- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

By Amos Elon
Henry Holt and Company, $30, 446 pages

Until 1669, Jews were barred from settling in the Prussian capital of Berlin or in the adjacent region; until 1710, they were required to be recognizable from a distance and wear a mandatory yellow patch. For 200 years, the Jews of Germany fought to be both Jew and German, making extraordinary strides in their status and contributing to the flowering of German culture. In 1933, the accomplishments of those 200 years were swept aside, the yellow star returned and the Jews of Germany were expelled, driven into exile or exterminated.
In his brilliant new book, "The Pity of It All, a History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933" Amos Elon tells the story of this struggle. Mr. Elon's account is exciting and filled with fascinating detail. His facts and snippets of well-translated poetry (both touching and amusing) are excellently documented. The human elements of the myriad characters who populate the history of these 200 years make "The Pity of It All" more than a standard history. The political, social and cultural conflicts and contributions of Germany's Jews, their relationships (both good and evil) with the Christian population, and their triumphs and failures, constitute the nucleus of Mr. Elon's extensively researched work.
His story begins in 1743 with the arrival of 14-year-old Moses Mendelssohn, a talented Talmudic scholar, in the Prussian capital of Berlin at a time when residence in Berlin for Jews was still a temporary state, granted only to those with a "patron" (and usually not extended to their families).
Jews were treated as barely one step above animals, villified, hated and abused although at the time they constituted only about one half of one percent of the total German population. (In 1933, Jews were slightly less than one percent of the population.)
Mendelssohn, the "German Socrates," as he came to be known, was the first German Jew to achieve European prominence. He believed that it was possible to be both German and Jewish but that it was essential for German Jews to learn the German language rather than speak only Hebrew, that Judaism had to be revised, the power of the rabbinate limited and that "rational argument is the path to bliss."
Following Mendelssohn's lead, the new generations believed the key to integration with the German people was through the cult of "Bildung," that is, "the refinement of the individual self and character in keeping with the ideals of the Enlightenment."
The villification and humiliation decreased and Jewish thinkers, writers and artists slowly gained respect. Yet, Jews were not allowed to own real estate and paid much higher taxes than Christians. Jewish women held literary salons, attended by Jews and Christians alike although there were no reciprocal invitations. Conversions to Christianity became common, as did intermarriage, regardless of belief. The poet Heinrich Heine "called the baptismal certificate 'the entrance ticket to European culture.'"
Between 1780 and 1840, twice as many women as men converted. For men, conversion meant the ability to vote, to hold civil service posts and to enter the universities. For women, since there was no civil marriage in Germany before 1860, conversion meant they could marry non-Jewish men.
The French brought emancipation to the Jews after Prussia's military defeat in October 1806. In 1812, the Emperor Frederick William III issued an edict of emancipation, resulting in a release of "unparalleled economic, professional, and cultural energies."
The edict was revoked just three years later when Napoleon was defeated, followed by a wave of anti-Semitic riots. Heine prophetically warned, "Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings."
The new constitution of 1850 reinstated the doctrine of a "Christian state," and Jews continued to be barred from holding high positions in government, universities, state schools and the judiciary.
German Jews shed their blood for their beloved Germany in the Franco Prussian War of 1870-1871, and for the Kaiser in World War I. They believed this would prove their "German-ness."
The Weimar Republic (1918-1933) was the true flower of Jewish German culture. As Mr. Elon notes, "Much of what is remembered and admired today as the golden age of Weimar culture was created by German Jews, from Einstein's theory of relativity to Schoenberg's atonal music, Freud's and Adler's psychoanalysis … Kurt Weill's "Threepenny Opera" and Max Reinhardt's New Theatre." Ironically, on the eve of the end, the Jews of Germany had arrived.
Mr. Elon opines that although World War II probably would have taken place Hitler or not, the Holocaust would not have. "Hitler's rise to power was made possible by the chaos and disintegration of government in the aftermath of the Depression, but it was not inevitable… . He was saved by Hindenburg's senility, [former chancellor Franz von] Papen's stupidity, and the timidity and blindness of his opponents."
When Hitler became chancellor, one of the attitudes among the Jewish bourgeoisie was that "the Nazis might, at the very most, beat up a few Eastern European Jews, 'but nothing can happen to us.'"
I observed this in my own family. In 1938, after my grandfather, a Frankfurt judge, was taken to Gestapo headquarters, interrogated and released, he told my grandmother, "You see, it has nothing to do with us. Germany is a country of laws; those arrested must have done something."
Amos Elon has told the story of how it was possible for a group of people, despite their accomplishments, so to delude themselves after 200 years of abuse, to be blamed for anything that went wrong, to be assigned to second class citizenship. All they wanted was to be accepted as Germans with an intensity that sometimes surprised their gentile countrymen.
He writes how Erich Maria Remarque, the exiled author of of "All Quiet on the Western Front," was asked whether he missed Germany. "Why should I," he answered. "I'm not Jewish."
They did indeed become German, but the ethnic label, "and Jewish," remained.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide