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Idealists Against the Jews

Revolutionary Antisemitism In Germany From Kant to Wagner

by Paul Lawrence Rose
Princeton University Press, 389 pp., $29.95

The suggestion of the title of Paul Rose’s imposing book that Kant, the patron saint of liberal humanitarianism, was in fact the initiator of an important, and perhaps the crucial, strand in German anti-Semitism may come as something of a shock. But for this and for a number of other, more comprehensive, propositions, Paul Lawrence Rose has assembled a powerful, if rather single-minded case. In twenty long chapters he presents the results of an enormous amount of reading in the primary and secondary literature of nineteenth-century German intellectual history, which is attested to by the luxuriant fringe of notes dangling at the bottom of nearly every one of the book’s 379 pages of text.

His main thesis is that the modern form of anti-Semitism in Germany started to acquire its peculiar virulence nearly a hundred years before Hitler was born; in 1793, to be precise. This was the year of publication of Kant’s Religion Within The Bounds of Reason, and of a defense of the French Revolution by Fichte, at a time when Fichte had not yet moved from Jacobinism to the emphatic nationalism of which he is best known as the prophet. Kant and Fichte were radicals who were convinced that the time had come for a moral transformation of mankind—or, at any rate; of Germany—through which all people should become truly free and rational moral agents, autonomous directors of their own lives, independent of the constraints of ossified custom and established authority. The Jews, to both of them, exemplified with the greatest intensity the kind of degraded moral existence to which they were opposed.

Rose’s second point is that this kind of fervently moral anti-Semitism is almost entirely the work of left-wing or, he thinks it is better to say, radical or revolutionary thinkers. (He reasonably holds that the terms “left” and “right” are not all that effectively discriminating when they are applied to revolutionaries.) Indeed he presents some evidence which supports his point with almost scientific purity. Those of his thinkers who drifted away from radicalism, either as they got older or through disappointment with the outcome of 1848, also muted or abandoned their anti-Semitism, unlike those who remained radical. Heine is one example. Then there are Karl Gutzkow and Heinrich Laube, members of the “Young German” movement of the 1830s and 1840s. Gutzkow was briefly jailed for his attack on marriage and religious orthodoxy. Although they retracted their anti-Semitism in later life they had made their mark by attacking Jews in their youth. Laube’s view that the Jewish interest in art was essentially commercial was the inspiration of Wagner’s Judaism in Music. Gutzkow, on a more comic level, seems to have been the first to say, or print, the familiar incantation: “Many of my best and dearest friends are Jews.” Marx is the most famous of Rose’s specimens who are conventionally regarded as men of the left. But he includes also Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer.

Rose’s method of exposition is straightforward, indeed rather pedestrian. He extracts all the anti-Semitic observations he can find in the works of his selected subjects, and says something about the relevant events in his subjects’ lives and about their relations to one another, whether of friendship or hostility, influence or rejection. General conclusions are drawn informally from time to time but there is no final audit. The book just stops at the end of its chapter on Wagner with a paragraph about Hitler’s admission that Wagner was his only real precursor. In the separate treatments of individual thinkers a number of anti-Semitic themes recur, but Rose gives no consolidated account of the common stock or cluster of ideas from which particular inflections of anti-Semitic doctrine are drawn. Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany is more a product of the extractive than of the manufacturing or processing part of the industry of scholarship. The reader is left to work up the mountain of raw material with which he is provided on his own. Some other things that are lacking will be mentioned later.

The main performers in Rose’s sinister drama are numerous, of considerably differing degrees of importance and some are not at all well-known. In a preliminary flourish some pre-nineteenth century figures make a brief ceremonial appearance: the all-too-German Luther, the not totally non-German Erasmus, and the utterly non-German Voltaire, whose bigoted entry on Les Juifs in the Dictionnaire philosophique is an ugly blot on an otherwise glorious record.

The main event gets under way with Kant, Fichte, and Herder (with a glimpse at J.F. Fries). They are followed by Ludwig Borne and Heine, unhappy baptized Jews from the Rhineland, like Marx and Moses Hess. Next there are Gutzkow and Laube. Berthold Auerbach, like them, is a primarily literary figure. The procession continues with the radical theologians D.F. Strauss of Leben Jesu and Feuerbach (both translated into English by George Eliot). Two lesser mischief-makers follow—Daumer and Ghillany—obsessed with the Moloch theme of human sacrifice in the Jewish Geist. Bruno Bauer and the more obscure Wilhelm Marr were revolutionary atheists and Gentiles (although Marr’s first three wives were Jewish and Rose thinks he might have been of Jewish descent). There is no such doubt about the anti-Semitic thinking of the revolutionary socialists Marx and Moses Hess. The story ends with the eccentric Constantin Frantz, critic of Bismarck’s “German Empire of the Jewish Nation,” and Wagner, who is treated with comparative brevity since Rose intends to make his anti-Semitism the topic of a book on its own. (Frantz was the subject of Kurt Waldheim’s university thesis, written while he was on leave as an officer in the German army.)

It would be irrelevant to complain that Rose treats his specimens simply with respect to their anti-Semitism. That, after all, is what the book is about. But he could have done more than he does to make clear how large a part anti-Semitism played in the whole corpus of their thinking. In some of them it is marginal, even casual. Rose properly reproves Marx for “disgusting remarks,” such as his description of Lassalle as “a Jewish nigger.” But anti-Semitism is not central to Marx and he cannot really be blamed for the anti-Semitism of Stalin. Stalin never admitted that any of his policies were anti-Semitic, so his practice needed no justification from the sacred texts of the Marxist faith. And there was more than sufficient traditional Russian prejudice for it to draw strength from.

Rose could also have been more informative about the relative importance and influence of his anti-Semitic thinkers. Kant and Hegel, Heine and Auerbach, Feuerbach, Marx, and Wagner are all incontestably serious figures. Gutzkow and Laube are of little intellectual significance. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them, which Rose does not mention, is that each wrote a nine-volume novel. But compared to Marr and Frantz, let alone Daumer and Ghillany, they are of monumental splendor.

Rose’s anti-Semites harp on a collection of alleged Jewish characteristics, selectively and with varying degrees of emphasis. Rose does not do much to classify them in an orderly way, but, despite the measure of artificiality involved in putting them into separate compartments, they may conveniently be divided into psychological features, individual and social; occupational peculiarities; and religious idiosyncrasies. The Jew is supposed by Rose’s anti-Semites to be egoistic, loveless, full of hatred for mankind, and also to be mechanical or “inorganic” in out-look, obsessed with utility, artistically sterile. Socially considered, Jews are seen to be stubborn and exclusive. The occupational peculiarities of the Jews derive from their traditional involvement with usury. They are supposed to be devoted to money, to be parasites not producers, to be prone to cheating and to haggling. The finance capitalism of the modern world is an expression of the Jewish spirit.

At one level Jewish religion is seen as formalistically preoccupied with the letter of the law, to the exclusion of love. Deeper down it is deplored as a religion of sacrifice, both animal and, in the wilder reaches of blood-libel fantasy, human. But most of Rose’s subjects are enough under the influence of the Enlightenment to see the alleged Jewish concern with blood as metamorphosed into a concern with money, the bloodstream of capitalist society (a theme familiar from Marx).

Rose helpfully links the three main aspects of the anti-Semitism of nineteenth-century German radicals to three emblematic figures. Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, who showed no pity to Christ on his way to crucifixion, symbolizes egoistic lovelessness. Mammon is the money god to whom the Jews bow down. Moloch is the god who demands blood sacrifice. In linking the anti-Semites’ delineation of the Jewish national character to these mythical beings Rose implicitly acknowledges an assumption that underlies his entire treatment of his subject: that all the criticism of the Jews he rehearses is so obviously and absolutely false as not to require discussion.

A reasonable excuse for his sweeping assumption is that none of his subjects seems to feel it is in any way incumbent on him to produce the smallest scrap of evidence for what he alleges. To a late-twentieth-century observer the inflexible anti-empiricism of Rose’s anti-Semites is almost as intellectually outlandish as the beliefs of medieval Christians about the Jewish use of the blood of Christian babies in the preparation of bread for Passover. Sociology of the more empirical kind is often derided for laborious demonstration of the self-evident, for example, that liability to personality disorders in later life is greater among those who have been systematically maltreated in childhood. It seems obvious; but, after all, early maltreatment might have a character-stiffening effect. You do not really know until you look to see—or someone else does. Kant said that Hume awoke him from his dogmatic slumber. As far as Jews are concerned he seems to have fallen rapidly to sleep again, to the extent that he simply parrots unreasoned popular prejudice.

The idea that Jews are characteristically egoistic and loveless flies in the face of Jewish family life and the history of Jewish philanthropy. The evidence here is perhaps subscientific but is too extensive to ignore, coming from common observation and descriptions of Jewish life, whether factual or naturalistically fictional. On the other hand it is surely not absurd to say that Jewish communities generally were, and still are to some extent, exclusive, and “stubbornly” so too, no doubt, to the extent that the policy of exclusion has been effective. The main element of that policy was resistance to intermarriage between Jews and members of other religious communities.

But then that is hardly a Jewish peculiarity. Where Catholics are found in an environment heavily populated by non-Catholics intermarriage is resisted with just the same “stubbornness.” Quite a few of the characteristics allegedly peculiar to Jews are comparably widespread. Indeed some practices supposed to be particularly Jewish are far more central to the lives of their Christian critics. It is extraordinary that adherents of a religion which has at the center of its liturgy the ritual consumption of what is either held literally to be, or at any rate to represent, the body and blood of their god should attack as obsessed with sacrifice the adherents of a religion in which there is no such practice.

To Rose’s German revolutionaries, as to most anti-Semites, the main offense of the Jews is simply being different, and for the most part, resolved to remain so. The German revolutionaries were animated by an intense desire to bring about some kind of moral transformation of humanity. That inevitably entails interference with those who are content with the moral beliefs and institutions they already have. It also leads to more or less fantastic representations of the supposed details of the difference in question which show them in an unfavorable light. Even so that does not justify a blanket dismissal of the whole battery of critical instruments relied on by anti-Semites. Some of the criticisms of Jewish insularity, after all, were shared with those Jews who were devoid of destructive intention and who, during the period Rose is considering, were seeking to reform Judaism and Jewish life from within.

That brings up another omission from Rose’s story. As well as dismissing all criticism of traditional Jewish life and religion as being as unworthy of rebuttal as its most obviously ridiculous instances, he has nothing to say about internal changes in the Jewish communities of Europe in the nineteenth century. The Jews he considers are all outcasts: either, like Marx, the children of baptized parents or, like Heine, people who had had themselves baptized.

Two facts must have been evident to many thoughtful Jews in the nineteenth century. The first was that, as well as being, as always, very inconvenient, the segregation of Jews within the bounds of traditional immobility was also increasingly unnecessary. Emancipation was in the air. Christianity was in retreat before the philosophes and their active spiritual stepchild, Napoleon. With this ancient obstacle largely dismantled, new opportunities of residence, movement, and occupation were present and, beyond them, access to political rights of voting and office-holding. Possibilities of greater personal fulfillment or self-realization were opening up.

The second fact was that the Jewish community was intellectually and culturally sterile. The last great age of orthodox Jewish thinkers, of Maimonides and Crescas in Spain and of Gershon in France, had ended with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1942. In their new sanctuary in Holland their leading thinkers were heretics: Uriel da Costa and Spinoza. Moses Mendelssohn, the greatest Jewish thinker of the eighteenth century and the original of the sympathetically represented central figure in Lessing’s Nathan der Weise, was not expelled from the community, but he was philosophically assimilated to German Gentile philosophy and was the spiritual grandfather of reform Judaism. The prodigious efflorescence of Jewish thought and literature, art, and music of the last hundred and fifty years shows that the hopes these two large facts inspired were well-founded.

Naturally Rose does not reject emancipation, but he seems hostile to assimilation, which it was expected to lead to and which it has in fact brought about. A good excuse for that suspicion is to be found in the nearly unanimous conviction of his German radicals that, on the one hand, the Jews ought to be assimilated into the mainstream of Europe and that, on the other, the Jewish “national character” is far too strong and deeply rooted to be diluted. He points out the interesting fact that for most of his subjects this conviction of the racial indestructibility of the Jews is entirely nonbiological. That was to come later, after Darwin. Gobineau, the founder of racism, was not originally anti-Semitic and became so only in the 1870s, under the influence of Wagner, and beyond the historical limits of this book.

In their diffuse, romantic way Rose’s anti-Semitic thinkers did not make up their minds about what they meant by the destruction of Judentum, or even what they meant by the word, which, as Rose notes, was variously applied to the Jewish religion, the Jewish community, and the qualities of Jewishness. At its mildest, destruction of Judentum could mean simply the gradual and largely painless cultural absorption of the Jews by the Gentile majorities among whom they lived. But convinced as they mostly were that “Jewishness” is indestructible, they were compelled to envisage either expulsion or genocide. Despite some ugly hints and asides none of them explicitly endorsed the latter.

Rose’s main point may be that Hitler was not an accident, a demon who happened to tap the universal undercurrent of anti-Semitism at a particular spot. He certainly argues persuasively that German Romantic idealism provided anti-Semitism with a theoretical foundation that it could not get from the national philosophies of Britain and France, or even from the unenlightened presuppositions of such relatively backward places as Italy and Spain. In Britain and France the influences of the environment were held to prevail over all others. As with Locke, such environmentalism takes the human mind to be a tabula rasa, indefinitely malleable. In the formula of Helvétius: l’éducation peut tout. From that point of view national character is not a fixity but a shimmering phosphorescence.

In the old centralized states, raison d’état, the requirements of social peace and the effective use of the citizenry, entailed a good deal of tolerance. For a long time Catholics in England had been seen as the agents of a foreign power, as indeed they often were in the sixteenth century. The Jews, allowed to come back by Cromwell three centuries after their expulsion by Edward I, posed no such threat. Both Catholics and Jews were emancipated, against some resistance, but without subsequent fuss, during the nineteenth century. In Germany emancipation was slower and more fitful. In an early chapter Rose illuminatingly brings to light some politically or administratively motivated support for emancipation given by people who were not professorial gasbags but had serious public responsibilities: Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Karl August von Hardenberg. As highly placed German officials, they favored Jewish emancipation because it was administratively rational. But even with them liberality had a distinct German flavor. Dohm and Hardenberg stressed the role of emancipation as a means for correcting what they saw as the moral distortions in Jewish life and character produced by long oppression. That statist policy was swept away after 1822 and the withdrawal of most of what had been provided by the emancipation edict of 1812. Rose admits that anti-Jewish feeling was exacerbated by an inflow of Eastern European Jews which was not to touch Britain until the last decades of the nineteenth century, by which time Jewish emancipation was firmly installed.

The cause of the kind of theoretical anti-Semitism that is Germany’s special contribution—as contrasted with merely instinctive xenophobia with nothing particularly anti-Jewish about it—is, in Rose’s view, German idealist philosophy, the work of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. Hegel, in fact, comes out of Rose’s close inspection comparatively well. He approved of Judaism for its uncompromisingly monotheistic character (something not all that much to the fore in Catholic Christianity with its cult of the Virgin Mary and the saints). And he behaved impeccably at times of popular anti-Jewish frenzy. Kant, Herder, and Fichte are the main villains.

In his treatise on religion Kant repeats many of the familiar claims about usury and cheating as characteristic of Jews and traces these moral failings to Judaism, which is not, in his view, a true or pure religion since it is not essentially moral in nature. It is merely a communal cult, involving unquestioning, passive obedience to an externally imposed law. There is something odd about Kant, the most formalistic of ethical theorists, reproving a body of beliefs for legalism. He could himself be described as a law worshiper since he regards reverence for the moral law for its own sake as the only moral motive for action, all else being mere feeling or inclination. Did he suppose that the practical content of Judaism is exhausted by the regulations governing diet and ritual observances? In order to elevate Christianity above Judaism he and Hegel after him have to leave the things they do not like out of the one and to leave the things they do like out of the other. Thus Hegel attacks Judaism for raising love above law, an attitude entirely opposite to that of Kant.

In any ordinary sense of the word Judaism is just as moral a religion as Christianity. It is not moral in Kant’s private sense of the word (in which it means directing one’s conduct by rules one dictates to oneself) but then neither is Christianity which is just as encumbered with sacred texts and authoritative interpreters and much more encumbered with ecclesiastical authorities. The king of Prussia saw perfectly well that Kant was in fact an atheist tricked out in some diaphanous relics of Christian piety, and made him keep quiet after Religion Within The Bounds of Reason. In principle Kant and Hegel should have been at least as hostile to Christianity as they were to Judaism.

Orthodox Judaism calls for obedience to divinely revealed law; Catholic Christianity for obedience to the Church and its head, the pope; Protestantism hovers between them. All three are at a great distance from the Rousseauian individualism by which Kant was intoxicated. On that view the true aim in life is achieving self-perfection by oneself in a wholly self-determining way. Just because Judaism was in a better state of repair than Christianity, or, at least, appeared to be, it was more of an affront to absolute individualism in the style of Rousseau and Kant. Non-German liberals, Rose rightly observes, supported emancipation as a way to relieve suffering. German liberals, on the other hand, saw it as a means to, or, more exactly, an opportunity for self-redemption. The offense of the Jews to inhabitants of this spiritual stratosphere was their complete indifference to such a romantic project. It is depressing that the German idealists, confronting the metaphysical enigma of how to change Jewish morality, should reach down for the same old garbage of anti-Semitic abuse traditionally relied upon by their less sophisticated compatriots.

A final thought: Rose takes it for granted that the unfavorable judgments about Jews made by anti-Semites are groundless. Ought he not, to be consistent, to protect himself against the charge that his own doctrine about the deep-seatedly German quality of anti-Semitism at its worst is itself racist? Just as paranoiacs have some real enemies, he might reply, some races are really beastly; but this is the kind of thinking he otherwise disapproves of. It would have been comforting to have heard of some good Germans. Even if Kant and Herder are shown to have had feet of clay, were there not others, like Virchow and Mommsen, whom he mentions only briefly, who stood apart and defended the Jews?

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