Eric Hobsbawm

  • Jews and the German State: The Political History of a Minority, 1848-1933 by Peter Pulzer
    Blackwell, 370 pp, £35.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 631 17282 3
  • The Jews of Germany: A Historical Portrait by Ruth Gay
    Yale, 336 pp, £19.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 300 05155 7

Most of world history until the later 18th century could be written without more than marginal reference to the Jews, except as a small people which pioneered the monotheistic world religions, a debt acknowledged by Islam, but creating endless problems for Christianity, or rather for the Jews unlucky enough to live under Christian rulers. Practically the entire intellectual history of the Western world, and all that of the great cultures of the East, could be written without more than a few footnotes about the direct Jewish contribution to them, though not without paying considerable attention to the role of Jews as intermediaries and cultural brokers, notably between the classic Mediterranean heritage, Islam and the medieval West. This is rather surprising when we consider the extraordinary prominence in 20th-century cultural, intellectual and public life of members of this small people which, even at its demographic peak before the Holocaust, formed less than 1 per cent of the world population.

Since most public life was closed to them, their absence from it before the French Revolution was perhaps to be expected. Yet it is also clear that Jewish intellectual activity for most of the last two millennia, perhaps with the exception of the Hellenistic era, was overwhelmingly inward-looking. Only the occasional sage between Philo the Jew and Spinoza appeared to be seriously concerned with non-Jewish thinking, and these, like Maimonides, were, not fortuitously, apt to be born in the open civilisation of Muslim Spain. The great rabbis, whose commentaries on the sacred texts, in all their Babylonian subtlety, still form the main subject in the Talmudic academies, were not interested in the views of unbelievers. With the possible exception of medicine, where the acknowledged Jewish expertise crossed communal frontiers, Jewish learning and intellectual effort focused on holy matters. The Yiddish word for the place of worship, the ‘synagogue’, is the old German word for ‘school’.

It is evident that an enormous oilfield of talent was waiting to be tapped by that most admirable of all human movements, the 18th-century Enlightenment, which, among its many other benefits, brought about the emancipation of the Jews. When we consider that for almost a century after Joseph II’s Toleranzedikte of 1781-2, emancipation was still virtually confined to the small Jewish communities of Western and West-Central Europe, and that Jews had hardly begun to make their mark in some of the major fields of their subsequent intellectual achievement, the size of the contribution which Jews immediately began to make to 19th-century history is quite extraordinary. Who could write world history without paying attention to Ricardo and Marx, both products of the first half-century of emancipation?

For understandable reasons most writers on Jewish history, predominantly Jews themselves, tend to concentrate on the impact of the outside world on their people rather than the other way round. Even Peter Pulzer’s excellent ‘political history of a minority’ does not quite escape from such introversion. The two Jews whose impact on German politics was the greatest, the founders of the German labour movement, Marx and Lassalle, barely appear (there are precisely three references to Lassalle, one of which concerns his father), and the author is clearly ill at ease with the ‘disparity between the large number of Jews prominent in the Wilhelmine Social Democratic Party’s leadership and debates and the slower growth of its electoral following among Jews’, preferring to concentrate on the latter.

Nevertheless, his perceptive, though sometimes over-detailed, analysis avoids most of the temptations of Jewish historical separatism. Jews and the German State can be seen as belonging with the work of the group of historians associated with the Leo Baeck Institute in London, perhaps the last survivors of the German-Jewish liberal tradition. It has the quiet, low-key strength and balance characteristic of the studies of Jewry that issued from this admirable institution under the auspices of such scholars as Arnold Paucker and Werner Mosse. Like his colleagues, Pulzer understands what has, since Hitler, become almost incomprehensible: namely, why German Jews felt themselves to be profoundly German, and indeed why ‘the “fourth Reich” that established itself in Hampstead and Washington Heights, in Hollywood and Nahariya, with battered tomes of Lessing, Kant and Goethe and scratched records of Furtwängler and The Threepenny Opera, bore witness to the tenacity of roots in the German Kulturnation.’ In short, why emancipated 19th-century Jews wanted passionately ‘to proclaim that they had left the ghetto, that they had entered civilisation.’

For ‘the German-Jewish community enjoyed a leading, even dominant, intellectual position among other Jewries.’ But then emancipated Jewry contained more German-speakers than any others, even if we count only those in what was to become the German Reich in 1871. Moreover, as Ruth Gay’s illuminating and copiously illustrated The Jews of Germany makes clear, even as it, too, overlooks Marx and Lassalle, German Jewry was overwhelmingly indigenous, even after the mass migration from the East began, and, with school education, abandoned Yiddish for German speech.

The German Kulturnation was far larger than this, however. The very fact, recorded (but not stressed) by Pulzer, that so many of the leading intellectual figures in German Social Democracy – including all but one of its prominent Marxists – had transferred their field of activity to Germany from the Habsburg Empire (Kautsky, Hilferding) or Tsarist Russia (Luxemburg, Parvus, even Marchlewski and Radek) demonstrates that German was the language of culture from the Great Russian marches to the French borders. The major difference between the Jews of Germany and emancipated Jews from the rest of the German culture zone was that the former were only German, whereas a substantial number of the others were pluricultural if not plurilingual. They, and probably they alone, constituted that idealised Mitteleuropa of which dissident Czechs and Hungarians dreamed in the Eighties, linking otherwise non-communicating cultures and peoples in the multinational empires.

Moreover, it was they who carried, perhaps even established, the German language in the remoter outposts of the Habsburg Empire since, as the largest component of the educated middle class in those parts, they were the people who actually used the standard literary German instead of the dialects spoken by the emigrant German diasporas of the East – Swabian, Saxon and (as German philologists confirmed, sometimes not without regret) Yiddish. German was the name of freedom and progress. Yeshiva students from Poland, like Jakob Fromer, recorded by Ruth Gay, secretly studied German among the Talmudic commentaries by means of two dictionaries – Russian-Hebrew and German-Russian. Schiller brought emancipation from what another Polish seeker after liberation called ‘the fetters of superstition and prejudice’. It is easier to sentimentalise the shtetl now that it no longer exists than it was when young men and women had to live in it.

The German Jews wished passionately to be German, though, as Pulzer observes acutely, they wanted to assimilate ‘not to the German nation but to the German middle class’. Yet the commonest of the criticisms of assimilation, the great dream of 19th-century social mobility, plainly did not apply to them. Assimilation did not entail a denial of their Jewish identity, not even in the very unusual case of conversion. As Pulzer shows, in spite of massive secularisation and their overwhelming commitment to being German, the German Jews survived as a group conscious of their Judaism until extirpated by Hitler. Nor was this due only to anti-semitism which, as he reminds us, was in any case mild by the standards of other countries. As the refugee physicist Sir Rudolf Peierls put it, ‘in pre-Hitler Germany being Jewish was a bearable handicap.’ It was not German or the much more palpable Viennese anti-semitism that converted Herzl to Zionism, but the Dreyfus case in France.

One wishes, however, that Pulzer had not chosen the term ‘ethnicity’ to describe what bound Jews together, since the bond was not felt to be biological, but historical. They did not see themselves as a community of blood or even ancestral religion, but, in Otto Bauer’s words, a ‘community of fate’. Still, whatever we call it, emancipated Jews as a group did not behave quite like non-Jews. (Eastern ones, of course, behaved very differently indeed.) Most of Pulzer’s book is devoted to demonstrating the specificity of their political behaviour. Not surprisingly, as a community they stood on the moderate liberal left of the German political spectrum, and not by any means on the far left. Even the collapse of liberalism in the years of Hitler’s rise didn’t push them towards the Communists, but towards the Social Democrats. Unlike the Jews of the Habsburg and Tsarist regions of Europe, their politics were not messianic. Relatively few, it is argued, joined or voted for the Communist Party, and before 1933 German Zionists, also a smallish minority, saw Zionism as a personal rebirth but not as a programme of emigration. Unlike Eastern Jews, they did not consider themselves strangers in (to quote one of them) ‘the land of Walther and Wolfram, Goethe, Kant and Fichte’.

In short, German Jews were at ease in Germany. Hence theirs was a double tragedy. Not only were they to be destroyed, but they had not expected their fate. Pulzer does his best to make sense of the failure, indeed the refusal of liberal German Jewry to recognise what Hitler meant, even after 1933. It is, of course, true that nobody, not even the eastern Jews who lived among those who had massacred their relatives by the thousands in 1918-20, could expect, or even imagine, what eventually took place at Maidanek and Treblinka. Few could even bring themselves to believe it when the first credible reports of the genocide filtered through to the West in 1942. There was no precedent in human history for it. Nevertheless, the present reviewer, who experienced 30 January 1933 as a schoolboy in Berlin, can testify that already then there were those who took a fairly apocalyptic view of Hitler’s regime. And indeed, despite their reluctance to give up Germany, many Jews prepared for the worst, even though they underestimated it. After all, almost two-thirds of the 1933 Jewish population of Germany emigrated in the next six years and therefore, unlike their unhappy Polish brethren, survived. And yet, they did not leave willingly. Some, like a descendant of the founder of the Deutsche Bank, sent his wife and children to safety, but committed suicide after the Kristallnacht of 1938 rather than give up Germany.

Even the survivors’ tragedy was real. Only those who have experienced the force, the grandeur and beauty of that culture, which made the Bulgarian Jew Elias Canetti write in the middle of World War Two that ‘the language of my intellect will remain German,’ can fully realise what its loss meant. Only those whose surnames still record the Hessian, Swabian and Franconian villages and market-towns of their ancestors, know the pain of torn roots. Their loss was irreparable. The Jewish communities of Central Europe can never be reconstituted, and even if they could be, the German culture to which they belonged is no longer a world culture.

And what did Germany lose? Paradoxically, probably less than the countries of the old Habsburg Empire: Germany’s Jews had fitted themselves into an existing middle-class culture, whereas the emancipated Jews of the Habsburg Empire created new cultures, often, as in Vienna’s case, very different from that of the Reich. Culturally, the expulsion or destruction of the Jews left Germany much as before, though more provincial and peripheral than it had been before 1933. And yet this is to underestimate Germany’s loss. German is no longer the language of modernity for aspiring Europeans from the backwoods. It is no longer the language of scholarly publications which every academic from Tokyo to Cambridge must be able to read. No doubt that isn’t a consequence exclusively of the exodus or death of the Jews. However, their disappearance clearly had at least one dramatic effect. From 1900 to 1933 almost 40 per cent of all Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry went to Germany, since 1933 only about one in ten. History records, with tragic irony or black humour, that one of the refugee Nobel laureates insisted on revisiting Germany after 1945, because of his ‘inextinguishable homesickness for the German language and landscape’.