“The French political philosopher Raymond Aron once remarked to Fritz Stern that the twentieth century could have been Germany’s century.” This remark, which Stern mentions in the introduction to his book, creates a opening in which Stern examines reemerging themes like material strength, nationalism, militarism, and German culture all through the eyes of many of Einstein’s scientific coevals. In fact, from the biographical sketches that Stern produces here, he offers the uncontroversial opinion that Germany’s decline into moral nihilism under Nazi rule and the varying effects that had on the professional classes within Germany were some of the forces that prevented Germany from realizing its fullest potential. For this reason, the book is more than a little underwhelming.
The first half of the book contains a series of miniature Plutarch-like biographies of the immunologist Paul Ehrlich, physicist Max Planck, and the chemist Fritz Haber (the only major convert to Christian Stern mentions). Despite the title, some were much close to Einstein than others, but of the four, Einstein was the only one who never embraced militarism and who encouraged Zionism.
Later in the book, Stern offers a couple of essays which discuss Zionism and some of its earlier discussants, including Walther Rathenau and Chaim Weizmann, whose early faith in the movement would later develop into disappointment. Two more essays – “Travails of the New Germany” and “Lost Homelands” – explore broader themes in contemporary Germany historiography; these explore the tragic psychic cost of German reunification. There’s also a wonderfully polemical essay titled “The Goldhagen Controversy,” which argues against Daniel Goldhagen’s supposed thesis set forth in “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” that there was something in the German people themselves that drove them to orchestrate the Holocaust. (I use the word “supposed” here because I haven’t read his book and wouldn’t want to criticize it without doing so.)
I have previously read and reviewed Stern’s “The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of Germanic Ideology,” and thought it to be one of the better books that I read in 2012. While I’ve taught science and math, I read precious little of it for pleasure, but was immediately interested when I was Stern’s name. I don’t know what it is about this book, but he never seems as fascinated by his subjects here. He admits that he’s never had a formal background in science, even though most of his subjects are professional scientists. While it is always a historian’s task to remain as objective as possible, Stern seemed cold and sometimes even uninterested toward his subjects – and quite frankly, he rarely says anything about them that hasn’t been said before. If you’re really interested in science in early twentieth-century Germany from a biographical side, this might have something of interest to offer. Otherwise, this is going to be a lot of general history with which you’re probably already familiar.”