At the Crossroads of Bildung: Moritz Stern – Alfred Stern – Anne Frank

A Background Story by Martin van Gelderen

At the end of October 1942 Otto Frank, so his daughter reported in the revised version of her diaries, took ‘Goethe’s and Schiller’s dramas out of the large bookcase.’  Her father’s idea was, as Anne put it, ‘to read somethingfrom themout loud to me every evening. We’ve already started on Don Carlos.’ So just about four months after taking his family into hiding in the annex to his office on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, Otto Frank decided that it was time to read out one of the major plays of Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), written between 1784 and 1787, to his youngest daughter. For Anne this was part of her German lessons. For her father it was much more. Schiller was one of the great figures of the ideals of Bildung; the family of Otto Frank’s mother, Alice Stern, exemplified the early German Jewish embrace of these ideals.

The family’s most celebrated luminary was Moritz Stern (1807-1894), who, in 1827, decided to move to one of Germany’s great Enlightenment universities, Göttingen, to study mathematics with one of the finest scholars of the period, Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855). Eventually, in Göttingen in 1859, Moritz Stern became the first full Professor (Ordinarius) at a German university who had publicly maintained his adherence to Judaism – he did not, like many others, convert to Christianity.

Stern was widely praised as an excellent teacher of mathematics. Above all, as his son Alfred Stern (1846-1936) insisted in his Family History, published in 1906, Moritz Stern stood in the great tradition of Enlightenment scholarship, having broad interests in ‘oriental studies’, the comparative study of languages, history, especially Jewish history, astronomy and philosophy. Religion was problematic. During the 1840s, Moritz Stern was the most prominent member of a group of Frankfurt Jews, named the Reform Friends, that pleaded for a radical reform of the religious practices of the Judaic faith. Stern’s own beliefs were deeply influenced by his reading of the works of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), one of Amsterdam’s great free thinkers. As his son reported, Moritz Stern regarded Spinoza as his ‘guiding star’. As a Spinozist, Stern was wary of all faith and religious dogma. But, in the words of his son, ‘piety’s pure sense of duty’ drove him to fight for ‘the interests of the Jews’, both in the realm of the political and the ethical. Politically Moritz Stern believed in the democratic republic and in equal civil rights for all. With the long wait for his chair in Göttingen and the appointment in 1859 as first Jew to a full professorship, he had, as son Alfred Stern represented his view, ‘broken down the wall’. Eighteen years later Moritz Stern had the great honour to give the memorial speech of Gauss’s centenary on 30 April 1877.

By that time Alfred Stern was on his way to become a successful historian. Born and raised in Göttingen, Alfred’s battles differed from those of his father. As a historian Alfred Stern developed a wide range of interests, moving well beyond the confines of the national focus that came to dominate the German writing of history, especially after the establishment of the Kaiserreich in 1871, when the Prussian king Wilhelm was proclaimed emperor. When in 1879 the Berlin historian and parliamentarian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) unleashed the ‘Berlin Antisemitism Debate’ with, at its heart, his declaration that ‘the Jews are our misfortune’, and sought to frame a strongly nationalist narrative in his multi-volume German History, Alfred Stern responded with his massive, ten volume History of Europe, published over a period of 30 years, between 1894 and 1924. The difference couldn’t be bigger. Stern’s narrative was far from national. He presented Europe as a ‘community’ of many cultures and peoples, for Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans and of course also for Jews. Alfred Stern strongly disapproved of the course the Kaiserreich was taking; he did so, as he put it in 1882, ‘as German, as lover of freedom and as Jew.’

Not all members of the Stern family were academic luminaries. Alice Stern’s grandfather, Emanuel Stern (1799-1841) had taken, as Alfred Stern put it, ‘highly adventurous roads’, ending up as a musician and soldier in Brazil and then running away from the harshness and misery of the slave plantations. Barely, just barely Emanuel made it back to Germany, to his brother Moritz in Göttingen. For Alice herself, the household of Clara and Alfred Stern was, as she put it in a long letter to her children in 1935, looking back on her life, where she learnt what Bildung meant. Another family friend, the physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), fondly remembered the Stern household as ‘a seat of harmony’. Between 1912 and 1914 Einstein regularly visited the family to make music with Stern’s daughters, especially with Emma, a pianist, and Antonia, a fellow violinist, who enchanted Einstein. As he put it in 1952, the Stern household incorporated ‘on a small scale, the ideal of human community.’

When, in October 1942, Otto Frank started to read Schiller’s Don Carlos to his daughter, Anne was deep into reading a Dutch novel, Eva’s Youth, which tells the story of Eva, a daring and creative young girl. Anne was an intense and voracious reader. She engaged with some of the great Dutch bestsellers of the 1920s and 1930s, but also with the more distinctly literary work of Carry van Bruggen, the daughter of a rabbi (in a small Dutch village) who became one of Holland’s most innovative and feminist writers. As Anne read and wrote in order to find her own way, her ‘inner self’, she favoured reading novels about female teenagers and young women who were on a similar trajectory.

In many ways Anne’s search for her ‘inner self’ in her diaries goes beyond the German ideals of Bildung which her father cherished so deeply. For father and daughter Schiller’s Don Carlos may still have been a fertile meeting ground. After all the play tells the story of the Dutch Revolt and its fight against tyranny through the eyes of the son, Don Carlos, of the tyrant, Philip II, the King of Spain. The trials and tribulations of Don Carlos are set in the context of a struggle for freedom and independence—not only at the political level, which is why the Nazis forbade the play, but also at a more personal level. For Anne Frank, living in hiding, both aspects of the play may have resonated, aligning itself with her favourite novels. Nico van Suchtelen’s Eva’s Youth, Ina Boudier-Bakker’s The Knock at the Door and, earlier, Cissy van Marxveldt’s Joop-ter-Heul books were amongst the Dutch novels that accompanied Anne in her attempt to constitute, not so much a Humboldtian ‘self’, but her true ‘inner self’ and her ‘complete independence’ as a young woman. Reading Schiller together was an attempt to build bridges between the German cultural legacy of the father, Otto Frank, and the new Amsterdam ideals of his daughter, Anne.