J.P. Stern

J.P. Stern Professor of German at University College, London, is the author of A Study of Nietzsche and of Hitler: The Führer and the People.

Communism’s Man of Letters

J.P. Stern, 26 September 1991

He was born György Bernát Löwinger on 13 April 1885 into one of the richest Budapest families. His father, the son of a quilt-maker from southern Hungary, left school at 13, was made branch manager of the Anglo-Austrian Bank at 24, and changed the family name to Lukács when the boy was five; in 1901 he bought the title of minor nobility, and in 1906 was appointed director of one of the largest credit institutions in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Georg dropped the ‘gentry-bureaucratic’ designation of von only on his conversion to Communism in 1918. The mother came from an ancient family of rabbis and licensed moneylenders to the Habsburg emperors, and remained contemptuous of her self-made financier husband. She had been brought up in Vienna, for which, like many similarly placed ladies from the provinces, she yearned throughout her life. To annoy her and as a sign of protest against her attempts to cultivate a Viennese salon in Budapest, Georg, her second eldest son, insisted on addressing her in Hungarian, which she spoke with difficulty. It seems that throughout his adolescence the boy couldn’t make up his mind which of his parents he loathed more. If Professor Kadarkay is to be believed (and he is obviously accurate and detailed on facts even though he is not very good at organising them, and ill at ease with most of the other things which the biography of an intellectual requires), there was only Georg’s sister Mici to negotiate cease-fires in the family.


J.P. Stern, 30 August 1990

The four essays the young Nietzsche wrote between August 1873 and July 1876 (as part of a larger project that was never completed) are linked by his concern over the state of German culture after the victorious conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War and the proclamation of the Reich at Versailles in January 1871. These Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, written while Nietzsche was Professor of Classical Philology at Basle, are here translated as Unmodern Observations by different hands, under the editorship of Professor William Arrowsmith of Boston University.

Is this right?

J.P. Stern, 19 April 1990

How poignant newspaper headlines can be! Like this one: ‘Rabbi Julia Neuberger shares a feeling of permanent exile with the refugee poet’ (Observer, 11 March). And yet I find this a strange bit of information, because last time I saw the Rabbi on the box, laying down the law on some matter of profound moral concern – well, frankly, it wasn’t a permanent feeling of exile she conveyed to me, but a permanent feeling of having a jolly good time, and of being so much at home in the TV studio, you could hardly tell where the Rabbi ended and the studio began. ‘As German unification becomes a certainty, there is a growing disquiet among Jews,’ the Rabbi’s article begins; and it goes on: ‘Perhaps most strongly affected are those who are refugees, such as my mother, and children of refugees, who have seen the problems of rootlessness and question their own “identity” as a result of early memories.’ Well I’m sure that’s true of many people, but Rabbi Neuberger’s mother’s daughter doesn’t seem to me to suffer from ‘problems of rootlessness’, and if she questions her own ‘identity’, I daresay she will take good care to do it at peak viewing time. Could it be that, like many professional agonisers, Rabbi Neuberger is a bit of a humbug?’

Havel’s Castle

J.P. Stern, 22 February 1990

The social memory of small countries is punctuated by dates which recall national defeats. When the students of Prague assembled in the late afternoon of Friday 17 November 1989 in the city’s main thorough-fare, the Narodni Street, the purpose of their officially-sanctioned demonstration was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of one of their comrades, Jan Opletal, murdered by the Germans on 17 November 1939; at the same time they were remembering the death of Jan Palach, the student who, on 16 January 1969, burned himself to death at the foot of the statue of the country’s patron saint, the good King Wenceslas, in protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Soviet Union and three other countries of the Communist bloc. Now, for the first time in twenty years, ‘the grown-ups’ were taking the students and actors who joined them seriously: ‘our children shamed us into action.’ By 9 p.m. a crowd of some fifty thousand people were moving towards Wenceslas Square. The violence which the police (white helmets, riot shields and truncheons) used to disperse the crowd led to some broken limbs and numerous concussions, but there were no deaths. This is how Czechoslovakia’s ‘kind of peaceable revolution’ began, and it was over, without any further violence, 24 days later. It was not, to begin with, a nationwide uprising. Both television and radio were slow to give up-to-date news; people had to rely on West German stations and on Radio Freedom in Munich. In the provinces they suspected that these were the cavortings of a few crackpot intellectuals in Prague, most of whom had been in gaol anyway.

Germans and the German Past

J.P. Stern, 21 December 1989

The ‘white years’ of German history – the period between the end of the war and Adenauer’s first government of 1949 – were notable for two blank spaces in the national consciousness. The first was the space left by community spirit: in the material circumstances that followed on the bombing of Germany’s cities and the unconditional surrender of the German Armed Forces, Volksgemeinschaft, the centrepiece of National Socialist ideology and propaganda, gave way to individual interest, to the spirit of ‘everyone for himself’. But this in turn was part of a larger blank, a kind of national amnesia. With Hitler’s disappearance, his and his movement’s tenets, its ‘faith’ and goals, seemed forgotten, its actions beyond recall. It wasn’t merely that individual men and women were unwilling to speak of their own immediate political past: the ideology, indeed the very substance of that past, had become unavailable. Reinhart Koselleck in a recent essay recalls ‘the speechlessness of the Germans when, in 1945, they were faced with the catastrophe into which they had drawn countless people and countries. And to this day,’ he writes, ‘every attempt to find a language adequate to the mass annihilation seems to fail. Every effort to stabilise recollection by means of language comes too late – too late for those who were its victims, too late for the event itself.’ How does one stabilise such a recollection? Even today, fifty years later, the historians’ question can hardly be separated from the travails of the national identity.’

Diary: This great wall has fallen down

J.P. Stern, 7 December 1989

‘You are going much too fast,’ Mrs Thatcher said on the News at One on Friday, 10 November, ‘first Poland, then Hungary, then – er, Czechoslovakia, now Eastern Germany … ’. Heigh-ho, this was Neville Chamberlain’s ‘Czechoslovakia’ all over again, the far-away country of which we know little. The second half of the sentence was omitted from the television interview shown later that day. The slip of the tongue shows the extent of Mrs Thatcher’s informed interest in the quiet revolution that is happening in Central Europe, the levée en masse of which the Czechs had at that stage formed no part.’

Heil Heidegger

J.P. Stern, 20 April 1989

Of the numerous biographical publications on the most problematic of 20th-century philosophers, Hugo Ott’s Martin Heidegger: Toward his Biography stands out as the most detailed and scrupulously accurate. But caveat lector: there is a great deal here that we would not think of as conduct becoming a philosopher or the academic profession in general. It cannot have been an easy book to write, and it is not an easy book to read.

All about Freud

J.P. Stern, 4 August 1988

Professor Peter Gay is an eminent American cultural historian of German origin, an enthusiastic convert to Freudian doctrine, and an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytical Association – you can’t, as a warmly sympathetic biographer of Freud, do-better than that. The sheer amount of biographical, historical and psychoanalytical detail that has gone into the making of this Life is, as far as I can see, unparalleled in the literature of its subject; and so are the care and informed intelligence with which this stupendous mass of facts, conjectures and speculations has been sifted, as well as the attractive, good-humoured and unstrenuous way most of it has been presented. The book could have been shorter. Some of the bitter quarrels fought out in Freud’s circle of disciples, some of the tales of defection and betrayal, and some of the inconclusive arguments relating both to the most controversial of Freud’s publications and to his personal attitudes, are written out at greater length than seems necessary, and some quotations don’t improve by being repeated. But even where similar insights are presented more than once, the longueurs seem to be caused, not by a loss of narrative control, but by a scrupulous regard for fairness – fairness, one need hardly add, to Freud rather than to his adversaries. In one sense, the subtitle of the book, A Life for our Time, is justified. Professor Gay has been able to use a great deal more material than did Ernest Jones when he wrote his three-volume Life and Work (1954-1957). And as long as the guardians of Freud’s archives continue to exercise their censorship (which, now that scarcely any of the participants in this story are still alive, seems indefensible), this is bound to remain the definitive biography. In the bibliographical essays appended to each chapter Gay has indicated what the nature of the material still being withheld is likely to be, and how it may affect his own conclusions. (Thus one may infer from the evidence hinted at that Freud’s own sex life, which, it had seemed, came to an end when he was not quite 44 years of age, may turn out to have been less impoverished.) Gay is scrupulous in his affection, claiming to have preferred reasonable and probable conjectures to scandalously improbable ones. By and large, this is a remarkably accomplished and rounded portrait of the last Central European intellectual, and it seems unlikely that any future disclosures will greatly alter it.’

Canetti’s Later Work

J.P. Stern, 3 July 1986

In The Conscience of Words Elias Canetti has collected 15 mainly literary essays and addresses written between 1964 and 1975 (the German edition, first published in 1975, contained a slightly different selection). The Human Province (first published in 1973) consists of aphorisms and reflections from Canetti’s notebooks, most of them written while he was working on Crowds and Power (1960), which he regards as his most important contribution to 20th-century thought. Both books contain material published in previous volumes. They have thus something of the quality of paralipomena, things omitted from, but appertaining to, earlier and perhaps weightier writings.


J.P. Stern, 3 April 1986

Long before the English began worrying about their national identity, the Germans fought a war to assert theirs – or so many German intellectuals felt in August 1914. Thomas Mann’s contribution to this eruption of nationalist self-consciousness was delivered in a series of essays written over the following four years, and it is among the strangest things he ever wrote. Not the least paradox of this exacting, ambitious and deeply ironical work is the fact that when it was first published, in the month of Germany’s defeat, the causes and attitudes so strenuously defended in its pages seemed to the population at large all but discredited: and Mann’s own rejection of most of them was soon to follow. Whatever his motives in writing these essays, there was nothing expedient about publishing them.’

Inside Hitler

J.P. Stern, 16 February 1984

Adolf Hitler: The Medical Diaries consists of a translation of the medical records kept by Hitler’s physician, Dr Theodor Morell, and of Mr Irving’s extensive commentaries on those records. Morell, a fashionable Berlin GP specialising in venereal diseases, became the Führer’s personal doctor at Christmas 1936. The elevation, which took place during a visit to Hitler’s retreat on the Obersalzberg, was greeted by Morell’s wife with the oracular words: ‘What do we need with that!’ – a rendering, presumably, of ‘Wozu brauchen wir das?’


J.P. Stern, 3 November 1983

There can be few poets in the whole of European literature whose lives were so single-mindedly dedicated to the pursuit of poetry as was the life of Rainer Maria Rilke. Poetry was the centre and margin, ‘the field and hedgerows’, of his existence. The men whose friendships he cherished, the host of women admirers and aristocratic protectors he met and corresponded with, the women who were or may have been his mistresses, even the children he enchanted with his stories – all these form a network of intimate relationships stretching across almost the entire Continent and centred on the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy, whose decay, collapse and aftermath he witnessed. This network – the 115 women mentioned in some detail in Wolfgang Leppmann’s biography by no means exhaust those listed in Rilke’s own address-book – made his life and poetry possible when, for the last time in the history of Europe, social and economic circumstances permitted the freedom from routine, institution and permanent attachment which he needed, without his having to pay the price of squalor and anarchy in return. What gives meaning to the volumes of notes and letters, dedications, memoirs and inscriptions in which all these relationships are preserved is Rilke’s preoccupation, not with himself, but with his poetry. His immense correspondence, J.F. Hendry writes, was ‘vital to his poetry in the way that reviews, essays and lectures are to other poets’ (though the essays, reviews and lectures that he did write fill a sizeable volume). Despairing confessions of failure, self-exhortations to patience, the jubilant acknowledgment of gifts of poems – all set down in the poet’s exquisite round hand (the hand he adopted at the same time as he Germanised his name from René to Rainer, in 1897): these form the substance of poems and letters alike. Here is an example from a letter to ‘Benvenuta’ (15 February 1914), recalling his encounter with Eleonora Duse: ‘but there was so much that was doomed in each of us – piling it up together we ended by standing on top of it as on a pyre that has been raised night and day, in air that was pure but lifeless, and though we did not say so to each other, yet neither of us could imagine any future except perhaps that God might finally set light to this foundation that crackled with misery and destroy us and himself in the flames’. More than fifteen years later the pyre on which the self is destroyed became the central image of the last poem Rilke ever wrote.–

Bad Faith

J.P. Stern, 21 July 1983

Marthe Robert is a well-known freelance among French Germanisten. She has written extensively on Freudian theory, on myth and Romanticism, and she collaborated with André Breton on a splendid volume of Lichtenberg’s aphorisms. She is deeply familiar with Kafka’s writings, having translated most of them into French: her knowledge of books on Kafka and the world he lived in is less impressive.

Magic Thrift

J.P. Stern, 16 September 1982

Richard and Clare Winston are well-known as the authors of elegant and accurate translations of some of Thomas Mann’s essays and correspondence, including The Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955. While annotating that selection, Richard Winston began assembling material for what he intended to be an extensive biography of the writer. It was to be the culmination of a lifetime’s respectful devotion, an act of homage to the work of the man who, more than any other, had represented the German cultural heritage in the age of Hitler. Only in American scholars does Thomas Mann inspire such feelings in unlimited measure.

Sweet Sin

J.P. Stern, 5 August 1982

Wolfgang Hildesheimer has certainly been around a lot. Born in Hamburg in 1916, he belongs to that generation of Germans whom fortune first inexorably divided into victims and perpetrators and then united as bewildered survivors. In 1934 he emigrated with his parents to England and thence to Palestine, where he was apprenticed to a master carpenter. He spent a couple of years at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, taught English for the British Council in Tel Aviv, and ended the war as an officer of the British Information Service in Jerusalem. Between 1946 and 1949 he worked with the Allied War Crimes Commission at Nuremberg. He has lived in Southern Germany, Bavaria, Cornwall, and in Urbino (where presumably he first came upon traces of Andrew Marbot’s life); now he seems to have settled in Poschiavo in the Swiss Grisons. Rumour has it that he is a generous host with a fair Knowledge of the local vineyards.

Günter Grass’s Uniqueness

J.P. Stern, 5 February 1981

With the deaths of Thomas Mann in 1955 and of Bertolt Brecht and Gottfried Benn in 1956, a major era in the history of German literature comes to an end. These three are not only the greatest writers of their age, they are also its witnesses. Each of them worked in a different genre: Thomas Mann in the convoluted, partly essayistic prose of his novels, Bert Brecht in the drama and narrative poetry of social dialectics, Benn in the lyrical poetry of radical Modernism. Each went through a different political development and reacted differently to the ruling political ideology. Yet the questions they ask have a family likeness; and the answers they offer remind us forcibly that theirs was an age of terror.

Story: ‘The Matljary Diary’

J.P. Stern, 7 August 1980

In the High Tatra Mountains above M., 28.x.1944. Anniversary of the Founding of the Republic. The fifth under German occupation, and we pray it may be the last. We’d been promised reinforcements today, waited all day, at last they came. What a crew – worse than useless. As far as I can tell they are Prague coffee-house Jews, the lot of them. They all speak Czech – of sorts (!). It does seem to have taken them a long time to discover their patriotic vein … Heavens, what specimens! You only have to look at them to see they don’t know one end of a rifle from the other – a game of chess or rummy seems to be the only kind of exercise they’re used to. Still, now they’ve come to join us, we must make some use of them. Better late than never, I suppose.



30 August 1990

J.P. Stern writes: I welcome Professor Arrowsmith to the company of lazy and inexpert users of OED: I failed to find manworthy, he doesn’t know the meaning of lexigraphy. However, I will not accept his un ‘exampled’ accusation of being ‘presumably partial’.


22 February 1990

I hope you will allow me to dissociate myself from the editorial policy which led you to suppress all diacritic marks on the Czech and Slovak names mentioned in my article on ‘Havel’s Castle’ (LRB, 22 February). As far as I know, only German ultra-nationalists have gone in for this practice.
Professor Elster must be writing a heavy-handed parody of sociology (LRB, 25 January). I can see the relevance of his remarks on China, but what can be his point in adducing anecdotal evidence from Chicago, Sao Paolo, Mexico City and Delhi in order to explain the recent events in Central Europe without saying a single word about the history of the countries involved? Of course, ‘we shall probably...

20 August 1968

7 December 1989

I would like to correct a slip of the editorial pen in my Diary of 7 December 1989. Writing about the East Germans, I mentioned that their armies ‘occupied Bohemia and Moravia 21 years ago’ – not ‘51 years ago’. What I was referring to were not the events of the Munich agreement of October 1938, but the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the night of 20 August 1968 by 600,000...

Mrs Shakespeare

18 December 1986

SIR: I have little doubt that Barbara Everett’s piquant review of John Kerrigan’s edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ was of great interest to persons in the Eng Lit trade. Outsiders like myself were less well done by. What somehow got lost sight of and was not recovered in the subsequent correspondence was an indication of the immense help...


Daniel Johnson, 20 June 1996

Cambridge only woke up to the great achievements of Peter Stern when he died there aged 70 in 1991. Stern’s adoptive university, to which he found himself evacuated from the LSE after...

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One blushes to admit it

D.J. Enright, 11 June 1992

There are European authors, notably those writing in German, whom we perceive to be important, intimidatingly so, but with whom we find it hard to come to grips, despite the existence of...

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Orpheus in his Underwear

Harold James, 1 November 1984

In 1892 the English Wagnerphile Mary Burrell tracked down a proof copy of the autobiography dictated by Wagner covering the first 51 years of his life, which had been printed privately in an...

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Nietzsche’s Centaur

Bernard Williams, 4 June 1981

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872, when he was 27, and while he was a Professor of Classics at Basel. It had the unusual effect, for him, of attracting...

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A Human Kafka

Gabriel Josipovici, 5 March 1981

When Kafka died in 1924, not one of his novels had been published. He was known to a small circle – though Janouch’s testimony shows that that circle spread beyond his friends –...

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