In June 1849, in the last days of the revolutionary German National Assembly, the vice-president, Gabriel Riesser, one of its seven Jewish members, addressed the body during a debate on civil rights. Speaking of the inequality from which he and his fellows suffered, he brought thunderous applause from his audience when he cried:

We are not immigrants—we were born here—and so we cannot claim any other home: either we are Germans or we have no homeland. Whoever disputes my claim to this my German fatherland disputes my right to my own thoughts, my feelings, my language—the very air I breathe. Therefore, I must defend myself against him as I would against a murderer.

Riesser was one of a long line of assimilated German Jews whose story is told in The Pity of It All, Amos Elon’s impressive new book, Jews who worshiped German culture and civilization, which they claimed as their own, and who were preoccupied and tormented by the resultant duality. Their enterprise ended badly, but Elon does not believe that this had to be so; nor does he agree with those writers who have seen an inexorable pattern in German history, preordained in Luther’s time and culminating with the Holocaust. “According to this theory,” he writes, “the Jews were doomed from the outset, their fate as immutable as a law of nature. Such absolute certainties have eluded me.” Instead, he sees only a series of ups and downs and unforeseeable contingencies, and he reminds us at the outset that even Hitler, who wrote the story’s final chapter, was a kind of accident, who confounded the intentions of those who put him in power.1

In the nineteenth century, German Jews who worried about their identity had no dearth of models to inspire them. Preeminent among them was Moses Mendelssohn, who came to Berlin in 1743 at the age of fourteen as a student of the Talmud and who could neither write nor speak the German language. As a student of Berlin’s chief rabbi, and later as tutor to the son of a wealthy silk merchant, Mendelssohn taught himself not only German, but Latin, Greek, English, and French, while at the same time beginning a systematic study of the ancient classics and such modern writers as Spinoza, Newton, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. He met and became close friends with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the Berlin publisher Friedrich Nicolai, and with their encouragement began to write works of philosophic-aesthetic criticism, the most famous of which, Phaidon, or The Immortality of the Soul in Three Dialogues, an adaptation of Plato’s dialogue on that subject, became the most widely read book in Germany and made him a European celebrity.

As his book about the Rothschilds has demonstrated,2 Elon has a special affinity for the period in which Mendelssohn’s reputation grew, and his account of the philosopher’s relations with his contemporaries is as amusing as it is rich in detail. Understandably, Mendelssohn’s company was sought by other intellectuals, and it was not long before the Prussian Academy of Sciences elected him as a member. That body, however, was a kind of private preserve of King Frederick the Great, and his whims decided who was allowed to enter it. The King vetoed the proposal to admit Mendelssohn, although he never explained why he had done so. The Academy’s president, the French mathematician Pierre-Louis Maupertuis, was probably correct when he said that Mendelssohn possessed all of the qualifications for membership except a foreskin. No one dared to suggest, at least not publicly, that Mendelssohn’s stature was enhanced by the King’s silence.

Mendelssohn was also the target of people intent upon self-gratification. The Zurich deacon Johann Caspar Lavater, a popular disseminator of the pseudoscience physiognomy, concluded after studying engravings of Mendelssohn’s features, which he considered to be unusually noble, that the philosopher was ready for conversion to Christianity and began a public campaign to persuade him to take that step. Despite considerable pressure from well-intentioned zealots, Mendelssohn refused to be cozened into accepting a religion that he privately considered to be filled with dogmas that contradicted reason. “On this occasion,” he wrote, “I declare myself a Jew. I shall always remain a Jew.”

Parenthetically, it may be noted that many of Mendelssohn’s fellow Jews did convert, mostly for secular reasons, in order to enhance their social status or facilitate marriage, or to avoid legal restrictions on professional or academic position. Elon points out that “before conversion most converts were nonpracticing Jews; after conversion, they were nonpracticing Christians.”

Mendelssohn’s friendship with Lessing—which was celebrated in Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise, with its plea for a common humanity—and with other leading intellectuals of his age inspired German Jews throughout the nineteenth century and stirred in them the hope of a similar acceptance. They drew comfort also from the stature of Heinrich Heine. Elon writes of him that no other writer was ever so German and so Jewish and so ambivalent and ironic about being both. And as time went on they were heartened by the intellectual and artistic accomplishments and the wide social acceptance of other German Jews—one thinks of the composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and the now forgotten novelist Berthold Auerbach, who was read throughout Europe and compared by Turgenev with Dickens. The transformation of the German Jews from a handful of ill-treated peddlers and cattle-dealers scattered through the German states into an industrious bourgeoisie whose share in the country’s social and intellectual product belied the fact that they never made up more than one percent of the population was certainly due in some part to the fact that they had such models.


Their political emancipation was delayed by the prevailing division of the country. The political agitations of the 1830s were largely devoid of result, but the nationwide revolution of 1848 was different and, despite its failure to achieve its announced goals, it proved to be a crucial turning point for German Jews, strengthening their sense, Elon writes, of finally becoming Germans. The revolutionary year increased the number of Jews who became involved in politics and brought them together with other liberal parties, increasing the pres- sure for civil rights. The process of emancipation was completed as a result of Prussia’s unification of the German states in 1871, which was followed by a formal emancipation law that abolished all restrictions on civil and political rights derived from religious differences.

The Jews were for the most part elated by this recognition of their equality. The more perceptive of them soon recognized, however, that, equal or not, they had not gained everything they wanted, and could not do so as long as they were regarded as being different from other people. This was what Heine’s friend Ludwig Börne called “the Jewish misère.” “It’s a miracle!” Börne wrote:

I’ve gone through it a thousand times but each time I experience it as something new. Some reproach me for being a Jew; others forgive me for being one; there are even those who commend me for the same—but there’s no one able to put this fact out of his mind. They all seem bound by the spell of this magic Jewish circle, from which none are able to escape.

In the years after unification Germany could boast not only of its military and economic prowess but of its unrivaled educational system, its scientific and research facilities, and its rich cultural life. The Jewish contribution to all this was prodigious, and Elon ruminates on the reasons why. Was it “self-conscious marginality” or “the stimulus of suffering and blows,” he asks, or “the interplay of challenge and response” or “tribal pressure”? The simplest explanation was that generations of hard-working merchants and businessmen and what Heinrich von Treitschke called “pants-selling Jew boys” had sons who were not content with these occupations and turned to higher education in order to escape them and seek careers in the sciences and the arts. Albert Einstein once said that the proverbial industry of the younger generation made it appear that they had spent the last two thousand years preparing for university entrance examinations.

The result was an explosion of talent that contributed powerfully to the expansion of the sciences—one historian has identified thirty-nine leading German-Jewish scientists born before 1880, nine of whom, including Einstein and Paul Ehrlich, won Nobel Prizes—and of journalism, publishing, the theater, and the arts. This became so noticeable that a young German journalist named Moritz Goldstein wrote an article in 1912 claiming that Jews now controlled German culture and that “we are administering the spiritual property of a nation that denies our right and our ability to do so.” Elon demonstrates that this was a grossly inflated claim and that most of the country’s leading lights in the arts and literature were non-Jews—the brothers Mann, Gerhart Hauptmann, the poets Rilke and Stefan George, the composers Wagner and Strauss, to mention only a few. Even so, Goldstein’s article was widely read and debated, and, what was worse, widely believed, and this contributed to the never insignificant and now growing anti-Semitism in the country.

Compared with other European countries, Germany had generally been considered as the one in which Jewish assimilation and acculturation had the best chances of success. In contrast, Russia was a land of pogroms; France was paralyzed by anti-Jewish feeling during the Dreyfus case; and as late as 1900 the British imposed rigorous limits on Jewish immigration, and in 1916 denied a scholarship at All Souls to Lewis Namier because of his “Polish-Jewish origins.” In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, this situation began to change as German politics began to be affected by what might be called scapegoating, that is, a tendency to put the blame upon Jews for occurrences and ailments in public life over which they had no control.


The first example of this came during the economic crash of 1873, which was due essentially to the overheating of the economy under the impact of the French reparations payments for the recent war and complicated by the Reichstag’s failure to heed the liberal Eduard Lasker’s warnings about corrupt dealings between parliamentarians and the railroad tycoon Bethel Strousberg. As a result, tens of thousands of middle-class and aristocratic families lost their fortunes. In the search for culprits that ensued, the fact that both the villain Strousberg and the well-intentioned Lasker were Jews, as were a good many stockbrokers, gave the victims a convincing explanation for losses that had been due to their own credulity and loosed upon the land an anti-Semitism more extreme than anything the country had seen since the Middle Ages.

In the years that followed this found expression in the sermons of the court chaplain Adolf Stöcker, who insisted that “if we wish to hold fast to our German national character, we must get rid of the poisonous Jewish drop in our blood,” and in an article in the Preußische Jahrbücher by the historian Heinrich von Treitschke, in which he declared that “the Jews are our national misfortune.” Although neither man was a racist and both argued for Jewish conversion to Christianity, they gave a spurious respectability to the more extreme forms of anti-Semitism. The end of the economic troubles in the 1890s and the return of prosperity alleviated this situation. Stöcker’s political activities came to an end when Emperor William II became annoyed with them and demoted his chaplain, while Treitschke’s position was roundly attacked by his colleagues, led by Theodor Mommsen. After that, attacks upon Jews became infrequent, and things returned to normal.

This was only temporary, however, and in the course of World War I scapegoating returned in a more extreme form. German Jews responded to the coming of the conflict with enthusiasm. Even longtime critics of the regime like the popular German-Jewish journalist Maximilian Harden (whose original name was Witkowsky) became super-patriots overnight. The linguist Victor Klemperer, usually a discerning man, was moved to wish the worst of misfortunes upon England, while writing in his diary, “We, we Germans, are a truly chosen people.” The war, it was widely believed, would finally consummate the German-Jewish symbiosis.

When the tide of battle turned, however, and the strategy of attrition began to wear down the spirit of both the army and the home front, complaints began to be heard that the prolongation of the war was owing to the fact that rich Jews hadn’t yet made enough money from it and that the army’s strength was weakened by large numbers of Jewish draft dodgers. Pressure was put upon the War Ministry to determine the number of Jews serving at the front as compared with those at the rear. In October 1916, by which time, Elon reminds us, three thousand Jews had already died on the battlefield and more than seven thousand had been decorated, it complied.

The fact that a so-called “Jewish census” was being taken had a devastating effect upon German Jews in the army. Its findings were never released publicly, although distorted versions were leaked to right-wing circles. In consequence, as defeat came to Germany in 1918, the theory that the Jews were in some large part responsible for it became firmly embedded in the German consciousness.

Elon’s account of the final act of this tortured drama could hardly be improved on. The Weimar Republic began, he writes, in a flurry of hope, and this was justified by its intellectual achievements. Nowhere in modern Europe did arts, sciences, and advanced thought flourish as they did in Germany. “In literature, music, film, theater, and design,” he writes, “Weimar evoked a marvelous sense of the new, the vanguard admired to this day,” and in all this German Jews played a leading part. But, culture aside, Weimar was a disaster. As Alfred Döblin once wrote, it was a republic without proper “instructions for use.”

The government was handicapped from the outset by the lost war, the revolution that put an end to the monarchy, and the crippling peace treaty that was imposed by the Allies. It was fatally wounded by the horrendous inflation caused by its attempt to escape the financial demands of the treaty and finally dispatched when the Great Depression ended its last hopes of recovery. Weimar was from the beginning a republic without republicans, for the members of the middle-class democratic parties soon gravitated to the extreme right and left. And it was a republic with only two great leaders, one of whom, Gustav Stresemann, died in 1930 on the eve of a fateful crisis that only he might have mastered, while the other, Walther Rathenau, who hoped to reconcile Germany with its former enemies, was assassinated in 1922, presumably for the crime of being a Jew and daring to serve as foreign minister.

For an untold number of Germans, the republic was a Judenrepublik. Everything that was disliked about it was blamed on the Jews. Indeed, Elon writes, “…every unresolved problem and all the world’s evils from the crucifixion of Christ to capitalism, Communism, syphilis, and the lost war were projected onto a tiny minority representing 0.9 percent of the population.” It is true, of course, that not everyone who made such allegations really believed them, but after 1930 there was a man waiting in the wings who was determined to use them for his own purposes and who would know how to do so.

Even in the last days German Jews did not waver in their insistence that they were Germans. Some of them may have taken comfort in something Heine had written long ago:

The marriage that I have had with our dear Frau Germania, the beautiful bear-skinner, has never been a happy one. I still remember well several beautiful moonlit nights when she pressed me tenderly to her great bosom with the virtuous nipples. But these sentimental nights could be counted on one’s fingers and toward morning a peevish yawning coolness always intervened and the endless nagging began. And in the end we lived separated in bed and board. But it never came to a real divorce. The stone mason who has to decorate our last resting place with an inscription will have to reckon with no objection if he engraves there the words, “Here lies a German writer.”3

This Issue

December 5, 2002