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THE FAILURE OF ILLIBERALISM: ESSAYS ON THE POLITICAL CULTURE OF MODERN GERMANY, by Fritz Stern (Columbia University Press, 244 pp., $39.50 cloth, $14.50 paper). Historian Fritz Stern has been considering various facets of "the German question" for decades. His broad-brush discussions of the Bismarck, World War I, and Weimar periods helpfully illuminate the questions of that nebulous thing, political culture.

Speaking of the Bismarck era, he writes, "The ruling classes disdained the liberal habits of tolerance, dissent, debate, openness as well as the politics of liberalism. They were afraid of opposition; they lacked, in Bagehot's phrase, the nerve for open discussion. The idea of a loyal opposition was as alien to Bismarck and William II as it had been to the Stuarts."

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It gets better, though; Stern, who fled wartime Germany as a boy, is ultimately sympathetic to and optimistic about his homeland. One wonders why he didn't come up with a more positive phrasing than "the failure of illiberalism," but he argues that Germany after 1945 is fundamentally changed, with the illiberal, anti-Western strain played out: "The illiberal temptation remains, as it does in so many countries, but there is a powerful presumption against it. The failure of illiberalism is a lesson for Ger mans - and for all of us."

This collection of essays, first published in 1971 and reissued with a new preface by the author, came out just weeks after the first wave of major violence against foreigners in Germany occurred over the summer. One fervently hopes that his assessment will be borne out by time.

WE WERE THE PEOPLE: VOICES FROM EAST GERMANY'S REVOLUTIONARY AUTUMN OF 1989, by Dirk Philipsen (Duke University Press, 417 pp., $19.95 paper, $49.95 cloth). How quickly the glow of the triumphant overthrow of the East German communist regime has faded. This oral-history tome is a Duke University history professor's attempt to keep the understanding of that momentous event - rightly compared to the storming of the Bastille 200 years before - from being overwhelmed by its own drama, and being reduced simpl istically to a victory by the capitalist West over the communist East. At earlier points of German history, Philipsen says, notably right after both World War I and World War II, the history of grass-roots activists was lost to more official versions.

The heroic opposition activists who brought down the communists did so, according to Philipsen, to bring about another kind of society altogether, a political culture not divided according to traditional standards of right and left. And annexation of East Germany into the Federal Republic was not what these activists had in mind.

In the early days after the Wall was breached, however, a peculiar "political amnesia" about the origins of the revolution set in, and this "forgetfulness ... effectively isolated the democratically self-organized opposition before it ever had the time to develop and organize a serious political alternative to East Germany's surrender to political arrangements that had their origins elsewhere."

GERMANY AND THE GERMANS, AFTER UNIFICATION: NEW REVISED EDITION, by John Ardagh (Penguin, 598 pp., $12 paper).This book presents an enormous amount of information in a compact format: history to economics to environmental issues to politics to social issues and the cultural scene. But though the scope is encyclopedic, the style is not; those dipping in to nail down a fact or a date are likely to get caught up in the author's breezy presentation, with a fair sprinkling of first-person references that poi nt up the considerable reporting that has gone into this work. The volume is useful for ready reference or for travelers who want to lug only one book with them.

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