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…

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