Amos Elon, The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743—1933 (Henry Holt & Co., 2003)
I still remember some thirty years back telling a friend of my passion for German literature. “But why would you want to study them?” came the rather cold reply, from a speaker who clearly equated the subject with the perpetrators of the holocaust. It threw me for a moment, because I had always associated it with the victims. In the period between the wars, German Jews amounted to perhaps 1% of the nation’s total population. But it would be unimaginable to write a cultural history of the period without referencing Jews. They were consistently the brightest lights of the epoch, the writers, thinkers and artists whose work set the tone and has established its “legs” for modernity. Surely they were a minority, but then the balance – which perhaps had a higher profile at the time – has in the judgment of time proven less consequential. There were Arendt, Benjamin, Döblin, Einstein, Feuchtwanger, Tucholsky, and within the broader parameters of the language, Hoffmansthal, Kafka, Roth, Schnitzler, Werfel and Zweig. It was an amazing and brilliant period. But it shouldn’t be seen standing alone, for it represents the culmination of a long historical path.
There have been important portraits of Weimar, and a number of great books about the dilemma of anti-Semitism in Germany history – on which subject Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair stands out as the towering work of scholarship. Elon’s work is something of a bridge between these approaches – it presents an intellectual history of sweeping breadth and vision with a well constructed portrait of the menace of anti-Semitism throughout. I started this book wondering how Elon could accomplish what he proposed within a stretch of 400 pages. But he does it well. Indeed, the strength of this book lies in the sharp eye of an editor who is able quickly to cull the essential from vast periods of time. He spots the personalities, the works and the historical trends which give each successive generation its essential character. Elon gets all of this just right – or at least, his prejudices are almost exactly mine.
Elon starts his account with an unremarked-upon event which was to have tremendous consequences for German intellectual history: the entry in 1743 of a barefoot 14-year-old boy into Berlin. The boy was Moses Mendelssohn. At the time he had only a crude grasp of the German language, but within a brief period he would establish himself as one of the language’s great stylists, and his writings would emerge as great beacons for the thinking of the enlightenment in Germany. He captivated the German intelligentsia of his age and provoked debate about the treatment of the Jews. When the emancipation of Central European Jewry arrived early in the next century, this was first the product of the French Revolution and the policies of Napoleon – but also in the German speaking world a debt repaid to Moses Mendelssohn, who had become a figure of broad veneration within the educated world. Elon’s vision of Mendelssohn is certainly less than loving and more critical than my own take. He focuses not on the man of compelling reason and brilliant insight, but rather on the internally unreconciled figure whose works propelled the Enlightenment, even as he maintained a strictness of religious observance (including dietary laws and prayer) that even his own family had abandoned.
But the question that hovered over Mendelssohn and his progeny was simple: assimilation. In fact within a few generations, there were no practicing Jews among the Mendelssohn clan. And Germany Jewry of the nineteenth century was marked by a striking measure of assimilation, which Elon portrays in some depth. The pivotal figure for this issue was the greatest of the German salonnières, Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, born as Rahel Levin. About a month ago, I ran into Elon in Tuscany (where he lives with his wife, Beth) and told him I was puzzled about one aspect of his work – and that was his treatment of Varnhagen and the assimilation issue. I had recently read Hannah Arendt’s book on Varnhagen, in which she is portrayed as an unwilling convert, figure determined under the surface to maintain her cultural identity as a Jew. Did he reject Arendt’s view? Yes, he said, Arendt was writing as a passionate Zionist, and she was writing under the trauma of rejection. Her book on Varnhagen had been conceived as a sort of pointless Habilitationsschrift. Pointless because after the rise of the Nazis, her academic career in Germany was over, and writing a book on a Jew who was in many respects the most captivating figure of German Romanticism was a doubly futile exercise. Was Arendt projecting her own frustrations on Varnhagen? After this encounter, I spent some hours going over Arendt’s book and reading in Varnhagen’s correspondence and in the commemorative book published by her husband shortly after her death. Arendt’s quotations are correct; and they are not ripped from context. But it did seem to me that the copious irony in Varnhagen’s writing is playful, though read by Arendt as something heavy and deep. I came away thinking that Elon was correct in this judgment call, too.
The chapters that follow this very promising introduction maintain the same level of quality. His portrait of Heine is accomplished. The description of the proclamation of the Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles is perhaps the most fascinating I have ever seen. He offers a detailed description of the formation of the red republic in Bavaria under the leadership of the courageous Kurt Eisner, and then comes to a wonderfully balanced description of Weimar. In that last segment, his nuanced and psychologically probing treatment of Walther Rathenau is a small masterpiece.
The chronicle of German anti-Semitism is wound very artfully through the text, with an interesting use of the writings of Heinrich Graetz. I studied with Graetz’s granddaughter, and spent some time in his archives. I remember at one point coming across his collection of materials on anti-Semitism. There were certainly materials from Germany, but the focus of the collection and his own concerns was elsewhere: anti-Semitism was a problem associated with France; Germany in general was presented as the success story. This helps explain the strong self-assurance that German Jews of this golden era felt. They considered themselves Germans. And indeed, one of their faults was certainly a measure of hostility directed against their co-religionists. There were few slurs hurled more heavily by the German Jews who had arrived as those against the Ostjuden. This is a fact to which Elon gives no more than a passing mention.
This book is not without other faults, but they are all rather minor things which I would expect to see fixed in the next printing. In a description of christening, Elon talks about the curious habit of assuming Christian names – suggesting perhaps a lack of understanding of what actually happens in a Christening. There is some strange geography, as in a paragraph in which Pfalz and Palatinate appear in successive sentences as if they were different provinces (they are the same, the second being the English version); a paragraph in which Olmütz is said to be in Austria, a proposition which would certainly startle the people of Olomouc, the ancient capital of Moravia.
Germany’s Jews picked a course of assimilation. Was this a misjudgment? That’s a question that arches over this entire book. Elon gives us many clues to an answer, but the answer itself he wisely leaves to his readers. But most interestingly, he also turns the question about. Was it not Germany’s misjudgment? He quotes a discussion between Raymond Aron and Fritz Stern that occurred during the celebrations in Berlin in 1979 commemorating Albert Einstein. “It could have been Germany’s century!” Aron said. “In the history of modern Europe, Stern wrote, one great country has often dominated the culture of its age—first Spain, then France, Holland and Great Britain. During the first decade of the twentieth century, there was good reason to believe that it was now Germany’s turn.”
A powerful observation. If it was to have been Germany’s turn, the foundations for it were laid in those afternoon gatherings between Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn and Friedrich Nicolai for tea in the garden being Nicolai’s home in Berlin. They gave birth to the German Enlightenment—a tradition of tolerance that valued every human being on the basis of his character, not on the circumstances or place of his birth; a commitment to the freedom of thought and discourse; an intense engagement with science with conviction for the good it could bring to humanity. It cannot be coincidental that these values sprang from the son of a Lutheran pastor and the son of a rabbi. Nor can it be coincidental that they flowed directly from a discussion of theology, and a new, anthropological approach to the understanding of theology. Lessing and Mendelssohn were focused on the value of reason as a tool for reconciliation of faiths – not as something to supplant religious conviction. They were intent on banishing prejudice and the misery it brought, and – more secretly – they were committed to a democratic renovation of society.
Germany’s Jews remained to the end fully committed to this liberal vision. Had a larger share of Germany’s Gentiles shared that vision with them, might Germany not in fact have achieved that role of dominance? The Pity of It All at last left me thinking that the answer to that question might have been “yes.” And thus, the title seems both poignant and well taken.