Peter Gay

  • Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin by Deborah Hertz
    Yale, 299 pp, £22.50, June 1988, ISBN 0 300 03775 9

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.

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