Reflection: Lessons from German History

Bundesarchiv Bild, Nürnberg, Reichsparteitag, SA-Aufmarsch

This article is adapted from the author's remarks at the tenth annual dinner of the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, at which he was honored for distinguished scholarship in German history and for contributions to good relations between the United States and Germany. Reflections on his career and accomplishments were made at the November 14 dinner by Joschka Fischer, German foreign minister; W. Michael Blumenthal, director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin; and Richard C. Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

To have witnessed even as a child the descent in Germany from decency to Nazi barbarism gave the question, how was it possible? an existential immediacy. Along with others of my generation, I wrestled with that question, trying to reconstruct some parts of the past and perhaps intuit some lessons.

Today, I worry about the immediate future of the United States, the country that gave haven to German-speaking refugees in the 1930s. (In 1938, at the age of 12, I came with my family to New York.) We refugees are grateful to the United States for saving us and for giving us a chance for a new start, if often under harsh circumstances. We loved and admired this country that, when we arrived, was still digging itself out from an unprecedented depression, under a leader whose motto was "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," while his German contemporary preached fear in order to exploit it.

The United States was the best functioning democracy of the 1930s -- that "low, dishonest decade" -- and under President Franklin Roosevelt it was committed to pragmatic reform and maintained inimitable high spirits. I have not forgotten the unpleasant elements of those days -- the injustices, the right-wing radicals, the anti-Semites -- but the dominant note of Roosevelt's era was ebullient affirmation.


The Leo Baeck Institute is a monument that German Jewish refugees built as a memorial to their collective past, a troubled, anguished, glorious past to which

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