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Mar 2005 Journal

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A doomed love affair (review)

THE PITY OF IT ALL: A PORTRAIT OF JEWS IN GERMANY 1743-1933
By Amos Elon
Penguin Books 2004, £10.99, 464 pp.

Erich Maria Remarque, the exiled anti-Nazi author of All Quiet on the Western Front, was asked whether he missed Germany. 'Why should I?', he answered. 'I'm not Jewish.' This book is a story of a doomed love affair that promised happiness to Jews through Bildung, the acquisition of German culture through emancipation and conversion. The best educated, the wealthiest and the most ambitious converted, but they soon realised that their hopes of instant equality were only dreams.

Christian opposition to conversions emerged in 1791, with Rattenauer's pamphlet positing an immutable Jewish character that made integration not only undesirable but impossible. Fichte, a fervent democrat, excluded Jews from equality. Goethe violently opposed Jewish emancipation. Heine courted the Germans though he was aware of the admired host nation's Jew-hatred. Even Herzl was affected by the Jews' love affair with Germany. His hero as a youth was Bismarck and his dream was to become a German nobleman. Significantly, it was not German but French antisemitism that convinced him of the necessity of a homeland for Jews as the only solution to their centuries-long persecution.

Jewish support for the 1914-18 war exceeded that of non-Jews. Leo Baeck strongly approved of it and Ernst Lissauer wrote Gott strafe England. The Jewish chemist Fritz Haber invented Germany's 'secret weapon', poison gas; ironically, it was he who developed Cyclon B, the gas that was used in Auschwitz. Many other Jewish intellectuals espoused the false justifications for the war, among them Freud, Buber, Hugo von Hoffmanstahl and Paul Ehrlich.. Einstein led a few dissenters such as Schnitzler. Soon, however, the war began to turn the love affair sour. Rathenau, the postwar foreign minister, saw the end coming: 'The more Jews die in the conflict', he wrote in 1916, 'the more persistent will be their opponents' complaints that the Jews did nothing but sit behind the front lines profiteering from the war. The hatred will double and treble.' The presence of many Jews in the 1918 revolutionary movements was used to foment antisemitism.

The pity of it was that, as the last chapter of the book describes, the period of the Weimar Republic was a time of intense creativity in the arts and sciences. Of the five best known Expressionist dramatists three were Jews: Ernst Toller, Franz Werfel and Karl Sternheim. It was a time of extreme paradoxes, of growing Nazism and rising Jewish prominence but tragically Jews mistook this for an index of successful integration.

The Third Reich was the product of the German psyche historically steeped in antisemitism. Perhaps it all had to happen, if only to bring home to Jews intent on settling among strangers the lessons of Spain and Germany that Jewish integration is a self-deceptive dream. This book records not only German Jewry's tragic mistakes but also its never-to-be-forgotten glorious achievements and - yes - the terrible pity of it all.
Andrew Herskovits

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