stern




[HNN Editor:  This is an excerpt from an interview with Fritz Stern, the Columbia University historian whose family fled Hitler’s Germany in 1938.] 

The right wing is on the rise in other countries: Poland, Denmark and the Netherlands. Is Europe moving too far to the right?

Stern: I‘m afraid so. I think we are facing an age of anxiety, of widely disseminated anxiety, of anxiety that is exploited by the right politically. And you can tell already from the example of Poland just how fragile freedom is. The speed with which an authoritarian system in Poland is being built is shocking.

How do you view this shift to the right with regard to your personal history and the long way from the Nazi dictatorship?

Stern: I have sometimes complained that I grew up during the end of a democracy and now, at the end of my life, I experience the struggles for democracy once again. Actually, it‘s a sad result.

Have you ever thought about going back to Germany?

Stern: This is where my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren live. I feel like a US citizen. And as a US citizen, I feel deeply concerned again.

About who comes after Barack Obama?

Stern: Precisely. I am in general an admirer of Obama, and it is a great achievement of the country that he has been elected twice. But the current political situation is so serious, so destructive, so dysfunctional, that one must deeply worry.

You are referring to Donald Trump?

Stern: Trump is the best example of the dumbing down of the country and the terrifying weight of money. He is an absolutely amoral guy, who is flaunting his money and ignorance. When I arrived in this country, Franklin Roosevelt was the president. That someone like Trump, who is a nobody except for his money, immense ambition and ugliness, is not only offering himself but is actually accepted by many people as a candidate, is simply incomprehensible.

What has changed in American society?

Stern: I have already mentioned the dumbing down. This is due to a large degree to the media and the fact that there are fewer and fewer objective journalists. Most people can pick and choose who can preach to them, whom they want to hear.

Are there other reasons for the Trump phenomenon?

Stern: A new religiosity that has very little to do with real religiosity is also on the rise. I think we are facing a new, illiberal age. And for someone who has dedicated his life to a certain liberalism it is sad news. It is a retrogression.




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