The Word Unheard: Legacies of Anti-Semitism in German Literature and Culture

The Word Unheard: Legacies of Anti-Semitism in German Literature and Culture

by Martha B. Helfer




The publication of Martha B. Helfer’s The Word Unheard: Legacies of Anti-Semitism in German Literature and Culture marks a stunningly original new direction in the interpretation of canonical works of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German literature. 

Between 1749 and 1850—the formative years of the so-called Jewish Question in Germany—the emancipation debates over granting full civil and political rights to Jews provided the topical background against which all representations of Jewish characters and concerns in literary texts were read. Helfer focuses sharply on these debates and demonstrates through close readings of works by Gotthold Lessing, Friedrich Schiller, Achim von Arnim, Annette von Droste- Hülshoff, Adalbert Stifter, and Franz Grillparzer how disciplinary practices within the field of German studies have led to systematic blind spots in the scholarship on anti-Semitism to date. 

While all the authors discussed are well known and justly celebrated, the particular works addressed represent an effective mix of enduring classics and less recognized, indeed often scandalously overlooked, texts whose consideration leads to a reevaluation of the author’s more mainstream oeuvre. Although some of the works and authors chosen have previously been noted for their anti-Semitic proclivities, the majority have not, and some have even been marked by German scholarship as philo-Semitic—a view that The Word Unheard undertakes not so much to refute as to complicate, and in the process to question not only these texts but also the deafness of the German scholarly tradition. With implications that reach into many disciplines, The Word Unheard will be a foundational study for all scholars of modern Germany.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810127944
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 11/30/2011
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Martha B. Helfer is Associate Professor and Chair of the German Department at Rutgers University.

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The Word Unheard

Legacies of Anti-Semitism in German Literature and Culture
By Martha B. Helfer


Copyright © 2011 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2794-4

Chapter One

Lessing and the Limits of Enlightenment

This book begins with a necessary provocation: Lessing and latent anti-Semitism. The great Enlightenment playwright and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was unequivocally a pro-Jewish author and political activist. Lessing was very likely the sponsor of the first published document calling for the full emancipation of the Jews in Germany, and his theological and dramatic writings on Jews and Judaism form the de facto benchmark of pro-Jewish discourse in German letters. Lessing's influence on German literature and culture is profound. Just as every Jewish character in Western literature in some sense references Shakespeare's Shylock, every Jewish character in German literature in some sense references Lessing's Nathan the Wise. Lessing's merchant Nathan is a good Jew, a wise Jew, the embodiment of Enlightenment who famously advocates tolerance for the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Lessing's Nathan is so good, so wise, and Lessing's reputation as a pro-Jewish German cultural icon so strong that the Nazis peremptorily prohibited the production of the play at the beginning of the Third Reich in 1933. After the war, in 1945, many German theaters reopened with Nathan the Wise, the symbol of tolerance and Enlightenment humanism, and the play is still one of the most frequently performed on the German stage today.

And yet I begin—and must begin—this study of latent anti-Semitism with Lessing, the paragon of pro-Jewish thought in German literature and culture. I begin with Lessing not only because of his influence on subsequent authors and on German culture in general, but also because of systemic tensions inherent in Lessing's texts themselves. The three major works Lessing wrote promoting tolerance toward Jews and Judaism4—the theological treatise on The Education of the Human Race and the two plays The Jews and Nathan the Wise—all question their pro-Jewish and anti-anti-Semitic Enlightenment messages, and hence constitute a pivotal juncture in the formation of the rhetoric of anti-Semitism in German letters.

I want to make very clear from the start that I am not arguing that either Lessing or his texts are anti-Semitic. My argument is rather this: Lessing's pro-Jewish agenda turns back on itself and subtly and programmatically questions its own basic premises in true Enlightenment fashion. This is Enlightenment criticism pure and simple, and it is operative in Lessing's works in general. As Friedrich Schlegel incisively noted, Lessing's entire life and oeuvre are defined by criticism. In both form and content, Lessing's writings enact a thoroughgoing questioning of established concepts, definitions, and thought patterns. The goal of Lessing's criticism is to combat dogma, to combat prejudice in the true sense of the word, pre-judging that does not examine its own basic premises. This constant calling into question informs Lessing's writing: it is self-reflexive, self-critical, internally contradictory, intentionally polemical, dialectical, multi-perspectival, and dynamically fluid in nature. The process of looking for truth, not truth itself, is at stake in Lessing's epistemology and in his poetic production. This is why it is notoriously difficult to establish Lessing's own views in a given text, and this is why it would be folly to argue that there is only one possible reading of a given Lessing text. The following discussion analyzes the language and structure of Lessing's three major works on Jews and Judaism, and demonstrates that these texts by design set up a dialectical relationship between the rhetoric of philo-Semitism and the rhetoric of anti-Semitism, and hence articulate a self-reflexive, self-critical theory of the discursive construction of the Jew.

We begin somewhat anachronistically with The Education of the Human Race (Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, 1777–1780), since this theological essay in many ways functions as a blueprint for the discursive construction of Jewishness evident in the earlier play The Jews (Die Juden, 1749) and the roughly contemporaneous play Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise, 1779). In The Education of the Human Race, Lessing, writing from a Protestant theological vantage, sets out to account for the evolution of Christianity from Judaism; or, more precisely, to explain why, in his view, Christianity must necessarily supersede Judaism, and why Christianity as it is currently practiced likewise must give way to a more Enlightened version of Christianity, to a Christian religion of reason. Lessing's essay, importantly, is cast as a response to Reimarus and Warburton debating the roles of reason versus revelation in recognizing eternal truths, and in fact intends to defend Judaism as a valid religion, as the historical predecessor to Christianity. Neatly, if somewhat arbitrarily, divided into one hundred paragraphs, the essay's rational form reflects its rational Enlightenment agenda, and here, as in Kant's contemporaneous essay "What Is Enlightenment?" of 1783, Enlightenment is inextricably tied to the written word. Using a logical argument motored by metaphors and internal inconsistencies, Lessing presents a history of theology—a theology of history—divided into four distinct stages. According to Lessing's fanciful historical schema, the religious development of the human race from polytheism through Judaism and Christianity to an Enlightened Christian "Gospel of Reason" parallels the physical stages of human development from birth through childhood and adolescence to manhood. This phylogenetic maturation metaphor implies that the evolution of Christianity from Judaism is both a theological and a biological necessity. Moreover, Lessing equates religious maturation with sexual maturation, and he explicitly genders this Enlightenment maturation process as male: Jews are unsexed children ("Kinder"); present-day Christians are lads or male adolescents ("Knaben"); and practitioners of Lessing's new Enlightened "Gospel of Reason" are men ("Männer"). According to the metaphoric logic of Lessing's argument, Jews are less than men. Ex negativo, and likely unintentionally, Lessing invokes the stock anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jews as an effeminate people in the very framework of his argument.

Disturbingly, Lessing relies on many other anti-Semitic stereotypes and anti-Semitic rhetorical gestures to develop his theological history of the education of the human race. The story Lessing tells is this. In the beginning there was polytheism. The human race, Lessing implies, without actually using the metaphor, was in its baby stage at this earliest phase of its development. Then God selected the Jews, "the crudest and wildest of all peoples" ("das ungeschliffenste, das verwildertste" [§8: 76]), to reveal Himself to, so as to begin His educational plan with a clean slate, as it were. The Israelites, a people still in its childhood, raw, and clumsily incapable of abstract thought, had to be educated as one educates children, using a doctrine of immediate punishment and reward (§16: 78). The Old Testament, a primer for children ("ein Elementarbuch für Kinder" [§26: 81]), guided the Jews' pedagogical development. In Persian captivity the Jews began to compare "their Jehovah" to the Being of all Beings, a more rational and more moral being than they themselves had envisioned. The Jews then turned to their long-abandoned Old Testament to blame their own immaturity on the word of God, but had to admit to themselves, ashamed, that they themselves bore the guilt for not having recognized the true nature of God and for not having lived their lives accordingly (§38: 85). Remarkably, the Jews themselves are "guilty" of being Jews—children—in Lessing's schema, and the Jews—who must be "ashamed" of their own behavior—need an outside guiding force to set them straight. Using the Persian model as an example, the Jews then became "a completely different people" (§40: 85), and scoured their Bible for evidence of the truths they had seen in other religions. (In particular, Lessing is concerned here with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.) But for all its richness and its hints at truth, its allegorical allusions to truth, Lessing argues, the Jews' Bible had its limits: "A better pedagogue had to come to tear this tired, worn-out primer from the children's hands: Christ came" (§53: 88). Under the tutelage of Jesus, "the first reliable, practical teacher of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul" (§58: 89), the "better teacher," the Israelites began to mature. The Jews became Christians; the children became young men ("Knaben" [§58: 89]). The New Testament, "the second, better primer" ("das zweite, beßre Elementarbuch" [§64: 91]), now directs their development. Guided by a "better" teacher and a "better" primer, the Christians are clearly "better" than the Jews in Lessing's view, but their education is as yet incomplete. The Christian ethos still is motivated by a reward system: the doctrine of eternal salvation. The youths will become men when they act in a moral way not because of a promise of salvation or a fear of damnation, but simply because it's the right thing to do. Goodness for the sake of goodness is the new Gospel of Reason, "the highest stage of Enlightenment and purity" ("diese höchste Stufen der Aufklärung und Reinigkeit" [§81: 96]). The metaphors Lessing uses here jarringly introduce an implied impurity, an implied dirtiness, into earlier stages of development: rhetorically, Lessing casts the Jews as an unclean, impure people, excluded from the highest stages of Enlightenment. Lessing reasons that it cannot be fair that those people who were born at the early phases of humankind's development should miss out on this highest level of human perfection. Hence he concludes his essay by speculating on metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls. According to the logic of Lessing's Enlightenment agenda, Jews can and should become—literally—born-again Christians.

Just as each earlier stage of Enlightenment is tied to the written word in Lessing's model—the childlike Jews are guided by the Old Testament, the lad-like Christians by the New Testament—the last stage of Enlightenment, the new "Gospel of Reason" for mature Christian men, is inaugurated by a text: Lessing's own The Education of the Human Race. In a telling self-reflexive rhetorical gesture located at the precise center of the essay's one hundred paragraphs, Lessing draws a pronounced parallel between his own writing and the "clothing" and "style" of the Jews' Elementarbuch, the Jews' "primer." With its allegories and instructive examples, its presentation that is at times plain, at times poetic, and full of polyvalent tautologies designed to sharpen its reader's acumen, The Education of the Human Race is explicitly patterned after the Old Testament (§§48–51: 87–88). In drawing this bold connection between the Jews' "primer" and his own, Lessing emphasizes the like education that Jews and Christians must undergo, an education that is to take place in and through language, through the written word: here, through the very text of The Education of the Human Race itself.

This is why the essay's anti-Jewish rhetoric is so important. On the one hand, Lessing clearly intends to portray Judaism in a positive light, defending Judaism as a necessary predecessor to Christianity, as a developmentally early stage of Christianity. And of course, historically, this is the case: Jesus was a Jew, and Christianity is an outgrowth of Judaism. On the other hand, Lessing clearly criticizes the Jews in his rhetoric throughout the essay. To be sure, from a Protestant theological perspective Lessing must criticize the Jews. To justify the later stages of this religion—the religion of reason, as well as the prevailing state religion of the time—Lessing must explain why Judaism, in this view, is superseded by Christianity. Lessing arguably softens his critique of Judaism by casting present-day Christians as likewise immature: the new Gospel of Reason is still to come. Yet there is no sense in which the essay should be read only as a critique of present-day Christianity, no sense in which Lessing uses the Jews only as a cipher for his critique of present-day Christians. Both the form and the rhetoric of Lessing's essay belie the real object of his critique. Structurally, the bulk of the essay—almost half of the one hundred paragraphs—addresses the Jews as a crude, raw, wild people clumsily incapable of abstract thought who are themselves to blame for their own ignorance, as children at an immature developmental stage that must be superseded. Fewer than twenty paragraphs are addressed to the present-day Christians, who have yet to develop into mature adult practitioners of Lessing's new Gospel of Reason. Nowhere does Lessing characterize present-day Christians as "crude," "raw," "wild," "clumsy," or "guilty," as he does the Jews. Importantly, the essay contains no recognition of present-day Jews as practicing a reasonable or defensible religion. Unsurprisingly, Lessing's close friend and collaborator Moses Mendelssohn, the great German Jewish Enlightenment philosopher famous for his piercing intellect, blasted Lessing for basing his entire argument on an invalid metaphor: the human race does not undergo a phylogenetic maturation process through religious stages of development as a baby progresses from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. The motivation for Mendelssohn's critique is clear. There is no place for "grown-up Jews" in Lessing's new Gospel of Reason: "adult" Jews must become Christian. Despite his pro-Jewish intentions, in The Education of the Human Race Lessing scripts Enlightenment in its highest form, the new "Gospel of Reason," as anti-Jewish.

A similar dialectic informs The Jews of 1749, a comedy (Lustspiel) Lessing identified in the preface to the 1754 edition of his works as a serious reflection on the disgraceful repression of the Jewish people, intended to give its Christian audience pause. Irony figures prominently in the play's design: Lessing states that he tried to show virtue on the stage where the audience never would have suspected it, in the figure of the Jew. Yet ironically, and perhaps intentionally, Lessing's Enlightenment defense of the Jews simultaneously contains a veiled but devastating critique of the Jews. Significantly, both form and content of the play turn back on themselves and question their own basic premises: in true Enlightenment fashion, the play stages a self-reflexive critique. On the formal level, the level of genre, Lessing's experimental Lustspiel defies the then-current comedic convention of making a mockery of its title figure(s). The play likewise defies comedic convention in that it does not end with the requisite marriage, thereby challenging the entire genre of comedy, itself included, with its lack of a clear resolution. This self-reflexive critique—the challenge to comedic conventions and the lack of a clear resolution—also is evident in the play's content. In short, in both form and content the text programmatically and self-consciously calls its surface pro-Jewish stance into question.

The Jews picks up on two interrelated social issues current at the time of the play's writing concerning the moral character and the physical identity of Jews in Germany. The first was the popular belief, reflected in published pamphlets and police reports, that Jewish swindlers and bands of Jewish robbers were terrorizing the mainstream Christian population, at times shaving their beards and otherwise disguising themselves so as not to be recognized as Jews. There are also records of Christian thieves disguising themselves as Jews. To be sure, there were isolated crimes that had Jewish perpetrators, yet these single cases grew in the public's eyes to a general characterization about the Jews as a people. According to this line of thinking, a dangerous—and at times disguised or hidden—Jewish element threatened Christian society.

A cognate concern for marking the Jew as "Jew"—for outing the disguised or otherwise unrecognizable, and hence dangerous, Jew in Christian society—is at stake in the second sociohistorical event motivating Lessing's play. In August 1748, Frederick the Great of Prussia issued a decree prohibiting Jews from shaving their beards completely, precisely so that they would be readily identifiable as Jews. The decree opens with a statement that numerous investigations ("Inquisitionen") have shown that most robberies are either committed or organized by Jews; that Jews are shaving their beards "in order not to pass as Jews" and then slinking into houses and carrying out their plans with great success; that accordingly the king hereby orders Jews not to shave their beards completely, so that they can be identified as Jews. (Frederick the Great, noted in historical annals for his tolerance toward religious minorities, harbored a pronounced animosity toward the Jews. In eighteenth-century Prussia some Jewish men, in an effort to acculturate into the mainstream population, had started to shave their traditional beards. Fear of the unmarked Jew "passing" in Christian society no doubt prompted Frederick's legislation.) Lessing's The Jews, first published in 1754 but prominently dated in its subtitle as having been completed in 1749, arguably references the 1748 beard decree. The play's plot, set in motion by "Jew beard" disguises, clearly addresses the public's fears about bands of Jewish criminals terrorizing the Christian population, and its central theme resonates strongly with the unspoken fears motivating the 1748 beard decree: how to recognize the Jew, to read the Jew, to identify the unmarked Jew in German society.


Excerpted from The Word Unheard by Martha B. Helfer Copyright © 2011 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Language of Anti-Semitism xi

Chapter 1 Lessing and the Limits of Enlightenment 3

Chapter 2 Questioning Origins: Friedrich von Schiller's The Legation of Moses 23

Chapter 3 Germany Under the Sign of the Jew: Achim von Arnim's Isabella of Egypt 57

Chapter 4 Reading Blood: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's The Jews' Beech Tree 79

Chapter 5 Natural Anti-Semitism: Adalbert Stifter's Abdias 113

Chapter 6 Framing the Jew: Franz Grillparzer's The Jewess of Toledo 143

Conclusion The Word Unheard 171

Notes 173

Bibliography 213

Index 225

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