Fritz Stern: Why He Sees Signs of Fascism in America TodayHistorians in the News
FRITZ STERN, a refugee from Hitler's Germany and a leading scholar of European
history, startled several of his listeners when he warned in a speech about
the danger posed in this country by the rise of the Christian right. In his
address in November, just after he received a prize presented by the German
foreign minister, he told his audience that Hitler saw himself as "the
instrument of providence" and fused his "racial dogma with a Germanic
"Some people recognized the moral perils of mixing religion and politics," he said of prewar Germany, "but many more were seduced by it. It was the pseudo-religious transfiguration of politics that largely ensured his success, notably in Protestant areas."
Dr. Stern's speech, given during a ceremony at which he got the prize from the Leo Baeck Institute, a center focused on German Jewish history, was certainly provocative. The fascism of Nazi Germany belongs to a world so horrendous it often seems to defy the possibility of repetition or analogy. But Dr. Stern, 78, the author of books like "The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology" and university professor emeritus at Columbia University, has devoted a lifetime to analyzing how the Nazi barbarity became possible. He stops short of calling the Christian right fascist but his decision to draw parallels, especially in the uses of propaganda, was controversial.
"When I saw the speech my eyes lit up," said John R. MacArthur, whose book "Second Front" examines wartime propaganda. "The comparison between the propagandistic manipulation and uses of Christianity, then and now, is hidden in plain sight. No one will talk about it. No one wants to look at it."
Dr. Stern was a schoolboy in 1933 when Hitler was appointed the German chancellor. He ran home from school that January afternoon clutching a special edition of the newspaper to deliver to his father, a prominent physician.
"I was young," he said, "but I knew it was very bad news."
The street fighting in his native Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) between Communists and Nazis, the collapse of German democracy and the ruthless suppression of all opposition marked his childhood, and were images and experiences that would propel him forward as a scholar.
"I saw one of the last public demonstrations against Hitler," he said. "Men, women and children walked through the street and chanted 'Hunger! Hunger! Hunger!' "
His paternal grandparents had converted to Christianity. His parents were baptized at birth, as were Mr. Stern and his older sister. But this did not save the Sterns from persecution. Nazi racial laws still classified them as Jews.
"It was only Nazi anti-Semitism that made me conscious of my Jewish heritage," he said. "I had been brought up in a secular Christian fashion, celebrating Christmas and Easter. My father had to explain it to me."
His schoolmates were swiftly recruited into Hitler youth groups and he and other Jews were taunted and excluded from some activities.
"Many of my classmates found the organized party experience, which included
a heavy dose of flag waving and talk of national strength, very exhilarating,"
said Dr. Stern, who lost an aunt and an uncle in the Holocaust. "It was
something I never forgot." ...
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