Fritz Kraemer

Fritz Kraemer was the greatest single influence of my formative years, and his inspiration remained with me even during the last thirty years when he would not speak to me.

We met in 1944 in Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. We were both privates in the 84th Infantry Division. I served in G Company of the 335th Regiment, Kraemer in the G-2 section of division headquarters. We were both refugees from Germany, I by necessity, Kraemer by choice. He was thirty-six years of age; I nineteen. He had two Ph. D. degrees. I had two years of night college in accounting.

When I first saw Kraemer, he was dressed in a German uniform, wore a monocle and carried a riding crop. The occasion was a speech to the regiment in which I was serving. The subject was the moral and political stakes of the war, and the Commanding General thought Kraemer’s outfit would endow his presentation with verisimilitude. Kraemer spoke with passion, erudition and overwhelming force, as if he were addressing each member of the regiment individually. For the first time in my life — and perhaps the only one — at least I can recall no other such occurrence — I wrote to a speaker how much he had moved me. A few days later, Kraemer came to where my company was training. Now the uniform was American, but he still wore the monocle around his neck and continued to carry his riding crop. He invited me to have dinner with him at the enlisted men’s club, at which he questioned me about my views and spoke to me about his values.

Out of this encounter grew a relationship that changed my life. After the division reached Europe, Kraemer arranged to have me transferred to the G-2 section. We worked together and, after work, we walked the streets of battle-scarred towns at night during total blackouts while Kraemer spoke of history and postwar challenges in his stentorian voice – sometimes in German, tempting nervous sentries. Over the next decades, Kraemer shaped my reading and thinking, influenced my choice of college, awakened my interest in political philosophy and history, inspired both my undergraduate and graduate theses and became an integral and indispensable part of my life. He was always there to discuss my concerns; he never talked of his own needs to me, and I doubt to anyone else, as if such an admission would derogate from his mission.

Kraemer dedicated his life to fighting against the triumph of the expedient over the principled. “Intellectuals,” Kraemer once said, “have always preached that everything is relative and that there are no absolute values… The result is spiritual emptiness. Everything is possible and therefore nothing is.” “The worst thing about a loss of faith is not the fact that someone has stopped believing but that they are ready to believe anything.”

Kraemer fought his battle not so much by seeking to influence policymakers – though on occasion he had that opportunity – but by giving lectures and, above all, by discovering in young people qualities they did not always know they possessed. He would then devote an enormous amount of his time on encouraging them towards a life of duty and honor. He lived an ascetic, nearly monastic existence. His learning matched his commitment. For decades he spent much of his day clipping newspaper articles from all over the world, marking significant passages and filing them by major categories – a one-man, handmade internet. He asked nothing for himself. He refused all promotions beyond civil service grades.

Kraemer’s values were absolute. Like the ancient prophets, he made no concessions to human frailty or to historic evolution; he treated intermediate solutions as derogation from principle.

And therein lay the source of our later estrangement. When I became part of the world of policymaking, I entered the realm of the contingent. For the prophet, there can be no gap between conception and implementation; the policymaker must build the necessary from the possible. For the prophet, values are eternal, independent of time. For the policymaker, absolute values must be approached in stages, each of which is by definition imperfect. The prophet thinks in terms of crusades; the policymaker hedges against the possibility of human fallibility. The policymaker, if he wants to avoid stagnation, needs the prophet’s inspiration, but he cannot live by all the prophet’s prescriptions in the short term; he must leave something to history.

Kraemer could not accept this distinction. And so we did not speak for thirty years. He felt he needed to make a demonstration – even a personal sacrifice – to vindicate the absoluteness of his convictions. It was not personal. During the decades of silence, he never spoke of me except with respect nor I of him with anything but devotion.

As Kraemer enters the realm of eternity, and I approach it, I want to thank his children, Sven and Madeleine, for allowing me this occasion of reconciliation with an extraordinary man who will be part of my life as long as I draw breath. Kraemer will remain to me, as to so many in this room whose lives he touched, a symbol of commitment and dedication, a beacon that, amidst the turmoil of the moment, guides us to the transcendental.