A Göttingen Legacy: Moritz and Alfred Stern

1. Moritz

In 1827 Moritz Stern (1807-1894) decided to move from his home town Frankfurt am Main 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.

Moritz 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. As Alfred Stern tells the story, his father had resisted the wish of his mother to become a rabbi. Moritz Stern had been ‘overcome’, as his son put it, ‘with doubts concerning the sanctity of many of the outdated traditional forms of Judaism.’ 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. Judaism should not be a religion stilted in time. On the contrary, there should be room for ‘unlimited further development’, as the first point of their 1842 programme put it. Moreover, in a striking patriotic move, Stern and the Reform Friends explicitly endorsed Germany and, more specifically, Frankfurt as their fatherland. A key point of the programme of the Reform Friends was the assertion that ‘we neither expect nor desire a messiah who is to lead the Israelites back to the land of Palestine; we recognise no fatherland other than that to which we belong by birth or civil status’.

The Reform Friends also qualified the authority of the Talmud. Stern himself was radical in his departure. His own convictions were deeply influenced by his reading of the works of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), one of Amsterdam’s great free thinkers, excommunicated by the rabbis of the Portuguese-Jewish community. The debates on Spinoza have remained intense– as philosopher of metaphysics, ethics and politics, as Jewish heretic, Dutch republican, pantheist, deist or atheist. Spinoza’s equation of God with nature, Deus sive natura, and nature with God was the subject of endless discussion. In the German lands, Goethe’s outspoken praise of Spinoza gave rise to debates about how the two great thinkers saw the relationship between the divine and nature. The underlying question was the extent to which the thought of Goethe, German author par excellence, was indebted to Spinoza, a Jewish heretic.

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’. After the years of hard work, life became, as Alfred Stern reported, a little bit more relaxed and comfortable. A highlight in the spring of 1877 was the family’s ‘Italian journey’, taking them to Florence, Rome and Naples. It was a celebration. Moritz Stern was turning 70. Upon his return he had the great honour to give the memorial speech of Gauss’s centenary on 30 April 1877.

2. Alfred

By that time Alfred Stern was on his way to become a successful historian. Born and raised in Göttingen, Alfred Stern’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. Whilst nationalism was on the rise in the new imperial Germany, Alfred Stern published the two volumes of his biography of John Milton (1608-1674), one of England’s greatest poets, a staunch advocate of religious toleration and an important republican writer; Stern toured the German lands with his lecture on ‘Milton and Cromwell’, key figures of English republican politics.

In 1873 Alfred Stern became professor, not in Germany but in Switzerland, first in Bern and later, in 1886, in Zurich. Europe’s revolutions and revolts were at the heart of Alfred Stern’s research, as it moved from the German Peasants War in 1525, via the English Civil War of the 1640s to the French Revolution of 1789. 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. Where Treitschke wrote with pathos and passion, searched for some kind of ‘German essence’ and felt that ‘Germannesss’ and ‘Jewishness’ excluded each other, Stern’s style was dispassionate and meticulous in (at times quite boring) detail. His narrative was far from national. Stern presented Europe as a ‘community’ of many cultures and peoples, for Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans and of course also for Jews. He strongly disapproved of the course the Kaisserreich was taking; he did so, as he put it in 1882, ‘as German, as lover of freedom and as Jew.’

3. Alice, Otto, Anne

Not all members of the Stern family were academic luminaries, as the life story of Emanual Stern (1799-1841), brother of Moritz, and grandfather of Alice Stern (1865-1953), who herself was the grandmother of Anne Frank. Emanuel Stern had taken, as his nephew Alfred 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 culture and 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 a site of making music, of intense reading and letter writing and of constructing family memory, the household of Clara and Alfred Stern exemplified the lifestyle of the Bildungsbürger, as defined, in a moment of introspection, by the leading historian of the subject, Reinhart Koselleck. For Einstein it was much more. The household of Clara and Alfred Stern was a place of ‘sunshine’. It was, as Einstein put it in a letter to Emma Stern in 1952, ‘on a small scale, the ideal of human community.’

Meanwhile German society was far from ideal.  As scholars, as democrats and as Jews both Alfred Stern and Albert Einstein were outspoken participants to the unification of German culture. They participated with increasing ambivalence. Their lives exemplified the delicate interplay between the ‘simultaneous promise of participation, on the one hand, and the potential for exclusion, on the other’ that characterised the position of Jews in German culture, politics and society. Both Stern and Einstein left the country; Einstein did so multiple times.

Some decades later, in the early 1930s, other descendants of the Stern family had to leave Frankfurt and Germany as well. The rise of Nazi Germany meant that they had to run for their lives. Alice Stern moved to family members in Basel, Switzerland. Her son Otto Frank and his family, including his daughter Anne (born in 1929) found a new home in Amsterdam. In May 1940 Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands. The German occupation meant the beginning of the persecution of the Jews. In July 1942 the Frank family went into hiding. In the secret annex to the offices of her father’s company on one of Amsterdam’s famous canals, the Prinsengracht, Anne started to write a diary. On 4 August 1944 Anne and her family were arrested. Anne was deported, first to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen.

Anne perished. Her diaries survived.


– Alfred Stern, Zur Familiengeschichte, Zürich, 1906.

– Alfred Stern, Wissenschaftliche Biographie, Zurich/Leipzig, 1932.

– Alfred Stern, Geschichte Europas seit den Verträgen von 1815 bis zum Frankfurter Frieden von 1871, Stuttgart/Berlin, 1894-1924.

– Moritz Stern, Denkrede auf Carl Friedrich Gauss zur Feier seines hundertjährigen Geburtstages, Göttingen, 1877.

– Norbert Schmitz, Moritz Abraham Stern (1807-1894): Der erste jüdische Ordinarius an einer deutschen Universität und sein populärastronomisches Werk, Hannover, 2006.

– Norbert Schmitz, Alfred Stern (1846-1936): Ein Europäischer Historiker gegen den Strom der nationalen Geschichtsschreibung, Tromsø, 2008.

– Mirjam Pressler, Treasures from the Attic: The Extraordinary Story of Anne Frank’s Family, London, 2011.