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Jewish Assimilation: Berlin As a Showcase

Solveig Eggerz
Summer 2000

The horror of the Holocaust has obscured an important fact in the history of European Jews: Jews were better assimilated in pre-Nazi Germany than in - many other European countries. This was particularly true of Berlin, where Jews constituted 3 percent of the population (Jews comprised just 1 percent of the population in the rest of Germany). A closer look at the Jewish population of Germany during the early part of the 2Oth century reveals Berlin as a showcase for Jewish assimilation.  

Berlin was a hub of culture and industry during the last decades of the 19th century part]y due to its excellent railroad system. By 1905 Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II's (1888-1918) empire had 25 railroad stations, connecting Berlin with every region of the empire and beyond. Berlin was a melting pot for Silesians, Pomeranians, Catholics, small entrepreneurs, and Jews. It had the beginnings of a pluralistic society. In 1812 the Jewish population of Berlin was 3,000, but by 1874 the large number of Jews seeking employment and freedom from the ghettoes of Eastern Europe drove the figure up to 45,000. Overall, Berlin's population grew from 412,154 in 1849 to 825,937 in 1871 (when Berlin became the capital of the Reich) to 2,040,148 in 1905.  

Alfred Kerr, a member of a Breslau Jewish family and Berlin's most prominent theater critic, said that by the early 20th century Berlin had become "the most important theater city in the world and also the first in music." The impact on Berlin artists of the arrival of the railroad was the opposite of that on Parisian artists: it caused painters to move to Berlin, whereas the railroad caused painters to move out of Paris into the countryside. Jews took full advantage of the vibrant, cosmopolitan atmosphere of Berlin. But they also shaped the city's culture, especially in the areas of the fine arts. In fact, from the Wilhelmine years through the Weimar Republic was a time of intense Jewish acculturation.  

Religious Orthodoxy  

Jews who settled in Berlin rejected the religious orthodoxy that spelled their cultural and social marginalization in Eastern Europe's shtetl communities and participated exuberantly in every facet of Berlin's cultural world. Peter Gay, in Freud, Jews, and Other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture, states the Jews made themselves "at home in Berlin, transformed it and imprinted upon it something of their rootlessness, their alienation from soil and tradition, their pef\'asive disrespect for authority, their mordant wit."  

Not fully emancipated in the pre-World War 1 years, Jews gravitated towards the free professions. They owned art galleries or were artists. They became actors, directors, and theatre critics for Berlin's 60 theaters. They conducted, performed, and wrote about music. They published, edited, and wrote for Berlin's lOO daily newspapers with morning and evening editions. Middle class Jews filled concert halls and theaters, bought art, and sought education for their children. In an article for the journal, Kunstwart, "The German-Jewish Pamassus," Moritz Goldstein notes, "We Jews are administering the spiritual property of a nation that denies our right and ability to do so."  

The .American social philosopher, Thorstein Veblen, describes how Jews quickly embraced the culture of the countries where they settled. Their status as simultaneous outsiders and insiders stimulated the cultures they affected. They learned the languages of Europe and adopted Europe's universe of discourse, yet remained apart. Veblen states, "While at home in European culture, their origins as outsiders induced a lingering cognitive dissonance, an abiding irreverance that allowed them to assume a position at the forefront of modern inquiry and imagination."  

Intense and Erratic  

The assimilation of German Jews was both intense a.'1d erratic. After Germany's unification in 1871 under Chancellor Otto yon Bismarck, Germany experienced an economic as well as political and cultural crisis. Having until 1871 consisted of a confusing collection of independent principalities and states, Germany suffered a lack of confidence as a nation. The liberal ideas of 1848 lost strength among the populace, and an anti-Semitic movement arose that associated Jews with liberalism and capitalism. During the rule of Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II, a vibrant middle class arose. But unlike the development in most other countries, the rise of the middle class in Germany did not favor the development of liberal political institutions. Instead, the dominate political culture remained in the hands of the nobility. The nobility stressed loyalty to the emperor, honor, service. obedience, and the integrity of the German Volk.  

Jews, primarily middle class, were excluded from the court, the military, the state bureaucracy, and, to a great extent, from the university. They did not gain full civic equality until the Weimar Republic, which Peter Gay called "the republic of outsiders." But Jew's did not respond to their exclusion from certain realms of the Second Reich by leaving Germany for a new. start in Palestine. Instead, they organized themselves into such groups as the Central Organization of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith, the Centralverein or CV. The name of this organization, which was dedicated to maintaining the ideals of liberalism and the Enlightenment, is symptomatic of the Jews' positive attitude toward assimilation.  

The German Jews' faith in the ideals of the Enlightenment and their view of Germany as manifesting those ideals explain why so many Jews maintained loyalty to Germany even during the Nazi tyranny. Paul Mendes-Flohr, in his book German Jews: A Dual Identity, describes how the Enlightenment stimulated in Germany the faith in Bildung, with roots in the classical Greek notion of education, paedeia-or humanitas. with an emphasis on the nurturing of one's inner life: "All human beings, irrespective of cultural and religious background, ultimately form one family. All of human experience is relevant to one's self-understanding and hence personal dignity." Not the same as education, Bildung denoted a continuous, never-ending process, a ceaseless quest for the good, the true, and the beautiful.  

Enlightenment Ideas  

These Enlightenment ideas were reflected in the writings of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, Gotthold Lessing, and Immanuel Kant. The beautiful symbolized the ideal of a shared humanity, attainable by all individuals regardless of the accidents of birth, nationality, and religion.  

Jews revered Moses Mendelsohn's friend Lessing for authoring the play that features the assimilated Jew, Nathan, in Nathan the Wise. They affectionately referred to Germany as "the nation of Kant," in honor of the German liberal philosopher Goethe's works were in every Jewish home, and the full set of his writings was a standard bar mitzvah gift. German Jews named their sons Gotthold Ephraim in honor of Gotthold E. Lessing ( 1729-1781) whom they considered a proponent of Jewish dignity and civil rights. German Jews so revered the canon of German literature, the centerpiece of which were the works of Goethe, that they became the keepers of that canon and ironically appeared more German than the non-Jewish Germans.  

Mendes-Flohr states, "Jews were quick to realize that Bildung and Kultur were the gateways to bourgeois respectability if not acceptance...Bildung thus by its very nature conferred respectability on the erstwhile residents of the ghetto, at least in their own eyes."  

Disproportionate Numbers  

Jews entered institutes of learning in numbers disproportionate to their representation in the population of Germany. By 1860 the percentage of Jewish male children attending secondary schools in Prussia was three or four times as high as that of children of other confessions. During the last decade of the 19th century, for every 100,000 males of each religious denomination in Prussia, there studied in Prussian universities 33 Catholics, 58 Protestants, and 519 Jews. German culture blossomed among German Jews.  

German Jews hoped that the liberal discourse that began with the Enlightenment would lead to a neutral society, i.e., a civil society in which one's religious and ethnic origins were irrelevant. They envisioned an open, democratic political state. Under the ethic of Bildung, matters of ethnic origin and religious background would be irrelevant to one's qualifications for living in a particular society. Jews promoted this concept of the neutral, inclusive society. Despite German relapses into phases of anti-Semitism, as occurred after 1871 and again midway through World War I, Jews had every reason to hope that the German nation would move in the direction of this envisioned neutral, inclusive, pluralistic society. Because the Germans lacked the confidence in their nation that would have propelled them towards a society rooted in humanistic ideals, the concept of Bildung took a negative, ultimately malignant turn in Germany.  

J .G. Herder began the narrowing of the concept of Bildung, transforming it from an inclusive, cosmopolitan ethos to a vision that stressed social privilege, primordial historic roots, and exclusivity. Germans began to depart from the democratic model of the modern state, dismissing it as a model for the enemy nation, France. They rejected the idea of an elective or contractual association of individuals who have freely contracted to govern themselves according to democratic procedures and principles. According to the democratic model, nationality does not have ontological priority in determining one's qualification for citizenship.  

Alternative Conception of the State  

The Germans came up with an alternative conception of the state, the Volksnation, stressing the importance of shared historical roots, kinship, religion-all elements that excluded the Jews. The Jews knew they needed to transcend the German past in favor of a universal heritage in order to meet the "full" Germans on equal terms. But they were up against such promoters of the Volksnation as Herder and the "liberal thinker, J.G. Fichte (1762-1814), who suggested in the preface to a work presenting his vision of a liberal democratic Germany that Jews would deserve equal political rights only "if one night we chopped off their heads and replaced them with new ones." He feared that even with emancipation Jews would remain a state within a state.  

Mendes-flohr notes that "The very Bildung that promised to integrate the Jews into the common fabric of humanity left them [the Jews] in the end Virtually isolated within a German society overtaken by nationalism and its invidious myths and symbols. As German romantics and chauvinists sought to promote a teutonic culture divorced from the Enlightenment, Jews tended to hold firm, to the vision of a shared humanity guarded by the supremacy of reason and Kultul: Surely, as a beleaguered minority, the Jews of Germany had an interest in emphasizing what united rather than that which divided people."  

By their unwillingness to compromise the liberal, cosmopolitan image of Bildung, German Jews became the last guardians of the original German idea of Bildung. They adhered to the cosmopolitan ( as opposed to the nationalistic ) conception of Bildung in the hope that they would become accepted into the German society.  

Love of German Folk Culture  

Ironically German Jews also shared a love of German folk culture. They also genuinely loved the German language and landscape. They read the novels of Berthold Auerbach ( 1812-1882) and enthusiastically formed German-Jewish youth movements.  

The writer, Moritz Goldstein, like so many other German Jews, rejected Zionism in favor of the hold Germany had on him:  

"The German spring is our spring as the German winter is for us winter...Were we not raised on German fairy tales? Have we not played with Little Red Ridinghood and Sleeping Beauty? Were we not saddened for Snow White and happy with the Seven Dwarfs? Are not the German forests alive for us? Are we not also allowed to behold its elves and gnomes? Do we not understand the murmur of its streams and the song of its birds?"  

In Andre Schwarz-Bart's novel, The Last of the Just, the main character, Benjamin, presents the view that many Jews undoubtedly had of Germany during the pre-Hitler period. As a young man who leaves Poland to escape the pogroms, Benjamin chooses Germany over all other countries because he has heard that Jews can comfortably assimilate there: "For the German Jews, he had heard, were so pleasantly established in that county that a number of them considered themselves 'almost' more German than Jewish. This was doubtless very strange, if not praiseworthy, but it demonstrated all the better the warmth and gentleness of the German character. Immediately, in a transport of enthusiasm, Benjamin imagined a German personality so exquisite, so refined, in short so noble that the Jews, conscience-stricken and lost in admiration, became German to the depths of their souls."  

Town Idyllic  

When Benjamin moves to the idyllic town of Stillenstadt, Schwarz- Bart's tone appears sarcastic only because the reader knows that the Holocaust lies ahead: "Stillenstadt was one of those charming German cities of an age gone by. With its thousands of doll houses, pink tiled, bedecked with potted flowers, it seemed a living manifestation of that old Germanic sentimentality which penetrated and bound all things intimately--even as the spittle of the swallow by an invisible thread holds together the twigs that make its nest." Although many Germans viewed the Jews as outsiders, this does not diminish the Jews' own sense of identification with German culture. Goldstein notes: "Among ourselves we have the impression that we speak as Germans to Germans-such is our impression. But though we may after all feel totally German, the others feel us to be totally un-German." The liberal rabbi, Benno Jacob, said in 1927 that German Jews were "assimilated in the accusative," that is they absorbed the cultural values of Germany. But they were not "assimilated in the dative," i.e. , they were not accepted into German society. Nevertheless, the modern, practically secular, Jews who lived in Berlin were primarily German, having left their Jewishness in the Eastern European shtetl.  

The Israeli historian Shulamit Volkov, in her book Judisehes Leben und Antisemitismus im 19. und 20.  
, describes the extent to which Jews had adopted German culture: "Except for a small Orthodox group, traditional Judaism in Germany had practically disappeared before World War I. In its place a new and modern Jewish community grew up. Its demographic, professional, and social distinctiveness reinforced the community's cohesiveness and its social and cultural identity, not in the traditional sense, but in a new way."  

German Jewish Painters  

An exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City in spring 2000 featured the role of German Jewish painters in transforming the stilted academic style of painting in Germany to what became known as modernism, an art form into which poured the influences of Naturalism, Impressionism, Symbolism, and Expressionism. The Jews gave up their religious orthodoxy and welcomed the readiness with which the art world of Berlin broke with tradition at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the loth. These artists became thoroughly integrated with non-Jews.  

Emily D. Bilski, in Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture 18901918, notes that, "It could be argued that an attraction to modernism was itself an expression of the new possibilities available to Jews in post-emancipation Germany, and that embracing the new art constituted a rejection of tradition that was also a declaration of emancipation from the bonds of traditional Judaism and the Jewish community."  

One of the best examples of the degree to which Jewish artists were integrated with non-Jews is Max Liebermann (1847-1935), the most prominent of the Berlin artists. Breaking with the idealized style of the day that allowed only the representation of elevated subject matter, he introduced Naturalism by painting working people such as peasants, shoemakers, knife grinders, or women plucking geese. Later, with his thickly applied paint and varied brush strokes, he advanced the breakthrough of Impressionism.  

Berlin Secession  

Born of a wealthy Berlin family that lived in the elegant Pariser Platz, Liebermann was in 1898 one of the founders of the Berlin Secession, a movement that signaled modernism's departure from official academic art. The only Jew among the sixty-five founding members of the Secession, Liebermann was elected president. From 1920 to 1932 he was president of the Prussian Academy of Arts. Art historian Ludwig Justi, director of the Berlin National Gallery 1909-1933, called Liebennann "an embodiment of the cosmopolitan culture of Berlin, expressed in his sharp intellect, pointed wit, gift of observation, and rejection of pomposity."  

Art historian Pau1 Westheim, editor of Das Kunstblatt, describes the distinctively Prussian and Berlin Qualities that gave Liebermann ' s paintings their particular character. Liebermann ' s grandfather arrived in Berlin from MarkischFriedland in West Prussia where he'd been in the cotton trade. Economic success brought the family into the upperbourgeois elite of Berlin. Vo;Tithout the financial worries that plague many painters, Libermann found success and recognition in Berlin as a secular Jew.  

In 1909 he gave his wife, Martha, the Otter Fountain, a sculpture by August Gaul, as a Christmas present. This was in keeping with the view among assimilated Jews in Berlin that the celebration of Christmas was primarily a German custom rather than a Christian one. In his memoirs, From Berlin to Jerusalem, Gershom Scholem notes "this was a German national festival that we celebrate not as Jews, but as fellow Germans.  

Jewish Identity  

But Liebermann was assimilated only to the degree he chose to be, for he did not deny his Jewish identity. The Liebermann family involved itself actively in the Jewish community of Berlin, serving on the community board of directors and supporting Jewish welfare organizations. He retained elements of Jewishness at his core. An admirer of Rembralldt, who frequently used Dutch Jews as his models, Liebermann visited the Judengasse in Amsterdam and painted many urban scenes there. In the vibrant paintings of life in Amsterdam, Liebennann sought to bring to life the Amsterdam of an earlier era, the 17th century when Jews lived in a "golden age:' having been welcomed into Holland.  

Yet Liebermann rejected Zionism and the concept of "Jewish art" as well as any sort of "national art." In 1905 he wrote to Wilhelm von Bode, the managing director of the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin, "Since Durer was a genius and just happened to be born in Nurnburg, should we call the way he worked German?"' Given Liebermann's negative view of "national art" it is ironic that in 1907 von Bode referred to Liebermann as one of- "the most German painters among living artists:' to whom the "glory of being Germany's leading painter can no longer be denied."  

The Judische Lexikon, the leading reference to Jewish topics in Germany before Hitler"s rise to power in 1933, dismissed the concept of inherently Jewish art, 0!1 the grounds that throughout the centuries Jewish artists employed forms and motifs typical of their countries of residence. Georg Herlitz and Bruno Kirschner, editors of the Lexikon, observe that "Even in recent times when Jewish artists have created important artwork, their accomplishments belong more to the art history of the people of the countries where they live than to the Jewish people."  

Modern Metropolis  

Another Jewish painter who shaped the modernist painting movement in Berlin was Lesser Ury ( 1861-1931 ), who depicted the modern metropolis. Much like the French Impressionists, Ury captured the atmospheric effects of light, steam, and mist that enveloped urban dwellers. But he surpassed the Impressionists in his depictions of horse-drawn carriages reflected in the shiny asphalt of wet streets, of electric lights shown in mirrors and windows of city cafes. In his Am Ba,hnhofFridrichstrasse he depicted the glass and steel, surrounded by the steam of the train station. But Ury, like Liebermann, also presented Jewish motifs. In a sort of Jewish symbolism, he painted outsized figures from the Bible, such as Jeremiah and Rebecca at the Well. Joseph Budko and Hennann Struck also adapted Jewish themes to their work.  

The Zionist movement, exemplified by the Fifth Zionist Congres,5, held in Base, in 1901 had a limited impact on most German Jews. That is most German Jews were not inspired by the political Zionism of Theodor Herzl that urged Jews to leave their homes and relocate in Palestine. While German Jews rejected the political element of Zionism, many were open to its spiritual and cultural aspects. Martin Buber, seeking a synthesis between Zionism, Jewish tradition, and the modern culture of the day, published the journal Der Jude (the Jew), asserting a renaissance of the Jewish spirit, a reaffirmation of the cultural values associated with Bildung. Since Jude was a pejorative term, Buber's name for his journal was a courageous expression of pride. The writer Franz Kafka was among the first contributors to Der Jude.  

"The Jewish renaissance" Mendes-Flohr notes, "reflected the valorization of Judaism within the project of creating a cultural discourse informed by the diverse historical voices constituting humanity's shared inheritance. In this respect, the Jewish renaissance sought to reverse the tendency to assume that Judaism was an anachronism or, at best, a private sentiment irrelevant to the larger concerns of the educated European."  

Zionist Ideas  

The promulgation of Zionist ideas and of Buber' s Jewish renaissance stimulated not a flight to Palestine but rather an adaptation of the concept of Zionism to German-Jewish circumstances. A young writer, Ludwig Strauss, in an article in Kunstwart, described the encounter with German culture as giving rise to a new kind of Jew, "Jew's who desire to be German to the inner core of their being while retaining, often despite themselves, a distinctively Jewish sensibility." He envisioned a reaffirmation of the Jewish soul and suggested that Zionism might be the answer.  

Another young writer, Walter Benjamin, rejected Zionism, proposing instead a "Zionism of the spirit" in deliberate contrast to the Zionism that was centered on Palestine. In a letter to Strauss, Benjamin conceded that political Zionism might be the only viable solution for persecuted Eastern European Jewry, who sought refuge in a Jewish state much like "a person fleeing a bumming building." But for West European Jewry. he considered Zionism irrelevant.  

Benjamin's Judaism consisted of a national or ethnic bond with his fellow Jews. He found Jewish values "everywhere" and that which is defined as Jewish was restricted neither to place nor to what is formally held to be Judaism. Jews, he felt, had art important cultural role to play in Germany. He cited the novelist Heinrich Mann's words, "what would become of the life of the spirit, art and love [in Germany] without the Jews?"  

Full Emancipation  

The fact that many Germans viewed the Jews as too cosmopolitan, too "foreign" for their liking does not detract from the reality of the far-reaching assimilation of Jews to German culture. With the full emancipation of Jews during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933), Jews had reached their highest level of political and social integration in Germany when the Third Reich ended Jewish participation in the German state.  

The symbiosis between Jewishness and German culture was initially represented by the friendship between Moses Mendelsohn and the writer Ephraim Gotthold Lessing and manifested in Nathan the Wise. The philosopher Hermann Cohen describes in his essay Deutschtum undJudentum, an inherent compatibility and complementarity between Judaism and German culture, between the Jewish and the German ethos. "We German Jews," he states, "derive a sense of the closest religious communion from the accord existing between Jewish messianism and German humanism." Franz Rosenzweig, Cohen's disciple, described the Jews' impulse to assimilate as being ''as old as the people itself"  

The problem was not Jewish unwillingness nor inability to adjust to German culture, but rather German reticence to accept pluralism within the German nation, a pluralism that would have allowed peoples of different origins to coexist much like in the United States. The result was that many Jews considered themselves an integral part of German society while Germans still viewed them as foreign elements.  

German-Jewish Symbiosis  

Thus the German-Jewish symbiosis occurred not so much within German society as it did within the hearts and minds of the Jews themselves. Evidence of this kind of internal symbiosis are the many Jews who retained their essential Jewishness, while at the same time promoting the German humanistic tradition and fulfilling the duties of a citizen such as fighting for the Fatherland during World War I. They were proud bearers of the liberal values of the 1848 revolution and of the best of German culture. Yet they were Jewish. Thus they embodied the pluralistic ideal they envisioned for the German nation.

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