Amos Elon on Jews in Germany

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at
Wed May 21 02:51:20 MDT 2003

Books / Bitter harvest of a people's patriotism / The Pity of It All: A
Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933 by Amos Elon
Allen Lane 403pp £25 <I> (£22)</I>  Reviewed by Eva Figes

Amos Elon, an Israeli historian born in Europe, has written a beautifully
balanced history of a tragic, one-sided love affair. As he says: "Before
Hitler rose to power, other Europeans often feared, admired, envied and
ridiculed the Germans - only Jews seemed actually to have loved them". No
other group of European Jews tried so hard to become a part of their host
country.Elon begins his main narrative with Moses Mendelssohn's arrival in
Berlin in 1743, at the age of 14. He was not the first, since Jews had never
been totally expelled from Germany, but the reign of Frederick the Great,
considered an icon of the Enlightenment (though he never overcame his
personal antipathy to Jews), made Prussia's capital a promising goal for
ethnic minorities. Mendelssohn was a philosopher who became the most revered
figure of the German Enlightenment and the inspirationbehind Gotthold
Lessing's play Nathan The Wise. He also encouraged Jews  to assimilate.
Although he remained an observant Jew, he urged Jews to adopt the customs of
the land in which they lived and, most importantly, advocated the use of
high German as a secular, day-to-day language, believing that without
fluency in German they would remain foreigners for ever.

The 18th century was a promising time for German Jewry. In 1779 an anonymous
author remarked on the high level of civilisation among Jews in Berlin, and
the fact that they socialised with Christians. Wealthier Jews gave their
children a German education, with an emphasis on German <I> Kultur</I> as
well as language. Cultured Jewish women were now running salons where
Germans and Jews, men and women, mixed freely. They were famous and popular,
even if the hospitality was not returned by Germans. (Shortly after getting
himself baptised in a vain attempt to earn a living, Heinrich Heine wrote
with bitter irony: "I am becoming a proper Christian. I sponge off rich

By the late 18th century there were a large number of conversions. In
Berlin, it was claimed, half the Jewish community converted, including four
of Mendelssohn's six children.  For the most part, non-practising Jews
became non-practising Christians. Their motives were pragmatic: many
positions were closed to Jews.

The status of German Jews changed radically, if only temporarily, with
Napoleon's defeat of Prussia in 1806. In most of Germany Jews were finally
emancipated and granted full political rights. Most of these gains were
reversed with the defeat of Napoleon. Enlightenment and reason gave way to
Romanticism and a new nationalism linked to Christianity, which claimed a
mystical union between tribe and state that, by definition, excluded Jews.
Dwindling support for Jewish emancipation was reflected in the emergence in
Berlin of the new Christian German Dining Club, which excluded women,
Frenchmen and Jews, including converts. The members included almost the
entire non-Jewish intellectual elite, and they gloried in the abuse of Jews.
Kleist, Brentano and Clausewitz were among the members, as well as the
future husband of Rahel Levin, who presided over Berlin's most famous Jewish
salon. If the philosophy sounds familiar enough to those who had the
misfortune to live through the Third  Reich, at least Germany's 20th-century
intellectuals for the most part distanced themselves from it.

The risings of 1848 brought new hope to all liberals, including Jews, whose
situation made them natural liberals within the political spectrum. But the
optimism was short-lived. The fragmentation of Germany was also a hindrance
to political change, and Jews now pinned their hopes on unification, which
did indeed lead to formal - if not actual - emancipation in 1867.

But by now the old dislike of Jews had turned to envy and fear. They had
become wealthy, seemed to dominate every business and profession from which
they were not excluded. They were blamed for the stock market crash of 1873
and for every disaster that was to overtake Germany in the years that

Elon has written an excellent, well-rounded and unprejudiced account of a
fascinating and heart-rending subject. In no other European country have
Jews given so much, not only as entrepreneurs but in the arts and sciences.
No other of group of Jews has shown so much love for the country it regarded
as home, and reaped such a bitter harvest.

The Guardian Weekly 20-3-0522, page 18

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