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Sep 2003 Journal

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A culture brought vividly to life (book review)

THE PITY OF IT ALL: A PORTRAIT OF JEWS IN GERMANY 1743-1933
Amos Elon
Allen Lane, 2003

This study of the Jews in Germany - of their close but ultimately tragic relationship with their fellow Germans - will be of great interest to AJR Journal readers. It provides a wide-ranging coverage of German-Jewish culture, brought vividly to life by a sympathetic author. Elon discusses the great names from Moses Mendelssohn through Heinrich Heine to Albert Einstein, while skillfully focusing on lesser figures like the banker and liberal politician Ludwig Bamberger and the popular novelist Berthold Auerbach, whose lives and careers embody key aspects of the German-Jewish experience.

Elon makes clear that he is writing history and not sociology and that he aims to depict individuals who are representative of a particular social culture, rather than analysing exhaustively the entire social group, German Jewry, from which that culture grew. And what a culture it was! Starting with the arrival of Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin in 1743, Elon takes us from the early emancipation through the salons of Henriette Herz and Rahel Varnhagen to Heine and Ludwig Börne in the mid-nineteenth century, then to the unique cultural, intellectual and scientific flowering that German Jewry gave to the world under the Wilhelmine Empire and the Weimar Republic. The sheer wealth and profusion of German-Jewish culture in its relatively brief span takes one's breath away; and Elon is the man to celebrate it.

The history of German-Jewish culture cannot be uncontroversial given that it ended in the Holocaust. Surely, the hostile argument runs, the Jews of Germany were utterly misguided in seeking to embrace German 'Bildung', to assimilate into German society as 'German citizens of the Jewish faith', and to adopt the values of German humanism and liberalism. Those who claim, like Daniel Goldhagen, that all German culture was imbued with an 'exterminationist' antisemitism and that the Holocaust was a disaster waiting to happen, look down pityingly at these deluded 'yekkes': didn't history teach them a lesson! But this argument is misconceived, based as it is on the deterministic notion that Hitler and the Holocaust were inevitable when plainly they were not, and that events after 1933 somehow devalued the achievements that preceded them, which is illogical.

Elon has the gift of spotting the telling incident and the striking figure, and of bringing out their significance for German Jewry. His book is an enjoyable read, though it conveys some weighty intellectual and cultural history. He does not shrink from examining the problems associated with assimilation and conversion, the tribulations that afflicted German Jews who wished to be accepted as Germans without being scorned as Jews. He carefully examines German antisemitism, as manifested in the nationalistic fervour that swept Prussia after its defeat by Napoleon, in the 'Hep! Hep!' riots of 1819, the political antisemitism of the late 1870s, and the crisis years after 1918.

Unfortunately, the later chapters are marred by factual errors. We are told that Friedrich Wilhelm IV and his successor as King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, were father and son, not brothers, and that 'der alte Fritz' (Friedrich II) was 'one of the founders of the royal house of Hohenzollern'. Eugen Leviné, the Communist leader in Munich in 1919, becomes 'Erich Levine', the campaigning statistician E. J. Gumbel becomes 'Gimbel', and Ernst von Salomon, author of the anti-denazification text Der Fragebogen, is rechristened Erich. To compare Karl Kraus with Marshall McLuhan is unsatisfactory, while the view that Theodor Fontane's novels 'celebrated the old-fashioned, straitlaced, frugal common decency of the Prussian rural gentry' will surprise admirers of Effi Briest - Elon ignores Die Poggenpohls, where relations between Prussian aristocrats and Jews form an important theme. A future edition should correct these blemishes on a fine book.
Anthony Grenville

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