Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin 
by Deborah Hertz.
Yale, 299 pp., £22.50, June 1988, 0 300 03775 9
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The astonishing thing about this highly professional monograph is that no one has done it before. The subject – cultivated Jewish women presiding over influential salons in Berlin during the era of the French Revolution and just after – would appear to be irresistible. ‘It was in Germany,’ rather than in France, where Jews had been politically emancipated, ‘specifically in Berlin,’ Hertz writes, ‘that a Jewish community achieved the social glory represented by entertaining and even marrying the cream of gentile society. Nor was it only the Berlin Jewish women’s role in promoting Jewish social emancipation that captivated observers of the Berlin scene. That their guests included both commoners and nobles was heralded by prominent visitors as a significant achievement.’ Yet for the most part this achievement has been recorded in frivolous, gossipy, relentlessly superficial accounts. The principal exception is at the other extreme: Hannah Arendt’s rebarbative, self-indulgent biography of Rahel Varnhagen, the most celebrated of these Jewish hostesses. Hertz dutifully mentions and a few times cites, Arendt’s book in passing and then moves on.

What she moves on to is other historians and a generous sampling of social scientists. They have enabled her to outline in authoritative detail how, and why, these salons grew from intimate circles of friends to fully-fledged forums for intellectual discussion; to explore their membership, their social and religious implications; and, in a rather sad concluding chapter, to chronicle their rapid decay after Prussia’s defeat at the hands of Napoleon in 1806 and the emergence of a heated patriotic temper in which neither cosmopolitan discourse nor, for that matter, Jews could feel at home. In the course of her explorations, as she pleads for patience with her rich but elusive material, she manages to question, and overthrow, several popular theories. ‘Unfortunately,’ she complains, ‘historians’ eagerness to praise or blame’ these remarkable Berlin ladies ‘has not been matched by the rigour needed to explain why these salons appeared and disappeared when and where they did’. The value-laden verdicts she deprecates have drawn on vague or improvised theories. Hertz satisfactorily demonstrates that it was not just that these salons met the social needs of aristocrats in search of a place to meet or of local intellectuals thirsty for good talk; nor were they a Jewish conspiracy. The most interesting fact about them, as she justly notes, is that they were a triple anomaly. They were anomalous in a social structure more rigid than any outside Germany; anomalous in German-Jewish history, where full Jewish emancipation did not, after all, come until 1871; and no less anomalous in the history of Jewish women. Yet they managed to find a foothold in the unpromising terrain of Prussia’s capital, and to command widespread attention, both admiring and critical.

In the end, as one might expect, the phenomenon of the Jewish Berlin salons was extremely complicated. It was fuelled first of all by the precipitous expansion of an intelligentsia in search of self-definition – which is to say, company. Hertz pays close attention to the social world which made the salons possible, and observes, among other sociological realities, that the number of authors in the German lands multiplied from some three thousand in 1760 to more than ten thousand forty years later; that men of letters began to enjoy a measure of social prestige; that more men and women disposed of more leisure than ever before; and that cultural life increasingly sought a home outside the royal court. Besides, there was money around to finance both leisure and conversation, and Jews – though a very small number of them – were among those who had made it and were willing, even eager to spend it on the luxury of high culture. But Prussia’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars awakened, among most of the gentiles until then only too pleased to frequent Jewish salons and even marry Jewish women, a chauvinism that was at once politically and religiously conservative. It saw Jews as aliens either too eager to retain their cultural differences or too eager to assimilate, and a revival of Christianity as the only hope for moral and political regeneration. This chauvinism also disapproved of the powerful role that women had played in Berlin’s social life: the chauvinism that post-dates 1806 was also a male chauvinism.

This sort of analysis has obvious advantages over the anecdotal treatment that Berlin’s Jewish hostesses have generally received. But one can see why the anecdotes have had the upper hand for so long. Even a chronicler as professional as Hertz, who pays repeated tribute to quantitative research with charts detailing, among other matters, the number of intellectuals in German states, of conversions to Christianity, of Jewish-gentile marriages, finds it necessary to tell stories about her three leading characters: Henriette Herz, Dorothea Schlegel and Rahel Varnhagen. All three emancipated themselves from their families, their inherited ethical codes, their religion. Of the three, Henriette Herz’s life, though no less interesting than that of the others, was the least bohemian. The strikingly beautiful daughter of Benjamin Lemos, a rich Jewish physician of Portuguese extraction, she was married off at 15 to Markus Herz, a gifted and impassioned physicist twice her age. Fortunately, he supported his young wife’s ambitions to set herself up as the centre of an intellectual circle. ‘In 1780 Henriette and her husband began entertaining lavishly at a large double salon that grew out of Markus’s evening lecture course in natural science. In one room he performed physics experiments while in another Henriette led discussions on the newest romantic poetry, plays and novels.’ When her husband died in 1803, her salon, which had depended heavily on his wealth and his friends, quickly faded. Her good gentile friends, like the eminent public servant and educator Wilhelm von Humboldt, continued to visit her, but the great days of the Herz salon were over. Like others in her circle, she eventually converted to Christianity, but caught between tradition and her own wishes, she postponed this final act of assimilation until her mother had died.

In comparison, Dorothea Schlegel’s demonstrations of independence were consistently spectacular. Born Brendel Mendelssohn, the daughter of the famous Moses Mendelssohn – scholar, emancipator, Lessing’s friend – she enjoyed an exceptional upbringing. Extremely plain in appearance, she was passionate, intelligent, and, of course, superbly educated. One of her first acts of self-liberation was to change her all-too-Jewish first name to Dorothea. She was compliant enough to marry the kindly but, to her mind, boring Jewish banker Simon Veit, whom her father had chosen for her in the traditional style. But she shaped her married life into anything but traditional contours. Consistent with her brains and her aspirations, she founded a reading society that was the prototype of her later salon. Then, at the age of 34, she met Friedrich Schlegel and promptly fell in love with the brilliant young critic. Only one road seemed open to this free spirit: she deserted and soon divorced her husband. For a time she loyally moved about with Schlegel, disdaining marriage as both inconvenient and hatefully bourgeois, but after several years regularised her liaison. And in 1808, four years after her marriage, Brendel Mendelssohn Veit Schlegel converted, with her husband, to Roman Catholicism.

It was not Dorothea Schlegel, however, but her friend, the rather less fascinating Rahel von Varnhagen, who made herself into the proverbial hostess, for some years the heart of Berlin’s cultivated sociability. Born Rahel Levin into a rich Orthodox Jewish family, heavy-lidded, short, restless under the disabilities her Jewishness imposed on her, she early cultivated her enviable gifts for languages and even the sciences. In the same stubborn vein, she steadfastly refused to yield to her family’s pressure to marry some eligible Jewish merchant. Indeed, she didn’t simply resist her family, but piled up ostentatious acts of rebellion. She managed to get herself engaged to two gentiles, provocatively changed her name from Levin to Robert (thus adopting the family name her younger brother Ludwig had taken upon his conversion), and finally chose for her husband the much younger minor diplomat and liberal journalist Karl Varnhagen von Ense. The salon she had led from her home before her marriage had included prominent writers, no less prominent scholars and statesmen and even the occasional Prussian prince. Her later salon, which she ran in association with her husband, became a focus for liberal writers, with Heinrich Heine her most distinguished catch. All this made her a household word. She became still more familiar to the general public after her death in 1834, when her adoring husband published a vast collection of her letters.

These, then, are the principal players in Deborah Hertz’s sober and scholarly study. Inevitably, some of the drama marking these women’s lives has seeped away from her pages, but this, I suppose, is the price one is likely to pay for thoroughness and the passion for sociological explanation. As a result, no doubt, of a strenuous effort to conceal the smell of the lamp, her tone tends to waver between sobriety and somewhat forced informality – colloquial terms like ‘posh’ co-exist with earnest Marxist locutions like ‘labour power’, and the pleasure of reading her book is not undiluted.

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