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Between Two Worlds


Some Jews would no doubt have joined the Nazi movement if only it had not regarded them as mortal enemies. But since it did, no sane Jew was likely to see any merit in the Nazis. Lev Nussimbaum, also known as Kurban Said, or Essad Bey, was an exception. A famous writer in his time, he was an early admirer of Mussolini, and a defender of the Nazi regime. The “National Socialist revolution,” he believed, “has saved Europe from a catastrophe.”

He wrote this at the end of 1933, two years before he was expelled from the German Writers’ Union and barred from publishing in the Third Reich. The reasons for Nussimbaum-Said-Essad’s eccentric position—for a Jew, that is; not, alas, for many Gentiles in the early 1930s—are complex, and they are explained at exhaustive length in The Orientalist, a book about his life and times. But they can be boiled down to one simple motive: Nussimbaum’s loathing for the Bolshevik Revolution, which destroyed the world he grew up in, in oil-rich Baku, then a Russian city, now the capital of Azerbaijan. The Nazis, he said, were the one thing standing between “traditional European culture” and Bolshevik barbarism.

Reiss describes the traditional European culture of pre-revolution Baku rather well. It was the kind of boom city where a Muslim oil baron would build a replica of a Gothic cathedral, because his young wife had admired it on a holiday in France and decided she wanted to live in just such a place. It was a city where Georgians, Russians, Ossetians, Swedes, Poles, and Armenians, among others, traded huge fortunes; where Zoroastrians lived alongside Muslims, Christians, and Jews; where brand-new opera houses, museums, palaces, churches, and mosques arose to rival buildings of grander cities; where the oil was so plentiful that the sea sometimes caught fire; and where caravans of fire-worshiping monks passed through the gaslit streets. All this rich mélange of East and West in what Reiss describes as “equal parts Dodge City, medieval Baghdad, industrial Pittsburgh, and nineteenth century Paris” began to fall apart in the revolutionary violence of 1905 and 1919.

Nussimbaum, whose novel Ali and Nino, published in German in 1935 under the name of Kurban Said, is still regarded as a minor classic, was haunted all his life by memories of his native city. The novel is about the love of a Muslim boy and a Christian girl in tolerant Baku. Nussimbaum described the Muslim, Ali Khan, as a version of himself. It wasn’t fascism that shaped the imagination of this extraordinary man, but Orientalism, a fascination for the exotic East, which was a fantasy that owed as much to European tradition as it did to the world of A Thousand and One Nights.

Orientalism comes in many forms, of course. There is the sensual, aesthetic lure of the voluptuous East, depicted by such French Orientalist painters as Jean-Léon Gérôme: nude harem women lounging about in Turkish baths, or pretty girls auctioned in North African slave markets. Erotic fantasizing of this kind goes back a long way, stretching from the ancient Greeks to Pierre Loti, plucking the youth of his doll-like Madame Chrysanthème.

There is also a more high-minded Orientalist tradition. In India, for example, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British Orientalists argued for the importance of training colonial administrators in the traditional languages and cultures of the subcontinent. Unlike the Anglicists, who despised local languages and wanted to press the Indian elite into a modern British mold, the Orientalists hoped to arrive at a higher civilization by fusing traditional Indian cultures with the ideals of the European Enlightenment. This produced a flowering of Indian culture known as the Bengali Renaissance, some of whose later members lamented the failure of the British to live up to their own Orientalist ideals.1

If British Orientalists were actively engaged in colonial administration, nineteenth-century German Orientalists were more dedicated to pure scholarship, often philology. Far from trying to prove the superiority of the Greco-Judeo-Christian Occident, the close study of ancient texts in Sanskrit, Arabic, or Sumerian by such scholars as A.W. Schlegel and Ernst Renan had the opposite effect. The Orient came to be seen as a source of deeper wisdom. Although not based on any great scholarship, Voltaire’s idea of China as the epitome of reason was based on a similar rejection of Western religious tradition.

Voltaire’s vision, though, is somewhat exceptional. A more conventional line of thinking is to contrast the rationalism of the West with Oriental irrationalism. Edward Said, among others, has shown how this was used to justify Western domination. But to many Orientalists, the wisdom of the East lies precisely in its supposed lack of rationalism: the counter-reason of Zen, the deep spirituality of Indian mysticism, the honor codes of “warrior races.” The East has spirit and authenticity, while the West is condemned to soulless materialism. This can contain the sinister overtones of purity, not just of culture, but of race.

Race is all,” wrote Benjamin Disraeli, whom Tom Reiss rightly places in a tradition of Jewish Orientalism. Disraeli may have been a converted Anglican, but everything, from his name to his dark, brooding looks, set him apart as an exotic in Victorian Britain. Rather than pretend to be a typical son of roast beef and old England, he made the most of his exoticism. In a variation of eighteenth-century British Orientalism, he, too, aimed for a perfect fusion between the Jews as the world’s oldest and noblest Oriental aristocracy and the English as the superior European race. By urging his Queen to become empress of India, he turned Britain into an Oriental power. By acting as the Oriental savior of the British upper class, he escaped from potential rejection. He embraced the Orient, or at least a fantasy of the Orient, in order to be accepted in the Occident.

Disraeli was the most flamboyant example of a wider trend among nineteenth-century Jews. If Reiss’s book is cluttered by far too much historical digression, his chapter on Jewish Orientalism is of enormous interest. Not long after Disraeli spun his Orientalist fantasies of ancient Jewish nobility, German Ashkenazim built synagogues in the Moorish style in a nostalgic tribute to Muslim Andalusia, when Jews and Muslims had a secure place on European soil. Even as Jews in the late nineteenth century were being increasingly rejected as aliens among the German Volk, Jewish Orientalists tried to “out-völk the Völkists,” as Reiss puts it, by claiming an Oriental purity of their own. This led to some peculiar ideals which would surprise many readers of Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Martin Buber, for example, linked Zionism to the ideal of pan-Asianism. Each Jew, he believed, was imbued with an “Asian spirit,” and Judaism thus belonged to the same civilization as China, Persia, and Egypt. His Zionism was not part of a Western colonial project. On the contrary, he wanted Jews to return to Palestine to revive “the ancient Oriental spirit,” which colonialism and Western influence had all but snuffed out. One of the ironies of modern Jewish–Arab relations is that when Buber moved to Jerusalem, his landlord was Edward Said’s father.

The difference between Nussimbaum and Buber, or Disraeli for that matter, was that Nussimbaum really was born with one foot in the Orient. As a child he was absorbed in his father’s well-stocked library by books about Persian wise men and Turkish knights. And he would roam around the old Muslim walled city and the crumbling palace of the khans, which for him became “the epitome of peaceful, ancient, silent grandeur.” In his imagination, if not always in reality, he would remain a man from the mysterious East.

Reiss quotes two passages, one from the novel Ali and Nino and one from a nonfiction book by Nussimbaum, published in Berlin in 1930 and entitled Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus. In the first, Ali muses about horsemen in the sandy Arabian desert, “their snow-white burnooses billowing in the wind,” and “prophets praying toward Mecca,” and concluded that he wants “to be one with…this desert, one with this incomprehensible, intricate script, one with the entire Islamic Orient, which in our Baku had been so ceremoniously carried to the grave, to the victorious drumbeats of European culture.”

The second quote is even more interesting, and self-revealing, for it concerns an Orient entirely of his own imagination, a place called Khevsuria, a society without policemen, separated from the rest of the world by a gigantic wall of rock, to be entered by sliding down a long rope. “Only the refugee dares use the rope, to be accepted if he is so inclined into the society of the Khevsurs and protected for ever from all dangers.”

Nussimbaum wrote this after first having to flee from political violence to Persia, then Constantinople, then Paris, and then Berlin, where he converted to Islam and liked to be regarded as an Ottoman noble. Other self-invented characters, some though not all of them Jews, come to mind. Nussimbaum entered Germany in 1921, a year after a failed putsch by rightwing military revanchists, led by Dr. Wolfgang Kapp and General Erich von Ludendorff, whose followers wore the swastika on their helmets. Kapp’s personal secretary was none other than the Hungarian Jew Trebitsch Lincoln, whose rich career included episodes as a Christian missionary in Canada, a British member of Parliament, a German spy, an oil speculator in Romania, and finally a Buddhist monk in China.2 It was Lincoln, according to a footnote in The Orientalist, who advised the young Adolf Hitler to flee the scene when the coup came to nothing.

The infatuation with ancient institutions and aristocrats, often to be found among these adventurers, is not without logic. As Reiss points out, monarchies were often good for the Jews, or at least better than the nationalist and revolutionary passions unleashed by their demise. That is why Joseph Roth, the great Viennese writer, was a lifelong monarchist. Emperor Franz Joseph offered a kind of protection to all his subjects. It is also why England, with its relatively liberal upper class (liberal enough to be led by a Jew at the height of Britain’s imperial glory), was a source of such fascination to the persecuted denizens of the Pale. Or indeed why Theodor Herzl looked for the patronage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, as well as British aristocrats, for his Zionist enterprise.

The Orient, or an idea of the Orient, offered a refuge to a man like Nussimbaum, who could not feel safe anywhere in the Western world. It was an identity that lent him pride, a certain grandeur, even as he was denounced by German anti-Semites as a “Jewish forger.” Which in a way of course he was, but partly out of necessity. It was never easy to be a Jew in Europe, and after the Nazis came to power positively dangerous. Nussimbaum certainly could not publish in his own name. But in the end fantasies can only offer a temporary escape.

  1. 1

    See, for example, Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, reviewed in these pages on December 8, 1988.

  2. 2

    For an account of Trebitsch Lincoln, see Hugh Trevor-Roper, “His Brilliant Career,” The New York Review, June 2, 1988. The Autobiography of an Adventurer, by J.T. Trebitsch Lincoln, translated by Emile Burns (London: Leonard Stein, 1931), is still well worth reading.

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