Remarks at the Memorial Service for Fritz Stern

September 30, 2016

Oh behalf of Columbia University I want to extend our warmest welcome and condolences to Elizabeth and to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and other family members, friends, and colleagues of Fritz Stern who have come together this afternoon to understand and celebrate his life.

We’d also like to acknowledge Ambassador Peter Wittig, German Ambassador to the United States, Neil Rudenstine, President Emeritus of Harvard University, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, German Counsel General Britta Wagener, and Michael Sovern, President Emeritus of Columbia.

As is the case with those whose impact on the world is large, Fritz Stern is claimed by many. On his passing earlier this year he was called, “A guardian angel of the new Germany.” No other American historian has produced a comparable body of scholarship of that nation’s modern period. Here in the United States many of us relied on Fritz to interpret and to understand the volatile intersection of cultural and political movements, and we would no doubt benefit from his keen insight and analysis at this very moment.

"Fritz Stern was a Columbian but also a Columbia institution."

Across the world of higher education his name conveys an unimpeachable intellectual integrity, and a degree of nuance and insight in exploring and explaining historical events and human nature that were simply beyond the reach of most of his peers.

Over the course of his lifetime Fritz Stern was determined to understand a question of singular, even existential, importance: how does the “universal potential for evil” become an actuality? The question gained hold of him during his boyhood during the time he lived with his family in Nazi Germany. It fueled his early scholarship and then the writing of several of his enduring texts. And it was the question at the heart of his 2006 memoir. His answer to that question—nothing is inevitable, everything we value is fragile—ensures his permanent relevance.

We gather here today in this place and among the people that were perhaps his truest home. Fritz Stern was a Columbian but also a Columbia institution. He was one of us in every way: student, professor, academic leader and public intellectual. He defined what we aspire to be. He offered a shining example to us all.

His actions are deep and lasting. In the 1970s he broke with tradition and precedent by sponsoring female doctoral candidates in history, many of whom carry forward his legacy today. He also provided major leadership that was essential in helping the University through the protests in 1968. And, of course, his service as Provost at the beginning of Columbia’s renaissance.

There’s only a short list of larger than life scholars who were educated at Columbia, chose to make their academic careers here, mentored generations of students, contributed to the administration of this institution, and shared their wisdom and insight with the larger world, and in so doing made a difference in how we understand ourselves. Fritz Stern is among them and he joins his mentors Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling.

And this is what I want to say at the end. His importance in my view goes far beyond Columbia, far beyond German history, history and cultural analysis and even his wisdom. In my lifetime I feel I’ve had the privilege to know well a few individuals like Fritz, those who had fled Nazi Germany and established an intellectual presence in the great American universities. There is something in their life experience, in their European sensibilities, in the education that was prevalent then, but also being entangled and enmeshed in the widest possible array of life, from utter barbarism to the highest beauty and the greatest ideas.

This gave their voices and their minds a uniqueness, a meaning, a power and authenticity. It makes me feel sad that that could have happened, but happy and grateful and amazed that it did. What I know is that this special voice is gone. We have lost Fritz Stern, but we have also nearly lost a generation of which Fritz was both emblematic and a leader.