Wise Survivors

Historians have long been fascinated by twentieth-century German Jews as articulate witnesses, artists, writers, political thinkers, liberal politicians, and advocates of an open society in an age of unprecedented turmoil and creativity. In his excellent new book, Stephen Aschheim, the Vigevani Professor of European Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, examines collections of still little-known intimate private letters and diaries to provide a composite portrait of three well-known and controversial writers: Gerhard (later Gershom) Scholem, Victor Klemperer, and Hannah Arendt. Shedding new and unexpected light on the drama of their lives, his book is not a biography but rather, as Noel Annan once described Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, a polemic, although it is a disguised polemic. Written in a tone of cautious understatement, Aschheim’s book nevertheless calls into question some of the simplifications Jews and Germans resorted to “in turbulent times.”

Aschheim’s theme is “identity.” He does not discuss Scholem’s, Arendt’s, or Klemperer’s scholarship but concentrates on their political ideas and purposes. He asks how these three thinkers made the important decisions in their lives; how they searched for and, according to their private papers, thought they found their “authentic” selves amid the often conflicting influences of class, family, friends, lovers, and associates.

Why put these testimonies together and with what justification?” Aschheim asks. Klemperer, the oldest, was still steeped in the bourgeois prejudice and conformism of the Wilhelminian era, while Scholem and Arendt belonged to the rebellious post–World War I generation. They were not “typical” German Jews, and yet Aschheim is right in claiming that their intimate letters and diary entries add “compellingly to our knowledge of the world of modern German Jewry” at a time when they were central to the life of secular Europe.

Still, the three had much in common. All were assimilated, or, as is sometimes said, acculturated German Jews, though neither term reflected the frequent diversity and occasional turmoil of a predicament that finally became a kind of identity for most German Jews. All grew up in secular families for whom the true religion was the Goethean cult of Bildung, creative self-development, which, from the days of Moses Mendelssohn, was seen as a key to full integration with the general society. Each had an extraordinary passion for knowledge, combining deep learning with the gift of writing supple and succinct prose. All had confident egos and were outspoken, at times brash and even nasty. All were prodigious diarists and letter writers. Scholem wrote that language was the innermost essence of the world and that letters could be liberating, elevating, “like some absolute religion…[a] metaphysical necessity.”

Here the similarities end. Each made dramatically different political choices. Scholem left Germany as early as 1923, Arendt only after the Nazis came to power. Klemperer never left; he died in the German Democratic Republic in 1963. Scholem was a “primordial” Zionist, a passionate Jewish nationalist. After receiving a doctorate for his dissertation on the first extant kabbalistic text, he …

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