Thomas Laqueur reviews Fritz Stern's memoir, Five Germanys I Have Known (FSG 2006) in the current London Review of Books. Is there an academic who does not resonate with the following paragraph?
The book’s form may have a certain prophylactic motive. Stern craves approval and fears exposure, and his rhetoric works to keep readers at bay by mediating experience and recounting success. In Sweden Stern got to talk – ‘again’ – with Olof Palme; in Iran David Rockefeller arranged for him to meet the shah; in Egypt he met Boutros Boutros-Ghali. And in India, Italy, Poland, China and other places he met scores of ambassadors and important intellectuals. He confesses that he seeks out the company and approval of those he calls his betters. When he is inducted into a select academy he writes that he delights in being ‘able to admire’ his famous new colleagues: ‘a pleasure balanced, I think, by the pain of well-developed self-doubt – I rejoiced in being among their company.’ But there isn’t much reflection on this feeling, an all too common one among academics.
Laqueur explains form this way:- "There is a joke about a crowd of Germans pouring out of a tourist bus that has stopped in front of the Pearly Gates. They see two signs. One points to the left: ‘Heaven.’ The other points right: ‘Lectures about Heaven.’ The Germans all head to the right. And so does Stern."
By writing about lectures and their reception, rather than about things in themselves, about life, Stern can avoid revealing what he now thinks and feels about various matters. Instead we learn what he thought or said in a succession of pasts. Meta-observation supplants observation; life outside the lecture – and outside the highest circles of academia, politics and the media – seems not to exist, or is taken up with preparing for the next engagement; time is frozen in texts and précis of talks past; important questions both about the paradigmatic figure of Stern himself, and about his world, go unasked and unanswered. The failure of rhetoric is thus a failure to come to terms with the great questions of the age that German history raises.
There is much in this review to ponder: the symbiosis between an ambitious academic who craves recognition in the land of his birth and a post-war Germany anxious to be visited and recognised; academic avoidance of self-reflection; the Columbia University History Department; and so on. I confess that I am unlikely to read the 560pp. book but I am glad to have read the review.