This Day in Jewish History

1872: The Jew Who Coined the Phrase 'Jewish Self-hatred' Is Born

Theodor Lessing's dislikes were many and myriad, from fellow Jews to piano music – and Nazis, whom he irked so badly they put a fat price on his head.

A photograph of Marienbad, 1890, Upper right corner: Theodor Lessing. Date of photograph unknown.
Wikimedia Commons, elaboration by Haaretz

February 8, 1872, is the birthdate of the German-Jewish philosopher and educator Theodor Lessing, who is remembered as the writer who, in his harsh critique of contemporary Jewish life and culture, coined the term “Jewish self-hatred.” Although a selective reading of Lessing’s writings about the Jews of Europe could easily lead one to conclude that when he spoke of self-hating Jews, he was referring first and foremost to himself, he claimed to have the Jews’ welfare at heart and eventually embraced Zionism as the solution to his people’s “degradation.”

Theodor Lessing was born in Hanover, Prussia. His father, Sigmund Lessing, was a physician; his mother, the former Adele Ahrweil, was the daughter of a banker. Sigmund later claimed that he married Adele only for her dowry, and when, after they were husband and wife, it became clear that her father was not able to pay the promised amount in full, Sigmund tried to have their marriage annulled.

'Institute for the furtherance of stupidification'

The couple ended up staying together, but Theodor grew up feeling hated by his father, and loathed both him and his mother, writing as an adult that his parents possessed many of the traits he found most despicable among assimilated bourgeois Jews: “It was money, power, and success which they courted and wanted and which was the most decisive factor in life to them.”

Theodor was no more happy at school than he was at home. He described his school, the Ratsgymnasium Hanover, as an “institute for the furtherance of stupidification,” and lamented that “nothing, nothing could ever make up for what those fifteen years [there] destroyed in me.” He said that he only learned that he and his family were Jewish when he was tormented by anti-Semitic classmates.

Despite his poor performance at school, in 1893, Lessing began studying medicine at the University of Freiburg, before his interest turned toward philosophy.

In 1895, Lessing underwent conversion to Protestantism; five years after that, he decided that he was a Zionist. In the interim, he also became committed to socialism and to the cause of equality for women. In 1907, he also founded a society for the abatement of noise, having become convinced that the growing level of constant background noise in industrialized cultures was both a symptom and a cause of profound social maladies. According to the historian Lawrence Baron, the noises that personally bothered Lessing the most were “the beating of rugs, the ringing of church bells, and the practicing of pianos.”

Disgraceful dwarves and unhealthy traits

Although Lessing’s book “Jewish Self-Hatred” was published only in 1930, he had for some time been writing about the unhealthy traits that he believed Diaspora Jews had adopted. And for all his criticism of Eastern Jews, whom he viewed as possessing all the worst characteristics anti-Semites attribute to Jews, he was even more critical of Western European Jews, who had given up the few positive characteristics of their forebears in order to pursue money, fame and power as emancipated Jews.

He created a scandal in 1910, when he wrote a scathing essay about the writer and critic Samuel Lublinski, whom he accused of possessing all the worst traits of modern Jewry – traits that he feared he also personified. His attack elicited a counter-attack from Thomas Mann, who had earlier received a glowing review from Lublinski for his book “Buddenbrooks.” Mann called Lessing a “disgraceful dwarf who should consider himself lucky that the sun shines on him, too."

Lessing was scurrilous in his criticism of the Weimar government and the Nazi party, and when the latter finally came to power, in 1933, he immediately went into exile, in Marienbad, Czechoslovakia. There, he and his wife Ada planned to open an adult-education school, similar to one they had been forced to close in Germany. By the summer of 1933, however, local papers were reporting that the Nazis had put an 80,000-Reichmark price on his head.

In an unpublished essay, Lessing made light of the threats, joking that maybe he would turn himself in to Joseph Goebbels and split the bounty with him. But on the night of August 30, 1933, shortly after his return from the 18th Zionist Congress, Lessing was shot to death in his home by two local Nazis, who then easily slipped across the border from Czechoslovakia into Germany, where they received a hero’s welcome.