Fritz Stern, a German-born historian and longtime professor at Columbia University whose searching studies of Germany’s political culture in the 19th and 20th centuries provided a new understanding of the drift toward totalitarianism, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 90.
The death was confirmed by his wife, Elisabeth Sifton, the former senior vice president of the publishing company Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Like many German historians of his generation, Professor Stern sought to explain the causes behind the events that upended his own life and that of his family, Jews who lived a prosperous, assimilated life in Breslau until oppressive conditions forced them to emigrate to the United States in 1938.
“Though I lived in National Socialist Germany for only five years, that brief period saddled me with the burning question that I have spent my professional life trying to answer: Why and how did the universal potential for evil become an actuality in Germany?” he wrote in the introduction to “Five Germanys I Have Known,” a blend of memoir and history published in 2006.
In his first book, “The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology,” published in 1961, Dr. Stern shed light on the intellectual climate that made Germany receptive to Nazi ideology. He took an unusual tack, studying lesser-known figures — the cultural critic Julius Langbehn, the biblical scholar Paul de Lagarde and the man of letters Arthur Moeller van den Bruck — whose mystical nationalism and hostility to Western liberal values represented broader intellectual trends.
“I attempted to show the importance of this new type of cultural malcontent, and to show how he facilitated the intrusion into politics of essentially unpolitical grievances,” Dr. Stern wrote in a preface to the book’s second edition.
He was particularly interested in the role that the political and cultural elites — the ostensible gatekeepers and guardians of civilized values — played in smoothing the way for Hitler’s rise, and in the German resistance to liberal modes of thought.
He pursued these avenues of inquiry in the essays collected in “The Failure of Illiberalism: Essays on the Political Culture of Modern Germany” (1972) and “Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History” (1987).
Fritz Richard Stern was born on Feb. 2, 1926, in Breslau. His father, Rudolf, was a physician, like nearly all his male relatives. His mother, the former Käthe Brieger, held a doctorate in physics. Both families had converted to Lutheranism.
Dr. Stern, falling into line with family tradition, entered Columbia as a pre-med student, but classes with Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling stoked his enthusiasm for the humanities.
Torn, he approached Albert Einstein, a family friend, for counsel. Should he pursue the study of history or medicine? “That’s simple: Medicine is a science, and history is not,” he recalled Einstein replying. “Hence medicine.”
Ignoring the advice, Professor Stern pursued history, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1946, a master’s degree in 1948 and a doctorate in 1953.
He spent his entire career at Columbia. After beginning as a lecturer in 1946, he became a full professor in 1963. He was named Seth Low professor of history in 1967 and university professor in 1992. From 1980 to 1992, he served as the university’s provost. He retired at the end of 1996.
His first marriage, in 1947, to Margaret Bassett, ended in divorce. In addition to Ms. Sifton, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, a son, Frederick, and a daughter, Katherine Brennan; three stepsons, Sam, Toby and John Sifton; three grandchildren; four step-grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. (Sam Sifton is the food editor of The New York Times.) Dr. Stern’s older sister, Toni Stern Gould, who had emmigrated with the family, died in 2013.
Dr. Stern ranged widely over modern German history, identifying themes and intellectual currents running from the founding of the German state in 1871 to the present. In “Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder and the Building of the German Empire” (1977), he focused on Gerson Bleichröder, a Prussian Jew who, as Bismarck’s financial agent and adviser, played a decisive role in the unification of Germany and the Franco-Prussian War. Immensely wealthy and powerful, yet despised as a Jew, he was an emblematic figure.
In its review of the book, The Economist wrote of Dr. Stern that “his style, his understanding of human character, his reconstructions of historical events and his setting of them in their larger context are all characterized by a lucidity, a judiciousness and a depth of learning which all scholars will envy.”
Dr. Stern’s fascination with Germany’s scientific culture in the early 20th century inspired a work of historical reconstruction, “Einstein’s German World” (1999). The moral quandaries of the Nazi period preoccupied him to the end of his life, and found expression in the 2013 work “No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi: Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State,” which he wrote with Ms. Sifton.
Dr. Stern’s scholarly preoccupations dovetailed with his public role as an interpreter of the German past, defender of liberal values and passionate advocate for a united, peaceful Europe. He was a senior adviser to the American Embassy in Bonn in 1992, and he often lectured on political issues in Germany, where he was regarded as the pre-eminent American historian of modern Germany. In its obituary, the newspaper Die Welt called him “a guardian angel of the new Germany.”
“I was born into a world on the cusp of avoidable disaster,” he wrote in “Five Germanys.” He added, “The fragility of freedom is the simplest and deepest lesson of my life and work.”