Sunday, June 03, 2007

"Lectures about Heaven"

A funny joke from a review of German-American Historian Fritz Stern's memoir, Five Germanys I Have Known

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.

The rest of it is funny too:

One entire chapter – 54 pages – does not even pretend to be about Germany but is about lecturing about Germany over the course of 15 months under the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation. Lectures and summaries of Stern’s work are the backbone of the second book: ‘My lecture course at the Free University was on . . .’; ‘I tried to put the three thinkers in the context of German intellectual and political history.’ There then follows a fuller account of what he said or wrote on each occasion and a review of how these interventions were received. Stern’s archives must be enormous. Even when he admits he knows little about a subject he usually gets good reviews and lets readers in on them. Claudio Veliz writes to tell him that his article on repression and reform in Latin America was ‘thoughtful and perceptive’. And when, as is more often the case, he is writing about some topic of European history, he gets rave reviews from all sorts of famous people. The president of the Federal Republic, Richard von Weizs├Ącker, sends Stern a note to tell him that he had read one of his lectures ‘with liveliest interest and gratitude’; McGeorge Bundy says that he thought another piece ‘uncommonly good’ and Lionel Trilling found an earlier draft of it ‘smashing’; George Kennan thought that he had never seen a better account of Soviet historiography than Stern’s (‘brilliant and unanswerable’); C. Vann Woodward, a ‘master historian’, tells him that, after reading only the introduction, he already knew he had much to learn from Stern’s first book. ‘And the personal letters!’ Stern received about his second book: J.K. Galbraith called it ‘sublime’, the Listener compared it to Buddenbrooks.

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