At the end of the 1820s, the Austrian dramatist Franz Grillparzer made his first visit to Berlin. He stayed at The King of Portugal, where he was visited shortly after his arrival by the novelist La Motte Fouqué, who took him off to the exclusive literary club the Mittwochsgesellschaft, where he met, among others, the former diplomat Karl August Varnhagen von Ense and Adelbert Chamisso, the author of Peter Schlemihl. Later, Varnhagen offered to walk him back to his hotel. “As we passed by his home,” Grillparzer wrote in his autobiography,

he suggested that he would like his wife to meet me. I had been on the go all day long and was tired to death, and I was therefore heartily glad when we learned at the doorway that the Frau Councillor of Legation was not at home. As we came down the steps, however, she came towards us, and I resigned myself to my fate. But then the lady—aging, perhaps never pretty, bent and twisted by illness, something like a fairy, not to speak of a witch—began to talk, and I was enchanted. My fatigue disappeared, or rather gave way to a kind of drunkenness. She talked and talked until almost midnight, and I no longer know whether they drove me out or whether I went of my own accord. I have never in my life heard anyone talk better or more interestingly.*

Grillparzer’s enchantress was the famous Rahel, the “little Levi” who a quarter of a century earlier had presided over the most famous of the Jewish salons that were a conspicuous part of Berlin’s intellectual life and, for a brief time, a common meeting ground for writers and scholars, upwardly mobile commoners with good connections, government officials, and members of the nobility with intellectual pretentions. To Rahel’s “Jewish sofa,” to use the phrase of the Swedish diplomat Karl Gustav von Brinckmann, came such eminences as Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, the brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, the writers Friedrich Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, and (briefly) Jean Paul Richter, and the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, as well as distinguished visitors from abroad. And Rahel Varnhagen was not the only magnet attracting the intellectual haute volée of Berlin, for Dorothea Veit and Henriette Herz, among others, were also successful salonières with their own distinguished coteries. In 1797 Karl August Böttiger wrote in his travel journals,

Formerly, the beautiful Jewish women were only in a position to determine the daily order of frippery and fashion in Berlin. But for some time now they have also had the initiative in judging the closely reasoned syllogism, the wittiest comedy, the most skillful actor, and the best poem.

The great age of the Berlin salons, from 1780 to 1806, has received little attention from contemporary historians of Germany and Berlin. In the two-volume history of the city edited by Wolfgang Ribbe to celebrate the 750th anniversary of its founding, it was passed over in silence, and it fares no better in Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s new and lengthy Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte. Deborah Hertz’s substantial book on the Jewish salons comes, therefore, as a welcome surprise, the more so because she asks questions that have generally been ignored about the origins and social significance of this curious phenomenon and the reasons why it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared; and because she then answers them on the basis of a staggering amount of reading on virtually every aspect of the history of the last phase of the old regime in Prussia.

Salons and such had, of course, existed long before the end of the eighteenth century. Indeed, as Hertz points out, social gatherings of the fashionable and well-to-do that were open to intellectuals and organized by women of wit and social ambition had often appeared in the past whenever peace, prosperity, urban life, luxury spending, and an interest of the powerful in matters of high culture combined to encourage their formation. There were salons, or gatherings like them, in classical Greece and at the French court in the twelfth century. Since the Renaissance, they appeared with some frequency at the courts of Italy and in France; and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they were a regular feature of Parisian life. But why did they appear in Prussia at this particular time, a society known for the rigidity of its social protocol? And why under the leadership of Jewish women, in view of the fact that the Jews were not Prussian citizens in any meaningful sense and would not receive full civil rights until 1871, and the additional fact that Jewish women tended throughout the early modern period to center their lives on the family and remain loyal to their faith?

In a penetrating analysis of the social structure and psychological mood of Prussia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Deborah Hertz demonstrates how the contradictions of Hohenzollern policy, which was driven, on the one hand, by the desire to make Prussia a European great power by modernizing its economic and military resources and, on the other hand, by a simultaneous determination to preserve an ancient social structure based upon the nobility’s absolute monopoly of ownership of the land created a tension between innovation and conservatism. The tension, in her words, “created the geographical and social mobility that eventually made salons possible” in the years that followed the death of Frederick the Great.


The dynasty’s heightened political ambitions were reflected in the increase in the number of royal officials living in the city. Its instinct for modernization and growth encouraged the richest of the Jewish families who were expelled from Vienna in 1670 and, fourteen years later, the Huguenot refugees from France to settle in Berlin, the latter incursion bringing the French language and French ideas to the capital and adding a distinctive ingredient to the Berlin style. Meanwhile, the conservative land policy of the Hohenzollern regime was vulnerable to changes in the structure of Prussian agriculture that put a premium on large estates that were heavily capitalized; and this led in the eighteenth century to an increasing noble alienation from the land and the emigration to the city of a great many younger sons hoping for posts in the bureaucracy or the army, a motive that also induced any number of ambitious young commoners to come to Berlin.

In addition, while Berlin had no university until 1809, the Prussian Academy of Sciences and other institutes exercised a powerful attraction upon European and German scholars and intellectuals, and from the time of Lessing and Iffland the city had a theater and opera house that engaged the finest talents in Germany. In short, as the city’s population grew, the upper reaches of its society and its intelligentsia became more diverse, without, however—because of the still rigid structure of society—acquiring any social and cultural institutions that were open to all of its varieties. In their hours of leisure, the cultivated classes could make limited contacts across class lines in public entertainments of one kind or another, at court receptions, or in the city’s numerous intellectual clubs, although class, status, and sex determined admission to the last two of these. But, Hertz writes, if these relationships “were to be deepened, and if those excluded from these three leisure events were ever to meet each other, a new setting was needed. That new setting was the salon.”

Why was the new institution so successful? Partly because of a shift in the ideological temper of the times, which, Hertz says, “favored imitation of French high culture, the social power of educated women, and friendship with acculturated Jews.” It was no accident that the rise of the salons coincided with the first phase of German Romanticism, which placed such enthusiastic emphasis upon the exotic, the oriental, and the sensual. The physical glamour of Henriette Herz and the romantic sensibility and rebelliousness of Rahel would probably have been enough to make them successful salonières, but the fact that they were Jewish added an additional piquancy to an evening in their company, the frisson that one feels in the presence of the unknown and—in this case, given Prussian society’s traditional stratification—the forbidden.

But that was not the whole story. On the basis of a close study of the lives of those who attended salons, Hertz concludes that a specific pattern of downward and upward mobility helps to explain the success of these gatherings. The acceleration of the commercial economy created a considerable number of nobles who were rich in status but poor in cash and hence more willing to disregard the rigid standards of caste and status that had prevailed in the past. Some of them sought economic advantage in the salons; others (one thinks of Heinrich von Kleist, Adelbert Chamisso, La Motte Fouqué, and Achim von Arnim) were committed to serious intellectual work and saw the salon as the place where one found the city’s liveliest minds. Conversely, for young men on the way up, Hertz points out that “affiliation with salon society both presumed and in turn affected their…social mobility,” as was shown by the career of Friedrich Gentz, who was introduced to salon society in 1784 by Karl Gustav von Brinckmann and Wilhelm von Humboldt, and who, thanks to the friendships he made there with Prince Louis Ferdinand and others, and to his own native wit, was launched on the career that brought him in the end an Austrian title and the position of Metternich’s secretary at the Congress of Vienna.


Finally, to the daughters of the Jewish elite in Berlin, who according to Hertz’s calculations comprised the majority of the salonières and a third of all salon women, the salon offered a way of fulfilling their cultural aspirations and, for an appreciable number of them, a place where they might find potential marriage partners among the noble participants. “The prospect of intermarriage, especially to a noble, was, after all,” Hertz writes,

a heady incentive for a Jewish woman in the eighteenth century; marriage was virtually a woman’s only route to upward mobility. To be born Jewish and to marry noble was really a double jump up the ladder of corporate estates at a time when economic classes cutting across the estate hierarchy were only beginning to form. However fabulously wealthy members of the Jewish elite were, the Jewish community was far below most commoners and below all nobles in terms of civic rights and privileges. And in the Prussian context, before the modest reforms of 1806–14, there was little hope that the nobility’s privileges and prestige would be attacked by either the masses, the state bureaucracy, or the crown.

Intermarriage presupposed conversion to the Christian faith, a subject that Hertz treats with great delicacy, pointing out how painful an experience this was for even the most sophisticated members of the salon generation, despite the argument advanced by deists and romantics that, in view of their common core of beliefs, a convergence between the Christian and Jewish religions was inevitable and hesitation to convert, therefore, irrational. Schleiermacher was always seeking to convince his Jewish friends that their religion was dead, with some success. Three noted salonières—Amalie Beer, Sara Levy, and Fanny von Arnstein—opposed conversion on principle, but of the total of twenty salon women studied by Hertz at least seventeen converted and ten married Gentiles. Nor was the conversion of women restricted to salon society. In a careful examination of the total Jewish population in Berlin, Hertz shows that the general increase of conversion in these years was significant and that Jewish women outside salons were intermarrying more often than Jewish men.

All of this might seem to suggest, Hertz writes, “that there was a philosemitic mood in Berlin in these years which had a particular effect on Jewish women, both inside and outside of salons.” But if such a feeling existed, why did the salons disappear so quickly after 1806? The usual answer is that the Prussian defeat at the hands of Napoleon at Jena and Auerstedt in that year and the subsequent French occupation aroused a wave of intense nationalism, with a strong admixture of Christianity, that identified all Jews as outsiders and all Jewish ideas as a threat to the oneness and identity that could alone liberate Germany. Hertz, however, believes that the “unraveling of the…complex network of salon associations was much more ironic and…much more dialectical” than that.

What appeared to be new anti-Semitism after 1806 had always in fact been latent. The very success of the salonières had aroused resentments that found expression in the private correspondence of non-Jewish salongoers, and a person like Wilhelm von Humboldt, despite his many Jewish friends, was never able to overcome a contempt for what he considered to be Jewish traits. When Karl Wilhelm Grattenauer, in a notorious pamphlet in 1803, attacked Jewish women for pretentiousness and wrote that neither wealth nor cultivation nor powerful friends could erase the “stink” of Jewishness, he was merely saying what others thought secretly. Thus it is probably true that the foundations of the Jewish salons were being badly eroded long before the defeat of 1806 made patriotic anti-Semitism fashionable, and that in reality what might have seemed to be a hopeful sign of Jewish social integration was nothing but an aberration.

Hertz’s relentless use of statistical analysis will probably try the patience of some readers, at least on those occasions, which are not infrequent, when it appears to belabor the obvious. Her book is marred also by intermittent carelessness: a slapdash way with infinitives, whose brutally bifurcated shapes are strewn about these pages, and a tendency to occasional adjectival overkill, as in expressions like “cultural acculturation.” Her thumbnail characterizations of people who appear in her story (“the crucial Gustav von Brinckmann,” “Fichte, Germany’s new star philosopher,” “Karl Philipp Moritz,…notorious for his astonishing mobility”) are not very helpful; and, perhaps on the basis of a hasty reading of Alexander Altmann’s biography of Moses Mendelssohn, she twice mentions an audience granted by Frederick the Great to the Jewish philosopher that, in fact, never took place. But these are minor blemishes, and this impressive study tells us much that is interesting about the salons, while illuminating the whole period of which they were a part.

It is interesting to turn from Hertz’s book to Georg Hermann’s novel about the life of a Jewish family in Biedermeier Berlin. Jettchen Gebert was serialized in the Vossische Zeitung in 1906, had 166 reprintings and new editions in book form between then and the coming of the Nazis, was presented as a play in 1913, a film in 1918, and a musical in 1928, and has been back in print in both the Federal and the Democratic republics since the mid-Fifties, the latest edition being published in 1986. Hermann was the younger brother of Rudolf Borchardt, the Egyptologist whose excavations at Amarna between 1911 and 1914 discovered the bust of Nefertiti, whose popularity in Berlin has over time probably equaled that of Hermann’s heroine. Hermann himself began his career as an art historian, with books on Max Liebermann and Wilhelm Busch and a notable study of the German Biedermeier, but after the phenomenal success of Jettchen Gebert he devoted himself largely to fiction. In March 1933, he went into exile in Holland, but when the Nazis invaded that country he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. He died in KZ Birkenau in November 1943.

That the novel Jettchen Gebert has delighted generations of Berliners is owing largely to its faithful, indeed loving, reconstruction of the Berlin of 1839–1840 and the sentimental, nostalgic, edelkitschig tone in which its story of a young Jewish woman’s tribulations is told. But it may also be true that its immediate appeal to Jewish readers lay in its picture of the kind of Jewish integration into German society toward which they had aspired since the days of Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn believed that the Jews had to liberate themselves from the spiritual ghetto in which they had lived for centuries by ceasing to regard themselves as a separate nation. They had to free their religion from outworn rituals, work for its acceptance as one denomination among others, and accept German culture as their own—an ideal that persisted even after the Nazis had officially excluded the Jews from German cultural life, which explains why the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden gave performances of the drama Jettchen Gebert before Jewish audiences as late as 1935.

In the novel, the Gebert family represents Mendelssohn’s ideal, for it is a Jewish merchant family long resident in Berlin—liberal, cultivated, with commercial connections with the court and a history of military service in the war against Napoleon, in which, indeed, Jettchen’s father was killed. By marriage, the Geberts are related to the Jacobys, East European Jews from Poland with no pretentions to culture and an imperfect command of the German language, not scrupulously honest in business, and clinging to the religious rituals of the past. The male members of the Gebert clan look upon the Jacobys as little better than barbarians, and yet, when their beautiful niece Jettchen falls in love with a young writer who is not a Jew, they set their faces against the union and pressure Jettchen into accepting marriage with one of their Jacoby cousins, although the oldest member of the family refers to him as “ein fauler Posensche Schnorrer.” They do so, not primarily because of the suitor’s lack of obvious prospects, but rather because they are aghast at the thought of Jettchen being converted. This is explained to the unhappy young man by Jettchen’s uncle Jason, her favorite and the one who has most clearly dedicated his life to the pursuit of German arts and letters. Whatever other reasons may be given for their opposition, he tells him,

it all comes down to the fact that you are a Christian. You think that we should be tolerant enough to overlook that fortuitous circumstance. Perhaps. But in thinking that you forget a certain pride that our family has, that it is precisely as Jews that we are regarded and respected here. If our father had wished to allow himself and us to be baptized, as he was urged to do more than once, we should perhaps now be called von Gebert and be officers and councilors in the government. And that we did not do that and did not creep to the cross and did not sell our way of thinking in any way—not this way and not that—that is our pride, and we shall not take it gladly in the future if that is given up in our family. Do you see? Do you understand that?

The young man finds it difficult to do so, but Jewish readers who believed that integration must be based upon mutual respect and must not demand sacrifices from one of the parties would have seen the point, while sympathizing with Jettchen.

In Jettchen’s Berlin, there were no Jewish salons, and the best known salonière was Bettina von Arnim, whose taste ran more to oppositional politics than that of the hostesses of the years between 1780 and 1806. At Bettina’s, one could find members of the lately suppressed Burschenschaft movement and leaders of the Young German movement like Karl Gutzkow and Ludolf Wienbarg, but also, every now and then, figures from the past like Alexander von Humboldt. August von Varnhagen was also apt to drop in, a widower ever since Rahel’s death in 1833, but keeping busy by writing the voluminous diaries that are such an important source for the pre-1848 period (and upon which Hermann depended heavily in writing his novel). At social gatherings, Varnhagen liked to sit in the corner and make whole zoos of little animals by folding sheets of paper. In 1847, when Emma Herwegh (also a salonière of sorts, but in Zurich and in the 1850s, where her gatherings were composed largely of Italian revolutionaries) came from Paris to visit her parents, she had a conversation with Varnhagen, at the end of which he presented her with such a menagerie. She mailed it to her husband in Paris, with instructions that one of the animals, a “Homeric buffalo,” should be presented to her anarchist friend Michael Bakunin.

This Issue

May 12, 1988