Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt; drawing by David Levine

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.”1

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 moved to Palestine—which didn’t yet have a university—with some two thousand books on mysticism and a few dozen detective thrillers. His mother kept him supplied there for years with pork sausages and marzipan from Germany.

In Palestine, Scholem for years supported the Brit Shalom movement for a binational state; he was often sharply critical of the “purely reactionary forces in Zionism” that were asserting themselves in Palestine. “We strayed into the desert of Araby on our way to Zion,” he wrote to Walter Benjamin in 1931. “Our own hubris blocked the path” there.2 One Zionist had Scholem in mind when he complained that some German immigrants were more worried about Arab rights than about Jewish rights.

Victor Klemperer, later renowned for his remarkable diary of life as a Jew in Nazi Germany, remained a German patriot throughout. He felt more shame for Germany, he said, than fear. Klemperer survived Nazism thanks to his non-Jewish wife, whom Nazi hoodlums periodically beat up as a Judenhure, and who stood by him until the liberation. His brothers and cousins (among them the famous conductor Otto Klemperer) emigrated soon after Hitler’s rise to power. Victor never seriously contemplated emigration.

Of the three, Hannah Arendt was the freest in her thinking and the most complicated. In 1932, she saw the danger of remaining in Germany more clearly than most others. Karl Jaspers, her teacher, vainly tried to discourage her from turning her back on Germany: it was her present, her past, her future, he claimed. Arendt answered: “Germany in its old splendor is your past, but what mine is I can hardly say in a phrase.” Henceforth, she would strongly affirm her identity as a Jew but recoiled from all collective and ideological labeling, a subject over which she later bitterly quarreled with his erstwhile friend Scholem.


Scholem’s headstrong, seductive personality, perhaps inevitably, dominates this composite portrait,3 and not only because of his well-known tempestuous clash with Arendt in the aftermath of the Eichmann trial. He was probably the most influential thinker on Jewish history and Jewish religious culture in the twentieth century. More than anyone else he helped to make classic Jewish studies a part of Western culture. He had an intuitive grasp of the theological and metaphysical ground of things. The department store tycoon Salman Schocken (a secular Zionist), who believed that, like Germany, the modern nation-state the Zionists were building in Palestine was in need of a mystical foundation, subsidized Scholem’s explorations of previously ignored Jewish mystical thought for years. (For the same reason, Schocken subsidized the future Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon.)

Scholem was driven by a master vision cloaked as philology. By concentrating critical scholarship on the hidden tradition in Judaism of kabbalah —hitherto considered by Jewish liberals as mere superstition—he almost single-handedly invented a new discipline and turned it into a legitimate field of study. Much of this he achieved only after he emigrated to Palestine. In the mid-Twenties, he must have cut an unusual figure in Jerusalem, as he trudged in the heat through the dusty, narrow alleyways of Mea Shaarim—the city’s ultra-Orthodox slum quarter, where Zionists were likely to be stoned for being secular. Six feet tall, lanky, invariably dressed formally in white linen suits and silk ties, he was looking for the last “practical kabbalists,” i.e., those practicing some form of black magic. A running joke among his colleagues at what became the Hebrew University was that he actually believed in black magic himself, so deeply had he immersed himself in kabbalistic studies.

Scholem’s harsh judgment on German Jews before 1933 was equally influential. He condemned them for living, often knowingly, a “lie.” German Jews lived with this terrible accusation for decades afterward. Scholem made no secret of his contempt for the “undignified” bourgeois German-Jewish milieu in which he himself had grown up. For a long time, high school teachers and politicians in Israel endorsed Scholem’s contempt of “craven assimilation”; some went so far as to insinuate that German Jews had somehow deserved their fate. Scholem famously insisted that whatever German–Jewish “dialogue” there might have been before 1933 had been entirely one-sided. Whatever integration there had been was only at the price of betraying Jewish tradition. Scholem ignored that a dialogue can’t take place between entire peoples, but, in his own case, it was the Jew who refused it. According to Aschheim, Scholem even believed at one time that no real intimacy and friendship was ever possible between Jews and Germans. He criticized Peter Gay’s well-known book Freud, Jews, and Other Germans as “scandalous”; the very title was “chutzpah.” Gay, according to Scholem, was “a classical example showing to which lengths glorifiers of Jewish assimilation to Germany are prepared to go thirty-five years after Auschwitz.”

Scholem came from a family with obstinate, rebellious sons that nearly broke up as a result of their conflicting ideas. One brother was a German nationalist—too right-wing even for the taste of the conservative father. Another became a Communist who later died in a concentration camp; the youngest, the precocious teenager Gerhard, felt an inexorable need to pursue his roots. Already as a teenager he preferred to be known as Gershom. The family celebrated Christmas as a German folk holiday. One year, under the family Christmas tree, Scholem found a silver-framed photo of Theodor Herzl, a Christmas gift from his doting mother. He was her favorite son but he drove his father to distraction. When the young Scholem first told him that he wanted seriously to be a Jew, his father’s reply was that of many assimilationists: “Jews are good only for the synagogue…. Do you want to return to the ghetto?” Gershom retorted: “You yourself live in a ghetto! I never met a Christian in your house except on formal occasions like your fiftieth birthday!”

At fifteen he praised Nietzsche for writing a new “Bible” and vowed to become the Jewish Zarathustra. His journals show an astonishingly mature mind at an early age. They analyze, often critically, Goethe, Spinoza, Humboldt, Rilke, Marx, Kierkegaard, Jakob Böhme with the erudition of a mind at least ten years older. A continuing interest in the “demonic,” a fascination with nihilism, and a disdain for liberal-bourgeois rationalism reveal the extent to which Scholem was a product of fin-de-siècle irrationalism with a Jewish twist. “Reason…is the longing of the dumb,” he wrote. His journal entries are sprinkled with negative allusions to women,4 and show a remarkable absence of any hints about sex or romantic fantasies.

But this most vehement critic of Deutschtum borrowed other fantasies from German nationalism, völkisch notions stressing the inalienable essence of the Jewish Volk, a primal “substance” partly composed of Jewish history and religion that resisted definition but still was “polluted” by the outside world. Its pristine essence must not be rendered impure. “Vital” reform must come only from within. Modernizing Orthodox Judaism under the influence of the gentile world—as in Reform Judaism—produced only degradation, “impurity,” and the liquidation of the authentic substance (although he did not himself observe Orthodox ritual). Scholem changed his mind later on, but in 1915 he favored a kind of voluntary apartheid. The headmaster of Scholem’s high school summoned Scholem’s father to complain that his son had asked that Jews and Germans be separated in the school. “We Jews and Germans do not go together.”


He was one of the few German Jews to oppose the 1914 war. He did so not out a sense of outraged humanity, Aschheim says, but for nationalistic Jewish reasons. It was not the Jews’ war. For opposing the war Scholem was thrown out of high school only a few months before graduation. For Scholem’s father this was too much, coming as it did a few weeks after his Communist son, Werner, faced the prospect of a court martial for the same offense. His reaction was harsh. “You are just a coward,” he said. The scene at the Scholem family breakfast table was a high moment of bourgeois tragicomedy. The maid handed Gershom a registered (!) letter that had just arrived by post. (At the other end of the table, Papa Scholem may have been reading the morning newspaper.)

February 15, 1917


I have decided to cut off all support to you. Bear in mind the following: you have until the first of March to leave the house, and you will be forbidden to enter it again without my permission. On March first, I will transfer 100 Marks to your account so that you will not be left without means. Anything more than this you cannot expect from me. It would therefore be a good idea for you to turn to the officials in charge of civilian service [i.e., the labor exchange]. They can offer you paid employment commensurate with your abilities.

Whether I will agree to finance your further studies after the war will depend on your future behavior.

Your father, Arthur Scholem.

Frau Scholem’s efforts to bring about a reconciliation proved vain. Gershom moved to a cheap pension, while meeting such intellectuals as Walter Benjamin and Martin Buber, and lived on what she was able to save from her household money and by giving lessons to children. Five months later he successfully avoided the draft by pretending to suffer from dementia praecox—he screamed at the military doctors like a caged animal and refused to look anybody in the eye. He was classified as unfit for service.

Hannah Arendt, the iconoclastic political theorist, was particularly concerned, among many other subjects, with the nature of totalitarianism, the problem of political evil, and the Jewish predicament in the modern world. In her youth she sympathized with the Zionists but later became critical of their failure to seek an early accommodation with the Arabs. She warned that they would only shift the center of antisemitism from Europe to the Middle East. By 1960 the Zionist project seemed to her doomed. Her prodigious correspondence vividly reflects the choices she made.

Her preoccupation with “identity” is revealed most clearly in her correspondence with the non-Jews in her life: her husband, Heinrich Blücher, Mary McCarthy, and her erstwhile teachers and close confidants Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. A first-year student at Marburg, not yet eighteen years old, she was briefly Heidegger’s lover. A charismatic teacher, seventeen years her senior, married, with two children, Heidegger was said at the time to be Germany’s secret Denkkönig (king of thought). He claimed that Arendt had been his muse at the time he wrote his magnum opus, Sein und Zeit. But to Jaspers she turned for emotional support after her affair with Heidegger seemed to her futile. Jaspers remained a second father to her for many years (her own father died when she was a small child).

Arendt’s lifelong exchanges with these two, especially with Jaspers, exemplify precisely the kind of “dialogue” Scholem claimed never existed: a dialogue “in which Jewishness played an explicit, even a defining, role.” She had no illusions about Heidegger (he became a Nazi in 1933) or about her own “identity,” or about the limits of “assimilation.” Her insights into the compromises, illusions, and duplicity involved in assimilation were dazzling, as in her biography of Rahel Varnhagen and in the first part of The Origins of Totalitarianism. For Arendt, as for countless others, “fatherland” meant her mother tongue and its literature, “our most precious possession even for those who are denied it by malice and folly,” as Heine put it in 1820. She always felt obliged to keep a political distance from Germany and later on from the United States. “Any oversimplification (of the reality of assimilation), whether that of the Zionists, the assimilationists, or the antisemites—only serves to obscure the true problem of the situation,” Arendt claimed. She held all exclusive, collective definitions to be suspect. She didn’t mind falling between stools.

Throughout her life, she had a marvelous capacity for friendship. Scholem had been a friend, or so she thought, since they were first introduced in Paris by Walter Benjamin. In 1946 Scholem wrote to Arendt that he deeply objected to some of her criticisms of Zionism, but “I don’t in the slightest wish to have a fatal falling out with you.” After her book on the Eichmann trial, Scholem accused her of lacking ahavat Israel—love of the Jewish people. Arendt replied, saying, “That I am a Jew is one of the unquestioned facts of my life” but “I love only my friends.” Not long afterward, Scholem broke off all relations with her.

“We sorely need, I think, a history of German-Jewish and non-Jewish friendships, of marriages and intimate relations, their successes and failures,” Aschheim says in his opening paragraph on Arendt. It may provide a necessary corrective not only to the widespread view “of all German-Jewish history, in the light of its terrible conclusion, as a history of unremitting hostility and estrangement” but also to Scholem’s assertion, as a young man, that no authentic intimacy and real friendship could occur between Jews and non-Jews. Certainly many cases suggest just the opposite: among them are Arendt’s own marriage (readers of her correspondence with her husband5 know that this was a great love affair as well as a remarkable lifelong conversation between two adults); and even more so, Vic-tor Klemperer’s marriage to his non-Jewish wife, Eva, who greatly suffered from being married to him, and in the end saved his life.

Aschheim does not draw generalizations about intermarriage from his account of Arendt’s and Klemperer’s lives. Cautious academic that he is, he simply calls for a serious examination of the issue, and he is right. The high rate of intermarriage in Germany before 1933 anticipated that in the United States by half a century, though I doubt that such marriages were celebrated jointly by a rabbi and a priest as sometimes happens in the US today. When Martin Buber married the gentile Paula Winkler, the historian Hans Kohn wrote that ever since the Enlightenment

many of the best young Jews [have wed] non-Jewish women whose beauty and free self-assured spirit they considered to be the personification of a humanitarian ideal.

In 1933, the year the Nazis rose to power, more mixed couples, amazingly, rushed to marry than ever before. Intermarriage in Germany reached an all-time high of 44 percent. Some of these marriages were undoubtedly dissolved later. But, as Aschheim writes, they ran “against the grain of the new politics” and suggested real, even audacious love. He tells us that 98 percent of German Jews who survived the war were partners in such marriages. This suggests remarkable depths of intimacy, love, and loyalty and, as in the case of Victor and Eva Klemperer, a rare readiness by the non-Jewish partner to suffer social isolation, humiliation, and brutal house searches and beatings by Gestapo hoodlums.

The war diaries on which Klemperer’s fame rests today were published only half a century later. Still, Aschheim wonders why Hannah Arendt did not include Klemperer in her study of exemplary German lives in her book Men in Dark Times. As the author in 1947 of a classic book on language under the Third Reich, LTI (Lingua tertii impero)—Notebook of a Philologist, Klemperer was a pioneer in the study of totalitarian language, and his book is still of great value. Throughout the dark years he had worked on it clandestinely in Dresden at great peril (Jews were not allowed paper and pencils), and he probably deserved at least a footnote in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Klemperer was born in 1881, the son of the Orthodox rabbi in Landsberg an der Warthe, a small semi-rural town in West Prussia. The local register listed Dr. Klemperer as one of two Landprediger (country preachers) in town, the other being the Protestant pastor. In 1890 the rabbi applied for the post of deputy preacher in a new Reform temple in Berlin where the congregants no longer observed the dietary laws and prayers were recited in German. His move from Orthodoxy to Reform seemed a moment of high drama to many at the time. In a memoir Klemperer wrote during the war (every week or so his wife carried the scribbled pages to a friend for safekeeping) he remembered the day in 1890 when a telegram from Berlin confirmed his father’s appointment. His mother took him shopping. First making sure that no acquaintances saw her, she entered a non-kosher butcher shop and bought cold cuts, “one of every kind.” At home she ate the sausage with “a radiant face” and gave Victor a slice too. It did not taste much different from what they were accustomed to. “This is what the others eat,” she said. “Now we may eat it too!” Eating pork sausage was for her an act of communion, he wrote. It made her feel “truly” German. As the German proverb ran, Der Mensch ist was er isst—Man is what he eats.

As an adult Klemperer twice converted to Protestant Christianity, once reluctantly (in order to qualify for a commission in the army), a second time, it seems, out of conviction. While Scholem pretended he was crazy in order to avoid military service during the war, Klemperer enthusiastically volunteered to join the army. He wrote in his diary: “We, we Germans are better than other nations, freer in thought, purer in feeling, juster in action. We are a truly chosen people.” While Scholem almost instinctively opted for Zionism, Klemperer recoiled from it. During the Weimar Republic he was fully aware of the widespread antisemitism and even suspected that because of it he was able to get a professorship only at a minor university.

It was painful to him to hear people who did not know that he was a rabbi’s son make disparaging remarks about Jews. He felt more at home with Jews than with non-Jewish university colleagues. And yet he remained a steadfast “German patriot.” In 1935, when the Nazis expelled him from the university and banned him from entering the university library, he had a brief moment of doubt and confessed that his principles about Germany were beginning to wobble like teeth in an old man’s mouth. And yet the desire to belong remained intact:

I am fighting the hardest battle for my Germanness now. I must hold on to this: I am German, the others are un-German. I must hold on to this: The spirit is decisive, not blood. I must hold on to this: On my part Zionism would be a comedy—my baptism was not a comedy.

As for emigration to Palestine, he felt that Jews who went there only exchanged one narrow nationalism for another. He wrote after 1933, “The solution of the Jewish question can only be found in the deliverance from those who invented it.”

Klemperer may have been the only Jew in Nazi Germany who in 1936 invested his life savings in a small villa overlooking Dresden and bought a car in which he and his wife toured the Thuringian countryside admiring Gothic and Baroque churches and cozy old towns nestling in the hills. Later, he was by day a slave laborer in a factory, while at night he and his wife were relegated to a room in a squalid Judenhaus together with other mixed couples. Only the bombardment of Dresden saved him from being sent to a death camp. No one could take his Germanness from him, he was a German nationalist forever, he continued to proclaim until his death in 1963 in East Germany, where he settled after the war. The East seemed to him, wrongly as it turned out, a place that had eliminated traces of totalitarianism better than West Germany. If at times he seemed like a man living in a dream world, he was also one of the most acute and penetrating observers of Germany in the twentieth century.

Scholem’s last years were equally sad. He was repelled by the arrogance and triumphalism that followed the 1967 war. He criticized the “selective” quoting of scripture for political purposes. That this sober, liberal man remained so deeply fascinated by mysticism became more and more of a paradox. By 1976 he was dismayed to discover that a number of his own students were among the aggressive squatters and settlers on Arab land in the West Bank, claiming that they were inspired by his teaching of the kabbalah. He was shocked to discover that they were completely disregarding his warnings that the recurrent strain of messianism in Judaism, a strain that he had himself largely uncovered, was “catastrophal.” The fanaticism of the settlers filled him with grave foreboding. After Menachem Begin’s Likud Party came to power in 1977 he wondered whether extremists would relegate Zionism as he understood it to a mere episode in history.

He was equally dismayed by the growing political power of the Orthodox in Israel. I remember visiting him in his house in Jerusalem’s Rehaviah quarter, once the favored residence of professors and secularist Zionists. Scholem spoke with some bitterness of rich American Orthodox families, each with numerous small children, who were buying up houses in the neighborhood, turning the place into, as he put it, a “deluxe Mea Shaarim.” At one moment the eighty-two-year-old Scholem leaned out of the opened window, made a half-circle with his arm, and cried, “Look! They are all around!” There seemed an irony in the fact that this staunch critic of all things German agreed, shortly before his death, to accept the highest German award and became a member of the exclusive order of Pour le Mérite. The author of the autobiography From Berlin to Jerusalem, published in 1977, returned to Berlin for a year as a fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies—a visit cut short only by fatal illness. I truly envy his biographer.

This Issue

April 10, 2003