From Dream to Nightmare

"The Magic Circle: Jews, Germans and Anti-Semites," by Shulamit Volkov, Am Oved Publishers, 303 pages, NIS 84

"The Magic Circle: Jews, Germans and Anti-Semites," by Shulamit Volkov, Am Oved Publishers, 303 pages, NIS 84

The story of Germany's Jews is fascinating. Many have addressed it; many continue to deal with the topic. The fact that readers have advance knowledge of the story's conclusion does not detract from the drama: It adds to it.

The story features a list of challenges which the modern era posed in the West, and also in Israel, one whose items include immigration, modernization, nationalism, identity, memory, minorities, conflict with the "other," multi-culturalism, and more. The Jews posed a challenge to German identity resembling that which Arabs pose to Israeli identity. Early in the 20th century, there arose the question of whether a democratic, German state would be established. The question is similar to the issue of whether Israel can be a democratic, Jewish state. Addressing such issues, "The Magic Circle" might have been a stimulating volume.

The first pages are indeed promising. An Israeli historian spins the tale of Jews in Germany from the vantage point of someone who was reared on a mixture of admiration for, and revulsion from, German culture as a Yekke (Jewish immigrant of German origin) girl. Many of these Yekkes bestowed to their children a sense that when they arrived in Eretz Israel - generally not out of volition, and as refugees-deportees, not Zionists - they lost the supreme culture, "European" culture, as many said in order to avoid the need to say "Germany." Many Yekke children internalized nostalgia which their parents cultivated, even though the adults often pined for something which existed mainly in their imagination, and not in the reality they left behind. Many of the Yekke children also became accustomed to maintaining a certain distance from prominent aspects of Israeli identity; often, they maintained a condescending attitude towards this identity.

This would be an original point of departure for a study of the history of the Jews of Germany. Regrettably, Volkov abandons this line a few pages after she sketched it in the introduction to her book; she never returns to it, apart from a fleeting instant, in the final paragraph of the volume. The book supplies not a few unfulfilled promises. The result is a volume of interest to persons who have interest in the topic; yet, despite the author's lofty ambition, the book does not blaze a new trail. The academic style in which Am Oved publishers allows its authors to indulge is wearisome to read.

In the first section, Volkov does what historians are often wont to do: She diligently summarizes books written by others, opinionated Jews and Germans, mainly in the 19th century. It is plausible to believe that she has a firm understanding of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of books she has read; and she is to be thanked for the useful summaries. Some are critical, and a few here and there are even original; but generally Volkov chooses to remain at the first, almost raw, stage of what is called "intellectual history" - history whose main thrust is ideas and words, not people.

Books written by elite figures interest Volkov more than the people who read them. She tends to ignore completely persons who did not read these published volumes - religious Jews, small traders and farmers. Treatment of Jews who immigrated to Germany from Eastern Europe is rather incidental.

She frequently attributes to herself novel points of departure, putatively post-Zionist ones which differ from those used by colleagues, and she discusses German society and Jews as one totality. Hence it is important for her to contradict the thesis propounded by Daniel Goldhagen, among others, which holds that the persecution of Jews in the Nazi period was anchored in an anti-Semitic tradition that was always intact among Germans. That is a clear Zionist thesis.

As Volkov sees it, anti-Semitism which preceded World War I was as "remote from Nazism as the language of angry children is distant from the violent attacks of adult transgressors." German society under Kaiser Wilhelm was ordinarily rather tolerant, Volkov maintains.

Comparing anti-Semitism in Germany and in France, she writes: "In Germany prior to the Nazi era there was never a peak of anti-Semitism equivalent to that which took hold in France in the days of the Dreyfus trial." This point does not refute the contention that hatred of Jews was also present, in all places. Anti-Semitism also interests Volkov as a world view, rather than a force which determined human fate.

In contrast, the author cogently defends the thesis that anti-Semitism developed as an element in the history of nations - Jews themselves little influenced the malice they faced. A fascinating chapter in the book returns to a thesis which Volkov developed in the past regarding the connection between hatred of Jews and repression of women. The provision of equal rights to Jews preceded the supply of rights to women. The author has not written enough about how the Jews themselves related to the question of women's rights.

Many Jews, Volkov writes, were a step ahead of German modernization, and at a certain stage it wasn't the Jews who sought to resemble Germans, but rather the opposite: Germans wanted to be like Jews. This claim is also well defended, partly by data which Volkov has compiled thanks to her own demographic research. These facts, relating to family size, age of marriage, birth rate, education, and more, created what Volkov calls the "paradox of resemblance."

Together with adapting to German culture, Jews in Germany fashioned a distinctive culture of their own, and some of its components included basic aspects of Jewish tradition. As in chapters that address ideas, statistics in this section are divorced from life: numbers, like words, interest Volkov more than people.

Volkov's approach is very detailed: specific differences between the situation in Germany in various periods, and between (for instance) Germany and France, interest her more than the general European context, and historical continuity. The book also lacks a sustained discussion of Jews as a multi-cultural challenge. A comparison with the U.S. could have been stimulating.

The volume's sixth chapter analyzes public responses in Eretz Israel to the Kristallnacht events in Germany. This is a chapter which belongs to another narrative, like the subject of the Rabin assassination which pops up from some source toward the end of the book. Volkov analyzes the newspapers just as she probes other texts. But "newspapers" cannot be understood merely by reading their printed copy. One must have some understanding of the political, economic, social, and (especially) professional dynamics which produce headlines, reports and editorial commentary; such understanding apparently eludes the author. The (good) coverage of Kristallnacht in newspapers in Eretz Israel must be analyzed together with the (fairly good) coverage of the rise of the Nazis and the (horrendous) coverage of the Nuremburg laws. All such newspaper coverage must be taken into account in an analysis of the very problematic treatment and positions adopted by newspapers during the Holocaust period itself.

Volkov, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, writes in the first person singular: the historian's "I" is preferable to the collective "we," which remains acceptable in academia. In contrast, the tendency, which Am Oved editors have borrowed from academic presses, to allude to names in the text in foreign languages is very annoying. In the best case, this practice reflects lack of confidence in the Hebrew language; at worst, it is a ploy wrought by academic condescension.

Volkov frequently chides professional peers. The reader gets the impression that these barbs derive perhaps from internal politics in the historians' guild - it would be difficult, and not worth the effort, to decipher the causes of these attacks.

In the end, 261 pages too late, Volkov presents a description of the dream which Germans and Jews dreamt together: of life together involving people from different backgrounds and cultures, and of democracy capable of supplying conditions needed to support genuine cooperation between such peoples.

"This is a worthy dream, one which many of us continue to uphold," writes Volkov. A truly fascinating book about this dream has yet to be written.