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German History from the Margins
By Neil Gregor, Nils Roemer, Mark Roseman
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2006 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
Germans of the Jewish Stamm
Visions of Community between Nationalism and Particularism, 1850 to 1933
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Till van Rahden
Nation-building engenders anxieties about the nation's margins, and this is especially true in times of national unification. Once the initial wave of unifying enthusiasm has faded, debates about the relationship between national unity and diversity intensify. Even if there is little specifically German about this dynamic, Imperial Germany's first decade serves as a graphic example of the phenomenon. Although the foundation of the new empire in 1871 provided answers to some longstanding questions about the shape and meaning of the German nation-state, recent scholarship has reminded us of the contested and open-ended nature of the "Germany" that emerged.
In November 1879, one of the leading German ideologues of his time, the historian Heinrich von Treitschke, threw his weight behind the growing anxiety about the place of Jews within the nation. "It cannot be denied that there are numerous and powerful groups among our Jews," Treitschke claimed in an article that triggered the so-called Berlin debate on antisemitism, "who definitely do not have the good intention to become simply Germans." Rejecting a pluralist conception of nationhood, Treitschke warned that unless "our Jewish fellow-citizens make up their minds to be Germans without reservation," an "era of German Jewish mixed culture" would "follow after thousands of years of Germanic morality." As is well known, Treitschke's antisemitism sparked a polemical debate about diversity and difference in the newly founded Kaiserreich and forced prominent Jewish intellectuals, including Heinrich Graetz, Hermann Cohen, and Ludwig Bamberger, to publicly defend a right to be different.
Among these Jewish intellectuals, no one developed a more fundamental critique of Treitschke than the anthropologist cum philosopher Moritz Lazarus (1824-1903). The son of a merchant and a rabbinical scholar, he served as a professor in Bern from 1860 to 1866 and taught at the Prussian War Academy from 1868 to 1872, after which he held an honorary professorship of philosophy at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. In both 1869 and 1871, Lazarus served as president of the liberal Jewish synods of Leipzig and Augsburg. Because he was a prolific writer in scholarly journals and the press as well as a gifted public speaker, he had established himself as a respected figure among German Jews and in liberal culture. On the occasion of his seventieth birthday, in 1894, the high-brow journal Nord und Süd praised him as one "of the few German philosophers alive" whose work had reached not only a scholarly audience but the "educated public," too. In short, whatever Lazarus said, it mattered among Jews and other Germans.
Lazarus's essay Was heißt national? can be read not only as a carefully crafted dissection of Treitschke's essentialist and ethnic understanding of German nationhood but also as an attempt to substantiate a universal right to be different in an age of nationalism. Although Lazarus had originally delivered his critique of Treitschke as a lecture at the annual general assembly of the Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in December 1879, he published his speech as a widely circulated pamphlet, which liberal politicians and intellectuals recognized as a major contribution to the debate over the meaning and future shape of German nationalism.
Lazarus drew both on his own earlier work and on carefully selected contemporary scholarship on national identity, including an article titled "On the Concept of the Nation" by Gustav Rümelin, the president of the University of Tübingen and a leading statistician of his time. Out of these materials Lazarus now developed an understanding of nationhood that I would like to characterize as radically voluntaristic, pluralistic, and processual. This line of reasoning allowed him to reject as unsubstantiated Treitschke's demand that Jews should become "Germans without reservation." Citizens did not belong to a national community because they had ceased to be different, but precisely because they had preserved their particular identities in an age of national unity. The tension between national unity and particular identities could not be reconciled, but only balanced and preserved by rearticulating it on a higher plane. The "German nationality we are aspiring to," Lazarus argued, is incompatible with "any felony against inherited traditions and any felony against universal human principles." In contrast to Treitschke's call for radical assimilation, Jews who wanted to be "perfect and highly able Germans" in fact "had the duty" to preserve both "the intellectual peculiarity they possessed as a tribe and the inherited virtue and wisdom they possessed as a religion."
Clearly, Lazarus considered Jews a tribe, i.e., a Stamm, as well as a religious group. Yet whereas we are familiar with the latter concept, the term "tribe" sounds quaint at best or part and parcel of a racist or völkisch vocabulary at worst. Concern about the term "tribe" has a respectable tradition that goes back at least to the immediate post-Holocaust era. In 1955, Helmuth Plessner, like Lazarus a philosopher and anthropologist, noted that the use of the term "tribe" was "painful and distressing." The term, Plessner argued, had been "difficult to grasp historically" to begin with, and after many years of propaganda it had even acquired the connotation of "race," a concept steeped in blood. Moreover, as specialists in the history of German antisemitism will point out, the term "tribe" played a prominent role in antisemitic discourse throughout the nineteenth century. One of numerous nineteenth-century liberal critics of Jewish emancipation, the Königsberg historian Friedrich Schubert, for example, argued in 1835 that Jews could never become equal members of the German nation because they were an alien "Asiatic tribe." Indeed, in the course of the Berlin debate on antisemitism Treitschke himself argued that Judaism was the "national religion of an originally [ursprünglich] foreign tribe."
Yet what then are we to make of Moritz Lazarus's use of the term Stamm? Did the celebrated scholar suffer a momentary lapse of reason when he argued that German Jews constituted a tribe? What I will argue is that, in fact, Lazarus invoked the term because it was a central concept in German debates about national unity and diversity between the mid-nineteenth century and the late 1920s. By exploring the place of the term "tribe" at critical junctures and intersections of German Jewish and German history, I would like to pursue three themes. First, what vision of community did German Jews try to develop once the concept of an "individual Mosaic confessionalism," which had predominated throughout the emancipation era (and found a belated echo in the title of the "Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith," established in 1893), had begun to erode in the face of growing secularization and increasing religious and political pluralization among German Jews? Second, how did Jewish intellectuals attempt to balance the tension between equality before the law in an age of national unity and a right to preserve a specifically Jewish particularity after the emancipation-era argument that Jews were a Konfession just like any Christian denomination had become contestable? Third, I would like to draw attention to the way we conceptualize the relationship between the particular and the universal, between different groups and a space in which they negotiate their terms of coexistence. This question will open up a discussion that not only is of interest for German Jewish history but may help us rethink our understanding of the age of nation-states, especially the way we conceptualize the tension between particularism, nationalism, and universalism.
In nineteenth-century Germany, Jewish identities changed dramatically. Until the late eighteenth century, religion had encompassed almost every aspect of Jewish life and had provided a seemingly self-evident framework for a vision of a unified Jewish community. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, it had become a divisive factor. Unity of theological doctrine and religious discipline was lost once and for all, opening the way to incertitude, retreat, and possibly disengagement. By 1900, three competing visions of Judaism existed: Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative. The Reform movement proposed a new understanding of Judaism as it historicized and thereby relativized both the Halacha and the oral and liturgical traditions. Its insistence on the importance of the individual's faith eroded the authority of religious law. At the center of the rabbinical assemblies of the 1840s was the question of how to transform national-religious aspects of Judaism into a civic "confessionalism." Central elements of Judaism, such as the Messianic idea and eschatological hopes, were stripped of national and ethnic connotations and reconfigured in universally human terms.
By the 1840s, the conflict between Orthodoxy and Reform had become so bitter that it threatened to paralyze communal life. The Geiger-Tiktin debate in early 1840s Breslau, for example, seemed to indicate the imminent breakup of Germany's second largest Jewish community. By the late nineteenth century, although Reform, Orthodoxy, and Conservatism had developed a peaceful coexistence of sorts, a unifying religious vision of what it meant to be Jewish had ceased to exist. In fact, several Jewish intellectuals argued that any attempt to ground a common Jewish identity on religion could lead to the disintegration of the Jewish community. Surveying the religious landscape of late nineteenth-century Germany, the chair of the Dresden Jewish community, Emil Lehmann, argued, "in both religions what in the eyes of one observer constitutes divine revelation and history, is for another holy lore, legend, symbol, and for a third a mythology. The distance between them is so wide ..., that it is no more possible to speak of a unified religion among Christians, Catholics, or Protestants than it is among Jews. The Christian who believes in miracles is much closer on this point to the Jew who believes in miracles than the liberal is to the orthodox Jew."
By 1900, moreover, the number of Jews had increased who lived as Staatsbürger jüdischen Unglaubens, literally "citizens of Jewish irreligion," as Sigmund Freud liked to remark sarcastically. True, some who publicly eschewed religious rituals continued to practice their devotions privately, especially in the context of family life. Yet around the turn of the century numerous observers noted that synagogues were often empty because most Jews only turned up on the high holidays, living as "synagogal day-flies," to borrow a phrase from the Breslau Zionist Aryeh Maimon. In a popular early twentieth-century joke, a self-confessed "enlightened" Jew let it be known that he had "no sympathies for any ritual aspects of our religion. Of all the Jewish holidays the only one I keep is the Grünfeld concert" — Grünfeld being a famous pianist of the time. Such a decline of public forms of religious observance raised the question of how to define a sustainable conception of Jewish identity, when many contemporaries believed that the only remaining difference between Jews and Christians was that the former no longer attended synagogue on Saturdays whereas the latter no longer attended church on Sundays.
While the importance of religious visions of community declined, German Jews' ethnicity, embedded in the term Stamm, became increasingly important. True, when faced with antisemitism many Jews continued to emphasize that they had long ceased to be an ethnic group — a Volk, that is — and stressed instead that they, just like Catholics or Protestants, were a religious community. Yet Jews from all walks of life and from different conflicting religious and political camps used the concept of Stamm, literally "tribe," or Stammesbewußtsein, literally "tribal consciousness," to articulate a vision of community that was based on the idea of a common descent rather than religion and therefore transcended religious and political divisions within the Jewish community. Already in 1869, the Viennese rabbi Adolf Jellinek (1821–93), who was considered one of the most eloquent Jewish preachers of his time in Central Europe, claimed that Jews were one of the Habsburg Empire's numerous Stämme. Balancing what he believed to be the universalistic mission of Jews and their particularistic right to be different, Jellinek asserted that "[the Jew] is particularistic enough, stable enough, subjective enough not to be absorbed by other people; he is however also sufficiently universalistic, enthusiastic, progressive and objective not to persist in insolent and rigid isolation. ... The Jewish Stamm is therefore truly chosen for its mission."
One reason why so many invoked the concept of Stamm was its very vagueness. It provided the lowest common denominator between those Jews who considered themselves a religious community and those who thought of themselves as an ethnic group, a nation, or even a "race." In 1901, for example, Heymann Steinthal, the linguist, philosopher, and close collaborator of Lazarus, urged Jews to put aside religious quarrels lest they provoke "deadly divisions" among themselves. Although deeply religious himself, Steinthal extended his hand to those Stammesgenossen who were convinced that they could live "without any traditional elements not only of ceremony but also of faith." Rather than focus on religious divisions, Jews of all warring factions should remember their common "semitic blood and temperament." As Ivan Kalmar has recently pointed out, Steinthal's argument is ambiguous, possibly even contradictory: "When Steinthal speaks about the Jews," the anthropologist notes, "I hear a powerful voice grounding the Jewish — and the German — experience in the purely intellectual concept of Völkerpsychologie; but I also hear here and there a smaller voice that takes pride in the Jews as a Semitic Stammesgemeinschaft."
Others to whom racial concepts would have been anathema used the term Stamm and the concepts of religion or denomination in the same breath. In the Israelitische Wochenschrift, a widely read Jewish weekly close to the Conservative movement, a self-confessed "truly faithful German of the Jewish Faith" urged Jews in 1881 to fight antisemitism "out of respect for their religion and their Stamm." Although Walther Rathenau felt practically no affiliation with Judaism as a religion, the industrialist and combative intellectual used the term. "I am a German of the Jewish tribe," he wrote in his call "To Germany's Youth" of 1918: "My people is the German people, my home is the German lands, my confession is the German faith." Even liberal Jews, who, like Emil Lehmann, rejected the term because they feared that it could hardly be distinguished from ethnic, or worse, racial visions of community, developed a conception of Jewish identity that was remarkably similar — even if Lehmann emphasized common historical experiences rather than common descent. In 1891, Lehmann, the veteran fighter for the emancipation of Saxony's Jews who had played a leading role in the founding of the Deutsch-Israelitischer Gemeindebund, argued that Jews had long ceased to be a Volksstamm, literally a national or ethnic tribe, nor were they a religious group in any meaningful sense, but that they had become a "community of suffering" instead. Looking back on more than a century of internal debates over the nature of the Jewish community, the philosopher Julius Guttmann (1880-1950) noted that the "consciousness of community" (Gemeinschaftsbewußtsein) among German Jews had been radically transformed. In the K.C.-Blätter, the monthly of the liberal and anti-Zionist Jewish student organizations, the son of the Breslau Reform rabbi Jakob Guttmann argued that within the context of a "modern cultural sphere" even those who eschewed any form of Jewish religiosity continued to embrace a "feeling of a tribal community" (Gefühl der Stammesgemeinschaft). Such a "communal spirit" should not be confused with the "mystical voices of blood." Instead a "consciousness of tribal bonds" reflected the "community of fate and memories, which reach into the innermost aspects of life," as well as "that unspoken sense of belonging that arises where an individual simply grows up in a community [Lebensgemeinschaft], rather than having to first gain his place through personal qualities and achievements."
Excerpted from German History from the Margins by Neil Gregor, Nils Roemer, Mark Roseman. Copyright © 2006 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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