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The cultural flowering of Germany's Jews

The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933, Amos Elon, Metropolitan Books: 448 pp., $30

November 03, 2002|Walter Laqueur | Walter Laqueur is the editor of "The Holocaust Encyclopedia" and the author of many books, including "A History of Zionism" and "Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees From Nazi Germany."

The number of Jews living in Germany was tiny, never more than 1% of the nation's population and less toward the end, with the advent of Hitler. But their share in the cultural, social and economic life was far in excess, and their prominence might have been a reason for their undoing. Their contribution to science, the humanities, literature and the theater was enormous; in the plastic arts and music, they acted as catalysts, as leading sponsors and agents of new forms and contents. Even an anti-Semite like Wagner owed much of his triumph to his Jewish admirers.

This great role of a small minority is all the more remarkable as the exodus of the German Jews from the medieval ghetto came only late in the day. In 1743, a 14-year-old boy from the provinces walked 100 miles of hilly countryside to arrive in Berlin (as yet closed to all but a handful of privileged Jews) to serve as tutor to the children of one of these families. Moses Mendelssohn (the grandfather of the composer) would later become the interlocutor of some of the leading cultural figures of the day, and, more important, the pioneer of Jewish emancipation -- or, as latter-day critics would say, of assimilation.

It took another hundred years for German Jews to get de jure equality, longer for de facto acceptance. From the early 1800s up to 1918, it was virtually impossible for a Jew to serve as a government official, let alone as a reserve army officer (a crucial status symbol in Imperial Germany) even though they were required to serve in the army. The German-Jewish symbiosis, in other words, lasted for less than a century. But it is also true, as Amos Elon notes in his new book, "The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933," that Germany was by no means the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, as some historians have argued.

On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of Jews in Germany were patriots and optimistic. During the century before World War I, German Jewry lost most of its upper class; many, especially among the wealthy and the educated, converted to Christianity either out of a genuine conviction to do so, or else because they could not get, for instance, a professorship or a judgeship as a Jew. The percentage of mixed marriages was so high that some concerned demographers predicted the virtual disappearance of German Jewry within three, or at most, four generations.

In later years, the very concept of a German-Jewish symbiosis came under bitter attack by, among others, Gershom Scholem, the great German-Jewish scholar of mysticism. As Scholem saw it, this love affair had been strictly one-sided, a chase after a chimera: The desire of many young Jews to be accepted by German society at almost any price was aesthetically displeasing, devoid of dignity and accompanied on occasion by self-hate. But it should be recalled that Jewish heritage -- after so many generations of stifling ghetto life -- was hard-pressed to compete with the attraction of Goethe, Beethoven, the Romantics and European culture in general. All that remained was a heavy emphasis on meaningless rituals; having been born Jewish was for many nothing but a stigma, and it came as no surprise that after three generations, not a single of Mendelssohn's many descendants was still Jewish. In the often-quoted words of Heinrich Heine, baptism seemed the entry ticket to European civilization.

Elon shows greater empathy for the converts and the non-Jewish Jews than for those who tried hard to find some positive content in Judaism. Martin Buber is called narcissistically obsessive, Felix Theilhaber hysterical, and historian Heinrich Graetz appears a narrow-minded simpleton. For the historian of ideas, the non-Jewish Jews are far more interesting.

Elon describes the rise of anti-Semitism both on the ideological and popular level during the 19th century. But with all this, German Jews were doing well; if the grandfathers had been hawking goods in the countryside, the sons had a shop and the grandson quite often went into a profession, usually medicine or the law. Frequently, Jews became booksellers, and selling books was the stepping stone to publishing. By the end of the century, they were in the forefront of German cultural life.

What caused such a burst of creativity? A variety of reasons have been adduced: the stimulus of suffering, tribal pressure, the interplay between challenge and response. For all one knows it might have been a mixture of all these and a number of other factors. But in the final analysis, we do not know, just as one cannot account for the flowering of painting in the Netherlands in the 17th century or of music in Austria at the end of the 18th century or German classicism and romanticism in literature.

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