German Jews Beyond Judaism
The German Jew: A Synthesis of Judaism and Western Civilization, 17301930
In the years following Germany’s unification in 1871, the historian Heinrich von Treitschke devoted much of his abundant energy to detecting and attacking what he considered to be forces of particularism and dissent which threatened the frail national consensus. Although by no means an unconditional enemy of the Jews (he praised the Prussian Jews who had fought for liberation in 1813 and was an admirer of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, whom he described as a “German from top to toe”), he came to believe that the present generation of Jews resisted assimilation and was an alien element in society by its own choice. In November 1879, in an article in the Preußische Jahrbücher that became notorious and helped to feed the fires of anti-Semitism in the empire, he wrote that “the Jews are our national misfortune,” adding that Mendelssohn’s achievement showed that they could win respect and recognition only if they submerged themselves wholly and unconditionally in German life.
What made this article doubly offensive to the German Jews to whom it was addressed was that they had long anticipated Treitschke’s demands. Ever since the eighteenth century, when Moses Mendelssohn had called upon his co-religionists to stop regarding themselves as a separate nation and to accept German culture as their own, assimilation had been their goal, and Moses Mendelssohn’s translation of the Old Testament with a Hebrew commentary had encouraged this by teaching German to generations of Jews and easing their transition to a new spiritual home within European civilization.
The determination with which they pursued this course was shown by the fervor with which they cultivated the German classics—the almost excessive admiration that was accorded to Goethe, for example, by Jewish intellectuals from Rahel Varnhagen to Walter Benjamin—and by their own rich contributions to German art and scholarship from Heine to Einstein. By Treitschke’s time, the average Jew, baptized or unbaptized, was German in his virtues and vices, his dress and manners, and his deeply felt patriotism, and this continued to be so, as the way in which they rallied to the colors in 1914 attested. It has been said that German Jews who went into exile in France after 1933 were called “les bei uns” by their hosts because they were always talking of home and comparing what they found abroad unfavorably with what they had left behind, and that even former prisoners in the concentration camp at Dachau who found themselves temporarily in French camps for refugees had been heard to say, “Bei uns in Dachau war alles besser organisiert.”
Yet it cannot be said that this ardor for assimilation was ever as welcome to non-Jews as Treitschke had implied that it would be. For all of their efforts, Jews remained outsiders in German eyes. Ludwig Börne, who was born in the Frankfurt ghetto, once wrote, “It’s like a wonder. I have experienced it a thousand times, and yet it always remains new. Some people reproach me for being a Jew …