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Reclaiming Germany's liberal history. Putting an era in perspective

Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History, by Fritz Stern. New York: Alfred Knopf. 323 pp. $19.95. IN a burst of inspiration, the West German Social Democrats invited Fritz Stern - a German-Jewish 'emigr'e and for half a century heartfelt American - to give the Bundestag's annual address last summer on the workers' uprising of June 17, 1953, in East Berlin.

Professor Stern devoted the bulk of his talk to a minor 19th-century poet of proletarian persuasion, Ferdinand Freilingrath. Political commentators quickly fell into partisan squabbles about the propriety of this subject matter, the aims of the Berlin uprising, and the desirability or otherwise of German unity.

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The feuds missed the point. Stern may have alluded, for dreamers on the right, to the nasty things Germans have been capable of when unified. And he may have issued a warning to dreamers on the left who would turn the clock back on West Germany's postwar embrace of Western values to seek the old Sonderweg (special path) between East and West. But in essence Stern was making a pledge of faith in today's German democracy - by reclaiming 19th-century German history for liberalism, tolerance, and freedom. A bold assertion

This was no attempt to wish away the romanticism, nationalism, and bizarre racial fanaticism that seized these most sophisticated of Europeans and led to Hitler, World War II, and genocide of the Jews. On the contrary, it was a bold assertion, from the perspective of a distinguished historian and educator - and a man who lost close relatives at Auschwitz - that the Freilingraths and Heines have more legitimacy as shapers of the German spirit than do the Schopenhauers and Spenglers.

In other hands such revisionism might be whitewash. In the hands of the author of ``The Politics of Cultural Despair,'' ``The Failure of Illiberalism,'' and ``Iron and Gold: Bismarck, Bleichr"oder, and the Building of the German Empire,'' it was an act of moral prophecy.

``It is one of the towering achievements of the Federal Republic that Germany's ancient antiparliamentarianism has been overcome,'' Stern told his parliamentarian listeners. ``One hopes that the Federal Republic will never forget that history has sentenced it to be a model of liberal policy: in order to preserve itself, to honor the victims of the past, and to give hope to people in the other Germany.'' Too late for inclusion

The Bundestag address came too late to join the various essays and speeches of the 1980s collected within one cover in ``Dreams and Delusions.'' This is a loss, since that talk goes further toward audacious conclusions than do Stern's prior wrestlings with what is perhaps the most tragic history of any contemporary nation. The book should properly be supplemented by the English translation of the address that finally did appear in the New York Review of Books.

Earlier insights abound in the book. Stern has an old-fashioned trust in the importance of the individual in history (and a healthy suspicion of the current reductionist fad for understanding past events only as the result of cumulative social forces). This makes him excel at portrayals of those who embodied or transcended their age: of Albert Einstein; of Ernst Reuter, mayor of West Berlin during the blockade; of Fritz Haber, Stern's godfather as well as the inventor of poison gas. Strengths acknowledged

He is generous in acknowledging strengths. He withholds the easy condemnation of those whom in hindsight it would be easy to judge: Wilhelm Furtw"angler for continuing his career as a conductor in Nazi Germany, Friedrich Meinecke for his too great dispassion as a historian, Thomas Mann for (in Mann's own words) ``vacillation between decisiveness and deference'' toward Hitler's Germany, or even Haber - a great German patriot before he chose exile as a Jew - for calling in 1931 for a dictatorship to rescue the disintegrating Weimar democracy.

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Time after time there are paragraphs, or single sentences, that illumine the traditional German psychology of susceptibility to ``delusions of salvation,'' yearning for greatness, ``alternation between presumption and anxiety.''

In the introduction Stern summarizes the Germans' repeated betrayal of themselves: ``The Germans have always been exceptionally prescient in intuiting the often intangible deficiencies of modern life; but their remedies, their absolutist impatience, have often been calamitous.'' Encounter with modernity

And perceiving the Jew as paradigm for German, the German as paradigm for Everyman, he writes that the history of German Jews ``may be one of the most dramatic instances of Europe's encounter with what we commonly call modernity, the uprooting of society in a spiritual, social, and economic sense. ... [T]hey compressed the experience of European man becoming an individual ... with all the freedom and the loneliness and the self-doubt that the new condition entailed.''

Discussing the hidden secularization of the 19th century that left such a vacuum for Hitler to fill, he argues, ``Protestant secularization was largely `silent,' a protracted transformation characterized more by concealment than by confrontation, more by pretense of continuity than by an acknowledgment of a profound break. ... In Protestant Germany, the death of God remained an unacknowledged secret, disguised, transmuted, denied - denied at times by the very voices that warned against the secular wave, the godless world.'' `Echo of an older time'

Concluding his tribute to Haber, he notes, ``But the hope that striving and contentment could and must be fused, that, too, is part of Haber's legacy, an echo of an older time when striving and contentment were expected to be in harmony, and where mediating between the two stood compassion, or, put differently, decency and kindness.''

In approaching present-day West Germany, Stern does acknowledge the ``release from greatness'' that Hitler's catastrophe wrought and the ``political miracle'' that gave this country outstanding leaders when most needed.

``In fact, today's West Germans are remarkably free of both nationalist sentiments and historical consciousness. ... They are not even particularly conscious of the great and successful transformation they have lived through. Their attachment to the F[ederal] R[epublic of] G[ermany] is pragmatic; someday a later generation may look back on these first three decades as a period of unprecedented achievement in German history.'' Doubts swamp the confidence

But then doubts about the perennial German penchant for the ``volatile or unpredictable'' swamp the confidence. ``Perhaps something else was repressed and is now [1983] returning: the German soul, that indefinable, unquiet spirit so full of a kind of nostalgic longing for a vague future. ... That soul - those strivings of the German spirit which in the past have fused idealism and nihilism with little room for practicality - has often had a calamitous effect on the outside world. This time the German soul combines a universalist appeal - against war, against nuclear lightheartedness - with a nationalist note that speaks to the division of the country.''

And yet, this is not the message I heard, listening to Stern's Bundestag speech last summer.

I submit that this is not Stern's last word - that he, in fact, almost believes but doesn't quite dare make the leap to say that the ``demonic'' really has been purged in today's Germans. That the Germans may be as vulnerable to idiocy or miscalculation or venality as the Russians, the Americans, or the French, but that their peculiar collective fascination with Faustian delusions has now faded into history.

This reader eagerly awaits Stern's next volume.

Elizabeth Pond, a Monitor staff writer, is based in Bonn.

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