A Tragic Love Story

"The Pity of it All: The History of the Jews in Germany 1743-1933" by Amos Elon, Henry Holt Co., 446 pages, $30.

Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri
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Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri

"The Pity of it All: The History of the Jews in Germany 1743-1933" by Amos Elon, Henry Holt Co., 446 pages, $30

In 1817, on the 300th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther's famous theses on the doors of the church at Wittenberg, several thousand German students and intellectuals held a pilgrimage to the promontory of Wartburg in Thuringia, a site associated with Luther's biography. With a fervor that combined liberalism and nationalism, the participants demanded liberty for the Germans and unification for Germany - and burned books that they thought were reactionary and "not German."

This was the first book-burning in Germany, which led Heinrich Heine to write these prophetic words in his 1823 play "Almansor": "This is only the beginning. In a place where they burn books they will, in the end, also burn men." Today these words are engraved at the memorial site at Unter dem Linden in central Berlin, across from the Opera House, at the site where Joseph Goebbels, a doctor of German literature, presided over the incineration of thousands of books - by communists, Jews, socialists, liberals and anyone whom the Nazis thought was "non-German."

The main speech at the book-burning in 1817 was delivered by a professor of philosophy at Heidelberg University, Jakob Friedrich Fries. Today, Fries' name is known only to cognoscenti, but in his day he was a leading proponent of Kantian philosophy in Germany. A year earlier, in 1816, Fries published a work entitled "On the Danger to the Well-Being and the Character of the Germans Presented by the Jews." In this work Fries depicts the Jews - who at that time were still on the margins of German society, though some of them had won emancipation during the French occupation in Napoleon's time - as imperiling the German spirit and morals.

In order to prevent this corruption by the Jews, Fries proposed a number of measures that included, among other things, the elimination of Jewish educational institutions, the prohibition of the entry of Jews into Germany and the encouragement of Jewish emigration from Germany, the prohibition of marriages between Jews and Germans, the prohibition of the employment of German maidservants in Jewish homes and, last but not least, the demand that Jews wear an identifying patch on their clothing.

Fries published this in the Heidelberger Jahrbucher, the very prestigious literary-philosophical annual that was associated with Heidelberg University. Anyone who is familiar with the Nazi racial laws (the Nuremberg Laws of 1935) will find in Fries the first proposal in modern times to eliminate Jews from German society.

Disturbing question

In his excellent and sensitive book Amos Elon does mention Fries' manifesto, but without going into its contents. He does, however, note that when violent disturbances against Jews broke out in Germany in 1918, a number of police officials said that the rampaging thugs had been influenced by the anti-Jewish ideas of intellectuals and philosophers, among them Fries.

Perhaps if Elon had gone more deeply into the significance of Fries' remarks he might have succeeded in getting a bit closer to the probing and disturbing question that is at the basis of his book: How did the huge rift with respect to the Jews occur in a society in which the Jews felt they belonged and to which they were deeply loyal, a society in which Jewish integration was most far-reaching - and, moreover, in a society that saw itself, and rightly, as the nation of "poets and philosophers," the nation of Kant, Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven?

Jakob Friedrich Fries might perhaps have helped Elon deal with a more comprehensive question, known in historiography as the "the uniqueness of the German way" (Sonderweg), which historians use to try to explain the rise of national socialism: That is, Germany did not follow the gradual path of industrial growth, a civil society and national crystallization, as occurred in England and France, and therefore ended up where it did. There are many flaws in this explanation, which is too simplistic, but there is no doubt that on the Jewish issue Germany is unique: There is no other European country in which anti-Jewish thought was so strongly and obviously propounded by a large part of the intelligentsia. In contrast to other countries in Europe, where hatred of the Jews was the province of benighted clergy, envious people with narrow economic interests and rabble from the margins of society, in Germany it was some of the "poets and philosophers" who gave intellectual legitimization to the hatred of Jews: There is a line that runs from Fries to a musical genius like Wagner (the author of "The Jews in Music"), to the greatest German historian of the end of the 19th century, Heinrich von Treitschke, the man who coined the concept that the Nazis later made their slogan: "The Jews are our disaster."

There is no other European society in which the radical hatred of Jews won the support of such large parts of the educated classes, which explains not only the silence of German academia after 1933, but also its active support of the Nazi policy of expelling Jews from public life. The story of Heidegger is also not just a "work accident" that happened to a great philosopher who stumbled a bit in a moment of weakness. Things are much deeper.

But Amos Elon did not set out to write a book about the fate of the Jews under the Nazi regime - about this, heaps of books have already been written: His book stops at 1933, as he wants to tell the glorious story of German Jewry until the great breakdown.

In a symbolic and fitting way he begins in the year 1743, when a young Jew from the city of Dessen, named Moses Mendelssohn, enters the gates of Berlin (which was forbidden to entrance by Jews, apart from "court Jews" and their servants), in order to study at a yeshiva and to serve as a tutor in a wealthy Jewish family. Elon could not of course have chosen a better example than Mendelssohn - humpbacked and stuttering, who barely knew proper German when he arrived in Berlin and who grew from a poor Jewish boy into the lighthouse of the Berlin Enlightenment, a philosopher, a friend of Swiss theologian Johann Kaspar Lavater and playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the model for Nathan the Wise in the latter's play. He became someone who defended the insights of the Jewish religion from Christian prejudices, and opened to his Jewish brethren the gates of the German Enlightenment and Kultur with his demands for internal changes and the modernization of Judaism.

If there was anyone who was a Jew and a human being both in his dwelling and when he walked abroad, it was Mendelssohn. In his character and his ideas, it seems, the gap was closed between Jewish hermeticism and universal culture - and for this he won endless praise from figures of the German Enlightenment and partial support - but also harsh criticism - from the Jews.

Ethnocentric spirit

Elon has a talent for fascinating writing, and knows how to integrate both comprehensive and detailed historical knowledge. The descriptions of Berlin and Prussia at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century are effervescent and unmediated: In the salons of the Jewish society women of Berlin, he not only reveals the drama of the encounter between Christians and Jews (or, more precisely, between Christians and Jewish women, especially wealthy Jewish women), but also documents the impression this phenomenon made on the civilizing of the dry Prussian garrison town, Berlin - which lacked history and roots and grew as a "nouveau riche" among the Brandenburgian sands thanks to the Prussian weaponry - and its development into a city of cultural and spiritual refinement. The salons of these intellectual Jewish women, who aspired to achieve Kultur, played an important role in transforming the Berlin that was lacking in culture into a city where the words of Goethe and Schiller ring; Goethe himself recognized this.

Elon describes this with rare talent and out of profound empathy, but he also shows how the anti-Napoleonic wars of 1812 instilled a new atmosphere in Berlin, full of nationalist Romanticism, which got its inspiration from Johann Gottlieb Fichte's ideas in "Addresses to the German Nation" (1808), in which he called for expelling everything French, everything that is "not German" from the German life of the mind, in a kind of harbinger of things to come. Thus the salons of Rahel Levin (Varnhagen) and her women friends were pushed to the margins, although the Jews did not always acknowledge that the generous spirit of the German Enlightenment had been replaced by a nationalist and ethnocentric spirit.

Elon also shows how Mendelssohn's Enlightenment did open the gates of German society to Jews but also swallowed them up: By the middle of the 19th century, only four of Moses Mendelssohn's 56 descendants remained Jewish. The rest converted to Christianity or were born to parents who had converted.

With a skilled pen Elon describes this love story of the Jews of Germany for the land of their birth: their contribution to German poetry and culture (the chapters on Heine and Jacob Bernays are particularly fascinating); their part in the 1848 revolutions; their contribution to the economic and industrial development of Germany following the unification of 1871; the relationship of the economic elite of German Jewry to the regime of Bismarck and the Hohenzollern kaisers and their enthusiasm for German war slogans at the intoxicating moment of the outbreak of the war in 1914. At the same time he shows how it was precisely their success - intellectual and economic - that created the counter-reaction of hostility, suspicion and envy.

Elon is correct in identifying the infrastructure for the Nazi hatred of Jews not only in the revulsion from the traditional, religious Jew (the Ostjude, from whom most of German Jewry wanted to separate itself), but rather in the feeling that the prominence of educated, wealthy, successful Jews in public life imperiled "the German spirit." It was not the failure of the Emancipation but in fact its success that was, at least in part, responsible for the growth of the Nazi horror. This is a terrible dilemma, which in the end only the Zionists recognized - though too late.

Buber's dark chapter

Of the events of 1914 and World War I, two are worth mentioning: First of all, the enthusiasm of Martin Buber, then a young philosopher, for the war and his unqualified support for the German policy. Like other German intellectuals, Buber too not only justified Germany's entrance into the war in geopolitical and strategic terms, but was also swept up in the "spiritual" justification for the war. Elon quotes some of Buber's statements. Among other things he relates that Buber wrote that the divine is revealed not in faith but in the willingness to sacrifice - the war is "a fount of sanctity" and a "new life" that will awaken bourgeois Europe from its decadence; it will also unite Germans and Jews in the holy task of the international mission to civilize the Middle East.

Today this sounds chilling. Germany, argued Buber, is only defending itself: The horror stories about the execution of hundreds of Belgian civilians by the occupying German army are "lies and war propaganda." Buber also wrote that the concept of "the people" (Volk - a term fraught with heavy nationalist baggage in German) has never become so palpable for him as it is now.

As the war dragged on and its horrors became evident to everyone, Buber changed his tune, but Gershom Scholem, who took a pacifist stance from the beginning of the war, could not forgive Buber for his nationalist German outbursts. This dark chapter in Buber's biography also, apparently, became the basis of his approach to the Arab issue here: Having been scorched by German nationalism, he was wary of any manifestation of Jewish power.

Just as Jewish intellectuals like Buber were swept up - as part of their falling in love with Germany - into the war effort, so were businessmen and men of science. One of the most prominent among them was Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber, who doing the war was put in charge of developing the mustard gas program. There is something horrible in the fact that it was a German Jewish patriot who developed the poison gas that Germany used in World War I, and even more so in the fact that Haber was the first to develop the Zyklon-B gas that was later used by the Nazis in the death camps. This is a difficult and distressing story, and Elon tells it with sensitivity (he does not mention that today at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem there is research institute named after Haber; it was established with a donation from a German foundation).

However, Elon also notes the great contribution by Jews in the anti-war movement - the Viennese Karl Krauss, Rosa Luxembourg, of course, and Kurt Eisner. Wit great skill Elon also describes the complex status of the Jewish business mogul Walther Rathenau: At first he opposed the war but subsequently was involved in the planning of the German economy after its breakthrough until he became the economic dictator of Germany, and still later became one of the leading opponents of the war. In the Weimar Republic he was appointed foreign minister and led the trend that held that Germany had no choice but to accept the Versailles Treaties and implement them. For this he was assassinated by German nationalists in 1922, after having been under attack for months in the radical right-wing press as a Jewish traitor.

Here, Elon comes to the Weimar period - the period of the brief and astonishing flourishing of German intellectual and artistic life in the 1920s, when Berlin became the capital of the avant-garde in music, poetry, theater, cinema and architecture; again with the prominent presence of Jews. But the more the Jews were integrated and successful, the more they were perceived as those who brought in foreign culture and as corruptors of "the German spirit."

Elon tells a fascinating and tragic story, but is cautious about drawing deterministic conclusions: Was this necessary? Was another way possible? The reader will judge for himself. This story is enough to cause palpitations in anyone's heart. It is to be hoped that the book will be translated into Hebrew in the very near future. It will enrich every reader - and Israeli readers, in particular - with deep insight, both Jewish and universal.

Shlomo Avineri is currently a visiting professor at the Central European University in Budapest.



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