Pillars speaker connects history to current events

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2001

Global politics have changed dramatically since John Stoessinger first spoke in Juneau in 1992. The political scientist and international relations expert told an audience at Thursday's Pillars of America Freedom Series that the world is better off because of it.

"Today democracy is the prevailing form of government in the world, largely due to the United States," he said.

Stoessinger said he doesn't expect communist governments or dictatorships in Iraq, Cuba, China, North Korea and Vietnam to be in place forever. And he said American participation in the Balkan war was justified.

"We don't do these things because we're Republicans or Democrats, but because we're Americans. There's no oil in Kosovo, but it's because there are suffering people," he said.

Stoessinger grew up in Austria and saw Adolf Hitler in person when Germany invaded the country. His family moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia, to avoid persecution, then looked for a way out when the Nazis followed them. As Jews, his mother and father knew their lives were still in danger, and began visiting dozens of consulates in search of visas.

After acquiring Japanese approval to get to China and spending three months riding a train across the Soviet Union, his family made it to Shanghai safely. His grandparents died two years later at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Stoessinger now travels around the world lecturing, and during a speech in Japan two years ago he began to search for the Japanese diplomats who helped save his family. Journalists who attended the speech tracked the two men down, and Stoessinger was able to visit and thank one of them six months before he died.

"I now teach that every culture has good men and women who say 'no' to absolute evil," he said.

He gave audience members on Thursday this homework: "Examine your memories. If there's someone like that in your past who gave you strength, then left your life, pick up the phone and say, 'Thanks,' " he said. "It will light up your life and theirs."

From Shanghai, Stoessinger came to America as a freshman at Grinnell College in Iowa and received a doctorate from Harvard. He was the acting director of the United Nations' Political Affairs Division from 1967 to 1974. He is now a professor at the University of San Diego.

Juneau-Douglas High School 10th-grader Claire Baldwin, 16, said she'll remember Stoessinger's advice to live forward but look back.

Classmate Abby Lawson, 16, said she appreciates living where she does after hearing Stoessinger's stories.

"I believe in luck now," she said. "It was much better than any textbook."

Stoessinger was the first speaker in Juneau's Pillars of America Freedom series in 1992 and the last speaker in this year's 10th anniversary lineup. The Glacier Valley Rotary Club hosted the month-long series. Stoessinger also spoke in Juneau in 1998.

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.

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